Last week we got the chance to sit down and talk with Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction, Rules of Attraction) and Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Stardust), the screenwriter’s of Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf. During the roundtable interview, we heard tales about the 10 year struggle to bring Beowulf to the screen, the magic of performance capture, the troubles with adapting a poem into a feature film, the possibility of comic books during the Writers Strike, and the mismarketing of Stardust. Check out the interview below.
Question: When did you guys start on Beowulf?
Gaiman: 10 and half year now. We went off to write the first draft of the script for Beowulf in May 1997. And wrote it, in two weeks of absolute madness, and then we came back and sold it to Bob Zemeckis’s company for Roger to direct and it even got green lit, which is one of those funny things about movies because green lights can also get turned off again. So, just before he was about to go scouting for locations. And then Imagemovers and we tried to get it made together, and we eventually got the rights back, and Roger was about to make it himself when the phantom call came.
Avary: I was planning on doing a very small production of it with a French producer.
Gaiman: We were looking at 20 million dollars and glove puppet things.
Avary: Can you imagine Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky or Polansky’s Macbeth. Ya know, Excalibur was actually a small production in it’s day. Those were the markers, ( “A lot of fog.”) That was what sort of over stylizing to compensate for the lack of ability to do 3D modeling.
Question: Wasn’t there a Beowulf released a few years ago with Gerard Butler?
Gaiman: Yeah? What’s weird about this process is the length of time it took to do this strange and wonderful thing, all of the performances were actually recorded in October-November 2005. We started production of this film in the beginning of 2005. So their film sank without trace in between.
Avary: Let’s also not forget the Kristoff Lambert’ cyberpunk Beowulf that was made way back when.
Gaiman: Ah, that was a Beowulf indeed.
Avary: The mention of that film put abstract horror in my heart, and then I saw it and I wasn’t so afraid of it anymore because it wasn’t really Beowulf at all.
Question: Did you think this was gonna be animation from the beginning?
Avary: No, in fact it was impossible to do this film with this process…
Gaiman: Cuz none of this stuff existed.
Question: Motion capture wasn’t around then…
Avary: Motion capture actually was around but in a very rudimentary and what Bob has done with this digitally enhanced live action isn’t only motion capture, it is a collection of different technologies. Motion capture was one of them. I would suggest that this version of Beowulf is sort of like 3D rotoscoping. Your not just painting over an image it’s a 3D image.
Gaiman: The computer guys actually had tshirts that sat on the back of “the devils rotoscopers.”
Question: Did you change the dialogue when you found out it was going to this format?
Gaiman: Yes, we wrote a much longer dragon fight. The biggest difference is the first half is… One of the cool things about this script book is the first half is Roger’s introduction and the first draft from 97 and then the stuff he shouldn’t have told anybody about the financial offers with Steven Bing, and then you get our last draft. The 2005 draft. September 11th 2005 and this was basically what was shot, so this gives you a sense of the changes
Avary: And you get some drinking songs.
Question: And what we get is the penis taped to leg, of what didn’t get into the movie.
Avary: That’s right. Those were drawn by a friend of my mine Steven Norrington. He does story boards for me occasionally.
Gaiman: See the problem with the first version is that “How do we stylize a dragon fight flying between a man and a dragon in a 20 million dollar movie?” With this it is Bob telling us anything is possible. You guys go for it and give me a 10 minute dragon fight. I remember phoning Bob and I had this idea where they go under the sea and have a fight in a shipwreck underwater and I called Bob and said I think I’m going a little overboard and he said-
Avary: He said you can have chickens running around and it will cost me the same.
Gaiman: He said there is nothing you can do to make this cost me more money then it already has. Its all expensive. Do what your imagination gives you. So we did.
Question: But you didn’t overtrick it. Do you think you could have added a couple more scenes?
Gaiman: I hope not. For us what made it, I to think of Beowulf as a chamber piece. And some of those movies I loved as a kid like the lion in winter, what I was most concerned about was that I knew one of the engines that drove the script were things that weren’t said. And you could have characters that all had their secrets and the things that needed to be communicated in looks, pauses, and silences and my worry was if the technology would allow you to see that in the performances, if subtlety would allow you to communicate
Avary: It’s the quiet moments in the film which are to me most impressive. When Anthony Hopkins is asking Beowulf if he killed the mother and he gives him the little smile, its an absolute Anthony Hopkins moment where he drifts inside himself, its all very pure in that moment. It’s all the very quiet moments.
Question: What made you think of the John Malkovich character, which I considered to be like a villain?
Gaiman: He’s straight from the poem and he serves that function in the poem.
Question: What about the part where he ducks into the water and-
Avary: That was us, I always imagined that a meat hall back then would have a piss pit.
Gaiman: In the very first draft we had them going outside to pee.
Avary: Did we?
Gaiman: Yeah. Cuz that is where they discuss if Jesus and Odin get into a knife fight who would win, which was taken out.
Question: Sort of like he’s the coward?
Avary: Again, in the poem he was the guy who killed his own brother.
Gaiman: I think we gave motivation to people, and we filled them in because otherwise, I sometimes get the feeling that some Anglo Saxons buffs would have been happy with as an adaptation is a blank screen, and you see someone walking up, preferably them, and they recite in Anglo Saxon all 1300 lines from the poem. And walking off again.
Question: How influential was The Viking with Kirk Douglas?
Avary: I watched every Viking movie in preparation of this film, and what I love is Kirk Douglas’s rationale to why he shaves his beard, in the movie The Vikings. Everybody has a beard in the movie except Kirk Douglas because he basically, I’m Kirk Douglas and he is going to do whatever he damn well pleases… He has to show off his chin and so they come up with this crazy rationale.
Question: So what is your fave Viking movie?
Avary: ……Beowulf. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. What is interesting to me about Vikings is that they were failed farmers.
Gaiman: No it’s really just what they did. It basically meant raiding. They were raiders, they went out and raided.
Question: Your going on the strike right?
Question: Can we expect more comics of this later?
Gaiman: I’ve got to the embarrassing point where I’ve had to say no to people in the movies anyways because I have some books to finish that my publishers are saying they will publish whether I finish or not in September 2008.
Avary: I earn my living off the movies, and I may start doing comics to but this was really a quick way to interrupt us with Castle Wolfenstein which we were given the script for (which your going to direct, right?) Yes, I’m fifteen minutes away from finishing and wondering if I have time to do that on Sunday! Even if I do, because the nature of the strike I won’t be able to mount the production so its hurting me in a very big way but I believe it is a righteous cause that must be done.
Question: Why do you believe Stardust didn’t catch on out here?
Gaiman: It’s now done over a hundred million around the world. It’s done very well in many territories. I think, picking my words carefully, if I were paramount I probably would have paid more attention when the early reviews came in saying pay no attention to the dreadful trailer this is a wonderful movie. And I probably would have looked at the trailer and tried to figure out… In the UK we didn’t use those trailers and used trailers that felt more like the film than Pirates of The Caribbean Lite or whatever. I think there were marketing missteps and having said that I-
Avary: Beowulf is a very tough film to market and I think they are doing a bang up job of it.
Gaiman: They are doing a marvelous job on something equally as problematic.
Question: What were the biggest changes from the poem?
Avary: One of the things Robert wanted to do is originally in or script and originally in the poem Beowulf returns and doesn’t stay in Denmark. Robert wanted to show where all the characters were and show the contrasts of the time and place and how Christianity had gone from a minor cult like thing to a-
Gaiman: Also the biggest problem we had in our earlier drafts, 3 quarters of the way through the movie you need to abandon the whole cast you’ve been introduced to a whole new cast. Bob said as a director it would be easier for me to see them age and grow old and show their children… You know one of my favorite lines that didn’t make it to the screen, was when older Beowulf is talking to Ursula, he says you remind me of your mother Ursa and she says that was my grandmother, and you realize time is passing.