How “The Sandman” Got Out Of Hell And Made It’s Way To Netflix
With Netflix set to release their upcoming adaptation of the DC Comics series “The Sandman” on August 5th, it’s a great time to be a fan of dreams.
Created in 1987 by author Neil Gaiman for DC Comics and their adult-skewed label Vertigo, “The Sandman” follows the titular character – Dream/Morpheus, whom after being imprisoned for nearly a century, seeks to rebuild his realm – The Dreaming. After hitting comic shops and newsstands in 1988, the comic became a success winning over 26 Eisner Awards.
This led DC’s parent company, Warner Bros., to pursue a film adaptation. But, the adaptation would soon be stuck in development hell despite passionate filmmakers, such as Academy Award Winning screenwriter Roger Avary, and screenwriters Ted Elliot, and Terry Rossio, ready to adapt Gaiman’s work.
“MR. SANDMAN, GIVE ME YOUR DREAM”
Today we’re going to dive into …
- the comics
- it’s humble origins
- the proposed attempt to bring Dream to the big screen
- why it fell apart
- and how “The Sandman” truly got out of hell.
“The Sandman” follows the Lord of Dreams …
… aka Dream/Morpheus, whom after being imprisoned for nearly a century, escapes and returns to his realm – The Dreaming. However, this is not a typical comic book series.
Gaiman, alongside artists such as Dave McKean, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Jill Thompson, Shawn McManus, Marc Hempel, and Michael Zulli created a beautiful, horrific world with elements of fantasy, real-world history, and horror woven in.
As for Dream/Morpheus’, his main supporting cast comprises of Lucien the Librarian, Matthew the Raven, his sister Death (who embodies a teenage goth girl) and his family known as the Endless – who are powerful beings — and consists of Destiny, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium.
While at a comic convention in 1987, Gaiman pitched the idea of Sandman to editor Karen Berger saying:
“I’d like to write a series that can go anywhere. Maybe I can do something with DC’s version of the Sandman from the 1970s. And they nodded politely but non-committedly.”
After some back and forth, Berger gave Gaiman the okay to continue with the idea, with only one demand — don’t use the 1970s version, as comic writer Roy Thomas was using it for his comic “Infinity, Inc”.
Berger also suggested Gaiman create a new character, which freed the writer from feeling beholden to any established DC continuity.
On November 25th, 1988, Sandman #1 was released to comic book stores and newsstands everywhere. It became a cult and critical success for DC Comics and Vertigo.
THE TWO OF THEM
In 1991, Gaiman was approached by Warner Bros. about a potential film adaptation of the comics.
This was two years after the success of Tim Burton’s “Batman”, propelling the comic book movie genre into high gear. And although Gaiman was apprehensive, he ultimately relented, as he had just finished the comics’ run in 1996. Development on the script commenced with screenwriters Ted Elliot, and Terry Rossio, fresh off of writing Aladdin (1992) for Disney, hired to write the first draft.
The Elliot and Rossio draft follows the main story beats of the first two volumes Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House, in which Dream/Morpheus escapes and goes on a quest to retrieve several items in order to repair his realm. In the process, he meets characters like Rose Walker – a woman with a special connection to the dreaming, and faces off against villains like The Corinthian at a serial killer convention.
However, a few things from the source material changed. One of which was the removal of the DC alchemist John Constantine, who had one of Dream/Morpheus’ items.
The duo turned in their draft and surprisingly enough, Gaiman loved the script. However, between the time that Elliot and Rossio had turned in their draft, another producer became attached. A producer that would become detrimental to the project’s collapse in the 90s.
THE PETERS OF IT ALL
For those unfamiliar with the name Jon Peters …
Peters was a producer and studio executive in the 1980s and 90s. He got his start by being Barbara Streisand’s hairdresser in the 70s.
The two would later date, which eventually led to Peters getting his first producing credit with the 1974 remake of “A Star is Born”. Afterwards, Peters met his producing partner Jon Gruber and the two winded up producing some of the biggest films of the 80s — including Tim Burton’s “Batman” in 1989.
To get more insight into who Peters was as a person, one only has to listen to what director Kevin Smith has to say about him. Due to Peters’ success with “Batman”, he became attached to the project as a producer.
According to David Hughes’ 2012 book Tales from Development Hell, Elliot and Rossio had a meeting in which it took twenty minutes to explain how Dream became captured.
Reportedly, Peters suggested that a group of teenagers capture Dream as opposed to Roderick Burgess, completely not understanding the source material. After Elliot and Rossio delivered their first draft, the two received no word from Warner Bros. forcing them to move on to other projects.
FROM AVARY WITH LOVE
After the duo departed …
Roger Avary, fresh off of his dual Oscar win with Quentin Tarantino on 1994’s “Pulp Fiction”, became attached to the project having read Elliot and Rossio’s draft.
For the rest of 1996, Avary did his own pass on the script, with the writer keeping the core of Elliot and Rossio’s draft. But he did change certain things, such as moving the location to San Francisco, adding in a voice-over, and making ‘The Corinthian’ Rose’s father.
In 1997, Avary would leave the project due to creative differences with Peters, who according to Hughes, wanted “the Sandman to punch The Corinthian’s face in the first page.”
A year later, Peters commissioned a script from writer William Farmer. This draft contained radical differences from the source material such as Lucifer Morningstar and The Corinthian becoming Dream/Morpheus’ brothers; a plotline involving the Millennium; Death was now Love; etc.
It’s safe to say that Gaiman was not happy with the new script — telling the Philadelphia City Paper that it was “nonsensical, poorly written trash” and was “easily the worst script [he’d] ever read.”
Thus, the project winded up in development hell.
OTHER FAILED ATTEMPTS
After the Farmer draft, the project languished in development hell, and moved to the small screen.
In 2010, “Logan” director James Mangold pitched a show to HBO, but was unsuccessful.
Mangold reportedly told Discussing Film a decade later: “It’s no secret that I was trying to pull together a version of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman”. I pitched it to HBO years ago, and they bought the pitch as a long form series — and then it got undone by a political turf war at WB.”
However, after Mangold’s pitch, Warner Bros. Television announced that they had licensed the rights for a potential television series with Eric Kripke, creator of The CW’s “Supernatural” and later Amazon’s “The Boys”, to be showrunner. This never came to fruition, as Gaiman rejected Kripke’s take.
In 2013, David S. Goyer, screenwriter and producer on “The Dark Knight” trilogy and “Man of Steel”, pitched another big-screen adaptation. A year later, the project got underway with writer Jack Throne set to write the script; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to direct, and star as Dream. The film would have been produced by New Line Cinema, opposed to Warner Bros. Pictures, relieving it from the demands of a big studio.
Yet, by March of 2016, a rival screenwriter Eric Heisserer replaced Throne as writer. And in August, Gordon-Levitt stepped down citing creative differences with the studio.
By November of 2016, Heisserer departed, saying that “[he] … came to the conclusion that the best version of this property exists as an HBO series or limited series, not as a feature film, not even as a trilogy. The structure of the feature film really doesn’t mesh with this.”
And clearly Netflix agrees.
HOW “THE SANDMAN” GOT TO NETFLIX
According to The Hollywood Reporter, in 2019 Warner Bros. pitched the series to multiple networks, including HBO. Yet, they all declined as they already had other big-budget, high-profile shows they needed to attend to. Which allowed Netflix to quickly sweep up the rights.
The streaming giant immediately gave the show the green-light, picking it up for 11 episodes.
Netflix also hired “Wonder Woman” scribe Allan Heinberg as showrunner, and David S. Goyer as producer, with actor Tom Strurridge cast as Dream. In addition, the pilot episode won’t just be written by Goyer (who is a producer), but by Heinberg, and Gaiman as well. And well, the rest is history.
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