Dirk Maggs on bringing Neil Gaiman's Sandman to Audible, an audio adaptation 30 years in the making

Dirk Maggs has adapted and directed Neil Gaiman's seminal The Sandman comics into an audio drama for Audible. The 10-hour adaptation has been an idea at least three decades in the making.

Rahul Gupta August 25, 2020 12:45:39 IST
Dirk Maggs on bringing Neil Gaiman's Sandman to Audible, an audio adaptation 30 years in the making

Dirk Maggs has adapted and directed Neil Gaiman's seminal The Sandman comics into an audio drama for Audible. The 10-hour adaptation has been an idea at least three decades in the making, says Maggs, who has previously worked on audio versions of Gaiman's Neverwhere, Good Omen, Stardust, How the Marquis Got his Coat Back, and Anansi Boys. In this interview, Maggs talks about his collaborations with Gaiman, bringing Sandman to Audible listeners, and the lure of audio as a medium.

How did the idea of adapting Sandman as an audiobook come to fruition 31 years after Neil Gaiman’s critically acclaimed comics came out?

Yes, Neil and I have been at this for nearly three decades.

To just briefly encapsulate my career, I joined the BBC at a studio-engineer in the late 1970s and eventually got a job in the comedy department in BBC Radio’s light entertainment division. I did a production of Superman and Batman for them and in doing so I became acquainted with DC Comics in New York. There I met a lady called Phyllis Hume, who sent me the first collected volumes of Sandman. As soon as I read it I thought, “Wow”. Neil had invented a whole new mythology; he was either completely insane or a genius!

[After a couple of years] I emailed Neil, asking if he would mind if we adapt Sandman and he said not at all, being the thoroughly nice guy that he is. But the BBC passed on it about six times over the last 30 years.

In the meantime, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy took over my life. It took longer than expected to make the shows; sadly and horribly, [author] Douglas Adams died before we could do it, but he was very much part of the process as far as I was concerned.

The funny thing is that Douglas was, in a way, a mentor to me — and also to Neil. As a young journalist, Neil went to interview Douglas for a piece in a magazine and ended up writing the history of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, Don’t Panic. It was strange that Neil and I had this friendship where we hadn’t met physically but had emailed and knew each other and Douglas mutually.

It all went rather quiet till the early part of this decade when I was taking Hitchhiker’s Guide as a stage show in the UK with the original radio cast. For the final show in Edinburgh I asked Neil if he would be interested in being the voice of the book and he said he would love to. So we finally met at backstage on the day of the show. It was lovely, it was like meeting a pen-pal.

Funnily, around the same time, I got an email from the BBC producer Heather Larmour who was making dramas for BBC Radio, and she said, “I am doing Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Neil’s asked me if you would adapt it and co-direct it.” Heather and I ended up co-directing Neverwhere, Good Omen, Stardust and How the Marquis Got his Coat Back, which is a sequel to Neverwhere — all of them Neil’s stories. I also adapted Anansi Boys.

Dirk Maggs on bringing Neil Gaimans Sandman to Audible an audio adaptation 30 years in the making

Audible's Sandman is a 10-hour adaptation of Gaiman's seminal comics by Dirk Maggs. (R) James McAvoy in the studio

However, the people who really unlocked the door for Sandman happening were those at DC Comics. These were the people I would go to cap in hand, begging very humbly, “Is it possible, could we make this?” There is this great guy called Sandy Resnick at DC who told me that DC still owns Sandman, and then asked me if Neil would go for it and if I would work with Neil to do it. So I sent Neil a quick email and told him that DC is talking about Sandman as an audio [production] and would he be interested? He replied: “Fuck yeah!” And we were finally underway.

At present, only the first two editions of The Sandman have been adapted into the audio book. Will the others be adapted as well?

We hope so. The official announcement shall be with full fanfare and I haven’t got my trumpets with me yet.

How did you go about casting the characters for the book, considering it is different from casting for the visual medium?

The thing about audio actors is that they are actually good actors. People differentiate between audio, stage, TV or film actors. There may be stars in each of these media, but a good actor is a good actor and it is where you start from. If you meet someone who is a huge star in Bollywood or Hollywood or audio or TV, they are generally intelligent, versatile, thoughtful, prepared-for-the-job people and come in ready to work.  That would be the definition of a successful working actor — whether or not they were a star. That said, it is always good to have stars that attract the audience’s interest.

We needed a cast that understood the kind of work we were doing, who loved Neil’s works, who could act their socks off and could sound right for the roles. You need people who can lift the material off the page and create something magical. That’s where we start.

When we did Neverwhere, I was working with James McAvoy for the first time. He is a really bright guy and a ball of energy. I asked him during one of the coffee breaks, why was he doing it [an audio drama] when he could be earning telephone numbers in Hollywood and he said, “Because I flippin’ love it!” That’s the thing about him. He loves Neil, he loves fantasy. He is kind of a geek in a very cool and hip way.

Also read: Neil Gaiman on adapting The Sandman for Audible, and why he wasn't keen on a TV version for decades

Very early on, we knew that James was a strong contender for the character of Morpheus. Morpheus can be a passive character but he has a strong presence in the room. He is like a glowing, buzzing thing in the corner even if he is doing nothing. James brings that out in his brilliant performance.  He is very vocal. He does it in his English accent, even though he could do it in Scottish or even American, which is great.

For the character of Death, we were looking for all kinds of actresses; Asian, African, European — it did not matter what their ethnicity was. It was Neil who suggested that Kat Dennings should do the part. I hadn’t seen her works, but then I realised that she was a very successful American sitcom actor and had been in the Thor movies too. When I heard her voice, I said yes.

Dirk Maggs on bringing Neil Gaimans Sandman to Audible an audio adaptation 30 years in the making

The Sandman | DC Comics

[We got] Taron Egerton as John Constantine, because I knew he would work his socks off for this; Josie Lawrence as Mad Hettie, because she is a great character actor from London. From India we had a brilliant actor — Sagar Arya. His voice is like liquid gold.

Your work in Sandman…it looks like a very inclusive world. Your work is opening doors for actors from across the world.

That’s how it should be because we are living in a shrinking planet.  Neil is a champion of this. It is not about the colour of your skin or what religion you follow, or this or that. [Sandman] envelops all of that.  It is not just ethnicity… there are characters like Desire, who is gender non-binary.  All this was written 32 years ago.

Neil gets us into the global consciousness and this is how the production has to be, from my point of view as well. For Audible too, it has been a bit of a missionary zeal — not in a religious sense, but a global, humanist sense.

How is Sandman relevant to the current socio-political construct of our environment?

I think Neil has been long talking about many of these socio-political issues that are applying today…like ethnicity, gender identity, and so on. [The world of] Sandman has no smartphone or internet. People there live in a world of analog communication. Yet, there is an element of the dreams. That realm of the ‘Lord of Dreams’ brings a shared consciousness that is somewhat emblematic of what we now know as a world wide web or the internet. It is where we share our dreams, aspirations and sadly, our prejudices with each other. Just like the world of dreams, the internet is equally capable of [hosting] sublime and wonderful thoughts as well as the basest and worst of humanity.

I also think I am on a voyage of rediscovery of Sandman because it has been a while since I read those books for pleasure. Now I’m working on them for ‘work’.

I actually asked Neil once if he knew how good he was and how clever the writing is because as I was taking these lines from the scripts and the characters, I knew these are going to play really well with the cast. Surprisingly, his reply was that he couldn’t remember being that person. He was not the same person anymore! You realise that 30 years can change a person a lot! Therefore, he says he was rediscovering these things himself. Neil was a library brat. He spent his childhood not in the pool halls or gambling dens but in libraries, reading books voraciously and soaking that stuff up. It seems to me that Sandman is where all the things he soaked up comes gushing out! All these connections with mythology, philosophy, religion or fairy tales, it all comes into this massive tapestry which is full of unprecedented things.

What would you say has kept your long standing relationship with Neil going over the years?

If I was being facile, I would say it was hero-worship on my part and pity on Neil’s. But frankly, we have a strong mutual regard for each other. It’s a cultural thing. If you meet someone from your neighborhood, you kind of bond over things like sweets you enjoyed as a kid or the corner shop you went to or whatever. Neil’s kind of a world traveller and lives in the US these days but I can still get him for obscure pop culture references. It’s as if we were schoolmates. Like we meet in the playground and swap playing cards. That’s the nicest part of it.

The author acknowledges the contribution of Anshuman Jain towards this interview. 

Rahul Gupta is an entertainment journalist and blogger. He can be contacted at filmibaniya@gmail.com

— Featured image: Neil Gaiman with Dirk Maggs. By special arrangement.

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