Neil Gaiman’s A Short Film About John Bolton (2003)

I don’t think Neil Gaiman likes change. The 75-issue run of his landmark comic Sandman ends with Morpheus, the King of Dreams, choosing to die rather than alter who he is. Coraline, his 2002 children’s novel about a girl who finds a door to a parallel world, becomes a horror story when Coraline’s other mother and father “want to change her and never let her go.” Concerns of identity and adjustment find their way into virtually all of Gaiman’s work. A Short Film About John Bolton, his directorial debut, is no exception.

For the New Video Group DVD’s making-of featurette, Gaiman admits that the main reason he made John Bolton was to maintain total control over an adaptation of one of his stories (several have been produced, most notably his novel Neverwhere, which originally aired on BBC). “Normally, whenever I’ve watched anything that I’ve written… I tend to have two reactions to it going on. One of which is, ‘Yes, but…’, and the other is, ‘Well, no…’,” Gaiman says. “And occasionally, you watch it, going, ‘I know that joke is funny. If they had just said it right, if he had cut it right, it would have been funny… What I loved about doing this, and making it, and putting it all together is, you don’t have to like it, but everything in it is exactly like I wanted it to be.”

His control over this project started more than five years before cameras began rolling, when Gaiman was asked by his friend (and co-creator of cult comic fave The Books of Magic) John Bolton to pen the introduction to Haunted Shadows, a collection of nude female vampire paintings. After beginning a boilerplate introduction about Bolton as a great friend, loving husband, and devoted father, Gaiman remembered a self-portrait Bolton had once showed him in which the artist inexplicably wore an old gas mask, and wrote a short story about that instead.

Years later, when Gaiman was looking to make a short film, he called Bolton to ask permission to use the piece. Amused by the thought of his friend making a film about a fictional version of himself in which all of his own paintings were displayed, Bolton gave his blessing. (Bolton appears in the film as one of the guests at the character’s gallery opening and speaks in glowing terms about the “narrative” of the artist’s work; in the commentary track, Gaiman can’t help but laugh at his friend’s unabashed self-promotion.)

We enter the story at The Gallery Upstairs, as documentarian Marcus (Marcus Brigstocke) is making a film about famed British painter John Bolton (John O’Mahony), whose alarmingly graphic portraits of nude female vampires have garnered both a large cult following (among them BBC radio personality Jonathan Ross, who refers to Bolton’s work as “beautiful, and yet terrifying”) and a mass of detractors who view his art as “sick [and] demonic,” the product of what The Guardian calls “a damaged imagination.” The famously reclusive Bolton allows Marcus to enter his studio to film the “creative process,” get a sense of how the “ideas” find the artist, and nail down a big finale for his documentary. Marcus sees exactly where the “ideas” come from and how they find Bolton, and while it does provide the film’s payoff, it’s not the ending for which Marcus had hoped.

It is, however, exactly what Gaiman wanted. John Bolton is a well executed and unconventional fright film, a disarming blend of comedy and horror. The first 15 minutes of the 27-minute short are downright hilarious, particularly the interplay between O’Mahony’s ascetic Bolton and Carolyn Backhouse’s excessively verbose gallery owner; when she suggests playing a Schubert piece during the exhibit and Bolton balks (“No, no, no, that’s the worst mistake you could make is to describe the paintings with the music”), then counters by suggesting (and singing) the Lovin’ Spoonful, it’s as good as anything Ricky Gervais wrote for The Office. (Well, maybe not Series 1.)

Backhouse’s character gets a fair amount of grief, since she represents modern arts culture. The digs are everywhere, from the gallery scenes that start the film (as Gaiman says in the commentary, the hardest part of editing them “was taking it down to the minimum we could while allowing it to have those elements of art show boredom”), to the emptiness of observers’ platitudes (“It’s extraordinary, the way you’ve captured the movement”). Media members are particularly easy targets for Gaiman, who notes that Brigstocke’s wardrobe, a suede jacket and tight jeans, was designed to mimic “the kind of clothes that TV presenters might wear that render you a social outcast in every possible situation.”

During an interview, Marcus asks Bolton to respond to a Guardian quote: “For Bolton, it’s as if the winds of modernism have blown past, leaving him standing like a lightning tree on the horizon.” A dumbfounded Bolton asks Marcus what that means, and the interviewer scrambles for a reply, since he doesn’t have a clue himself. (“Exactly,” laughs Brigstocke in the commentary.) Soon after, when Marcus asks why Bolton decided to open up, the artist sighs and says, “To be honest, I’m already starting to feel as if this may have been a mistake.”

Gaiman knows something about that feeling himself, and John Bolton often feels like his revenge on critics for every bad interview he’s had to suffer through and every overwrought thinkpiece written about his work. Through all of John Bolton‘s pokes and prods, Gaiman connects that all-brains/no-guts brand of arts journalism to his problems with change via a very simple tether: arts writers try to infer what an artist “meant” in a piece, and we pretty much always fuck it up. Such mistakes aren’t harmless, because critics have the opportunity to influence the way audiences perceive artists’ work and the outlet through which to do it. We can literally change what a piece means to people. Gaiman finds that pretty troubling.

Still, the affection Gaiman shows for Marcus indicates that he doesn’t hate critics, just what we represent: an ethos of inept misinterpretation aimed at elevating the academic over the visceral, leaving the artist buried beneath a hailstorm of questions, most of which have nothing at all to do with the art. Here, those questions aren’t just annoying, they’re fatal; if Marcus didn’t stick his nose into Bolton’s studio to “get a sense of the artist at work,” he might have survived long enough to do voice-overs for the documentary’s opening titles and end credits. That he doesn’t is a tight little “piss off” to those who seek some deep intellectual reason to appreciate something, rather than just enjoying a piece’s aesthetics or the way it makes them feel, and it’s pretty brilliant. I realize that sounds mighty hypocritical coming from someone who’s just written 1200 words about a 27-minute movie, and who, if he were in the film, would probably be a naked lady vampire’s lunch, too. But if the worst thing I can say about a film is that I enjoyed its premise so much that it made me contradict myself, then it’s a pretty damn good film.

In the featurette, Gaiman says directing John Bolton was sort of a practice run. Warner Bros. has commissioned him to write and direct the adaptation of his 1994 graphic novel, Death: The High Cost of Living, with production expected to begin sometime next summer, and Gaiman wanted to get experience behind the camera before setting out for his major studio debut. Given his aversion to change, it’s no surprise that he demanded control over the film’s script and direction; this way, if the project fails miserably, at least it won’t be because some hack took a hard left from the source material. But Gaiman’s work on A Short Film About John Bolton inspires confidence that such a failure is unlikely by providing evidence that, if said right and cut right, his work can speak for itself.