Holding a Mirror to McKean

There is no one working in entertainment today quite like Dave McKean.

McKean is a slightly pudgy, middle-aged, balding, English, award-winning, mixed media artist, illustrator, video director and now, with “MirrorMask” out today, feature film director. To celebrate, McKean talked to The Crimson about the filmmaking process, his artistic process, and why working on “Harry Potter” was a waste of time.

First arriving on the international artistic scene as the illustrator of frequent collaborator Neil Gaiman’s “Violent Cases,” McKean continues to work with his friend: he was the cover artist of Gaiman’s classic “The Sandman” graphic novel series and wrote “MirrorMask,” his directorial debut, along with Gaiman. In addition, McKean has illustrated for The New Yorker, made beautiful CD covers for the likes of the Counting Crows, and created “Cages,” a long-gestulating epic graphic novel.

“MirrorMask” is the story of Helena, a young girl who stumbles upon a passage to an alternate world of masks through a mirror. Her adventures take her through a magical world, seen only in work like McKean’s, and into interactions with her Puckish guide Valentine and the villainous Queen of Shadows. It is like “Alice in Wonderland” through the modern looking glass.

In fact, it almost seems like an update of “Labyrinth,” which is no accident. “Mirrormask” was commissioned by Lisa Henson, the head of the Jim Henson Company and the daughter of the titular founder, as an attempt to bring back the “Labyrinth” glory days. She contacted McKean after watching his no-budget short films, which exhibited the personality, creativity, humor, and accessibility of Henson’s work. Soon, the game was afoot and McKean was in the midst of what he called “film school.”

The Harvard Crimson: Why should college students be interested in this movie?

Dave McKean: I have no idea. It’s a film. It’s probably quite warm in the cinema and you get to watch something that’s hopefully a little unusual. It’s a fantasy. It’s got flying fish in it, it’s got sphinxes in it, and hopefully it’s a pleasant diversion from studies. I can’t oversell this thing, I guess.

THC: Was it intimidating to be working for the Jim Henson company? And to create a followup to “Labyrinth” for them?

DM: No, it wasn’t it all. Working with actors was daunting. Guaranteeing that we could actually make the film was daunting. It was only really after I got into it that I understood the Henson name meant what it does. It’s universally loved. As many people hate Disney movies and the name as love them, but Henson is universally beloved. I didn’t know that at the time and it’s probably good that I didn’t.

This film, though it uses computer graphics feels like a handmade film and doesn’t talk down to kids. Hopefully Jim would have approved and I think he would have.

THC: How much do you use models for your paintings and drawings?

DM: When Neil and I started doing comics together I used models very closely and felt that no one was looking at real people anymore and they were getting very formatted. Because of the very insular nature of the comic world, people were just looking at old comics and those people were just looking at older comics. Far back, someone had looked at people, but they had stopped.

But while doing a book called “Cages,” I enjoyed leaving the photograph behind. It’s good not to get too dominated by one.

THC: What was your experience like being a conceptual artist on “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban?”

DM: Honestly, it was just a joke. I can’t say I’m a big fan of those books. It was wonderful to see film on that scale. The production designer I was working for was amazing. The director was great and full of ideas. But all of it is a pretty thankless task. The pleasure of doing “MirrorMask” was there were no levels you had to get through. It was a personal project. I thought of something and it was on the screen the next day.

THC: What are your favorite movies and how have they influenced you?

DM: The two eras of movies that I really love are things from the ’20s, because it was then that film became a language and media in its own right. Before that you are looking at the origins of film. In the ’20s, the language of film that we know now was really born, particularly in the F.W. Murnau films, like “Nosferatu” and “Sunrise.” The other era is right now. As a result of the digital tools, whether it’s computer graphics or films being made on digital video, it feels like the silent era again in the process of creating a new medium.

—Staff writer Scoop A. Wasserstein can be reached at wasserst@fas.harvard.