The Sandman creator Neil Gaiman and showrunner Allan Heinberg spoke with Subjectify at the show’s SDCC roundtable interviews about how they used Dream’s relationships with his loyal ravens (as well as a heartbreaking sacrifice in episode 2) as a way to invite the audience to fall in love with their famously reserved hero.
‘The Sandman’ at SDCC 2022
After SDCC attendees got an incredible first look at The Sandman in Hall H, Subjectify was able to speak with the show’s executive producers, showrunner Allan Heinberg and author and creator Neil Gaiman in Sandman’s press room.
I was able to screen the episodes in advance, and took the opportunity to ask some questions regarding a couple of sad, but important changes that they chose to make in order to create sentimental new beats in The Sandman’s first few episodes — namely, the time spent on Dream’s interactions with a few special creatures from the Dreaming. They also discussed the practical effects used to create those characters, and the emotional effectiveness of having those physical elements for the actors to interact with.
But before we get to that, it’s worth noting that while The Sandman is, all in all, a very faithful adaptation, each and every change, subtraction and addition that fans might notice in the Netflix adaptation of The Sandman came from the minds of Gaiman and the other EPs. This is an incredibly important thing to keep in mind, because after over thirty years of failed Sandman screen pitches, there’s a lot riding on this one.
The Sandman first hit shelves in November of 1988, when Gaiman was just 28. It ran for 75 issues before concluding its initial run in 1996, forming a complete series that was later published in ten trade paperback volumes. Sandman began life as a DC publication, moved to the new Vertigo imprint in 1993, and it’s safe to say that it changed the face of the comic book world — both from the publishing side, and for the readers.
There is no doubt that Sandman changed the scope of what comics, as a medium, could do, and covering its influence and impact would be too grand a task for this article, but let’s just point out, as an example, the fact that in 1991, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” The Sandman issue #19 which was illustrated by Charles Vess, won the World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction. It was the first, and last, comic ever to win this prestigious award, more usually presented by the judges to short stories or novellas. Afterwards, the organization claimed that comics and graphic novels were not intended to be eligible for the main categories and instead could be nominated under the Special Award category, and there’s a whole other story there regarding the respect, or lack thereof, granted to the comic book medium as a valid form of literature, but I digress.
Despite not actually owning the rights to Sandman — he has a handshake agreement with DC in terms of the usage — Neil Gaiman has been instrumental in getting a great many bad versions of Sandman from getting made. In recent-ish years, Gaiman turned down a pitch by Supernatural creator Eric Kripke, and David S. Goyer was attached to a film adaptation alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who would star and potentially direct. This fell apart also, with one of the attached screenwriters, Arrival’s Eric Heisserer, claiming that the story was better suited to something like a HBO series — “The structure of the feature film really doesn’t mesh with this.”
The fact that a serialized and clearly segmented, already episodic story should need the breadth of a TV series to truly work just makes sense, though an 11-hour Audible adaptation of The Sandman volumes 1-3, directed by Dirk Maggs with an all-star cast narrated by Gaiman and led by James McAvoy as Dream, was released in 2020 to wide acclaim. Act II, covering volumes 4-6, followed in 2021, and Act III is on the way — the first successful complete adaptation of The Sandman to exist.
However, getting to the point where making a Sandman TV show seemed like the only obvious solution took a while. The problem with the approach to adapting Sandman, in Gaiman’s experience, the thing that deemed it “unfilmable” to so many, was the limited vision that saw people only consider the option of a movie.
“You never wound up with anything that was satisfying, interesting or worked and there was just too much,” Neil Gaiman told Subjectify and others at The Sandman SDCC roundtables, regarding the repeated attempts from potential adapters to take the 3000 pages of Sandman and shove that story into a two-hour film script. “It was like trying to put the ocean into a glass.”
It was only somewhat recently that Gaiman was able to envision the possibility of a screen adaptation that would feel right for Sandman, one that could spend the time and money needed to encompass all the things to make Sandman, you know, Sandman — the pacing, the effects, understanding the necessity of all the little offshoots and oddities contained within the run. And, fueled with new confidence as a showrunner after successfully delivering Good Omens to Prime Video, he was able to envision a world where he’d actually be trusted to call the shots. With ambitious productions of this scope rising in popularity for all major streamers, this “unfilmable” thing was suddenly looking like a very attractive and valuable piece of IP.
Gaiman and Goyer, still attached, brought onboard Allan Heinberg, and the three found mutual agreement in their mission: an updated-yet-faithful episodic version of Sandman for streaming, a version that actually had the chance to sing — or, perhaps, fly. And then, a few days later, they pitched it.
Supported by Warner Bros, the product they were offering was relatively uncompromising — their vision for the only way that Sandman on screen was going to work. Those interested in becoming the home base for that vision? Great. Those who were not on board with what Gaiman and the other EPs had planned need not apply. (Gaiman later shared, on Tumblr, that HBO never bid on it. Apple, and Amazon did.)
As Gaiman laid out the story of the trio’s successful pitch and sale of Sandman, he explained that once Netflix had won it, they pretty much left the Sandman team alone to get on with making the product they had signed up to buy — a ten episode first season, covering the first two collected editions of the comic, Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll’s House.
“It wasn’t like they were like “Aha, now we have won The Sandman we would like you to do this, this, this and this!” It was like no, they bid for the Sandman that we were going to be making […] They weren’t ever trying to turn it into anything else. I don’t ever recall a time where they said ‘Hey we think that, you know, wouldn’t it be good if Death did this or Dream said that or…’ That stuff just didn’t happen.”
This means that when viewers watch The Sandman, they can watch knowing that every major change from the comics was a considered, creative choice made by the showrunners, product of the Gaiman and Heinberg’s vision for the adaptation, rather than any sort of push from Netflix or indeed, Warner Bros TV.
Gaiman and Heinberg then spoke to Subjectify about the reasoning behind some of these choices, specifically regarding some creatures from the Dreaming, and the end result of what those changes for television tell us about Dream.
Given that you weren’t really asked to make that many changes there are still a relatively large amount of structure changes and things like that. The biggest thing that stuck out to me when I was watching was introducing Matthew earlier, so that he’s on that journey with Dream while he’s on that first quest. Why was he brought in at that point? Is it because he needed someone to communicate with, or…?
Neil Gaiman: Episode 4 of Sandman in the comic is narrated by Dream. You are inside his head, he is your narrator and it’s a first person “I’m going to hell, I’m scared, all of this stuff is happening.” Matthew was created to give Dream somebody to talk to. He was created to allow conversation to happen. He was created so that he could stand in for the audience and go, “Who is this?”
We talked early on: “Are we gonna do any narration? Are we gonna be in Dream’s head and stuff?” And we wound up being in Dream’s head just a little bit for episode 1, but after that it was like, if we’re not going to do that then why don’t we move Matthew’s arrival up earlier? And, you know, Matthew is there basically for a little bit in episode three, in episode four, episode five is sort of not really Matthew, and there’s no Matthew in episode six so then at the beginning of The Doll’s House he’s there. But also now he’s been introduced and set up, in a way that he wouldn’t have been in the first episode [of The Doll’s House.]
Allan Heinberg: It also played nicely because we had introduced Jessamy into the first episode. And watching Dream deal with grief and then resisting having a new raven is… There are new ways to get to know Morpheus without him telling you “this is what I’m thinking and feeling.”
Yeah, those two animal deaths [Jessamy and Gregory] in the first two episodes were shockingly hard-hitting in a way that really made Morpheus feel softer to me than he feels when you start reading the book. So I guess, why that choice as well? Why soften him from the start?
AH: Well you’ve just said it. You know, here’s a character who in the book is wrapped in mystery and because of our strategy for the show and making this Morpheus’ story, we wanted the audience to fall in love with him and really identify his struggle and identify with his struggle and make him more relatable. And so those were very emotional ways to get to know him, a character who seems shut down and removed, but who really is feeling so much that if he let any of it out… It would… you know, there would be chaos. So that’s why we did that.
So in terms of some of those non-human characters then, translating that from the book, how did you decide about [the level of] CGI?
AH: Well, Matthew was a real raven and Jessamy was a real crow, a pied crow, for as much as we could use. All that was shot practically with real birds. And then the CGI was all modeled on those real birds and hopefully you can’t tell which is which. So that was really important to us that we tried to do everything as practically as possible, and then the VFX and CGI stuff is a last resort.
NG: I would say that Jessamy is probably eighty percent real pied crow, fifteen percent puppet, and five percent CGI, something like that. But the CGI is mainly there just to tie moments together, and to get the bird in and out of shot. One of the things, though, that I think is so important about Sandman was making things happen practically. It’s like when Morpheus is with Gregory, he isn’t acting with a tennis ball on a stick. He is acting with a puppeteer holding a Gregory head of the right size and the puppeteer is acting and the head is being acted.
So he’s able to have a relationship with it.
AH: We were crying on set watching it, and like…
Oh, yeah. It fucked me up.
AH: And it’s a puppet! Right? It’s a puppet head, and we’re crying, as the scene is going on. But Neil’s right, if that hadn’t made us cry, there’s no way that it…
NG: I love that it made you [the viewer] cry, but it made you cry because it made us cry, because we care.
Gaiman has explained on social media that some changes in the show, like the punishment of Alex Burgess, a shift from “eternal waking” to “eternal sleep,” were kept just as they were in the comic, and then in editing, it was found that a change was needed.
But another interesting thing to keep in mind, regarding translating The Sandman into television, is the fact that show has allowed Gaiman to explore elements of the story that he always, perhaps, had in his head, but was not able to get down on paper. At SDCC, he explained, to Subjectify and others at The Sandman’s press roundtable, that he feels especially satisfied with how things shook out for certain elements of The Doll’s House arc, things that he’d wanted to do more with, but found himself limited, white writing the comic, by the set length of the monthly issues.
“I love the shape of the serial killers convention stuff done as television because I didn’t have that number of pages to tell my story in The Doll’s House,” Gaiman said. “And what I love is that I feel like the serial killers convention and Rose’s story in the whole of The Doll’s House has a lot more. You get to set things up, in ways that I just didn’t have the room to set things up in the story. I love the fact that little Jed, her brother, is all the way through the story, at points where in the comic I actually went “I want to bring him into this” and then went “I can’t, I don’t have the room with everything I need to do and I’m already at 36 pages.” So he was locked in the trunk of the car for the issue in the comics because I couldn’t do anything with him. But we have more room and we have more space so now we can bring him in and he’s somebody else for the audience to care about, and you watch him and the Corinthian bonding and it allows you to go ‘Okay well, really the Corinthian on the one hand, he is a murderous spirit of serial killing who is eating people’s eyeballs. And on the other hand he really is what he is and he just wants to survive and he’s not actually evil, this is what he was made to be.’ So I love that shape.”
In addition to author and creator Neil Gaiman and showrunner Allan Heinberg, panelists for The Sandman at San Diego Comic-Con included stars Tom Sturridge, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mason Alexander Park, Gwendoline Christie, Vivienne Acheampong, Boyd Holbrook, Jenna Coleman, Vanesu Samunyai, and Patton Oswalt.