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Dave McKean: MIRRORMASK, Art And Reality

Dave McKean Mirrormask is a film where reality is a constrantly changing, dreamy work of art. The interview explores the artist’s views of art and life.

I spoke to Dave McKean in March 2006 when he came to Manchester to the premiere of his film MirrorMask at the Cornerhouse. The film that received awards at the Locarno and Sarasota Film Festivals in 2005 is about Helena, a girl who lives and tours with her family’s circus but wishes – like all teenagers – that she could be able to break free into the ‘real’ world. What happens instead is that she finds herself on the journey into the Dark Lands, in quest for a powerful object, the MirrorMask, to save the Queen of Light. On her way she encounters sphinxes, monkeybirds, strange objects a-la Henry Moore sculptures, and the omnipotent and dangerous Queen of Darkness. As the film progresses, Helena’s task becomes not only to find the MirrorMask, but also to escape the Dark Lands.              

MirrorMask is yet another fruit of a long-lasting collaboration between McKean and Neil Gaiman. The duo has been working together since the 1980s, enriching the world with one of the best-loved and original comic books, Sandman. McKean, a distinguished artist, has produced numerous works, among which are book illustrations, tarot cards and posters, promotional campaigns for brands, like Smirnoff and Sony, and films, like Sleepy Hollow (dir. Tim Burton). Although MirrorMask is his first feature, he made several shorts in the past, and, on top, he owns a jazz record label together with saxophonist Iain Ballamy.        


MirrorMask may be one of the most original films of the recent years and at the very least is a compelling achievement on the part of McKean who wanted to transfer the surreal images, so often found in his drawings, on screen. There are several reasons for his opting for surrealist stylistics in the film’s cinematography. On the one hand, his own artwork has been influenced by this art movement; on the other, surrealist artists were dedicated explorers of the realm of dreams, and Helena’s journey, as we eventually find out, was also a dream.          

The dream-like, phantasmagorical type of story was in part dictated by the Jim Hanson Company, who provided the budget for the film. But you wouldn’t expect anything too realistic from Gaiman&McKean.

“We ended up with a long email conversation and a kitchen table full of books, and CDs, and sketches, and bits of dialogue, and notes…I really wanted to build a city and wander round it, and Neil fancied doing something that was basically ‘The Prince and the Pauper’”.    

In Dave’s words, he didn’t want to settle a film in one place, and, to add subtlety to the theme of dreamy peregrinations, a wandering circus thus became a metaphor for his vision. He does love circuses, both lavish performances of the Cirque du Soleil and little odd family troupes, travelling along the South Coast of England, where the artist lives. Some circuses or acts are the true gems, and finding them may be quite fascinating in itself. But whether big or small, these troupes of artists are always changing place, and their constant drifting in space and time was an inspiration for McKean.            

The same sense of unsettledness is conveyed through the score composed by Iain Ballamy that intertwines Indian and Middle European music with tango, folk, and jazz. Fellini’s cinematic wanderings and Bunuel’s imagery also influenced the film to some extent. Ultimately, McKean’s goal was

‘to try and do some things that did not look literal. Most fantasy stories are sort of very realistic, and it’s great and extraordinary technical achievement, but… I wanted to do something that was non-literal and a bit more abstract’. It wasn’t difficult in some way, as McKean had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve: ‘Basically a lot of my work is collage, and making the film is a kind of collage as well… so in that respect it was easy’.                    

What was not easy was, in particular, dealing with computers. The four Mackintoshes that the crew used for editing were named after the Beatles.

‘I was John’, says Dave, ‘and that was OK… But then we needed a fifth one, and our technical manager called it Yoko. And they all just refused to get on from then on. The Beatles broke up!’  

From start till the end, MirrorMask is about connections and contradictions between ‘reality’ and ‘image’. The prevalence of one over another is frequently debated and never ceases to attract interest. For McKean, known for his darkish ethereal images, which he lavishly brought to screen in MirrorMask, this question must have been particularly intriguing. So, ‘what is more certain: reality or image?’ I ask Dave.      

‘I think most of my work, and this film is as well’, he replies, ‘it’s about that connection between what is the present, what is right now. We’re now talking here, we actually know this… But everything else – what we just did, walking in through the door, and an hour ago, and five hours ago, this now doesn’t exist anymore. It only exists in our memories, and so as far as I’m concerned it’s already up for debate, and it’s already a fantasy. And what will happen in a few hours time is also a fantasy. And we’re surrounded by it, and we have dreams, we have thoughts, and you have interpretation of what is going on right now, and I have a different interpretation. So, we’re sort of surrounded by this ball of fantasy, and it’s basically a fantasy, or dream, or imagination, or interpretation, any of those things. And so, that’s interesting to me, exploring the link between this tiny little nucleus of reality in the centre, and this great ball of imagination around it’.  

Nevertheless, McKean’s work has always been about real life, as we normally understand it. I asked him to describe the imaginary world that he has been creating as an artist.

‘My own world is just trying to make sense of the real world’, he says. ‘I don’t like the sort of science-fiction art and fantasy art that is just about goblins and fairies and spaceships. I don’t really see the point of that. It’s entertaining and it’s fine, but I couldn’t do it. I needed to be about people, people who I have to deal with every day, and that’s what I’m interested in, I’m interested in what people think and how they think, and the things that they believe in, and desire, and are frightened of. So I’m interested in that side of life, really. And then I’m trying to sort of look at those things from a different point of view, or from metaphor, or from dreams, or from these other angles, because I think these are just interesting ways of seeing things’.          

The continuous evolution and change have been McKean’s stimuli throughout his career, and he utters that his favourite project is always the one that comes next:

‘I love learning new things, so trying to make a film is an immense learning curve. And I don’t think you ever stop learning… I love the differences between things. If I haven’t drawn for a while, and I’ve instead made some music, or written something, or done some filming, when I go back to drawing, it always seems to be stronger and informed by all those other things’.              

As expected, taking a rest is not in McKean’s plans, and he has already been planning several other projects, because ‘they just take so long to set up’. In his turn, Neil Gaiman has been working on the script for a Hollywood adaptation of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, which will be released in 2007. It only remains to wait to see what this fruitful collaboration brings in future. One thing is certain – it will, as always, be surreal.    

©  Julia Shuvalova 2006

Other posts on Cinema.

An Interview with Dave McKean (10 March, 2006, by Julia Shuvalova, Manchester, UK)

William Shakespeare Sonnets Recited And Filmed Throughout New York

To celebrate another of William Shakespeare’s “round dates” in 2014, NY Shakespeare Exchange has called on directors and actors to participate in a ground-breaking project. The Sonnet Project fuses urban settings of New York’s five boroughs with new technology and approach to film making and Shakespeare’s verse.
More from organisers:
Each sonnet video will be filmed in a unique location throughout the five boroughs of New York City, the birthplace of American cinema. From the iconic to the forgotten, we’ve chosen locations with deep cultural significance. In this way, we juxtapose the poetry of the city with the poetry of the Bard, and find a deep contemporary relevance for Shakespeare’s sometimes elusive language.
The project will span one full year, launching on Shakespeare’s 449th birthday and culminating on his 450th. Throughout the year we will release a new sonnet video every 2-3 days. The videos and all supporting materials will be available free of charge to anyone in any sector of the population and foster an unprecedented level of access to Shakespearean performance.
So, if you live in the U.S. or may be able to travel to America, grab yourself a sonnet (those untaken are currently in black) and move on to submitting a form.


  • The “starring roles” in each video are Shakespeare’s language, the specific NYC location, and the director’s interpretation.
  • Director is responsible for equipment needs.
  • New York Shakespeare Exchange will assign the sonnet location.
  • Each film should contain only one actor. A highly skilled classical actor from the files of NYSX will be cast based on each particular sonnet. Director requests for basic actor type (e.g., gender, age-range, etc.) will be taken into consideration when possible. Requests to work with a specific actor will be taken on a case-by-case basis.
  • An NYSX text coach will work with each actor on interpreting the language, and will be present “on set” to assist with rhetorical technique and clarity of Shakespearean thought. The text coach will also be available to the director for any textual analysis questions.
  • Video length must be 120 seconds or less.
  • Submitted footage must be fully edited and in an “audience ready” form. NY Shakespeare Exchange will provide logos and specifications for titles and credits.
  • The delivery format is 1080 HD 23.98P with sync sound.
  • Video must be delivered no later than April 30, 2013.*
A director may take on a secondary video, having submitted the first one. The deadline for the secondary video is July 31, 2013.
A submission form asks you to list the filming and editing software you intend to use, and whatever qualifications, links, and the names of collaborators you would like to share. If your application is successful, a formal Work for Hire Agreement will be signed between you as a director and the NY Shakespeare Exchange.
If you decide to participate, having read the information on Shakespeare in Translation, please kindly consider mentioning us as a source of information. Thanks!

90th Anniversary of Leonid Gaidai

Leonid Gaidai was born on January 30, 1923. Although he died in 1993, in his life-long career he produced many a wonderful Soviet comedy, from rom-coms (Adbuction in the Caucasus) to sharp satirical features (The Diamond Arm, Bootleggers, Operation “Co-operation”). He also adapted to screen Mikhail Bulgakov’s play, Ivan Vassilyevich, about the Soviet man and the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible who accidentally swapped places in time.

I wrote about The Diamond Arm awhile ago, so today we’ll turn to something different. Below is an extract from Ivan Vassilyevich, a rather famous episode with some engaging dance and music, the song is performed by Valery Zolotukhin, currently the leading actor and the artistic director of Taganka Theatre, following the scandalous exit of Yury Lyubimov. This is followed by Gaidai’s 10-min. short film, Dog Barbos and Supercross, filmed in 1961, that has earmarked Gaidai as the rising comedy-maker in the Soviet conscience, and propelled the trio of characters to the heights of popularity.

The Battle On the Ice (1242-2012)

He who comes to us with a sword
shall die of the same sword” –
Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky poster

The Great Russian Prince Alexander Nevsky died on November 14, 1263. He is largely known for his victory over the Livonian Order on Chudskoe Lake (Lake Peipus) in April 1242. The so-called Battle on the Ice celebrated 770th anniversary this year.

Some claim that the Battle on Ice has only “appeared” thanks to the Soviet propaganda supported and popularised by Sergei Eisenstein’s fine masterpiece, Alexander Nevsky. Indeed, the 13th c. was marked by the so-called Northern Crusades organised by the Western (German and Scandinavian) armies and knight orders against the pagan peoples of the Baltic Region. The territories of the modern-day Estonia and Lithuania had been attacked, and Russia was a target too, along the northern and western borders. It was under these circumstances that attacks on Russian north-western cities were carried out repeatedly, and in this sense there were possibly several “battles on ice” fought, although only the battle on Chudskoe Lake (Lake Peipus) went down into history with so much fanfare.

The Battle on Ice claimed lives of some 400 Livonian Knights and 50 more were taken prisoners. The battle was significant in that the Livonian Order had to agree to make peace on Russian terms: the knights retreated, giving back all Russian territories they had captured. The Chudskoe Lake battle is also a splendid example of military manoeuvering: the Livonian Order sent their entire army against a small Russian troupe, only to be surrounded by the rest of the Russian forces.

The number of casualties is still under a dispute. What is obvious, however, is that the Battle on the Ice hammered the final nail in the coffin of the already unsuccessful 1240-1242 campaign of the Order against the Slavic lands.

It is easy to understand why on the eve of the Nazi invasion and during the war the version of the Battle on the Ice eloquently propagated by Eisenstein’s epic movie became so popular and continues to feed the imagination to this day. 1942 also happened to be the Battle’s 700th anniversary, which fact was commemorated in the war-time film posters.

Historians note that there were at least one other battle that was much more successful, and that is the Rakvere Battle (Battle of Wesenberg, or Rakovor) fought on February 18, 1268 by Alexander Nevsky’s son, Dmitry of Pereslavl, and Daumantas of Pskov. The Western forces were thoroughly defeated and had not approached Russia’s western border for the next thirty years.

The Battle on the Ice was widely commemorated not only in film, but music (the score by Sergei Prokofiev was used in Eisenstein’s film) and literature (an eponymous long poem by Konstantin Simonov was also published in 1938). It actually is interesting – if you believe in any such thing – to look at this avalanche of musings on the Russo-German relations a year before the World War 2 had started. The anticipation of yet another war had been palpable, and all the leading states – Britain, France, Germany, the U.S., and the USSR – each secretly plotted either against the Capitalist West or the Socialist East. Without any specific “promise” of an impending war how could the Russian film director and poet in the same year produce (or present) a work that mulled over the historical fact of military antagonism between Russia and Germany? Of course, Germans were there simply due to an historical coincidence. But what if contemplating the invasion and its victorious overcoming had actually led to a re-enactment of both in 1941-45?

Today the Battle on the Ice, as it was reconstructed in Eisenstein’s film, is a part of Russia’s contemporary popular culture. The final video of a Russian commercial for bread crumbs proves the point.

The Battle on the Ice – An extract from the film (medieval people all fought in the same manner, but it is quite obvious where Mel Gibson would draw his inspiration from for battle scenes in The Braveheart.

The Battle on the Ice 

And if you have not seen it, here is a full film, courtesy of Mosfilm.

Thoughts on Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange

I think the “good” film adaptations are mainly those of Shakespeare’s work. I didn’t analyse yet as to what exactly makes them good, i.e. faithful and accurate, but I announced my impression.

I read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess when I was still in Russia. I didn’t then plan to go to Britian, and I didn’t even imagine I’d end up living in Burgess’s native Manchester. Having lived there for a number of years, seeing the notorious yobs and hearing crime reports, I certainly would envisage a different kind of screen adaptation. But even if Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971) is fascinating as far as cinematography is concerned, as a kind of “translation” it is incomplete – and this is now I explained on Reddit the other day.

Re: A Clockwork Orange – don’t judge the film before you read the book. For all the visual beauty, the film is incomplete. Also, it’s an adaptation, hence it’s a kind of cinematic translation. Burgess, having come from Manchester, must’ve known well the kind of lads he was writing about – and they still inhabit Manchester, even though Burgess had gone. I lived in Manchester and Salford in 2000s, there are still gangs of youngsters who speak their own language and are ready to knife, rob and rape anyone they like. Sad but true. What happens in the novel, though, is that after all his tribulations Alex returns home where he’s not wanted and at some point realises that he no longer wants to be in a gang. He wants to have a place, a home, a family, a boy… who will probably end up making the same mistakes – because he’ll be from the same background as Alex. He doesn’t merely find the golden middle, he realises that the values and actions he thought had belonged to him are in fact completely alien to him. And it’s this latter part that Kubrick didn’t bring to screen, and it’s for this reason I think the adaptation is incomplete. It’s like if you translate a book and think “hang on, I’m not going to translate this because I think it will make a wrong impression” – and so you lose an integral part of the author’s plot“.

Mikhail Lermontov – I Come Out To the Path, Alone…

On July 27, 1841 the great Russian Romanticist poet Mikhail Lermontov had been killed at the duel in Pyatigorsk. In his short lifetime, filled with romance, military service, and bitterness, he composed numerous poems, several long poems (Demon, Valerik) and ballads, plays (The Masquerade), short stories, and a novel The Hero Of Our Time that has long been in Russian school curriculum.

The poem “I Come Out To the Path, Alone” was composed in 1841 – the year Lermontov died, and prophetically carries the gloom of predestination. It successfully marries Russian melancholy with the Romanticist fighting spirit. The disillusioned protagonist foresees his death but wishes it would lead to eternal life where he could join and enjoy the Nature.

The poem was put to music and has long been a popular romance. It also featured in The Life of Klim Samgin becoming the epitome of the spiritual searches and disillusionment of all Gorky’s characters, caught up in the ever changing Russian life at the turn of the 19-20th cc.

The song in the extract is performed by Marina (Natalia Gundareva) and Kutuzov (Andrejs Zagars). The poem was translated into English in 1995 by Yevgeny Bonver.

I come out to the path, alone,
Night and wildness are referred to God,
Through the mist, the road gleams with stone,
Stars are speaking in the shinning lot.

There is grave and wonderful in heaven;
Earth is sleeping in a pale-blue light…
Why is then my heart such pined and heavy?
Is it waiting or regretting plight?

I expect that nothing more goes,
And for past I do not have regret,
I wish only freedom and repose,
I would fall asleep and all forget…

I would like to fall asleep forever,
But without cold sleep of death:
Let my breast be full of dozing fervor
For the life, and heave in gentle breath;

So that enchanting voice would ready
Day and night to sing to me of love,
And the oak, evergreen and shady,
Would decline to me and rustle above.

The Gift of Acting: Leonid Yarmolnik

I’ve been publishing previously some excerpts from Russian/Soviet films showcasing the outstanding talent of Russian actors, and I thought we could watch these excerpts more regularly, and not just from Russian films. In case you’re new to LCJ, you can check out this excerpt, this, this.

Today we shall have two sketches by Leonid Yarmolnik. I was a toddler when he performed them in the TV programme “Around the Laughter“. A spin-off version of it still lives, but the stand-up comedy as it is today rarely takes my fancy. The case was different in the 80s when the likes of Roman Kartsev, Gennady Khazanov, Evgeny Petrosyan, Mikhail Zadornov, and Alexander Ivanov read brilliant sketches parodying and satirizing the Soviet realities and the human character.

The sketches performed by Yarmolnik paved his way to the big screen. In this programme he was a Taganka Theatre actor, and very soon he took part in many features, including Cherchez la Femme, The Man From the Boulevard des Capucines, A Woman In White, and many others.

In the 90s Yarmolnik started producing films and hosting TV programmes. Today he’s actively involved in Russian social life, looking after homeless dogs and donating his time to being a patron of Artist Charitable Fund that supports elderly actors and children with disabilities.

I had the pleasure to stumble once into Leonid and to see him several times at press-conferences and events. To me, he comes across as an intelligent, gifted person with a great sense of humour – something I always treasure in all people.

Leonid’s official site.

The sketches you are about to see are “Vulture” and “Tobacco Chicken”. Between two sketches Leonid explains that, as students at the Theatre Institute, they had to impersonate all things, from pens to window leaves, “but little did you know that it was possible to “show” a tobacco chicken. The tobacco chicken is actually a meal very easily cooked, you only need a chicken and lots of pepper. Here’s the recipe.

Only Old Men Are Going to Battle (with English subtitles)

Russia celebrates the Victory Day today. Since last December I have had a few chances to listen to old actors who either fought in the war or worked on the civilians’ side. Ever since taking part in BBC’s People’s War campaign in 2005-2006 I have been immensely interested in studying the generation that survived the world war – not the local military conflict, not some imperialist attack, but the war that pursued some ‘loftier’ ideals and exacted an extremely high price from those who shared them and who didn’t.
The feeling I took from all conversations and performances was that our grandparents had had a great deal of emotional and spiritual stamina, so to speak. The actress I spoke to used to be a dancer during the war; her group was sent back and forth in all directions, assuring that soldiers never lost belief and courage. At one time she and her comrades had to hide in the forest among the trees; the idea was to stand against the tree or sit beneath it so you can’t be seen. It’s a good idea except that it was winter, so they had to hide among the naked trees.
To this day – that’s nearly 70 years after 1945 – a lot of us cry when we listen to those stories, watch the films, read the books. One example of the war-time lyrical poem that continues surviving the time is Wait for Me, by Konstantin Simonov. I was thinking of sharing a song from one of the films, but then I found a movie from my “top-5” war films, with subtitles. I only ever watch it once a year or so because it takes you back to the days when love and death were inseparable, and you treasured small moments more, so it’s a heart-rendering film. Only Old Men Are Going to Battle is a story of an air squadron whose fighters are also members of a small orchestra. It features a well-known song, Smuglyanka, which has a very “catchy” melody. Click on “cc” icon on the video panel to turn on English subtitles.
And although I don’t want to get on my hobby-horse, contemplating the state of modern art, or Russian cinema for that matter, I will just say one thing. The only reason these films and poems escape the grip of Time is their wisdom and integrity. The problem is that both wisdom and integrity require courage, and we don’t have it today. Defaming a politician doesn’t require courage; even assassinating them is no longer an act of courage. Courage is in facing your own fears and weaknesses, which Only Old Men… also demonstrate.

Andrei Tarkovsky Turns 80

Had he lived to this day, Andrei Tarkovsky, a genuine Russian film director, would celebrate his 80th birthday. Instead, we celebrate the lifetime of work marked by a never-ending philosophical quest, poetry, and constant probing.

Born into a family of the Russian poet Arseniy Tarkovsky, Andrei went on to graduate from the State Institute of Cinematography with a short film, The Streamroller and the Violin. The script was co-written by Tarkovsky and Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, another outstanding Russian director and the brother of Nikita Mikhalkov. I found a subtitled version, which I am sure will be a treat to all those who have already discovered and long loved such masterpieces, as Andrei Rublev (about the Russian icon painter and creator of the famous Trinity), Solaris (an adaptation of the novel by S. Lem), Ivan’s Childhood (a war-time drama about a boy), The Mirror (where Andrei first introduced to the public the poetry of his father), The Stalker (an adaptation of the novel by the Strugatsky Brothers), Nostalghia (with the script by Tonino Guerra), and The Sacrifice (again based on a script by Arkady Strugatsky, the film scooped many coveted awards, including the Grand Prix at the Cannes festival in 1986).

Still, it all started here, with The Streamroller and the Violin. Here already we notice Tarkovsky’s masterful use of colour and reflections as dramaturgical means.

Ben Gazzara Dies at 81; Peter Bogdanovich Remembers

Image: IndieWire

Ben Gazzara died on February 3, 2012 at the age of 81 from pancreatic cancer. IndieWire called Peter Bogdanovich who was Gazzara’s close friend and directed him in several films. You can read the full interview; and in the opinion of Bogdanovich, “they don’t make actors like Ben anymore“.

In his 60-year career as an actor, Gazzara also had a part in 1992 adaptation of Quiet Flows the Don by Sergei Bondarchuk, he played General Sekretov. You know that I have supported the film, even as it appeared on the Russian screens as a TV mini-series. But I’ll soon have the chance to watch the English version, and I’m really looking forward to that. Either way, I’m afraid the Russian audience was even more oblivious of Gazzara than it was of either Rupert Everett or F. Murray Abraham. Which is a shame.

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