The Sandman: How Neil Gaiman and Allan Heinberg Adapted a Classic

Neil Gaiman explains why Netflix's adaptation of The Sandman was the right version to receive his blessing and involvement.

The Sandman. (L to R) Tom Sturridge as Dream, Mason Alexander Park as Desire in episode 110 of The Sandman.
Photo: Netflix

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In 1989, Neil Gaiman first introduced to the world Morpheus, Lord of the Dreaming, and Shaper of Form, in the epic comic book saga The Sandman. The original DC Comics and Vertigo imprint series ran until 1996, and follows Morpheus as he is trapped for 70 years through a ritual led by an Aleister Crowley-esque occultist. When he finally escapes in the late 20th Century, he sets out on a journey of vengeance, and reclamation of his realm, the Dreaming. Yet he also sets about making amends, and evolves into a kinder being. 

Gaiman’s creation is often cited alongside The Dark Knight Returns, and Watchmen as amongst the best within the medium. And ever since the graphic novels changed the comic book landscape, he has tried to prevent his Dream from becoming a Hollywood nightmare. 

Attempts to bring The Sandman to the big screen had already begun by 1991, and development on a film was in motion by ’96, and then fizzled. Scripts, producers, and studios came and went, but a movie never quite approached reality. Even though one version seemed possible in 2013, it too slipped into nonexistence. Like Morpheus’ dream creations, The Sandman project became elusive, almost ethereal, and intangible. 

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“I always kept myself very distanced from Sandman adaptations,” says Gaiman in a recent interview with Den of Geek. “Because if they were going to be terrible, I needed to reserve for myself the ability to go out to the world, and say, ‘No, no, no, don’t watch this, this is terrible.’ I wanted to keep that as a superpower. It was the red doomsday button.” 

Then, “time changed, the nature of the world changed,” says Gaiman. Streaming services such as Netflix emerged with the willingness to “spend the equivalent of the budget of a major Hollywood movie on 10 episodes on the first season of a story.” 

Additionally, Gaiman became showrunner for the Prime Video adaptation of his and Terry Pratchett’s book Good Omens, which allowed him a new level of influence.

“All of the sudden, as far as the people who make television were concerned, I did know what I was doing, which changed everything.”

Now, with the new 10-episode Netflix adaptation of The Sandman premiering Aug.  5 — and executive produced by Gaiman, Allan Heinberg, and David S. Goyer — Morpheus is set to awaken in the 21st Century, more than 100 years after being imprisoned. Along with being set more than three decades after the original story, the new series introduces characters and elements earlier than they had appeared in the comics. 

But Netflix’s Sandman is still Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. And after 32 years of trying to make bad adaptations not happen, Morpheus’ live-action debut is one that Neil Gaiman is quite pleased to have made work.

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“This isn’t getting made by Netflix,” Gaiman emphasizes. “Netflix is the place that you will go to see it. It’s getting made by me and by Allan”

In the following extensive interview, Gaiman and showrunner Heinberg discuss the changes, challenges, and unique opportunities they faced in bringing The Sandman saga to life from splash pages to streaming platform.

Den of Geek: Why is 2022 the right time, the right moment, and the right combination of elements and magic in the air to make this show? 

Neil Gaiman: Well, bear in mind that I’ve now spent literally 32 years making bad adaptations of Sandman not happen, and sometimes that took a lot of work to stop versions of Sandman, normally as movies, not happening. But at the end of the day, I always kept myself very distanced from Sandman adaptations, partly because if they were going to be terrible, I needed to reserve for myself the ability to go out to the world and say, “No, no, no, don’t watch this. This is terrible.” I wanted to keep that as a superpower. It was like the red doomsday button. I could always press the doomsday button and just say, “This is awful.”

…Time changed. The nature of the world changed. The fact that I got to go and make Good Omens changed, because all of a sudden, as far as the people who make television were concerned, I did know what I was doing, which kind of changed everything. And also, we are now in a world in which people will spend the equivalent of the budget of a major Hollywood movie on 10 episodes on the first season of a story. So you have that amount of control, you have that amount of resources at your disposal.

And then of course, we got very lucky. David Goyer and I had started talking about how we could do it and make it happen, and Allan Heinberg, who had not been free or available, came free and available. His contract was up with somebody else. We had dinner more or less the day after he became free, and he turned up with The Sandman page from Brief Lives that he had bought in 1996-ish from a gallery in New York. Lord alone knows how much that would be worth now. And one of the weirdest things about Hollywood is normally, and by Hollywood, I mean any part of the entertainment business, is it normally takes months and months and months to get contracts agreed and done. But we had dinner with him on the Friday night, and by Monday morning he was all contracted and signed up and we were pitching Sandman to the various entities out there who could do it. And the first people to turn up were Netflix.

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When I think about Sandman, I don’t necessarily think about one episode. I’m thinking about volumes. I’m thinking about multiple storylines, and we’re seeing characters that are spread throughout the first two volumes, at least. So how did you approach the storylines and weave this diversity of characters from multiple issues into this first season?

Allan Heinberg: Well, Neil and David and I got together at Neil’s house in Upstate New York. Neil and David had already discussed a lot of really smart changes, one of which was doing Johanna Constantine instead of John Constantine, one was making Lucien, Lucienne. And then early on, I believe it was David who said, “We should have the Corinthian in the very first episode.” And as readers know, the Corinthian doesn’t appear until the “Doll’s House” arc in the comics.

One of the greatest things about working with Neil on this project was that one of the first things he said was, “There is a lot of untold Sandman. There is a lot of stuff happening off panel that we just didn’t have pages for when the book was coming out monthly.” And he allowed us not only to sort of imagine what happens between panels or off page, but he was contributing. From the very beginning, just pitching, what if, what if, what if? There was never a defensive pose with Neil in any way. I think part of that was trust. He knew that David and I knew and loved the material, but the generosity with which he said, “Yes, absolutely bring the Corinthian in in the very first episode. And then what’s the Corinthian doing from the first episode of Sandman until we meet him where he is in ‘Doll’s House?’”

So that was how we started. And so even laying in, knowing where we were going, because now we’ve got the entire run of the comic, so we’re able to lay in as many Easter eggs, as many hints. You know, you see Martin Tenbones in the first episode. Little things like that that we were delighted to be able to do as fans. But mainly, it’s all tracking sort of Morpheus’s story. It’s all that linear, progressive watching Morpheus over the course of the season be forced to grow up in certain ways.

Neil, the story is taking place in 2021, as opposed to the late eighties. What is the benefit of having a story told in the 21st century, as opposed to the end of the 20th century?

Neil Gaiman: Well, what can we do that makes this television? What can we do that I couldn’t do? … You know, in The Doll’s House, John Cameron Mitchell plays Hal. In the comic, you don’t see Hal performing or singing. Hal comes on and talks to us about the show that they’re in, but we don’t see any performances because we don’t need to, and because honestly, comics are great for a lot of things, but the performances of songs tend not to be one of them. Here, we have John Cameron Mitchell, and we can put him up on a stage with a piano and let him rip, and we can make theatrical magic and then we can go back. 

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I’m going to give something away here, but you get to see at one point in his dreams Hal performing while Dolly, his drag alter ego, is doing a duet with him, and they perform a magnificent and terrifying duet. And that’s the kind of thing I just couldn’t have done in the comics and pulled off. So we can do that on television, and it feels liberating and glorious and beautiful.

The show filmed while the world was still on pause during lockdown, and a major part of the story, or the beginning of the story, is that Morpheus is a captive for 75 years, and now 105 years. Was there a surreal quality to telling a story about the world and the world of dreams being on pause while the real world was also on pause?

Neil Gaiman: It felt incredibly apt. It felt very appropriate, especially with the disease, sleepy sickness, the real disease that did start as this sort of peculiar epidemic in 1916 of people just falling asleep and not waking up. But also, for me, we got to create some incredibly dreamlike moments because we were shooting in a pandemic. Probably the most dreamlike for me is episode three, where we have Johanna Constantine and Morpheus and Mad Hettie in London. And we shot it in London, and we shot it during that period of lockdown in November 2020 when nobody was allowed to leave their houses, but if you were a film crew, you were considered a vital thing and you were actually allowed to, but we couldn’t have any background artists, so there’s no extras. And it’s shooting in a London in which nobody was allowed to drive or to move.

So everything is completely static, and the only three human beings in London, as far as you can tell, are Morpheus and Johanna Constantine and Mad Hettie, and then Matthew, and it creates a sort of feeling as if you’re in a waking dream all the way through, because you’ve never seen that London. That London doesn’t exist, and yet that was the London we were able to shoot in.

Allan, what was the dynamic like with Neil?

Allan Heinberg: Well, I was terrified, frankly.

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Neil Gaiman: I’m very scary.

Allan Heinberg: Well, yes. I know. I had met Neil once before at a signing at Four Color Images, at my friend’s gallery, and he had signed my Mr. Punch for me. And I was… You know, you were very intimidating. But also, this is his baby, and this is a baby I have worshiped since it was born, as a fan, and I knew that Neil was going to be executive producing it, and I wasn’t sure how this was going to go, because in television you have to make a million decisions and you have to make them immediately, and I didn’t know what it was going to be.

And very organically, our conversations, they just sort of… It turns out we both love Sandman a lot, and we’re both conversant in it and felt similarly. The things that we found the most important about Sandman and the reason to tell the story were the same. And I think that’s hugely important, that you both know what the story is and you both know why you’re telling it and why you’re telling it right now, and I feel like we got really lucky. I feel very lucky, because I had full reign to do whatever I needed to do or wanted to do on a day-to-day basis, and he knew that there weren’t any decisions that I was making moment to moment that I wasn’t sharing with him.

So I think he felt, and I’ll let you speak for yourself, but we were, in case people are interested, we were emailing a million times a day. We would Zoom a minimum of three or four times a week, and we would talk on the phone usually for long stretches on the weekends, and he’s watching everything, and he’s seeing every costume and every everything. Every prop, he’s getting virtual tours of the sets, David Goyer is too, and so we are all sort of in sync in the way that we love Sandman and in the way that we wanted to tell this story. You know, we weren’t in the same place, he was in New Zealand and I was in London the whole time, but he truly was one of my closest connections, human connections during that time. I felt blessed by it.

Neil Gaiman: I, as a general rule, just going through life day by day, I have imposter syndrome. I assume that I’m here by luck. It’s all some kind of awful mistake, and any moment now, people are going to figure it out and then I’ll be dispensed with. The weird and wonderful thing about talking with Allan about Sandman was realizing that I know more about Sandman than anybody else does, and that I could answer his questions. So Allan and I, from very early on, he would call me and say, “This thing here,” and I would go, “Oh yeah,” or, “Oh no,” or, “This,” or, “Okay, what’s important here?” And I would just tell him everything I knew, because it was important, if he was going to be there making day-by-day decisions, that he understood as much as I did, which meant that Allan was getting this sort of weird masterclass in Sandman, always. That would always be where the conversations would go, or where they’d bounce off from or whatever.

Allan Heinberg: You have this relationship with Sandman that you told me is unique, in that Neil remembers where he was writing which issue. Like, you have an almost, I don’t know if photographic memory is the right term, but you remember sensorially. “I remember writing this moment and this is what I was looking at and this is what I felt.” So you get the whole, it isn’t, “I can’t remember.” And as a Sandman fan, there are a lot of mysteries that I expected Neil to be coy about, even with me, and it’s been a fanboy dream come true, because he’ll tell me everything.

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Neil Gaiman: I’ll answer every question.

Allan Heinberg: Every question I ever wanted to know. 

Does this allow you the freedom, though, to also say, “Neil, I know these are your babies. I know you know everything in and out about this world and about Sandman, but what if we go in this direction with that character?” 

Allan Heinberg: Absolutely.

And did you receive those comments well?

Neil Gaiman: Some of the time, I would go, “Yeah, that’s a great idea,” and some of the time, I would go, “Yeah, that’s a no, because…” Or I’d go, “But what about?” or, “That’s a really interesting approach, Allan, but wouldn’t we get more mileage if we also use this bit of Sandman from over here and plug that in there and then we could get to where you’re going more easily?” And he would be going, “Oh yes, you can.” It was never me versus Allan, it was always the two of us working together to get the best Sandman that we could.

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Allan Heinberg: And that’s really unique. I mean, authors, people who work alone, who are novelists and graphic novelists, and who are authors, having the skill to work with other writers, which is a very television-y thing to do, that’s not usually what you expect when you team up with an author to adapt his or her work. And from the first second, when David and Neil and I were basically doing our little writer’s room upstate, Neil was game and incredibly collaborative and, I said this to you at the time, just a natural for the writer’s room. Just, you know, the same rules apply to improv. He never says no. He always says yes, and what if? And I didn’t expect it, and it’s been, I mean, a tremendous source of everything.

Neil Gaiman: It’s been so much fun. I always used to say in interviews about why there wasn’t a Sandman movie, occasionally why there wasn’t a Sandman TV show, but mostly about why there wasn’t a Sandman movie, and I would say there will not be one until you get somebody who cares as much about Sandman as Peter Jackson cared about Lord of the Rings shows up to helm Sandman. And for me, that’s what Allan was and is. He cares that much about it. 

I always get a bit baffled on social media where I see people talking about Netflix as if old Mr. Netflix comes down to the set all the time and pulls pages out of the script that he doesn’t like and writes dialogue for people and says, “Oh, you can’t do that. No, I’m Mr. Netflix and I’m going to stop you,” because that’s not really how it works. This isn’t getting made by Netflix. Netflix is the place that you will go to see it. It’s getting made by me and by Allan, and the casting decisions, love them or hate them, get made by me and Allan. Nobody has cast anybody over our heads or against our wishes.

This is an “us agreement” thing, and we’re making it, and I feel honored and thrilled that I’m there all the way as a fellow traveler. And I’m also so happy that Allan is driving the car, partly because I’ve already driven that car and had to deal with DC Comics and had to take it all the way and make this 3000-page thing. So I’m like, you know, I cannot lose sleep over Sandman. Allan gets to be the one who literally gets to lose sleep. Meanwhile, I’m over in another corner losing sleep over Good Omens 2 and Anansi Boys right now, and so it’s not like I’m getting a full night’s sleep anyway, but it is like Allan gets to be the one to drive this car, whereas I get to sit in the passenger seat with the map in front of me saying, “I think maybe we should turn left when we get there.”

You said you spent 30 years keeping bad Sandman adaptations from happening. Tell me about the moment, whether it’s on set, whether it’s meeting actors, where you realized, this is happening and this is the good Sandman adaptation happening, and this world is coming to life. 

Neil Gaiman: “Tug of Love Baby Eaten by Cows.” It was a headline on a newspaper being read by somebody in the undercroft at Fawney Rig where Morpheus was being held a prisoner, and it was dated, whatever it was, somewhere in September 1988, and that was when Morpheus escaped, and it was that newspaper and that headline. 

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And I didn’t, on a gut level, believe that it was all happening until I was being shown around the prop room. And I don’t know if we’d started shooting, we may have been like a couple of days, maybe one day into shoot … and I was walking around the props and being shown stuff, and there in front of me was the copy of a Sun newspaper dated September 2022 and “Tug of Love Baby Eaten by Cows” was the headline. And I thought, “It’s actually happening, and it’s real, and it’s being made by people who care and made by people who love the original.”

And that, because I haven’t said that, let me just say this: I have never experienced so many fans, and so many people who loved the thing they were making as I experienced being on the Sandman set. It was as if … You started to feel like every Sandman fan in the movie and TV world who had heard this was happening had begged, cajoled, murdered if necessary to get onto that set and to be there making that thing.

So if you’re a fan out there, just know the people who made this thing, the people who made the helm, the people who made the props, the people who made the special effects happen, the ADs, the set designers, the set decorators, the makeup people, the costume people, they care as much as you do and they’re determined to get it right.

All 10 episodes of The Sandman premiere Friday, Aug. 5 on Netflix.