'It takes you somewhere else': Neil Gaiman previews fantasy world of Netflix's 'The Sandman'

Brian Truitt
USA TODAY

SAN DIEGO – In adapting the long-awaited screen version of his seminal comic book "The Sandman," part of the process was 61-year-old Neil Gaiman trusting his younger self.

"You kind of knew what you were doing and we have to trust you," the writer says of the Gaiman who crafted the "Sandman" series beginning in 1989. Over the decades, the fan base has grown and the adaptation has gone through many incarnations, but the Netflix dark fantasy (streaming Friday) garnered a packed panel at Comic-Con last month.

"The Sandman" stars Tom Sturridge as Morpheus, the lord of the Dreaming realm who's captured and held prisoner for a century. When he escapes, Morpheus (aka Dream) discovers his absence has led to consequences in the Dreaming as well as the waking world. He sets off on a quest to fix his past mistakes, face off with a villainous nightmare named The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) and reunite with his Endless siblings, including Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Desire (Mason Alexander Park).

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Kirby Howell-Baptiste stars as Death and Tom Sturridge is Dream in Netflix's "The Sandman," based on the Neil Gaiman comic book series.

"What’s exquisite about our show is every episode is a film, an entirely different story within this cohesive world," said Sturridge, who prepared by diving into the original "Sandman" comic. "I care so deeply about this piece of literature and the only way to understand is to subsume yourself in Neil’s words and images."

Sturridge read it over and over again "until it was in my bones and my blood."

Gwendoline Christie, the "Game of Thrones" actress who plays Lucifer Morningstar (the ruler of hell, by the way), also used the comic as a bible: Gaiman said Lucifer's original appearance was inspired by David Bowie as a young folk singer in his early years: "Androgynous, a junkie angel. Gwendoline brings the junkie angel in spades."

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Gwendoline Christie plays Lucifer Morningstar in Netflix's "The Sandman."

Christie found a special connection to "Sandman," reading issues of the comic as the pandemic had just started. "There is an innate fantastical, magical (quality). It takes you on a journey but there is a spirituality in it like 'Star Wars.' It takes you somewhere else."

And she found delightful "the idea of being the very essence of evil through these people's eyes."

Author Neil Gaiman greets the Comic-Con crowd before rolling the trailer for Netflix's "The Sandman."

Christie added that Gaiman and executive producer Allan Heinberg let her bring own thoughts to embodying Lucifer. "I read Neil’s beautiful words and things come alive in my mind. Lucifer was God’s favorite and has been cast out, and what that means, and what that means for me – a lifetime of disappointments. We’ve all started to realize a lack of empathy is evil, disconnection is evil."

Producers went directly to Christie to come aboard "Sandman" and Sturridge was found in the first batch of thousands of potential Dreams, but it took hundreds of Deaths before finding Howell-Baptiste. "We believed her as Death. We believed she could actually tell Tom's Morpheus a thing or two and he'd listen, and we felt people would fall in love with Death on screen the same way as in the comics."

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In giving a human form to Death as a concept, "there's a hopefulness rather than what we usually see, which is doom and gloom," Howell-Baptiste said. When you’re in your final moment, you want to be comforted or with someone who you could get a drink with."

Getting "Sandman" to the screen has taken three decades, but "I’ve been incredibly lucky that nobody wanted to change what I was doing," Gaiman said. DC let him do what he was doing on the original comic and Audible put together an audiobook starring James McAvoy that was very faithful. And he's hoping a loyal fan base now tells all their friends about the new Netflix show.

"From my perspective," Gaiman said, "we’re making 'Sandman' as yogurt starter to go out and turn the entire world into yogurt."

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