The Sandman is out now on Netflix, and it is terrific. It’s the rare show that manages to stay true to its source material — Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic series of the same name — while also changing things just enough to make things a little more approachable for modern audiences. Please watch it and tell Netflix you want more, because I need a second season.
One of the many people responsible for bringing the show to life is Vanessa Benton, who worked as a writer on the show. Benton was kind enough to take to us about their experience. Watch the interview below, and then we’ll hit some highlights!
Why audiences are ready for a show like The Sandman
Benton has long been interested in telling genre stories. They first read The Sandman in college. “Okay, this is kind of dark. It became a favorite just because it got me through a dark time of trying to figure out my life in college.” Once they got to Hollywood, Benton worked on shows like How To Get Away With Murder but had ambitions to write on something a little weirder. That brought them into the orbit of The Sandman producer Allan Heinberg. “It really just came from me putting myself out there as this kind of fantasy, genre-ish writer, which for the time was still not a popular thing…When I first came out here, it was like, ‘Hmm, is that real? What are you doing?'”
The Sandman is indeed a tricky one. It’s about Morpheus, aka Dream, aka Oneiros, aka a lot of other stuff, who is the anthropomorphic personification of dreams. It’s hard to know what Dream will get up to in any given episode. In one he visits Hell. In another he stops a psycho from torturing people at a diner. In another he’s feeding pigeons in the park. The show varies wildly in tone from episode to episode. It asks a lot of the viewer, but Benton thinks people are ready.
“I kinda feel confident,” they said. “There’s an ask of the audience. Every episode is kind of a different tone, a different cast of characters, mini-movies each episode. And I just feel like audiences have watched so much TV at this point, and are very intelligent or at least open at this point, that even if they decide that it’s not for them, that I think that they’ll be able to appreciate something different. So I do feel really confident in what we did and I feel like there’ll be a lot of people who are engaged…And hopefully the fans who already read the stuff know that this is just how it is in the comics. So I just feel a strong sense of confidence in audiences in general nowadays that they have the capacity to hold a lot more. I mean, Game of Thrones was huge, and that was a lot.”
The joy of writing about a serial killer convention
Turning to the writing process, Benton told us about threading the needle when adapting this classic comic. “Sticking close to those big moments was really important,” they said. “I learned a lot about adapting in general…With The Sandman it was just really important for us to make it like, we are honoring longtime fans but also keeping it fresh so new fans are not like, ‘What’s going on?’ and still have an entryway in. All of that was approved by Gaiman and Heinberg.”
Benton met Gaiman once, FYI; mostly the author relayed his notes through Heinberg. “[Gaiman] definitely didn’t have time to be in the room every day, but he knew everything,” Benton said. And Heinberg had plenty of good advice of his own when it came to writing:
"“Keep the creativity, but understand that when it comes time to edit or cut or shoot, that a lot of stuff may not make it in because of all those millions of things”…When it comes time to write your episode…I was encouraged to keep that creativity. So as long as you’re not changing up the entire story, lines, beats, moments…those are the things that end up being your stamp (that are within budget and time restriction)."
Benton, for reference, wrote the ninth episode of the first season, “Collectors,” the one that takes place mainly at the “Cereal Convention.” That one is awash in dark humor; what do you expect when a bunch of serial killers throw their own Comic-Con?
“I think the more dark humor gets me excited,” Benton said. “Obviously, darkness and disturbing content is awesome. But it’s made even worse when you can cut it with humor that is kind of funny, and for a second gives you a moment of reprieve, just to be like, ‘Oh, but this is a serial killer convention.’ So that is my absolute favorite thing to do, because I think it just amplifies the horror of any scene.”
The Sandman has plenty of humor and darkness to go around. My personal favorite episode, “The Sound of Her Wings,” is on the lighter side of things, focusing on Dream’s relationships with his older sister Death and his friend of several centuries Hob Gadling. “That episode…went through a lot of changes and a lot of thought,” Benton said. “I remember putting a lot of care and energy into that relationship between those two. So I love that episode.”
The Sandman writer Vanessa Benton is crossing their fingers for a season 2
Unfortunately, Benton didn’t get to work with the actors on the show; the team wrote the scripts long before shooting began. “We mostly tried to write to the general tone and respecting the essence of the character itself,” Benton said. Worked out well.
That also meant that Benton got to be surprised when they finally watched the show. “I really enjoyed [Dream’s] interaction with Matthew [the Raven]. Because I wasn’t quite sure how that was gonna work. I was like, ‘So is it a puppet? Is it a real thing?’ So I was really pleasantly surprised at how that turned out and how beautiful those shots were.”
"The whole visual aspect of Dream…him being trapped and all that, that was absolutely gorgeous. The sets were gorgeous. I really wish that I could have been there to see it in real life."
Perhaps in season 2…speaking of, Benton hasn’t heard word on that yet. “My fingers are crossed. There’s so much more of the comic to go…We have so much more to cover, so I’m hoping we get a season 2.” I’m with you there.
You can find Vanessa Benton on Twitter and Instagram. Also look out for their multimedia series God Bless the Promised Land coming out at the end of September. As for The Sandman, you can (and should) watch it on Netflix. “This show, whether people like it or they don’t like it, to me it just represents, ‘Look at what we can do in the genre,'” Benton said. “Everything is different, everything is beautiful, these characters…It’s an adaptation and it was able to change and update…I just really feel like it is a great representation of what genre can do for TV.”