SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “A Dream of a Thousand Cats”/”Calliope,” the surprise 11th episode of “The Sandman” Season 1.
Netflix’s “The Sandman” was always meant to have 11 episodes in its first season — you just didn’t know it until the special final installment, a two-part animated and live-action story titled “A Dream of a Thousand Cats”/ “Calliope,” dropped Friday.
Or, if you’re a diehard fan who has been following every piece of “Sandman” news since the TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s beloved graphic novels was first ordered to series in July 2019, you might have been slightly gaslit into not remembering that there were 11 episodes when the 10-episode season launched two weeks ago.
“There may have been hints earlier. We sold an 11-episode order way back when, and you’ll see that if you go back and look at some of the press,” “Sandman” showrunner Allan Heinberg, who developed the series alongside Gaiman and executive producer David Goyer, told Variety. “So I think we were a little bit like, ‘Have we let the cat out of the bag?’ before we even knew there were cats in the bag, but we did the best we could.”
But there were a few times when Gaiman, as he put it, “let the cat out of the building” while making the Tom Sturridge-led show.
“Once, I put the ‘Here Comes a Candle’ book cover up on Twitter,” Gaiman said, referring to a fictional book featured in his “Sandman” issue “Calliope.” “I replied to somebody about ‘A Dream of a Thousand Cats,’ and I said we started casting the cats already. But then I shut up — until there was a moment where Allan came the closest to kicking me under the table he has ever come in his entire life.”
Gaiman revealed that “during one of the interviews where people were saying, ‘How did you get this amazing cast?,’ I started just listing the cast, so on and so forth and I said Derek Jacobi.” (Jacobi plays the villainous author Erasmus Fry in the “Calliope” portion of Episode 11, but does not appear throughout the other 10 episodes of “The Sandman” Season 1.) “And Allan looked at me,” Gaiman said, “[and I finished] ‘… Isn’t in it!’”
To be fair to Gaiman, keeping the secret was a three-year challenge that began even before “The Sandman” had been picked up at Netflix.
“The ‘secret’ 11th episode was conceived by Neil and Allan and myself even before we pitched the show to buyers,” Goyer told Variety. “Anyone familiar with ‘Sandman’ knows that there are all these incredible stand-alone issues interspersed throughout the original run and we were determined to adapt those. We pitched everyone the notion of doing an 11th episode that would drop off-cycle and we would use these episodes to adapt those issues — but also as a love-letter to the fans.”
Goyer continued: “It was unconventional and it felt very much in-spirit with Neil’s unconventional run. We had many offers to make ‘Sandman’ among the buyers — but Netflix was the only one that agreed to make the ‘secret’ episode. And truthfully, that was one of the major reasons we went with Netflix. We felt they got it in a way the others didn’t. We told them we wanted to tackle ‘Dream of a Thousand Cats’ first and that we wanted it to be animated. And you could see the fear rising in most of the buyers’ eyes. Netflix didn’t flinch.”
At first, Gaiman says the plan was to wait a year after the drop of the first 10 episodes because of the chance it could be a two-year wait between seasons of “The Sandman” due to its large-scale, complex elements. But prior to the series premiere, the team decided to speed up the timeline and drop the surprise two weeks after launch as a special treat for fans, who have already turned out in droves to make the show a hit.
“Episode 11 is our gift to the fans. We had always envisioned doing a surprise bonus episode for ‘The Sandman’ and it was important to do it in a way where it felt like chapters that honor the original source material and Neil Gaiman’s extraordinary vision,” Netflix’s head of US scripted content Peter Friedlander told Variety. “From the animation and the storytelling to the distinct chapter format, the two-part surprise episode is brimming with creativity and innovation and we are thrilled to see fans embracing it and celebrating the series as a whole.”
The first half of that gift is titled “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” and is an entirely animated adaptation of the issue of the same name from Gaiman’s DC Comics “Sandman” series.
“The challenge for ‘Cats’ was obviously finding the right animation partner,” Goyer said. “We were all fans of [Hisko Hulsing’s] work. We wanted a hand-crafted feel. We wanted something special that really embodied just how wonderfully malleable ‘Sandman’ was. Hisko and his team created a work of art.”
Hulsing worked with Untold Studios in London for the 3D animation of the cats in the story, as well as Submarine Studios in Amsterdam for the 2D animation, oil paintings and stylizing.
“I started by thumbnailing each shot and making a rough drawing of each. Almost like building an animated film,” Hulsing said. “And we were very truthful to the story because I had a script, written by Catherine Smyth-McMullen, but I also had all the notes Neil Gaiman gave 30 years ago to the artist and I took them very seriously. They were very imaginative and good and intelligent. But sometimes, visually storytelling-wise, they were wrong. You have pretty strict rules like staying on one line of the eye line. Animated films have rules that you can break for a reason — but you shouldn’t do it, usually.”
The actors voicing Hulsing’s creations were voiced by a few of Gaiman and Heinberg’s famous friends, including Sandra Oh, James McAvoy, David Tennant and Michael Sheen. (McAvoy voices Morpheus, aka Dream, in Audible’s “The Sandman” adaptation, while Sheen does the voice of Lucifer, who is portrayed by Gwendoline Christie in the Netflix series, and Tennant voices Loki. Sheen and Tennant also star in another Gaiman book- to-TV adaptation, Amazon Prime Video’s “Good Omens.”)
“We got an A-list cast for ‘A Dream of a Thousand Cats’ that we probably couldn’t have gotten for a two- or three-week shoot because they are so busy,” Gaiman said. “But we could get them to record for us. So we could get Michael Sheen and David Tennant and Georgia and Anna. We could get James McAvoy. How mad is that, that James did it for us as a wonderful gesture? Sandra Oh is the biggest for me, the one that I was starstruck by… That one wasn’t me at all, that one was 100% Allan.”
Heinberg added: “That happened to be because Sandra had just gotten into London to start ‘Killing Eve’ Season 4 and we were having breakfast. And it all came together.”
The live-action portion of the episode, titled “Calliope,” stars Sturridge as Dream and guest stars Melissanthi Mahut as Calliope, Arthur Darvill as Richard Madoc and Jacobi as Erasmus Fry.
“‘Calliope’ was harder because it’s such a brutal story — in many ways it is the other bookend to ’24 Hours.’ That’s the thing with ‘Sandman’ — it embraces the best and the worst of humanity. Nightmares and delights.”
To nail that portrayal of both a dream and nightmare, episode director Louise Hooper wanted to deviate from Gaiman’s original comic in two significant ways: casting a Greek actress to play the Greek goddess, who is depicted as a blonde woman in the graphic novel, and eliminating the scenes where author Richard Madoc rapes the goddess to use her muse powers for his career.
“I really wanted to have an actress who felt she had that strength and that dignity and that kind of quiet defiance,” Hooper said. “It’s such a modern parable, of course there’s echoes of #MeToo, and I didn’t want her to be in too skimpy clothes, to feel too exposed. I wanted her to have that vulnerability, of course, but to have that elegance and that strength… And Melissanthi met that vision. She wanted the same thing.”
She continued: “To do a modern retelling, I didn’t want to see the rape scene. I don’t think it helps us in any way to actually see that on screen. You know what’s happening, that she’s being degraded and abused, and her voice is being repressed, but what I wanted from Melissanthi, and what she wanted too, is to have someone that’s an equal in her strength. So how I shot it, in terms of eye lines, her position in the camera with Richard is equal. So yes, she’s in a horrific situation, but she’s a fighter and she’s gonna keep her moral compass strong.”
Revealed throughout the “Calliope” story is the fact that Dream and Calliope were not just former lovers, but formerly married and had a son together, Orpheus, that had a mysterious — for the moment — tragedy befall him. With Calliope freed from her prison with help from Dream by the end of the bonus “Sandman” episode, there’s the big question about what we’ll learn about their past and their son in a potential second season.
Heinberg isn’t spilling anything (although Gaiman’s comics tell the story, if you’re interested in being spoiled) but he says he and Gaiman do have an actor in mind for the pivotal role of Dream and Calliope’s son Orpheus.
“I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, but we’ve talked about someone that we feel very strongly about,” Heinberg said. “And we have had those conversations and if we get a second season, we would love to be able to cast that person. We are conceiving of the whole season with this person in mind.”
Hooper, who also directed “The Sandman” Episode 10, the official Season 1 finale, notes the relationship between Dream and Calliope is “such a huge plot piece that was mentioned,” that “she wanted to make sure that you felt like you had the quiet and the space for all this information to drop and to understand without it feeling too emotional.”
“And at the end, when she’s transformed now into the Greek goddess that she should be,” Hooper said, “You see the sweetness of them together, and she just rests her head against him… Hopefully from that, the information can grow. “