As a multi – award winning comic book artist, author, filmmaker, illustrator and photographer it’s hard to know where to start when it comes to an individual like Dave Mckean. From hugely influential artistic collaborations with Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Coraline, Mirrormask) to the sublime illustrations of Grant Morrison’s hugely popular Arkham Asylum (1989), Mckean’s ability to visually conceptualize subjective themes such as dreamscapes and madness has seen his unique vision appear in everything from the world of Harry Potter to Rolling Stones album covers.
Following on from the visionary fantasy epic and Gaiman collaboration Mirrormask (2005), McKean’s latest film Luna sees the influential artist / filmmaker take a more intimate direction, borrowing the middle class foibles of Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2010) and bathing them in a signature concoction of dark psychological surrealism. Luna is also a deeply personal film for Mckean, based loosely on the experiences of his own friends in its exploration of the dreams, fears and grief that shape relationships across the expanse of time. With Mckean stamping his trademark creativity across multiple aspects of the production including song composition, animation and set design, Luna is a film that is both conventional and beguiling, with poignant performances and endless depths of thematic meaning. It really is something special.
Flickfeast caught up with the cult icon prior to his UK Luna tour to chat culture shock, digital dreamscapes, moving on from Mirrormask and the pitfalls of the artistically ambidextrous.
Flickfeast: What inspired the Luna initially and how did you develop it?
Dave Mckean: It came out of a real and very sad event that happened to a friend of mine. I wrote an outline for the story about 20 years ago. It was initially just a place to put some thoughts and observations about the grieving process, and about friendship tested by tragic circumstances. But it was all too close at the time, so I left it in my notebooks until about 8 years ago. I really wanted to deal with this subject somehow, so I changed many of the details of the story so that it kept the truth at the centre, but allowed me to play with the relationships and the setting.
FF: Following on from the epic fantasy landscapes of Mirrormask, Luna seems to shift the action to a more traditional Gothic setting (from the isolated ominous house to the jagged North Devon Coast). Mike Leigh often talks about the ‘poetry of place’ in regards to the relationship between setting and character. How did the location play into your own tale of grief and loss?
DM: I found the house in Leigh Bay only because a friend of mine part owned a nearby hotel and kept reminding me that I had to go. I ended up renting the place and doing some of the rewrites for Luna there as the house became a much more real place, and the rhythm of the sea, the sounds of the gulls and the surrounding seaweed and rock pools all found their places in the script. I wanted a solid reality from which to build a more slippery, mis-remembered version of events.
FF: How would you compare the artistic process of Luna to Mirrormask? Did Luna bring any new challenges?
DM: MirrorMask was a breeze to finance, one draft and a cheque from Columbia Tristar, but horrible to make. The shoot was always a rush, and the post production process was far too long and dogged with technical problems. It was a long slow torture, despite a lovely crew and wonderful effects team. Luna on the other hand was chaotic to fund, but whenever we actually got some money to work with, an absolute pleasure to shoot, edit and score. It was great to have the film in my studio for the many years of production, so anytime I thought of a change to the cut, or a pick up shot or some other little tinker, I could just get on with it.
FF: You have previously described Luna as ‘an attempt to make an unashamedly middle class film’ in the ways characters perform and hide behind considerate behavior. What approaches did you consider in attempting to render these characters likeable? Did this influence the casting?
DM: I like all the characters, in fact in most of the films that I would consider my favourites, I like all the characters. I like spending time with engaging, funny, serious, thoughtful people, in films as well as in life. So yes, casting is crucial, I wanted actors who felt right for the characters, but also people who I instantly felt a rapport with. I’m not so interested in the complaints of the chattering classes, but I am interested in the fact that it is when we feel most comfortable and divorced from the hardships of life, that events can really shift our world’s axis, pull the rug out from under us.
FF: Are there elements of biography in the personalities and dialogues of Dean and Grant?
DM: Yes. they are both me, and they are both friends of mine. I’ve had those conversations and arguments many times with friends and myself. They are both my age and, like Dean, I went to art school, now live in the middle of nowhere, and make a good living creating books and imaginative artwork. But I share Grant’s short temper with the triviality of a lot of that world, and a lot of my own work.
FF: A theme running through your work is undoubtedly liminal states between dream and reality / time and place. In Luna ‘cinema’ emerges as a powerful nostalgic force from memories captured in grainy 8mm, to dream sequences using the human mind as a literal projector. How would you define your relationship with cinema as a filmmaker and artist?
DM: Exactly that, a dream. They are all little dreams. If a dream is our mind reordering and editing events and emotions in our lives, butting up one feeling against a different time and place, well, that’s the film process. I wanted the home movie in there as that is very nostalgic for me. My father bought me a Super8 camera when I was about 9, they are my only link to that time in my life, another world, I can barely remember the real world any more, my whole sense of that time is smothered in Super8 grain and saturated color. I’m interested in the relationship between reality, because there is a real world out there governed by real physical laws (so I’m not interested in a Matrix like relativism), and the way our minds interpret and deal with all that information. That is a creative process.
FF: Do you feel some of the magic of this ‘culture of escapism’ perpetuated by cinema will be lost in the way people interact with and consume digital media in the future?
DM: The almost evolutionary change from an analog to a digital world has obviously had huge effect on every part of our lives including how we relate to story, creativity and reality. I think we are living through a bit of culture shock. There’s a dangerously blurred relationship to the real world apparent in social media, everything being photoshopped, conspiracy theories about everything, political inertia, the vast polarisation of the rich and poor, the wars of belief… this is a huge subject in a huge scary world. No wonder so many people want to escape to a world of superheroes and fantasy. It’s a sort of collective post-traumatic stress relief.
FF: How did you conceptualize the animated sequences and do they signify anything in particular? Do you ever appropriate any images for them from your own dreams?
DM: They all mean something to me, they are my own library of suggestive images. All these sequences seemed to write themselves pretty easily into the script and I didn’t question them too much. It was almost like a dream writing them, they happened on the page, I watched them happen and then created them in CG. I’m reluctant to explain them at all really, they are for an audience to respond to. they are my half of the conversation, and the audience, if it wants to, is welcome to supply the other half.
FF: To what extent was the production and process like a game of ‘exquisite corpse’ in regards to the creative interplay between live action and visual effects crew?
DM: That’s why that game is in the script, that was part of the process, and became even more so once I’d started cutting the film. Re-ordering parts of the film and playing images against each other, and using sound to guide us through, this is all very much like a surrealists game.
FF: The combination of score and lyrical song is fascinating. How was the experience working with music producer Ashley Slater and co – composer Iain Ballamy on developing a score to suit the surrealism of Luna?
DM: It’s always wonderful to work with both Iain and Ashley. I was a little frustrated on MirrorMask that I had no time away from the animation studio to help out on the score. On The Gospel of Us, I wrote the score with Ashley and we had an extraordinary four days putting it all together. I wanted some of that magic for Luna, so it was a good collaboration. After we’d recorded Dhafer Youssef, whose singing provided the raw emotion of Grant’s pain, and Emilia Martensson, whose voice became Christine’s inner world, we just folded everything else around them. I wrote the script listening almost exclusively to oud music, so I knew that was the basic sound of the film. It can sound a little middle eastern, a little Spanish, a little South American, it can sound cool and Baltic, it can sound Russian or Klesmic. It is from ‘somewhere else’.
FF: What do you hope audiences will take away from Luna?
DM: I have no idea. I hope they connect with the emotions in the film. We all have to face grief in some form at some time in our lives. I hope they enjoy the actors, who were all wonderful and added so much to their characters. I hope they enjoy the atmosphere. Most of my favourite films, at the end of the day, are not favourites because of their stories or their effects or anything much beyond my enjoyment of spending some time in that place for a while.
FF: Following your Luna UK cinema tour, do you have any films you are aching to develop?
DM: Of course, but it remains very difficult for me to raise the funds without a box office hit to my name. But I’ll keep trying, and I like this smaller, independent, European scale of film making. It feels closer to the rest of my life where I have complete control over the books and exhibitions that I create. I would love to make Signal to Noise which is an adaptation I’ve written of the graphic novel I made with Neil Gaiman, and hugely expanded. I’d love to make another film with Wildworks (who did the Passion of Port Talbot which was the source for The Gospel of Us with Michael Sheen) and I hope we will do something next year… In the woods.
FF: Finally to paraphrase the beautiful song from Luna: ‘The truth about words is. They live much longer than you would imagine […] they live in shadows, hide in furrows, lying dormant’. As an illustrator, musician, filmmaker and writer, which artistic ‘language’ do you get the most satisfaction from when translating dormant ‘words’ into engaging narratives?
DM: I like them all, and I hope I can keep all these plates in the air. I still love to draw, and I hope I can always do that. So I love telling stories with my pencil, comics are still my first love. But I love music as well, and I’m playing and composing more and more and also the editing process in film is still alchemical for me. The only time my own work has surprised me.
Luna opens in cinemas across the UK on the 3rd of October