Neil Gaiman’s Inner Workings are Explored in New Documentary Dream Dangerously

“I want to make shit up. I want to write it down. I want to make people happy.”

Neil Gaiman has written many wonderful stories over the years, but I think I may like his idea of a punk manifesto the best. These lines form the crie de coeur of a new documentary, Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously, which is now available to rent or purchase on Vimeo. If you’re a Gaiman fan, or an artist of any stripe, this film will almost certainly hold some treasures for you.

Here are some things revealed in the documentary:

  • Neil Gaiman met Terry Pratchett when he interviewed him for an adult magazine.
  • There’s an alternate universe where Neil Gaiman is the features editor of Penthouse UK.
  • He does long projects in different color ink so he can look back and see how much he’s done at a glance.
  • He also writes his projects in longhand because “I can still fool myself that nothing matters.”
  • Gaiman doles out hugs when asked, and even though he’s exhausted, these appear to be committed, squeezy hugs.
  • Gaiman mentions world domination often enough that it becomes unsettling… although a world ruled by Neil Gaiman would probably be fine.

You will also learn the greatest question anyone can ask an author…

Gaiman Question Mark

The Greatest Question = “This is a hug cleverly disguised as a question?”

Rather than simply telling the story of Gaiman’s life, the documentary dives into the subject from a few different angles, each feeding into the biographical and bibliographical details: Gaiman as public author; Gaiman as signing tour rockstar; Gaiman as punk. It’s always interesting to look at the shape of someone’s life, and to see how particular decisions or influences play out over the years, and it’s especially interesting to look at a living, modern author with a passionate fanbase.

The film opens with a montage of signings, which ends with the title, Dream Dangerously, having been signed onto a fan’s arm. The film then follows Gaiman on the last signing tour of his career, cutting to interludes about his career and interviews with colleagues and fans, but always going back to Gaiman the public author. Dream Dangerously seems to ritualize the signing process itself – first we see the prep, then the long line, then a few choice meetings with fans, then the relief of the ice bath as the handlers freak out.

Gaiman on Ice

This is fascinating to me, because having been to many signings over the years, I can attest to the fact that Gaiman is the most rockstar of any modern writer, and the film simply embraces that. It really does play more like a documentary about a touring warhorse of a band rather than a single man who sits alone in a room to make up stories, which, I think, is why the documentary works as a movie. It also highlights the fact that unlike many authors who treat signings as an obligation that comes with the job of being a writer, Gaiman cherishes the time spent with his fans. Unlike many modern writers, he sees the signing line as a connection to the ancient, shamanic role, where stories were told in public to help hold a community together.

We don’t actually get that many details on Gaiman’s life. There are no protracted interviews with Gaiman’s mother, or teachers who inspired him – just one childhood friend, Geoff Notkin, who talks about people running through the hallways of their school and crashing right into Gaiman, who wouldn’t even notice because he was so immersed in reading as he walked. We do get to see footage of the dedication ceremony for “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” Lane, and Gaiman says that he doesn’t remember not wanting to be a writer – before he even knew how to write he dictated a poem (“The Dew”) to his mother. What we keep coming back to his Gaiman’s drive to be a writer, and his belief in the power of story.

As the documentary reaches Gaiman’s teenage years, Notkin relates the trouble they got into for writing comics, their turn to punk, and a young Gaiman wearing makeup to school.

Gaiman in Make Up

I think the single most interesting reveal in the documentary is the extent to which punk shaped Gaiman’s attitude toward art and creativity. The idea that you just get up and do it, and don’t worry if your work isn’t any good at first, but just keep at it until you get better, clearly shaped how he attacked his writing career. That idea is the bedrock of his now famous “Make Good Art” speech, and it clearly still comes in handy when, toward the end of the film, he starts dueting onstage with Amanda Palmer.

I nanother big moment in the film, Gaiman describes a night that turned out to be pivotal to his writing life. When he was 21 he had his first real bout of insomnia, and what sounds like an existential crisis. He realized that the thing he was most afraid of was being on his deathbed, and telling himself that he could have been a real writer, but not knowing if he was lying to himself.

That in itself is a fascinating layering of emotion – the idea that by failing the punk credo of just getting up and doing something, whether or not you’re good at it, he would open himself up not just to failure but to lying to himself about his failure. Even when Neil Gaiman tries to imagine a future where he isn’t a storyteller, he’s still a storyteller. He doesn’t get into more detail about what triggered that night’s insomnia, but he does say, “That one bad night kind of drove me.” Which is, again, an interesting image. Rather than Stephen King’s description of a “treasure house of story” or the usually genial fellow who hugs his fans at signings, we get a glimpse of a man who is writing his way away from despair. (Or, well, this is the author of The Sandman, so I guess I should say Despair.)

My one real critique of the doc is that I think it should have stayed in that moment longer… but that would have made for a far darker and more invasive movie. Instead we get more a picture of a working writer, a man who has to meet deadlines and juggle comics scripts and magazine assignments in order to feed his kids, and who pesters editor Karen Berger with ideas until he’s made enough of an impression to try Sandman.

Over the course of the film we hear from Grant Morrison, Berger, DC’s Shelly Bond, Todd Klein, Lenny Henry, Gaiman’s literary agent Merilee Heifetz—all the people who shaped Gaiman’s early work in comics and novels—and these interviews provide balance to the scenes with fans like Patton Oswalt and Bill Hader who simply gush about Gaiman’s work. The best interview comes from Terry Pratchett (of course) who talks about meeting Gaiman for that magazine interview I mentioned at the outset by saying, “they have to have some writing to put between the – y’know – the pink bits.” The two outline their symbiotic writing process for Good Omens, and we get a glimpse of a kind older writer ushering a newer writer into the life of a novelist.

One thing I was hoping Dream Dangerously might delve into was the period right before American Gods came out, before anyone knew if Gaiman would make it as a novelist, when his blog gradually helped him create one of the strongest fandoms I’ve ever seen. Gaiman not only invited readers into some carefully curated parts of his personal life by sharing stories about his kid, cats, and dogs, he also created a haven for beginning writers by lifting the curtain on the publishing industry, and taking us all along on his book tour in real time. The film only hints at that, but shows the intensity of “Gaiman the public writer” through those epic signing lines and the heartfelt confessions by his fans.

Over the course of the doc we meet many people who have been inspired by Gaiman’s writing, but for me, the highlight of the film came in a scene with two young fans—I think the doc captures the exact moment when a pair of boys become writers-to-be. Most authors bristle when people ask “Where do you get your ideas?” because that question is asked at almost every author event, and any answer a writer gives will sound false to adult ears. When these two young fans (I’m going to guess that they’re 10 or 11 years old) ask that question of Gaiman, they have no idea that they’ve committed writing-even faux pas, and what’s fantastic is that Gaiman treats the question completely seriously. Since they’re kids, he can give them the real answer:

  1. daydreaming;
  2. by putting two weird things together. For instance, we all know that if a werewolf bites a man, that man will turn into a werewolf, but what if a werewolf bites a goldfish?

The boy and his friend nod solemnly to Answer #1, because the adult is simply confirming what they’ve suspected all along. But you can see them both light up with excitement over Answer #2, because this is practical advice. They can work with this, and given the delight on their faces I think they may be at work on the Great American Novel right now.

This scene stood out to me because it sums up what’s best about the entire documentary. Dream Dangerously affected me much the same way Neil Gaiman’s advice seemed to affect his two young fans: more than anything it made me want to sit down and write.

Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously, directed by Patrick Meaney, is available to rent or buy on Vimeo.

Leah Schnelbach has dangerous dreams… but are they dangerous enough? Come tell her your dreams on Twitter!

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