Mac on Tokyo: Evan Henderson
Evan Henderson has done something many filmmakers only dream of. He has taken one of the most beloved and respected comic book properties in the world, Sandman, and made a fan film which has received incredible worldwide support, including love from its creator and world-famous bestselling author Neil Gaiman. In this in-depth WORLD EXCLUSIVE interview, Evan talks to Mac, Founder of Maction Planet, about the making of Sandman: 24 Hour Diner, his time in Tokyo, and the way the city influenced the production of the film. We are honoured to feature some never-before-seen stills and behind-the-scenes shots from this incredible project.
Maction Planet: Hi Evan. Welcome to Maction Planet. Before we start, I wanted to thank you for choosing us to look after you during your time in Tokyo last October. We really appreciate our guests selecting Maction Planet from the many Tokyo travel options out there.
Evan Henderson: Thanks Mac. Having you show us around Tokyo was incredible! We were fortunate to cover so much of the city in the short amount of time we had.
MP: Absolutely my pleasure. I truly enjoyed our time together.
Let’s dive straight in to talk about your incredible new film. How did the Sandman project begin? Take us back to its very inception!
EH: The long story begins in October 2015. I was living with my friend Nicholas Brown, we were about 6 months out of graduating film school and trying to figure out what to do with ourselves.
It’s extremely difficult to make it as an artist or filmmaker when you’re virtually unknown. I figured it would help if we were able to gain a cult following that was passionate and also like-minded about the kind of stories we wanted to tell. If we could use a pre-existing property with an established fan base, and do a good job, we could potentially set up an audience for ourselves and our future projects.
As we know, superhero movies are outrageously popular these days, so it seemed like a good market to tap into. However, I didn’t want to adapt something extremely mainstream like Spider-Man or Batman because we could never compete with a studio production, and those stories wouldn’t allow us to take the kind of risks we wanted to take. So we chose Sandman. We are really interested in making unconventional worlds and stories come to life, and Sandman has really enriched our appreciation of good storytelling.
Together, Nick and I co-created this film: directing, producing, editing, working together and utilizing our individual strengths to make something really crazy and unique! The story takes place over 24 hours in a diner, and so we tried to keep the audience guessing on how we’d approach each new “hour” of the film.
MP: You must be pleased with the reaction? Over 100,000 views of the film… over 5,000 followers on Facebook… over 16,000 likes for the film’s ‘pinned post’… all in just two months… with you and Nick handling all the promotion. It is absolutely incredible!
EH: It’s been a huge chapter of our lives, but so far the reaction has been overwhelming. Since the release of the film we’ve received so many positive words and genuine gratitude from the Sandman fans, many of them asking if we’ll do another! We’ve even received a response from Neil Gaiman himself, saying it was well done, which in some ways is the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me. It feels good to have tried something so crazy and challenging as adapting a whole Sandman issue on a completely independent budget, and succeeded.
MP: The budget aspect is something that really interested me. Watching this film one of the things that really struck me is that it does not look like an independent production. It punches well above its weight. How did you achieve that?
EH: I think we were really careful on spending the money we had in smart ways. When the film budget is coming out of your own pocket every decision matters, otherwise you can’t pay the rent! That was the main reason it took us so long; we wanted to do it right. Wherever we could cut corners by doing the work ourselves or calling in a favour, we would. For example, the post-credit timelapses teasing the Cereal Convention and the intro credits sequence were all Nick, while I recorded a good chunk of the music in the film, or reached out to friends who could do it better than I. Then, we left the stuff we absolutely couldn’t do to the professionals, such as the makeup, the practical effects (both provided by The Butcher Shoppe in Hamilton, Ontario), the high concept visual effects (by Alpha Channel VFX) and especially the animation, which was a combination of storyboards from my artist friend Colton Gilson and the incredible work of animator extraordinaire Anthony Schepperd. Our cinematographer, Richard Liani was also a spiritual warrior and a huge help in finding crew members who understood the look we were going for. We used a lot of recent grads from our film school who were looking for projects to jump on to.
Basically, we have great friends!
MP: I wanted to ask you about the acting in the film. How did you get your actors to perform such dark and risque material?
EH: Well it starts with a finding a good cast, which is hard to do when you’re super indie and on a tight budget- if you’ve got strong actors who are on the same page as you, that’s half the battle. We spent a long time looking for the actors who understood the tone right away, they read the comic before the audition, knew exactly what was being asked of them, and we only had enough time to rehearse and block the scenes together once before going to camera. We had specific directions and visual tics for each character that we talked about with the actors to make them feel different from one another.
For example, Kate (played by Justyna Bochanysz), is absent mindedly playing with her necklace in Hour 5 and Hour 11. Then later in Hour 12, which is my favourite scene, she is pulling on the necklace again but with a much more nostalgic and seductive subtext. With Dr. Dee (Zach McKendrick), the most inhuman and unnatural of all the characters, we told him to never blink since in the comic he is an insomniac, and I had noticed the technique being used by the vampiric Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. It gives him a really unnerving edge, and adds to the performance. We were shooting typically only one shot per scene of the film, which is pretty risky and unusual on sets because it limits your ability to cover any acting issues in editing. Having strong performances were crucial and really the most important element to get right.
MP: How large was the crew that worked on the film?
EH: There were around 23 people or so on set at the most- people would come and go as their schedule would permit, but when you factor in all the post-production team as well, we were probably closer to 35 people. It was the largest crew I’d ever worked with, but it went surprisingly well despite all the hurdles!
MP: How long did the production take?
EH: We spent 4 nights shooting in the diner, one half day filming the TV sequences, and 30 months altogether with pre and post-production, marketing etc. I wish we’d had one extra day in the diner so we weren’t so rushed, but that’s how it always is! Considering a regular TV show usually has a week to shoot an episode, to finish something as complicated as our short at that speed is quite a feat! I still remember being absolutely exhausted cleaning up blood stains at 7am while customers were coming in for their morning coffee. Good times!
MP: I absolutely love that image of you. What must those people have been thinking?!
You chose Sandman #6, “24 Hours,” written by Neil Gaiman with art by Mike Dringenberg, to adapt. Why did you pick this particular issue?
EH: It was an issue I felt was feasible to adapt on an indie budget. If it were a TV series, this would be considered a “bottle episode” where it’s all contained to a single location. Most of the time bottle episodes are considered cheap and lesser than other episodes, meant to pad out a season of television. But Neil Gaiman is such a creative force, he can take a single location and make it feel like several places at once. He is so good at keeping things unpredictable. I remember getting to this issue of the series, and it’s the first one where the Sandman story diverts from the main arc and instead focuses on an ensemble of new characters in a diner. He could’ve made it this huge issue where Dr. Dee is taking over the world and showed massive amounts of chaos and terror, and instead he restrains it to this one location, featuring these mundane cheery people who are forced to confront their darkest nature… it’s better and more intimate than some gigantic set piece. I found it terrifying and it stuck with me throughout the series. Upon reading it a million times, I could see these little moments that at the time of him writing, I don’t think he realized what he was doing because he never expected to write more than the first volume, “Preludes and Nocturnes”. Even the Judy character comes back in “A Game Of You”, and the elusive Donna is a character in that arc. I just felt like this was a landmark issue where Neil started doing something I hadn’t quite seen before, telling a compelling story without the protagonist.
MP: Having said all that, you took this story and made it your own with a few well-chosen embellishments.
EH: Nick and I saw an opportunity to add to the story by giving Sandman the animation sequence, where you see him travelling through dreams, battling nightmare versions of the diner characters. We could give it a climax that it doesn’t necessarily have in the issue and also tease other characters and episodes. So it’s extremely faithful to the comic, even down to a few of its continuity mistakes (such as Dr. Dee having the word “God” carved into his chest in Hour 10 and then disappearing for the rest of the issue), but also somewhat original in how we executed and added to the story.
MP: You know you are dealing with a huge labour of love where even the continuity errors of the source material are honoured.
What would you describe as the biggest challenge in the making of the film?
EH: There were so many moments where it felt like we were in over our heads. Casting the film was a challenge- to find someone willing to physically transform into Dr. Dee who could also nail such a dark and difficult character…but Zach was a huge fan of the comics and insanely dedicated to the role. I can’t imagine doing this without him! I also remember while we were on set, after our first day, our assistant director/script supervisor wound up in a car accident and was out of commission for the rest of the shoot. He’s fine now, but at the time it was pretty crazy!
But by far, the biggest challenge for us was in filming Hour 1, the opening of the film. We intended it to be a one-take shot through the diner establishing the environment, where all the characters are situated, and give it a sleepy, comfortable, deliberate pace, so that when we start amping up the violence and mayhem it will come as quite a shock. It was insanely ambitious considering the timing all our camera movements needed to sync up with the narration and the actors’ blocking. For a variety of reasons, from our own decision on how we filmed it, to lack of resources and unforeseen circumstances on set, we just didn’t get exactly what we wanted from that shot. It was a huge lesson for us and one that we wished we could have reshot if we had the budget and right amount of time. But that was out of the question. In hindsight we know what we should have done to achieve the effect perfectly. Instead we had to get creative with it and “mine” outtakes to disguise our issues. So our one take became several long takes, with a few insert shots. Working with an editor’s mind is essential as a director. Although it’s not perfect, it still works and I am incredibly proud of how it turned out knowing what we started with!
MP: I see comic book legend, and former Maction Planer guest, Ken Lashley contributed to the opening credits and the final scene! Tell us more about that. Having such a big name make a contribution must have been a hoot!
EH: I was lucky enough to be neighbours with Ken since I was a kid and growing up I would always hang around and bug him because I thought what he did as a career was so cool. As a super talented and generous guy, he’s given me a lot of solid professional and personal advice on navigating the world as an artist. We became close friends and he would invite me along on his trips to San Diego Comic Con. It was there that I first picked up Sandman, and the comic changed my life. As we got closer and closer to finishing the film, we wanted to create a cool opening credits sequence to set the stage and establish the Sandman universe. I asked Ken to illustrate Dream and that’s what you see in the opening title card. Later on, I also got Ken to lend his voice to the Corinthian, who’s definitely a fan favourite character, in the post credit scene. I’ve always thought he had a second calling as a voice actor!
MP: He certainly does, as we witnessed when we went to Karaoke together. What a voice!
MP: Let’s talk about your time in Tokyo. What were your first impressions of The World’s Greatest Metropolis?
EH: Well immediately I was worried about getting lost. I had no internet or wifi while we travelled, but luckily the people were helpful in helping us navigate the transit system, and once you use it a few times it starts to feel like second nature. I was fascinated by the mannerisms and culture of Japan, it’s the little things that make it so special. Although it sounds silly, I think it’s amazing that Tokyo is such a clean city despite no public trash cans that I could see. That people could have such respect for each other they take their garbage with them and use designated smoking areas was a great takeaway. We could learn a thing or two about that in Toronto!
The architecture and the way the city fused its urban elements with parks and trees was really nice. At every turn I felt like I was discovering another cool walkway or street. We spent our first day in the Imperial Palace East Garden and that was lovely.
MP: You tried sushi here for the first time, right! I really love that.
EH: That’s right! I had tried the Americanized version of it with chicken and avocado and whatnot, but raw fish was uncharted territory for me. Thankfully, you took us to a great place with an endless supply of food, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it! I thought I’d be grossed out by the uncooked sushi, but it turned out to be my favourites! I’m so glad I went for it, not to mention the amazing barbeque dinner we had, or the local ramen shop off the beaten path. Best ramen of my life!
MP: What was your favourite part of your trip to The World’s Greatest Metropolis?
EH: This is an easy one for me. Having you take us out to the Karaoke you mentioned was such a highlight. You picked a great venue with tons of song choices, costumes, private rooms, and all the sake you could drink. It was an absolute blast for a young person like myself. Alternatively, walking through the Meiji Jingu Shrine at sunset was absolutely beautiful. It’s amazing that such a peaceful place exists in the middle of a bustling metropolis. It was serene.
MP: How did your time in Tokyo affect the film?
EH: When I came to Tokyo, this was right around the time that we had a basic working copy of the animation and the edit was complete, but we hadn’t started any of the sound work yet, which is incredibly important, or had a opening credits sequence, or even shot our post-credit sequence, or do any of the colour, final conform, the marketing- the list was endless. Basically we were two years into a full-time financial and time commitment and still a long ways off from the end result, which can be pretty overwhelming when there’s no one forcing you to finish the film besides yourself. I wanted to come to Japan because I was worried I was stuck in a rut, and needed something to look forward to that was immediately fulfilling and engaging. I wanted to escape my comfort zone.
This trip helped remind myself of the world outside this bubble I was in, and making friends with you and having you show us the best spots to check out in the city was an essential part of that journey. Being immersed in Japanese culture versus the kind of lifestyle I was used to in Toronto was really cathartic and illuminating. It definitely made me want to come back and visit more of the country! Tokyo helped give me the resolve and rejuvenation to finish that last stretch of the film, and give me a reason to return.
MP: I cannot convey how happy reading this makes me.
You’re also a budding photographer, and you took some amazing shots while you were in Tokyo. Would you mind sharing some of those with us?
EH: Absolutely, I’ve also been slowly but steadily working on a travel video of my trip in Tokyo which I’m excited to finish! I’ll send you the link when it’s finished and you can see all the experiences we packed into our short visit.
MP: I will share those photos in a separate post on our blog, and I will also share the video when it is done. I’m sure there are many people who would love to see your take on Tokyo. Thank you so much for joining us Evan. Congratulations again on this amazing production and the reaction you have received. Any final messages for the readers out there?
EH: If you’ve been on the fence to visit Japan, I hope my experience with Maction Planet will convince you to check it out- it truly made the trip worth it to have someone knowledgeable and fun to take us around the city. I can’t imagine that we would’ve had even a tenth of the same experience on our own. Mac is the man!!!
Nick and I hope you enjoy our vision of a Sandman series, we’d love to make more and if we had the studios’ support, we’d strive to do the comics justice and make it a show unlike any other. This is our test pilot- if you dig it, please share with others. If the fans are on board and supporting us, we can make it happen!
MP: Thank you Evan for your kind words. On behalf of all fans of Sandman, and indeed great storytelling, I really hope we get to see more.
You can watch ‘Sandman: 24 Hour Diner” here. Note: Mature content.
The Tokyo experiences Evan mentions were part of a fully-customised multi-day Tokyo Private Tour he did with his friends, which included comic book legend Ken Lashley. We are proud that we develop close relationships with our guests over the course of their travels, and are happy to lend our support to their projects, especially when they are as awesome as Evan’s film. To begin your journey to your perfect, personalised time in The World’s Greatest Metropolis, contact us at email@example.com