There was a time when Neil Gaiman didn’t want a movie or television show about The Sandman to be made at all. Even as Batman and other comic book heroes found big success on the silver screen in the late 1980s and 1990s, Gaiman was resistant to following in their footsteps. He felt his seminal comic book series, which so memorably mixed mythology and urban fantasy, wasn’t quite “movie-shaped,” and was always quietly relieved when projects based on it failed to make it to production.
“I didn’t care about it just getting made. I would so much rather that it never got made than a bad version would get made,” Neil Gaiman tells IGN.
It wound up taking more than 30 years, but The Sandman is finally getting the screen version Gaiman previously thought impossible. Launching on Netflix earlier today, reviews of the 10-episode series have been positive, with IGN’s Amelia Emberwing calling it a “dream of an adaptation.”
Gaiman, once so reticent to see this happen, has been tirelessly stumping for the show on his 2.9 million follower Twitter account and elsewhere. But when he speaks with IGN on the occasion of the show’s release, he comes across as deeply introspective, his comments occasionally peppered with interjections from showrunner Allan Heinberg, with whom he has an easy back-and-forth rapport.
Wearing his familiar black t-shirt and jacket, he talks about how “incredibly envious” he is of his younger self – the version of Neil Gaiman who fought back against a Sandman movie he didn’t think would work. The version who was told that “nobody’s ever come into this office and asked us not to make a movie before.”
He remembers how Eric Kripke, a creator that Gaiman “loves and respects” who has lately been enjoying great success with The Boys, pitched a Sandman series for network TV circa 2010, and how Gaiman rejected it because “it really didn’t work.”
“The damage that you had to do to Sandman to put it on network TV 15 years ago and in the kind of budgets and the way that you could do it just meant it wasn’t Sandman. It was the Rose Walker show or something,” Gaiman says.
It took, as Gaiman refers to it, the “weird and wonderful” streaming age to bring the series to something resembling what Gaiman had in mind: a genre-spanning adventure that in some ways resembles 10 distinct movies spread across a single season. It’s a show that connects the Gaiman of 2022 – who has found such success in comics, novels, film, and stage – with the young Gaiman of the late 1980s, who was handed the task of revitalizing a little-known DC Comics character and subsequently turned it into one of the greatest comic books of all time.
In short, after such a rich and varied career, The Sandman is bringing Gaiman back to the beginning.
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Only Trust the Story
The original Sandman was released in 1989, an era defined by works like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One. It was in this period that Gaiman was establishing himself as a writer, having gravitated toward comics after finding himself mesmerized by Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Given carte blanche to reimagine Sandman, a character who had gone through various iterations under the auspices of creators like Gardner Fox and Jack Kirby, Gaiman envisioned a richly-realized urban fantasy populated by characters like Destiny, Lucifer, and of course, Death.
The series quickly developed a following, lasting 75 issues before Neil Gaiman wrapped it in 1996. Today, it’s regarded as one of the pillars of modern comics, standing tall alongside such works as The Watchmen, one of its contemporaries. Gaiman has since moved on to other mediums, winning popular acclaim with American Gods among others, but he’s retained a soft spot for comics, which he once likened to hacking through a jungle.
“When I was working on Sandman, I felt a lot of the time that I was actually picking up a machete and heading out into the jungle. I got to write in places and do things that nobody had ever done before,” Gaiman said back in 2007.
Set in the modern day, The Sandman follows Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, as he escapes captivity and returns to his realm to find his disrepair. What follows is a metatextual exploration of dreams, storytelling, death, and rebirth. In IGN’s review of The Absolute Sandman Vol. 1, Hilary Goldstein observed that there is “purpose in every panel,” writing that Sandman’s story is neither a “series of unconnected events” nor “an incoherent dream.”
“The events in these first stories may seem to be important only to the present tale, but almost all prove to have a connection to later issues leading into the series finale,” Goldstein wrote.
It’s an ambitious story with a sprawling scope – one that Gaiman struggled with at times even in a comic format. It’s filled with tales like A Dream of a Thousand Cats, in which a secret gathering of domesticated felines learn of their kind’s true history (Gaiman says it won’t be in Season 1, but he doesn’t rule it out for later seasons).
Looking back on the comics, Gaiman talks about how ahead of its time it was in terms of representation. He points specifically to Wanda, a transgender character first introduced in Sandman #32 (and perhaps because of the time the story was written in, it falls victim to certain discredited tropes, even if Wanda herself was broadly hailed by the LGBTQ community).
“When I wrote Sandman, there was a lot of stuff that got very little feedback. Very little traction. Got mostly bafflement, the fact that you had characters in it who were of all races. The fact that here we are at issue nine, and it’s in Africa a long time ago, and everybody’s black, and Dream is black too, and this is just how it is,” Gaiman says. “The fact that we have trans characters, the fact that we have gay characters. All of that kind of stuff, which was important to me, wasn’t particularly of its time. Wanda was the first trans character in mainstream comics. She simply was.”
In that respect, Gaiman doesn’t see much difference in whether Sandman is set in the late 1980s or 2022. “When I’d tell people, ’No, no, we’re setting it now.’ And they go, ‘Oh right. You are modernizing and updating it.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, no, not really.’ Some of the people have cell phones, and that really is most of it. Some of the hairstyles are different.”
‘It needed to be made right’
But even if Sandman’s themes are timeless, it’s still proven incredibly difficult to successfully adapt into other mediums. Attempts have been made since the 1990s, with one screenplay apparently being so bad that Gaiman called it “not only the worst Sandman script I’ve ever seen, but quite easily the worst script I’ve ever read.” In 2001, Gaiman argued that for an adaptation to succeed that it would need someone with the “same obsession with the source material as Peter Jackson had with Lord of the Rings or Sam Raimi had with Spider-Man.” In 2010, the TV series with Kripke was pitched for Warner Bros. Television, and it also failed to go anywhere.
The moment finally came in 2018, when David Goyer approached Gaiman while he was busy with Good Omens – the adaptation of the novel he wrote with the late Terry Pratchett near the beginning of his career. Goyer had written the screenplays for a multitude of superhero films, including Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, and he was convinced that The Sandman could work on a streaming service.
Goyer subsequently connected Gaiman with Heinberg, who had his own superhero experience working on 2017’s Wonder Woman. The three went to dinner, where Heinberg rapidly established his fan bonafides by revealing that he had met Gaiman before – at an event where he had asked the author to sign a page of The Sandman: Brief Lives for him.
“I knew pretty much from that moment that we had our person,” Gaiman says.
After that, Gaiman says he watched Hollywood lawyers “move faster than I’ve ever watched” to get the contracts negotiated and agreed upon, upon which the group quickly reached an agreement with Netflix after taking pitches from “every major streamer and player in the world.”
This is where Heinberg, who has been largely quiet to this point, starts to become more animated. He and Gaiman will frequently fall into conversation unbidden — a consequence, perhaps, of their deeply collaborative relationship from throughout the production of the series.
Much of it stems from lessons Gaiman learned from American Gods, which suffered numerous difficulties, including the unexpected departure of its showrunner. Gaiman wasn’t particularly involved with the development of that show, which he feels was to its detriment.
“I kept watching these people, not quite ever making American Gods and I’m going, ‘Guys, I’ve driven down this street. If you go down there, you’ll get the car stuck and you can’t turn around.’ […] And there was a lot of that,” Gaiman says. “With American Gods, I talked to the showrunners for a day or so before they’d start the new season, conceiving it. And then I’d normally get sent the finished episodes. With this, I was on the phone or on a zoom call with Allan every day.”
At this point Heinberg jumps in, “It would be very rare if we would go three days without checking in.”
“I mean, we’d be on email for those other two days,” Gaiman replies.
“Yes, and the phone, but Neil, we were never in the same city ever,” Heinberg says, now fully engaged. “And there was one day when we were both in London and we didn’t see each other all day and then managed to meet up for dinner, but that was it. It was the kind of thing where we had an enormous amount of freedom to really examine the original scripts and the comics. And then the act of dramatizing these books, it is an act of adaptation and Neil understood that in a really fundamental way and came to play.”
Heinberg says he tried to bother Gaiman “as little as possible” while the show was in progress. When they did come together to solve some “knotty plot problem,” such as one scene that involved inventing a good deal of extra plot for Dream and Johanna, the pair usually found it was best to strip it back down to the original material from the comic.
“That is a lesson that I’ve learned on Good Omens, it’s the lesson I’ve learned on a Anansi Boys where I would go and make fancy complicated stuff up that would make all of the execs really happy,” Gaiman says. “And very often we’d even shoot it, and then we’d come to the editing room and we’d go, this is really clunky and clumsy, and this isn’t doing what it’s meant to do. And then somewhere in there somebody would go, just come back and look at the original book, why don’t we just start it where the book starts, whatever and suddenly the thing would start to fly. So I’m always incredibly sympathetic with Allan, whichever one of us winds up making that decision. ”
Why don’t we just start it where the book starts? Gaiman’s instinct is always to go back to the source material. Even now, Heinberg says, Gaiman remembers not just everything he wrote, but where he was and what music he was listening to.
He’s visibly excited when talks about how he “can’t wait” to cast Destiny (“That’ll be fun”), and he says he’ll “cheerfully wake” Heinberg with “unexpected texts in the middle of the night” asking, “What about this person? Can we audition this person if we get there?”
He also talks about how the story still has the power to make him emotional, especially the sixth episode of the first season, which by his own admission was enough to bring him to tears. Asked to share his emotions behind those tears, Gaiman says, “Enormous amount of surprise that words I had written 30 years ago were now giving me, as they used to say on the internet, all the feels, because they were being so beautifully delivered by actors…I think that episode six is one of the best pieces of television I’ve ever seen.”
It’s enough that Gaiman feels fans should set aside the sixth episode rather than bingeing straight through it – one of the odd quirks of the streaming era. Netflix has become more flexible with shows like Stranger Things, which held back the final two episodes in its most recent season, but it otherwise has no plans to ditch the “binge model” it helped create.
Sandman, by Gaiman’s own admission, isn’t particularly well-suited for Netflix’s signature approach to episode releases. The season is framed as 10 distinct stories that come together to form a greater whole, meaning they may not neatly fit into the standard cliffhanger model designed to keep viewers skipping to the next episode.
“I think that 10 episodes is probably too long for people to sit down and do an all day listening party. And honestly, I think the emotional impact of all 10 episodes at once is probably going to destroy you. So I would say, just don’t do that probably,” Gaiman says. “I would say that for anybody who was doing the giant viewing party, or planning to take the day off or whatever, I’d say go to episode six. Don’t stop before episode six, but get to episode six and then have a day off to digest before you go back and do The Doll’s House.”
As for how many seasons Sandman can ultimately go, Gaiman says simply, “Until it’s done.”
That might be easier said than done. There are still years’ worth of Sandman comics to get through after the conclusion of the first season. Gaiman hints at his own hopes for the series should it be allowed to continue.
“In a perfect world, we’d get through to Sandman Overture, which would take you back to the beginning again. But it would also tell you why a fully dressed and armored Dream goes off to bring the Corinthian back; a naked Dream, exhausted and captured by somebody who shouldn’t have been able to do it, winds up in the magic circle and Burgess’s mansion, and what happened between those two things and what was going on. That is the story of Sandman Overture, and telling that will be an absolute adventure, so I hope we get that far,” Gaiman says.
“And then the spinoffs,” Heinberg adds.
“Yeah,” Gaiman agrees. “But that doesn’t necessarily have to be after. I can absolutely see us doing a Death: The High Cost of Living or something between seasons.”
Death: The High Cost of Living, it should be mentioned, was also set to be adapted into a movie, with Gaiman providing the screenplay and Guillermo del Toro serving as executive producer. Like so many other Sandman adaptations, it was ultimately shelved.
‘He wanted to give us everything’
In so many ways, Sandman is the culmination of a long and winding journey – one almost as dense and complicated as the comics themselves. It has left not just the fans anxious to see a faithful adaptation, but the actors as well. Gaiman relates the story of how Tom Sturridge, who plays Morpheus, kept using “the Batman voice” in his quest to find the character. It eventually got to the point that Gaiman himself had to tell Sturridge to stop.
“He wasn’t aware he was doing it. He wasn’t doing it as Batman. He was just trying to find something for a Morpheus voice that was more talking in white on a black background, I think,” Gaiman remembers. “And it’s like, ‘Yeah, no, don’t do that. What you’re doing, what you came up with is fine. Don’t be Batman.'”
“He had asked if we were going to alter his voice electronically early, early on. And we said, ‘You know what, we’ll do an experiment with it in post.’ And I think he just didn’t trust that he was enough early on,” Heinberg adds.
“I think the problem that Tom had is he is such a fan, he wanted to make it Sandman,” Gaiman agrees. “And so he wanted to give us everything.”
Gaiman, for his part, is keen to deflect as much attention as possible to the cast and crew who did so much to bring his original vision to life. Still, he seems especially protective of this story that he wrote so early in his career. When a fan on Twitter expresses doubts about Sandman owing to how American Gods turned out, Gaiman responds bluntly, “There’s a huge difference. I didn’t make American Gods. I made this.”
One way or another, it’s been a long time coming. The Gaiman who finally gets to see Sandman turned into an actual show is “a lot older, creaks a bit, eyesight is definitely not what it was, nor is memory,” and he claims he has to look up Sandman references rather than recalling them from memory, though Heinberg disagrees. But it’s easy to see the thread connecting the Gaiman of 2022 with the Gaiman who first set out to define The Dreaming and the Endless and everything else.
Gaiman says this show is for his younger self. A gift.
“I’m proud of him. I’m proud of him for saying the right things, and I feel like in a weird way, we made this for him,” Gaiman says. “Everybody came together to actually make the best Sandman they could. It may be a commercial success. It may not. I don’t know. I don’t even understand how Netflix measures these things. All I know is that I feel unbelievably fortunate to have made this.
“And as a gift for that 29-year-old Neil, who went into the Warner Brothers offices and said, ‘Please don’t make Sandman.’ It’s like finally, hey, this was the thing that you envisioned when you pleaded with people not to make that movie. And we made it for you.”
Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.