How do you adapt the unadaptable? Neil Gaiman’s beloved fantasy comic book The Sandman centers around Dream, a godlike embodiment of humankind’s collective unconscious who looks like he might also sing in a Cure cover band. Its cerebral tales leap among eras and settings, including multiple pit stops in the actual depths of hell, and rarely, if ever, indulge in anything even vaguely like superheroic action. After numerous attempts to make a movie version of the comic-book series (which ran from 1989 to 1996), The Sandman has finally found a form more conducive to its structure: It is now a Netflix series, complete with Gaiman’s involvement and blessing. Showrunner Allan Heinberg — who executive-produced alongside Gaiman and David S. Goyer, and whose credits range from the Wonder Woman movie to The O.C. — broke down the process behind the show and much more. (Some mild spoilers follow.)
There were obviously many attempts to adapt Sandman since the 1990s. One of your co-producers, David S. Goyer, was working on a movie adaptation that then morphed into this streaming series. At what point did you come onto the project?
I came on a little bit later. So there was a version of the movie with Joe Gordon Levitt directing, and he was going to play [villain] the Corinthian. And it started with [screenwriter] Jack Thorne. And then Jack Thorne left and they hired Eric Heiser, who wrote Arrival and is the showrunner of Shadow and Bone. He came on and did a draft or two of the Joe Gordon Levitt piece. And I think Eric has gone on the record as saying that he wrote a note with his last draft saying, “This is impossible to do in two hours. It needs to be a series.” The movie fell apart, and Joe Gordon Levitt pulled out. And David, who was producing that version, thought streaming was the way to go, and went to Warner Bros. TV and said, “We need to bring Neil Gaiman on as an executive producer.” Neil had never been brought onto any of the previous versions of Sandman for 34 years.
I got involved accidentally. My ABC Studios deal was expiring, and I was meeting with Warner’s. And at the end of the meeting, they said, “Are there any DC properties that you would be interested in developing?” And I said, “Well, I’m gonna just ask you the same question I’ve been asking you guys for 25 years, which is: ‘What are you doing with Sandman?’” They looked at each other. “How well do you know David Goyer?” I said, “David and I have been friends for years.” And they said, “Well, we’re taking it to streamers in two weeks. But we don’t have a writer. And we don’t have a showrunner.” And we all just sort of looked at each other. When I got to my car, my phone rang. It was David Goyer saying, “Are you fucking kidding me? When is your ABC deal done?” I said, “Tomorrow at midnight,” and he said, “You’re fucking doing this.” And that was it. So it was all about the pieces sliding into place at the right moment.
Here you were adapting something that was deemed unadaptable, even if every previous effort was as a movie. As you sat down to start cracking this, what were the biggest challenges in making this thing work on television?
Well, the biggest concern I had was The Doll’s House [the story arc that became the second half of Season One]. Because I knew that we were going to have to sell this as a serialized drama about Dream of the Endless and his extended family, and essentially make it a relationship drama. If we leaned too heavily into the fantasy element, the VFX, CGI element of it, we would lose the humanity of it. David and I were on the same page about that. And if you’ve read the books, Dream is really not in The Doll’s House. The challenge was charting it as Dream’s season, as Dream’s arc. Using as many anthology elements of the book as we could, but making it a serialized drama about what’s going to happen to Dream next.
The irony is that the more anthologized structure is much friendlier to pre-streaming TV. And there still are elements of that throwback anthologized feeling in the final show.
Yeah. The most important thing in streaming is: How do you get the viewer to depress the next episode button. It’s harder when you’ve got these one-and-done episodes where everything ends neatly. And so we always had to sort of craft a cliffhanger for Dream at the end of every episode, to make people want to press that button. So we’re trying to have the best of both worlds. But it actually was a blessing, because we were able to spend more time with Dream and get into his head more and dig into those stories, and his relationship with Lucienne [Vivienne Acheampong], which is really the emotional spine of the entire season.
Neil is known for expecting pretty literal, direct adaptations of his work. He famously clashed with the American Gods showrunners on that point. And your job was to make sure it worked as TV and follow your instincts on that front. So how did those two things work together, especially when you were working directly with Neil?
I was very nervous going into it, that we would be in conflict. And I think because he had just come off of Good Omens and been the showrunner of that, he was keenly aware of the challenges that we faced. So I don’t remember a single instance where I pitched an adaptation choice that veered away from the books, where he was opposed to it. It was always a yes. And that was a huge surprise and blessing. We would speak almost every day. I would tell him, “Here’s what happened in the writers room. Here are my outstanding questions.” Probably the biggest changes we made were in the Lyta and Hector and Jed portion of The Doll’s House, all of which are deeply rooted in DC Comics lore and mythology, and none of which was in the Netflix show.
Yeah, that was originally linked to a comic book called Infinity, Inc. about the children of 1940s superheroes — not exactly something you could carry into this show.
Yeah, we weren’t taking any of that with us. So it all had to be reconceived. But then rooted in my deep love of DC Comics history, and Neil’s deep love of DC Comics history. And so what’s essential, and what do you change? Neil understood that completely, and was extremely supportive of the way that we took these characters Brute and Glob from the 1970s iteration of Sandman and we made Gault, this entirely new character, with the intention of breaking people’s hearts. We both thought about Sandman in the same way, and we both loved it in the same way. And I was desperate to protect it at all costs. So any changes that I was pitching him were rooted in love.
You changed John Constantine — the same character played by Keanu Reeves in 2005’s Constantine — to Johanna Constantine in this show, played by Jenna Coleman. But ironically, the episode you did with her felt like the best adaptation ever of the John Constantine Hellblazer comic books.
Oh, thank you. We were able to do the original John Constantine origin story [an exorcism gone wrong] in Newcastle. That’s all stuff that [original Hellblazer comic-book writer] Jamie Delano put in the comic. So as much as the character is not the same, I felt like we were very faithful to the spirit of the book. In the earlier iterations of that episode, we had the whole Hellblazer supporting cast — Chas and Renee were both in it, gender-swapped, like so. So we had a blast, and Jenna is so amazing in it that it left us all just hungry for more of both Lady Johanna and contemporary Johanna Constantine.
One of the challenges in the narrative, if you’re following the book, is to start with your lead character speechless and trapped in a bubble for quite some time. It’s a very unconventional way to introduce a lead character. Was there ever any talk of not going chronologically or starting at a different point, just so we can have a more traditional introduction to Dream?
Not at first. We thought the comic book worked this way. So we knew the audience was going to be waiting and watching to see how faithful we were going to be. There was always some talk of, “Is there a prologue? Do we let them fall in love with Dream early on before he’s in prison?” We’ve been working on this for three years. So over time that would come and go as we would experiment. That initial tour of the Dreaming, with Dream telling you about the world and who he is, that served to give people just enough of a taste, so that when he gets locked inside, you have a sense of the forces that are being held captive. David Goyer [also] suggested bringing the Corinthian onstage right away. That was pitched on the first day. And even though we went back and forth on it, we ended up where we began, with that prologue.
To have Dream, a.k.a. Morpheus — a sort of stoic, godlike lead character — at the center of a story is a challenge in itself. It’s sort of similar to how colorful villains tend to be in danger of stealing the spotlight away in Batman movies. And it is true that the secondary characters are just wonderful in this series. How did you grapple with all that
Again, we knew we were going to be telling Morpheus a story as a serialized drama. So everything had to be through Morpheus’ point of view. To achieve that, it required that we as writers understand Dream’s psychology at all times, and that’s something that in the comics did not happen very often. And because we wanted to show rather than tell, we made the decision early on that we would not have a narrator telling you what Dream is thinking and feeling. But it’s in every action line of every script — This is what Dream is thinking, this is what Dream is feeling. So that there’s an enormous amount going on internally for Dream, even if he’s not revealing his feelings through dialogue. He is through his behavior, or what he’s choosing not to say. And Tom Sturridge gave us that from his very first self-tape. He was the only person we saw who not only handled the language beautifully, but who gave us a sense of all the internal stuff. Tom understood instinctively that the reason Dream presents in that detached way is because he contains the entire human unconscious. And I think he’s riveting. In any other iteration of that Sandman, David Thewlis [as villain John Dee] would have walked away with the first five episodes, no question. Like, that performance is astonishing. And because we had Tom, we were able to cast around him in a way that I think elevated the whole enterprise.
Kirby Howell-Baptiste is getting a lot of praise for her portrayal of the series’ counterintuitively warm and compassionate take on Death. And I know you saw a lot of people for that role.
We did. We saw a lot of lovely people who would have been terrific. But Kirby was the whole thing. It was the glass slipper. Kirby was immediately so at ease with it. Her energy is so different from Tom’s, and their chemistry was instantaneous. It had that big sister-little brother quality. Even first meeting her, Kirby was like, “Right, shall we get into it? Shall we read the scenes?” So I had the pleasure of watching Neil play Dream and Kirby play Death. It was magical.
You were able to crack the Wonder Woman mythology and story, something that a lot of people were concerned was also impossible. Did anything from the tool kit from that particular adaptation serve you in this?
The tool kit is the same one I’ve been using on every show. I primarily write romantic-comic drama. I write relationships. I approach things emotionally. I mean, I saw Wonder Woman primarily as a relationship drama, first between a mother and a daughter and then between Diana and Steve. That’s just the way my brain works. It’s the same in terms of Sandman. Dream is plagued by the relationship mistakes he’s made over millennia. And that’s a lot of what fuels the drama as we move forward. It’s his development as a man and as a romantic partner and as a dad, that’s what we’re charting over the course of these all of these different storylines. So that was my lens on the whole thing.
I realize it’s not greenlit yet, but what’s the status of Season Two?
Well, we had a writer’s room for 20 weeks to talk about Season Two and to break stories and generate outlines and first drafts. And now I’m having early talks with production design and VFX and getting everything into position, so that if we are lucky enough to have a Season Two, we’re ready to go, ideally with the same team who made Season One.
Is the idea to continue pretty much following the chronological order of the comics?
For the most part, though we are pulling a lot of the standalone stories out of there, not necessarily where they are in the comics, and folding them into the main saga. A good example is [the African myth-inspired comic-book story] Tales In the Sand, which happens very early at the beginning of The Doll’s House saga in the comics. And that would be part of our Season of Mists storyline in Season Two. When Dream has to go back to hell in order to free [his ancient love-interest] Nada, that seemed like a more organic place to tell their backstory and find out how they fell in love, and how Nada ended up in hell. So that’s a good example of a story that’s now woven into the main fabric of Season Two.
The tone of the comics shifts over the years, and moves away from horror towards dark fantasy. How will you incorporate that change?
Having read all of The Sandman and knowing where it goes has really influenced how we’ve shaped Season One. Knowing where we’re heading at the beginning of the story really helps you set a tone that can accommodate where you end up. I don’t think it ever gets as dark as [“24-7,” the show’s 5th episode] again, at least in the same way, with the body-horror aspects of that. But I do think that the tone of our Season One has definitely been shaped by where Sandman ends.
How many seasons would it take to tell the whole story from the comic books?
In success, we could talk about doing all kinds of things. If we’re able to do more standalone anthology issues, then it would take longer than if we were just staying on Dream’s track. And we’d love to do more Johanna Constantine in the present. The Corinthian could return, because he’s not really in the comic again – except for one cameo – until later. So it depends on what people respond to, and how many viewers we have and how much success we have as a Season One show. It could go on for quite some time, if we had the viewers.
And finally, as a comic-book writer, you co-created characters like Hawkeye’s protégé Kate Bishop and the superhero versions of Wanda Maximoff’s kids. What’s it like to see your Young Avengers characters start to appear in the MCU?
It’s been really touching and extraordinary. I’m not involved in it. Marvel is very secretive, and I don’t know what’s happening at any given point. But I’m always surprised and delighted to see these characters turn up in their various incarnations. Being able to co-create the Young Avengers and to write that book really transformed me as a writer. I don’t know that I’d be writing Sandman in the same way if I hadn’t spent that time writing Young Avengers. So I hope the characters can cross over and have long and healthy cinematic lives. And I’ll be in the audience cheering them on as they do, if they do.