Back in 2011, Jordan Rennert and Patrick Meaney pitched the idea of making a documentary on the writer Neil Gaiman. Their production company Respect Films had done documentaries on cult authors Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis before, but Neil Gaiman was one of the most famous living writers in the world.
Five years later, that documentary Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously is available from Vimeo on Demand. The film follows Gaiman on his last signing tour, where he enjoys a level of celebrity most writers never experience. He doesn’t show up to a bookstore and read to a handful of people, his readings and signings are ticketed events, where lines of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people wrap around the block. His fans are a diverse group; they’re young and old, male and female, all races. Some are so emotionally overwhelmed to meet him they cry, others come to his events dressed in full costume as one of his characters. Halfway through long signing lines, Neil’s signing hand often loses feeling, so he dunks it into a bucket of ice water.
But the documentary is more than a polite famous guy signing a lot of books. Along the way, you get an intimate biographical look at Gaiman’s life as well as hear him discuss the experiences that drove his creative ideas and career. His friends and colleagues are also interviewed, including his wife Amanda Palmer, the late Terry Pratchett, Bill Hader, Michael Sheen, and more.
For the documentary, Rennert worked as videographer and Meaney as director, with both of them acting as co-producers. After the film’s New York premiere, I met up with Rennert for coffee, and talked to him about what it was like to be immersed in Gaimanland for almost five years.
KF: How did you and Patrick come to make a documentary on Neil Gaiman?
Jordan Rennert: In 2010, we completed a documentary about a comic book author and writer named Grant Morrison. We got that opportunity by cold pitching Morrison on the idea of a documentary. Patrick had already written a bunch of blogs about one of his more famous books, The Invisibles. We were also partnered with Sequart, an organization devoted to the study of comic books. After making the Grant Morrison documentary and enjoying the experience, we were thinking about other authors who would intrigue us and came up with Neil Gaiman, who is Morrison’s friend and peer. So we sent Neil the Grant Morrison movie with Grant and his team vouching that we were not crazy people. After a bunch of persistent emailing from both Patrick and I at Respect Films and from the people at Sequart, over time, Neil said, “Yeah, I guess this seems like a good time.” It was actually 2 or 3 years of just keeping up with emailing. In the interim, we told Neil that if it’s cool, we understand that maybe this project might not happen, but we’re going to start interviewing people that know you. So even before the documentary had officially begun, we started interviewing people and just hoping that it would eventually happen. Then in about 2012, I got an email that said Neil had suggested we follow him on his last signing tour for the documentary, because that might be something different. And that’s how it came about.
KF: How did you choose which friends and colleagues of Neil’s to interview and put in the documentary? Say, someone you wouldn’t expect, like Bill Hader?
Rennert: We learned online through some interview that Bill Hader was a huge Neil Gaiman fan. He had supposedly kept a copy of The Sandman or Neverwhere on him for various SNL auditions. So a Neil book was a good luck token for him. Strangely enough, before this project even had the green light, one day Patrick ran into Bill Hader on the street in LA. Thinking ahead, he got his contact info by saying, “I might be doing a documentary on Neil Gaiman.” We were able to use that contact info down the line later.
KF: What about Terry Pratchett? He was another person you approached before the project was officially green lit and you interviewed him before he passed away.
Rennert: Well, we were working on a documentary about Warren Ellis, another famous comics writer from this British wave we seem to be profiling, so we were already in England. If you’re going to do a documentary on Neil Gaiman, there are a couple people just from the initial research that stand out, people you’ve got to get in touch with. And since Terry Pratchett was, in a way, Neil’s mentor on how to write a novel when they wrote Good Omens together, it’s kind of an obvious one. As for finding other people, just saying we were doing a Neil Gaiman documentary made it easy. Neil is so beloved by his friends and collaborators that people want to talk about him, because they only have good things to say.
KF: What are the logistics of being a documentarian following a famous writer on tour? Why did you choose to focus on his readings and signings in England?
Rennert: It worked out scheduling-wise and we also thought it would be a cool idea to follow Neil on the English leg of the tour, because even though he now calls America his home, it was an opportunity to see where he grew up. A lot of his work is striking because of his ability to recapture that period. Neil had not been back to his hometown of Portsmouth in 20 years or so, so just filming him walking down the streets near his grandparents’ house and seeing the environment that formed him was one of the most awesome experiences. It was great to have a camera there and capture what came out of his brain, the thoughts and feelings he was having.
As far as how the logistics of it all worked, we had Neil’s full participation and we were working with his tour manager, Sam Eades. We basically were kind of like a groupie van that followed him. We were not in his car, but we were following him to the different locations. I was doing my best not to crash into things while driving on the left side of the road. At each location, we tried to get there 45 minutes beforehand, but sometimes that didn’t happen, because we would take alternate routes.
Probably the busiest day of the shoot, there were two locations in one day. One was at a bookshop in Birmingham, and the next was in Edinburgh, Scotland, which was a 6-hour drive away. First was the morning shoot in Birmingham. In the movie, Neil drove to an airport and got on a flight, whereas Patrick and I had to drive in our car for 6 hours and pray that we got there in time for his Scotland event. We got there, but it was definitely a close call. The whole thing was kind of a groupie caravan, except we had permission to come.
KF: Can you talk more about filming in Portsmouth? Was it just you and Patrick going out with Neil to explore the town he grew up in?
Rennert: Yeah, we had about two and a half hours with him in Portsmouth on the day that The Ocean at the End of the Lane was unveiled [a road named after Gaiman’s novel of the same name]. On Neil’s suggestion, we went to the beach, where there’s an arcade. It’s kind of a Coney Island boardwalk situation but in Portsmouth. He was saying when he was growing up that was the place that was important to him. When you had a hangout, that’s where you went, to the boardwalk.
For me personally, I got pretty stoked because filming Neil in this environment of a childhood rollercoaster park and arcade to me emblematically represents why we all love Neil. He’s this experienced writer, and an amazing wordsmith, but he has not lost touch with that innocence of youth and an understanding of it. That was a highlight of the project, filming a shot that represents why we all love him in a visual way.
KF: Did you and Patrick go into the documentary with any assumptions about what the film might be and then see it evolve into something else? Or even Neil himself, he’s already a well-known figure, were there any ideas about him you had that turned out to be wrong and changed the direction of the movie?
Rennert: With our Grant Morrison movie, we were so happy with how Grant’s life fell perfectly into a three-act structure. In our minds we were thinking, all right, well we have a great template, why don’t we do the same thing with Neil? The initial pitch was a year in Neil’s life. That’s one thing that’s pretty interesting about these documentaries, even if you have an outline, what you can’t predict is what moments you’ll get and that will inform what the movie is. Over the course of time, and after watching different cuts of the movie, Patrick was like, “What we have that’s unique is this tour. So let’s turn this tour into the spine of the film and we’ll figure out how to wrap Neil’s life around it.” Which was totally different from our other projects, because we didn’t have a tour to play with. It’s awesome and exciting, because it’s something different, plus you get to see how somebody really is when you spend so much time filming with them.
I would say the thing that we never expected was this theme about how Neil’s great dilemma is he’s very in-demand, people love him, but he also is so compelled to go write stuff. So there’s a contradiction of how much time do you spend with your fans and the people that you love, and how much time do you spend sealing yourself away from people so you can write? We did not see that coming, but it’s what Neil has to balance in his life. He has tremendous difficulty saying no to people and just wants to do everything.
KF: All writers can relate to that, even if it’s on a much smaller level. They have to balance the alone time necessary to do the work with the time spent out in the world having experiences that fuel that same work.
Speaking of other writers and artists, Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” commencement speech was an inspiration to many people in creative fields. One of the movie’s themes is definitely the importance of having the drive to follow your dreams. As a filmmaker and creative person, did you have any eureka moments during this whole production?
Rennert: I just found it so inspiring being around Neil, this guy who is 55-years old and still killing it. He’s constantly doing this, doing that, saying yes to all kinds of projects. He didn’t really need to do this documentary. He was just like, “Yeah, why the hell not? It’s not much for me to let these guys in. They have an idea, let’s go for it.” I just turned 30 myself and at any milestone age, there’s an element of, “Oh, what have I done at this point”. Then I see Neil at age 55 still doing so much, living such a full life, traveling and meeting so many interesting people and doing such interesting things. That makes me feel we’re just getting started at 30. There’s so much hope, and so much time to do stuff.
KF: So has Neil seen the documentary? What did he say?
Rennert: Yes, Neil’s seen the documentary. He said he found the film “enormously enjoyable,” which is a classic Neil Gaiman response, but it makes us super excited. He’s been tweeting about the movie and retweeting certain things that people have said. I’m looking forward to when the movie comes out, because even more people will tweet at him their thoughts on his adventure. Neil Gaiman has given the world so many adventure stories, so it’s kinda cool we now get to give the world the story of his own adventure.