Photo: Kelvin Jones/Focus Features
Henry Selick
“I thought I was pretty good before I got into this, but I really had to pay my dues. I mean, basically, I know what bad writing is, and it took a long time for me to be proud of what I’d done in the adaptation.”
Moving Between Worlds
Written by Dylan Callaghan

The 11-year-old girl at the center of the new 3-D stop-action fantasy Coraline from visual wizard Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) lives between two worlds that are remarkably parallel and utterly different. Based on the Hugo-award-winning book by children’s story creepster Neil Gaiman, Coraline tells the tale of how this inquisitive little girl stumbles upon a portal in her cavernous new family home into an alternate universe, where her alter-parents are seemingly much more attentive than her distracted, writer parents back in reality. But beginning with the fact that this mirror mom and dad have buttons for eyes, things quickly get weird pretty quick in this flipside world.

Selick, who is predominantly a director and visual artist famous for some of the most acclaimed stop-action films ever, can relate to Coraline in one particular sense. In the approximately four years he spent making this film, his parallel universe was screenwriting. While he’s accustomed to the trials of the visual, directorial world, here he also took on the world of the screenplay for his first time on a feature.

Selick took time to talk to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his maiden journey as a feature scripter and the lessons he found at the core of this story about heroines with no superpowers and the fierceness of real family love.

I read you got this book before it was published and immediately saw it as a film. Is that right?

Yeah, I just fell in love with it right away. Neil’s a really great writer. He was inspired by Alice in Wonderland, but this is Alice in Wonderland meets the Brothers Grimm. [His story] had this great hook of imagining a better version of your life if you’re not happy with what you have -- whether it’s wishing you had different parents, kids, wife, teacher at school or whatever it is. We all do that at times, and it’s sort of a universal hook.

Then there’s the classic influence of Alice in Wonderland and Hansel and Gretel. Neil’s brilliance is often in what might seem like tiny details but are very potent -- things like the button eyes on people. By the time I was halfway through reading it, I could see a movie. It just was just in tune with the time and my own sensibilities.

Photo: © 2009 LAIKA, Inc.
A scene from Coraline.
And an interesting thing is that initially, you were conferring with him so much that it was actually making it harder to write the screenplay?

That’s true. I was going to Neil with a lot of pretty regular questions. It wasn’t Neil trying to push himself on me. Ultimately, the first script just wasn’t a movie. It was too faithful to the book from the outside in. It hadn’t done the hard work of tearing it apart and rebuilding it at the core. So we had this strange thing where no one was happy, not even Neil. So I said, “Okay, I’m gonna go away, and we’ll see what happens.”

That’s when I felt liberated to set it in the U.S. instead of England and bring in another character that hadn’t existed. I had taken this project to Bill Mechanic, who was the head of Fox studios. He believed in it as well and was able to give me some pretty good suggestions, so I was able to go off and finish a second draft. I shared it with Bill and a variety of people. I was terrified of Neil reading it, but then of course, I had to, and he really liked it. He’s had many good notes, doable notes.

What is this fantastic allegory really about?

It’s sort of a classic idea that sometimes you have to go away from something to see it clearly. In order to appreciate what she has, Coraline has to get what she thinks she wants... the price you pay for what you want can be too high. The grass is always greener and all those clichés. The two things about this story that I love is that the parents are flawed. There are no lessons learned by them. Mom is always going to be kind of bitchy, but she’s the one who gets the job done to make sure they have income. Dad’s kind of inept and goofy. Coraline had to go away from them and have them be in danger to remember the deep love. It’s a fierce love that they have for each other. They take care of each other. That’s more like what all of us face. In animation that’s kind of unusual.

The other thing is that this little girl, Coraline, faces the worst kind of evil -- a soul-sucking witch that feeds off the joy of children -- and she does it without any superpowers, without being a great fighter or without being brilliant at outsmarting. That’s something I love, and that’s kind of important for kids to see.

Being as visually creative as you are, do you enjoy the writing process?

When you direct films -- even though this is my first credited screenplay -- you’re always writing, because you have to. So I thought I was pretty good before I got into this, but I really had to pay my dues. I mean, basically, I know what bad writing is, and it took a long time for me to be proud of what I’d done in the adaptation.

I liked the writing to a point, but there are always those unsolvable problems. I’ve learned to let them sort of saturate my unconscious, and I usually come up with a solution eventually. A certain amount of the writing I love -- I like being alone and wrestling, but when you’re in production and a scene’s not playing, and your writing muscles aren’t in the best shape, then it can be very difficult.