Jane Goldman on Adapting Neil Gaiman’s Stardust

This interview was originally published on Oct 1st, 2007 by Martyn for The Friends of English Magic. An A.I. generated audio version of this interview is available through my YouTube channel (also found at the bottom of this page).

Martyn: Matthew (Vaughn) has obviously worked extremely hard to finance as much of the film by himself (from what I’ve been reading), rather than rely entirely on studio money. I assume that because of that, it has allowed you both more creative control over proceedings. Did this have an impact on the screenplay’s development? Did Paramount ‘interfere’ or demand any particular changes in the script, or even during the editing stage?

Jane: Well, they weren’t actually involved at the development stage. Matthew and I developed the script together (and we had the great benefit of Neil giving us his feedback at various stages too, of course), and then Paramount bought it. Of course they had opinions at edit stage, but opinions are a good thing, and I don’t recall any that differed too dramatically from our own instincts, or Neil’s, or those of Jon Harris, our brilliant editor.

Martyn: Has there been any particularly frustrating moments during writing the screenplay? How many drafts were needed in the end, and how often did it require a rewriting because somebody had thought of something new that might work?

Jane: We never went back to square one, so the first draft isn’t a million miles away from the finished movie. Some tinkering was prompted by budget and schedule, which is always sad but unavoidable. But tinkering when somebody thinks of something new and good is always a pleasure. I see it as polishing, rather than rewriting, and there was a healthy amount of that. It was always modest revisions, though, rather than new drafts. There was plenty of minor tinkering while we were in production – and even on set – as there’s nothing more inspiring than seeing the story unfold in front of you.

A lot of the most experimental changes tend to happen in the editing suite, afterwards, though. It’s then that you get to try scenes shorter, break long scenes into two parts, or run two scenes together, or switch round the order in which we see things happen – you can play around a lot more and actually discover right away whether it works or not in terms of how the story builds and flows.

Martyn: Do you know why, despite the film being shot in the UK, using UK post-production facilities, and taking advantage of the government’s tax break system, that according to the IMDB release dates schedule, we’re one of the last countries on the list to receive the theatrical release of the film?

Jane: It certainly wasn’t something imposed from outside. I was present at the international marketing meeting where the dates were finalised, and all the reps from the different territories had dates they were happy with. The UK date was no exception, and had been put forward by the UK distributors. It was their date of choice.

A simultaneous release with the US just wouldn’t have given the movie the fairest shot at reaching it’s audience. Whereas Summer is THE time for cinema-going in the USA, it’s actually much less the case in UK, I believe, and August is apparently especially quiet – I guess we Brits like to get outside more and make the most of the good weather while it lasts! Also, I understand August is the most popular month for UK residents to go on holiday.

From the point at which the movie was available for release, the October date was the closest big, good date for our kind of movie to be released. It coincides with the school half term, so it’s a big movie-going week, and I also have been told that it’s also historically a time that movies in a similar vein to Stardust thrive best. So for all those reasons, that date was deemed the top choice on which to release the movie in the UK, by the people whose job it is to know and decide these things.

Martyn: Given Captain Shakespeare’s extended role in the film, does this mean that has more influence as to how the film ends? The trailer gives the impression that he’s certainly a major force in helping Tristan and Yvaine by teaching Tristan sword fighting. I also notice in the trailer that Tristan is doing a lot more sword fighting in the movie than I remember from the book.

Jane: No, I wouldn’t say that Shakespeare has any influence on the film’s ending at all. I’d also say that the most important part of his influence on Tristan’s development is emotional rather than practical. Don’t worry – we’ve not turned Stardust into Karate Kid! He’s really not a mentor in that sense, and Stardust isn’t a story in which it would make sense for fighting skills of any kind to be the key to achievement or survival. I don’t want to give anything away, but I do want to assure you that it is absolutely not a case of “Tristan learns to sword fight and ultimately uses his new skills to defeat the baddies.” That’s not even close to being the case.

Physical sequences work well in trailers, because they’re dynamic, so that’s what trailers tend to be made of, even if proportionately, the personality of the film may be just as readily found elsewhere. (And I would encourage FoEM readers to check out Neil Gaiman’s recent journal entry on this subject for some very wise words on the matter). There is some sword-fighting in the film, but there’s not an unusually huge amount of it, and it’s not a film in which primary objectives are achieved through fighting, if you get me.

I see a subtext to your question, and I’d like to address it by promising you that the mood and the smartness and humour and human drama of Stardust the book, all the things that you and the readers of FoEM – and Matthew and I – all love about the book, is all there in the movie. The trailer is, in a sense, designed for people who aren’t familiar with the book – it communicates the essence of the story, and it hopefully also communicates that the story is going to be exciting and funny and romantic and beautiful to look at, and is going to be told by a cast of great actors.

Martyn: Was Ferdy the Fence specifically written with Rick Gervais in mind? If he had refused, was there anybody else that would have been able to pull it off?

Jane: In answer to your first question, yes and no. The character came first, and initially, Matthew and I discussed him as a traditional “hard man” type. But the moment we started talking about Ricky, Ferdy completely shifted in our minds, and the nature of the character changed and became much more interesting and complex – someone who was more of a weasel, more of a con artist. Creepier and more of a liability, but also more hapless and deluded and ultimately more sympathetic. All qualities that Ricky has the ability to bring so brilliantly to life. So in that sense, the part became absolutely Ricky’s, and the Ferdy of the film is someone that no one else could have played in the same way.

I’ve no idea who we’d have approached if he’d said no, because fortunately he didn’t, so it’s not something we ever had to think about!

Martyn: I’ve been thinking about the various comparisons in the press (mainly from the preview audiences) that Stardust resembles The Princess Bride and The Pirates of the Caribbean, who would win at a sword fight between Tristan Thorn, Inigo Montoya, and Captain Jack Sparrow if they were all up against each other?

Jane: Well, I’d have to say probably not Tristan. I can’t imagine him even wanting to get involved in a sword fight unless he really had to, for some reason he felt really passionate about.

Skill-wise, my money would probably be on Inigo, especially if Captain Jack had been drinking, but Jack seems to be one of those guys with luck on his side, so I imagine that perhaps a piece of heavy furniture might fall on Inigo at the last minute.

I wouldn’t like to see them fight, though. I’d hate any of them to get hurt. I like them all too much. Could they perhaps all wrestle each other instead? I’d definitely watch that.

From “Stez”: Do you think the finished Stormhold now looks every bit as lavish as you imagined it?

Jane: I really do. Matthew had a very clear idea of how he wanted everything to look, and the production designer, Gavin Bocquet is incredible. Matthew and I have always been uncannily on the same page with almost everything, so I don’t think there is anything wildly different about Stormhold to how I had pictured it in my mind. It really does look breathtaking.

As a writer, it was incredibly exciting to see little bits and pieces that I’d thought of suddenly sprung into three glorious dimensions. And of course, Neil has that sense ten times over. We were talking about it as we walked around the flying pirate ship when he visted the set one day. It was a gigantic, beautiful, life-size, actual ship and there were dozens of guys beavering away to get it finished. Of course the oddest thing, which he observed as we surveyed the scene, was that it takes a writer mere seconds to type “a flying pirate ship”, which you blithely key in to your laptop while taking a sip of tea… Then it takes a vast team several months to actually build it!

From “emilyrln”: What would you say was the most difficult part of the book to adapt?

Jane: I’m not sure if I can think of a particular part. But the most challenging thing about adapting any book – including this one – is essentially having to condense a story that takes several hours to tell (most books, if you shot them scene for scene, would end up over six hours long), into one that you can tell in around two hours, whilst still retaining the essence of everything that is wonderful about the book. You always have to sacrifice things you love – it’s unavoidable – and that’s always difficult.

I guess that one challenge particular to Stardust was that in the “third act” – in other words, the part where all the different storylines resolve – things happen separately and in turn, whereas Neil, Matthew and I all felt that for the movie, it would work best to try and bring all the storylines together. That happened quite naturally and organically, in a way we were happy with, but it was certainly a challenge. Then again, I enjoy a challenge, so I wasn’t complaining!

From “emilyrln”: Were there any parts of the book which you particularly wanted to keep in the script but which proved to be incompatible with the movie (technical/thematic/time issues, et cetera)?

Jane: There were things that I personally loved in the book, but that I suspected from the start we probably wouldn’t be able to keep in the movie.

When books are being adapted, these issues are almost always about time and pacing. In order for us to tell Tristan’s story in sufficient depth, and to see his relationship with Yvaine develop, it was important for him to meet her sooner rather than later. And that in itself dictated quite a lot.

There is always an argument for keeping things in just for the sake of atmosphere and colour, even if they don’t contribute to keeping the main plot moving, but there is another, much stronger argument for keeping movies at a reasonable length – I can think of one particular movie from last year that was hugely entertaining and likeable but that I would have loved SO much more had it been about half an hour shorter. In movies, I truly believe that you CAN have too much of a good thing. So whilst it’s always sad to sacrifice bits you love, it’s all part of the job, and it’s something that, as a writer, you have to make your peace with.

Of course, having Neil as such an intrinsic part of the project made all of those moments of sacrifice so much easier. If he was comfortable with changes, then I felt that I had no right to lament them! I love the book as a reader – and I know that as a reader, it’s easy to develop a very powerful sense of ownership – but it is his creation. So it was a great benefit to be able to draw strength and comfort from his creative and pragmatic attitude towards the adaptation.

From “emilyrln”: What is your favourite scene from the movie, and why?

Jane: It’s really hard to pick a favourite scene, as I’m fond of so many. There’s a great sequence around half way through where several of our characters paths intersect for the first time – for those who have read the book, I’ll just say it’s at the Inn that is created by the Witch Queen (who, in the film, is called Lamia, and is played by Michelle Pfieffer.) It’s absolutely brimming with tension, danger, a dash of humour and a few surprises, and I find it still delights me every time I watch it.

There’s also a beautiful romantic scene that I’m very fond of between Tristan and Yvaine much later on, where they are talking somewhat at cross purposes, and connecting while not yet fully connecting. Charlie and Claire’s acting is just wonderful in that scene, the chemistry is magical, and they – and indeed the whole scene – just look gorgeous.

Humour-wise, I also adore a scene of treachery and subterfuge that takes place between Septimus, Primus and Tertius over the coffin of their late father, and there’s another that I think everybody loves involving Captain Shakespeare (who is Captain Alberic in the book), but which I can’t say too much about, as it’s not in the book and is a great surprise and seriously funny. And Ricky Gervais’s scenes are just as brilliant as you’d imagine. His timing is incomparable, and he and DeNiro together are a delight.

There’s also an incredibly cool element of the final showdown involving Septimus, Tristan and Lamia that still thrills me deeply to watch – it’s just incredibly cool.

See… I told you I found it hard to choose!

Martyn: Based on your experience with Stardust, would you do this all again?

Jane: You bet! Although I acknowledge that my experience as a writer is atypical. I really have Matthew to thank for making it such a rich experience for me. Frequently writers are out of the picture once the script is finished, but I’ve had the privilege of being part of the production team from beginning to end. It’s been wonderful, educational and hugely satisfying, and Matthew has completely ruined me for other directors! He’s a hard act to follow.

And of course, I’m eternally grateful to Neil, for introducing me to Matthew in the first place, and for trusting me with his wonderful book. The whole thing has been a delight.

Martyn: Has the experience been a good one? Is there anything you would do differently?

Jane: See above. And no, I don’t think there’s anything I’d go back and do differently, except perhaps eat slightly fewer of the far-too-delicious puddings from the catering truck. I’ve only just recently managed to get back into my pre-Stardust jeans!

Seriously, though, although I’ve certainly learned an enormous amount about working on a big-budget movie, and I know that everything I’ve learned will greatly inform my approach to my next project, I’m just thrilled with how Stardust has turned out, and there really isn’t anything I’d want to do differently.

Martyn: Is there any chance of the screenplay being published in book form (perhaps with some pictures and notes to accompany it)?

Jane: Yes, there is going to be a draft of the screenplay published in the “Making of” book, which will be published to accompany the film. It’s essentially the shooting draft, but Matthew and I decided to also put back in a lot of the lines and scenes that were cut for length or budget reasons, as a kind of printed equivalent of a DVD ‘deleted scenes’ bonus feature. So the draft is not the exact screenplay you see onscreen, and nor is it a complete early draft, but rather a mixture of earlier and later drafts put together especially.

Martyn: Are there any plans (concrete or otherwise) to develop more screenplays that you can tell us about? Any other movie projects on the horizon?

Jane: I’m afraid I’m not able to give details about anything right now, but on a more general note, Matthew and I definitely intend to work together again in the future, which I couldn’t be more delighted about.

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