Neil Gaiman's Dream Dangerously, or Why We Need More Documentaries About Writers

Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Charles Bukowsky, L. Ron Hubbard, J.K Rowling, and others.We explore why there is an urgent need for producing more documentaries on writers.

While actor and comedian Robin Williams fascinates himself with the dozen of photographies and mementos that cover the walls of The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars, Harlan Ellison’s incredible home in Los Angeles, the director take us up the stairs.

As the camera turns and cuts across the massive collection of books, papers and literary awards that accumulate beyond the writer’s desk, we begin to hear the sounds of his mythical Olympia SG9. That’s a manual typewriter for the uninitiated.

What the director is masterfully doing here is allowing us a glance into Harlan’s private world. He does it step by step, slowly, as if he and his team were working for the National Geographic and had been tasked to introduce us to a Bengal tiger in its lair of Sundarban.

Of course, we end up wishing the cameraman had stopped for a moment or two around the large desk, so we could take a longer look at what was there, but that’s okay. We are about to see something better.

Turns out old Harlan is in the process of writing an introduction for a Ted Sturgeon’s collection that will appear in the XI Volume of the North Atlantic Books.

Right away, we realize this is no ordinary documentary. We are presented with a different side of the famed writer. One he doesn’t often show on camera. The side that misses his friend.

He pulls out the sheet of paper from the typewriter and reads the words out loud. We get two presents. One, the first couple of paragraphs of Harlan’s essay on his friendship with Ted Sturgeon, one of the most celebrated Science Fiction writers of all time, who happened to have lived with him during the dawn of his career.

The second gift? A privileged look into Ellison’s soul: a taste of his prose, through his voice, fresh right out of his typewriter.

That’s what this essay is all about, folks. We freaking need more documentaries about writers. And I’m going to make sure it happens.

Harlan Ellison reading an alternative version of his essay on Ted Sturgeon.Harlan Ellison reading an alternative version of his essay on Ted Sturgeon.

Like all nightmares, the thought first came to me in the middle of the night. After watching Patrick Meaney’s fantastic documentary titled Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously, I went to sleep. In the documentary, the director and his crew followed the Gaiman during a promotional tour for one of his books. Before someone can say “so? what about it?”, let me ask you, reader; when was the last time you sat through a documentary about a writer in habitat naturalis?

Let us get this clear, I am not talking about the typical documentary ala BBC, where the director seems to have gone through a very calculated effort into showing us absolutely nothing for 60 minutes straight.

Yes, perhaps we get to see J. K. Rowling answer a few questions in one of those, but only after we’ve been tortured with lengthy interviews of relatives and high school friends who had coffee with her once twenty-five years ago.

Not the same. That is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about a documented slice of the writer’s daily routine. That is what we get with Erik Nelson’s Dreams with Sharp Teeth. We get to see Harlan’s life. Same with Patrick’s documentary on Neil. We get to see him, traveling, writing, dipping his hand into an ice bucket after signing dozens after dozens of books for his fans. Fascinating! Unheard of!

Neil Gaiman in Dream Dangerously.Neil Gaiman in Dream Dangerously.

Interviews are great, don’t get me wrong. But they are conducted in a studio, with good lighting, makeup, and pre-approved questionaries. Sadly, most documentaries about writers end up being just that, an endless mix of interviews. We hardly get to peek the behind the scenes of a writer’s life in one of those.

Ah, what would I give to have walked next to Robert E. Howard down the dusty streets of Texas while he was practicing one of the battle scenes for Conan? Or have seen Verne discussing the climax of Captain Hatteras with Hetzel? Sure, television was giving baby steps during Howard’s time and not even available when Verne was around, but a chronicler could have been just as good.

I am talking about a documented slice of the writer’s daily routine. That is what we get with Erik Nelson’s Dreams with Sharp Teeth. We get to see Harlan’s life.

Dream Dangerously is the real deal. A window, into someone’s life. Almost, and lash me across my back with knives for saying it, because I deserve it, a vlog. Trust me here, I don’t bring that term up without recognizing the consequences, but a point must be made in favor of what an archivist would call “the preservation of records”.

In this confusing age of us, we have access to the beginnings of a hundred teen stars. We can dwell almost without restriction in the daily lives of our neighbors, relatives, and strangers with social media. But for the life of me, we can’t seem to find interesting people. Artists. Creators. Writers. They elude us.

I don’t know of a single writer who would agree on shooting a couple of videos about his or her daily routine, yet, technology has made the possibility available for us to do so with little effort. Thousands of people are doing it already. Thousands of boring, dull people with nothing to do or say other than waving their shaky egos in front of an audience of amateur voyeurists.

Yet, most writers would rather have their fingers smashed with a hammer than to step in front of the camera.

Charles Bukowksy in 'Born into this', look it up.Charles Bukowksy in 'Born into this', look it up.

True, Howard and Verne would have declined the offer too. After all, creators need their solitude to produce. The responsibility then invariably lies with their agents and the independent filmmaker community, to pursue them, convince them and document their lives, as passionately, professionally and clearly as Patrick Meaney and Erik Nelson did for Neil Gaiman and Harlan Ellison.

It won’t happen by itself, fellas. We are missing the chance here. Once that window closes, it closes.

You can watch Patrick Meaney’s “Neil Gaiman: dream dangerously” here, Erik Nelson’s “Harlan Ellison: Dreams with sharp teeth” here and John Dullaghan’s Charles Bukowsky: Born into this, right over here.