In comics and illustration, Dave McKean is a legendary creator of fantasy, which is both odd and apt, as you don’t see many elves, pixies or dragons in his work. Creating the haunting landscapes which appeared in Hellblazer, Sandman, and Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, McKean not only set the style guide for DC’s Vertigo imprint, but acted as an architect for a lot of the 90’s aesthetics. Bric-a-brac mosaics, scattered, eclectic and loaded. McKean doesn’t so much paint fantasy as in the genre, as illustrates the act of fantasizing.
His second film, after directing Neil Gaiman’s MirrorMask, Luna puts the concept of his style into play. A couple visits their friend at his seaside estate, all the while dealing with the loss of their infant. Their fantasies, their escapism, still binds them, both falling into and out of intense delusions. They are victim to their imagination, and perhaps, only by opening up, can they manage to move on with their lives.
We caught up with the legendary illustrator turned director to talk about Luna, fantasy as an act versus a genre, and where imaginative memory fits in an age of selfies.
Dork Shelf: So this film is inspired by two friends from your art school days? What about their story stuck around with you long enough to make a film about it?
Dave McKean: Well, for starters they were close friends. The fact it was close friends going through this. The fact that it involved death of a child, and it happened two weeks before my own daughter was born. We felt it was a real tragic connection there. I tried to make contact with him, reach out, but they were completely in this other world of grief and fury, and it was very difficult. It really stayed with me, not that it just happened to a friend, but the way it effected them. The way that finally two years later they were able to talk about it. Everything about the event stayed with me, feeling incredibly effecting and moving.
DS: And you mention them being in another world, which you manifest as an actual window into another world.
DM: They talked about this feeling that everything was pregnant with symbolic meaning. An overpowering feeling that everything was significant. Either antagonistic towards them, or meaningful for them. It was like they were hyper-wired, their skin was really thin, their emotions were very raw. Full of intense meaning. I could tell when they spoke to me about it, and I’m a straight rationalist, the bits where they’re saying and know it did happen, and get the bits that you don’t think happened quite like that, things they put together. I’m not interested in picking up what was true and what was fabricated, I’m more interested in how their brains worked. The way they felt about it, the way they saw the world.
DS: Is it hard to map visuals to the way people you knew felt?
DM: Time has passed. I wrote a story that is very similar to this film, very similar to their lives, their story. I put it to one side because I felt it was too close, I didn’t think that was fair. But now time has passed, the things that I was really interested in stayed, but dressed with different characters in a different place. That became easier for me to add my image bank, my set of symbols to it.
DS: You’ve been working in fantasy for decades, along with some of the strongest creators in the field, but when you do fantasy, it’s not strictly genre. You illustrate an act of fantasy.
DM: I love fantasy, but I only like it when it’s grounded in reality. And it only seems to have a purpose for me when it’s grounded in reality. I’m happy to see a Hobbit movie or something like that, it’s very entertaining, but I couldn’t spend years of my life making that. I just don’t believe in it. What I love about any kind of imaginative work, any kind of surreal imagery, fantastical fiction, is when it clarifies a way of looking at reality. Kafka’s writing, or something like that. There’s a reality there, even amid all those fantastic ideas.
DS: And what is your process, there, pairing or amalgamating images for certain things?
DM: That was part of the process of writing the script. Finding equivalence. Trying to find things that didn’t tie up exactly, I didn’t want things to be an exact, as if you need a little index. It’s more that elusive feeling you get from dream imagery, you have a feeling of significance. It definitely feels like these are keyed to real things, they’re tied together, but it’s rather slippery. You can’t perfectly add everything together. You have to decide what’s real and what’s not, what it might mean. There’s a character in the film who basically expands my manifesto, after this conversation, you’ll have your version for the conversation and I’ll have my version of the conversation. And it’s caught on tape, I know, but right now you’re thinking of certain things that make things start to drift apart. It’s not this moment of reality.
DS: But what you do is you show it, to us, in this, in Arkham, in Mr. Punch. You’re seeing things that aren’t necessarily there.
DM: And I’m doing those things to point out to people that that happens. That our brains do, not lie to us, but reinterpret for us. I think it’s useful to know that. We place so much weight on our senses. It’s useful to know that in the process of looking at things doesn’t always show you what’s actually happening all the time.
DS: Especially in a world which creates digital backups of everything. We’re relying less on our own memory for interesting occasions. Create a relic instead of internalizing it.
DM: Yes, and this strange phenomenon of everyone relating to little boxes instead of relating to the rest of the world. They now trust their little box to record accurately, but it doesn’t. It gives you some information, but it loses so much more. If you put the little box away, open your eyes and experience things you get a whole other thing. It may not be as visually accurate as this little moment in a box, but you experience so much more.
DS: When you did MirrorMask, that was much more of going down a rabbit hole, here you’re withdrawing from that, pulling back a bit.
DM: Yeah, the rabbit hole, Alice, shape is much more Neil’s territory. He loves to quote old fairy tales and myths, old story times. I don’t really write so much, I try to find other story shapes when I do, find things that are not so old. Falling asleep, finding yourself in a dream world and then waking up. I’m much more interested in this parallel narrative, that we’re living here in our real world, in our real lives, governed by physical laws, but all the time our minds and our interactions surround us with internal interpretations, imagination for the future, memories of the past. All of that is very real to us, the texture of our lives.
DS: Any key lessons you learned from working on Mirrormask?
DM: On Mirrormask I learned to let go. It was my first film, and I needed to have answers to every question. I needed to have every frame storyboarded. I needed to control it thoroughly. And actually, I got the best out of people when I let them play. With this film, I tried to do. I did not storyboard it. I had answers to questions if they came up. But I was much more interested in letting actors walk into the set. We know what the lines were about, we knew what the scenes were about, but they just discover it. We had time to play, and I was happy for them to find their own ways of saying things. I think I got better performers out of them for that.
DS: When you’re not working with your collaborators, is it difficult to find a text that feels appropriate for you?
DM: They don’t come along too often, that’s why this one stayed with me so long. I’m still very good friends with them both, and they now have three children. But every time I see them, I still think of those days, of those years, the subject of dealing with grief. We all have to deal with it somehow, hopefully not the death of a child, but we all deal with loss in our lives. I think it’s useful to talk about it.
DS: Did it feel liberating to work on something you created yourself?
DM: Always, to do anything that I’ve written. I love working with lovely writers, Neil, John Clare, Sinclair. I love spending a bit of time in their heads. But it’s wonderful to have something that really means a lot to me.