Published: Friday, 31 May 2019 | Written by SciFi Vision
The new six-part series, Good Omens, based on the novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, directed by Douglas Mackinnon, with a screenplay by Gaiman, drops today on Netflix. The series stars Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale and David Tennant as the demon Crowley, unlikely friends, who, used to their lives on Earth, try to stop the rise of the antichrist and the final battle between Heaven and Hell.
Director and Executive Producer Mackinnon, as well as Executive Producer Rob Wilkins, who was also Pratchett’s personal assistant, recently talked to SciFi Vision in an interview about working on Good Omens, adapting the novel to television, the style of the show, and more.
SCIFI VISION: Can you talk about the steps that were taken in adapting the book for television?
DOUGLAS MACKINNON: I think the big challenge for Neil, who has written all the scripts, was not having Terry Pratchett around to work with on the scripts like he worked with on the books. But then he had the books, so that’s kind of half Terry as well. So, Terry was kind of always around.
But Neil has talked about in the script writing process how he missed having the conversations with Terry over problems, and then he missed when he found the solution, being able to phone Terry and say, “Look, it’s okay. I know what we have to do,” or Terry would find the solution for the problem.
And after that, when I became involved, after the scripts became completed, I think the big challenge was to honor the vision of the book in the first place and find a way to kind of not adapt, but instead actually make Good Omens for the screen.
Do you have anything to add, Rob?
ROB WILKINS: I think Douglas summed it up beautifully. Neil had a very close relationship with Terry while they were working on the book, so Neil was obviously going to miss Terry’s presence, but Neil went on to working very closely with Douglas on this TV adaptation. They worked so closely together, and the friendship that they formed, the working relationship that they formed, and the banter between them proved to me that Douglas was the man for the job to get this onto the screen with Neil’s script. So, Neil didn’t have Terry; he had to channel Terry through the book, but he had Douglas, and that was a relationship that worked incredibly well. I’ve never seen anything like it; I’ll be honest with you.
Can you talk about the overall look and style, or tone, of the series and how those decisions came about?
ROB WILKINS: I think for me, the most important thing before any of those was the casting. I think if we nailed the casting, then that was it. The feel and the look of our show would be visualized through our cast.
We knew Neil had a personal friendship with Michael Sheen, and we knew that he would be our Aziraphale very early on, and he became our cornerstone. He was our angel.
The second most important piece of casting was obviously Crowley, our demon, and we were blessed when David Tennant was not only available but wanted to do it.
And our two leads, the chemistry between them was so perfect that everything fell into place behind them.
But with the overall look of the show, for me, the cornerstone was the casting.
DOUGLAS MACKINNON: To build on top of that - I agree with everything that Rob said, but in terms of the overall look and tone, very early on I was going through the process with Amazon about discussing exactly that, with Neil and Rob and all the execs from BBC and so on, about what the tone might be. And very often in television programs, what the money wants to hear, is that there is one tone or one genre that you’re going to play with. And I hadn’t quite got the job at this point, but said, knowing in my head it was a huge risk, that the tone for Good Omens, is that there is no [specific] tone. [laughs]
I felt that that’s what the book was, and that’s what the scripts were telling me, that there were multiple genres and tones that we had to play with, and that indeed what I had to do was honor each one of those moments as told in each genre.
And happily, Neil still quotes that as being the key moment for him of when he realized that things were going to be okay between us as well, because he felt the same way.
And I think that what Good Omens could have become was a chiseled down, smoothed out, soft-edged seamy bit of old television. Instead, what we’ve got is a handmade, rough looking thing, that’s got a big budget, but nevertheless is made with love and attention to detail and honors the book’s vision. And Jenn Salke, who heads Amazon, said very early on she hadn’t seen anything like it before.
I think one of the things that I’m looking forward to seeing the audience get used to is the fact that they don’t have the normal linchpins of simple genres and simple storytelling that we’re used to in television and film.
To help them understand, I used to play two David Bowie tracks to all my heads of department to try and give them an insight into what the tone was and what flavor we wanted for Good Omens. One track that I played was “Life on Mars,” and on that track Rick Wakeman played an amazingly beautiful piano solo. We listened to that, and I said, Good Omens is not that. Then we’d go and listen to the piano that’s played by Mike Garson on Aladdin Sane, which is an eclectic avant-garde jazz sound that sounds insane, and I’d say, “That is Good Omens.” And that’s how I guided my crew into what I thought was Good Omens.
Neil and I used to say, in order to introduce the show to them, that what we want is for you to write emails that begin with the sentence, “This might be insane, but...” [laughs]
Can you talk about the visual effects used to create Satan and working with Benedict Cumberbatch on it? I’m assuming it was at least partially motion captured, because I read that you put more of him into it.
DOUG MACKINNON: So, Satan was obviously written into the scripts, and we had early ideas and concepts of what Satan might look like. Neil and I were very keen that the Satan that comes out of the ground is the same as all the other characters, including God and Beelzebub and including all the human characters as well, that they all feel like they’ve just ended up with jobs they’ve been given rather than jobs that they actually wanted.
So, we wanted a Satan that could turn out to be something that ended up being kind of human related in the end, but we nevertheless started off doing early concepts. And Satan kind of looked like he looks just now, but then eventually, we landed on getting Benedict to come in to do the voice of Satan. I filmed him doing the voice, and as soon as our CGI animators saw that film, surprise, surprise, Benedict did something interesting. [laughs] So, we shifted the animation in to fit with Benedict’s movements and Benedict’s voice and Benedict’s character that he brought, which was indeed to give us a Satan that comes up very brash and Satan like but ends up being crushed by his actual son rejecting him for his adoptive father.
Obviously, there’re a lot of, like you said, “this might sound crazy” moments throughout the series. What was the particular one that was the hardest to bring to screen?
DOUGLAS MACKINNON: I think I’d actually say there’re two huge elements that I think sometimes look quite casual on the screen but were actually incredibly hard to do.
One was Aziraphale’s book shop, which what we’ve got on screen, is that it looks like a normal sort of street, but actually, half of it is CGI. The far end is completely CGI constructed, including all the cars and the people, and the reason we had to do that, is because we knew we were going to have to burn it down. So, that was a mixture of physical effects and CGI.
The other one was Crowley’s Bentley, which we knew what had to happen with that car was that it fictionally had to travel at 90 miles an hour through the streets of London. We had a real-life Bentley, a beautiful little car that could do 90 miles per hour, but only after an hour going downhill. [laughs]
So, we ended up constructing not only a full CGI model of the car, but we also built an interior set of the car so that we could do the interior conversations against green screen and with a projection. And then of course the car also had to [be on fire].
So, that’s the challenge of following the route through with the bookshop and the car and making sure that it could always serve the story in the end. I would say that was the biggest challenge in the series.
I know that more was added to the series than was in the original book, and some of it was what might have been a part of the sequel if it had been written. Can you talk about fitting those parts in?
ROB WILKINS: I think we all know that a book is actually a really bad way to interpret a story onto the screen. That’s why we have screen writers, but obviously we were blessed in the fact that the cowriter, fifty percent of Good Omens, Neil Gaiman, was writing our screenplay. So therefore, anything that Neil needed to put in to pad out the story, or even if there was anything that he needed to dial back on the story, he was the coauthor of the original material doing it. So, he could do things in a way that another writer couldn’t.
There was a boldness to what he could do because of that, and he knew that whatever he was doing, he could refer to conversations he had with Terry Pratchett while they were writing the original material.
So, one good example would be that the angel Gabriel is mentioned briefly in the original novel, but Neil knew that the whole of Heaven in fact needed to be dialed up. We needed to do more on that, so Neil needed to make more of a play of the angels, and he told a lot of that story through the angel Gabriel.
And obviously again talking about casting being the cornerstone of everything we did, casting John Hamm as the angel Gabriel, I think that drove Neil’s words forward again to another level.
DOUGLAS MACKINNON: I worked with Neil on it after he decided that he wanted Gabriel. So, we got Frances McDormand as the voice of God, and when we were in the process, we sort of decided instead of having a narrator or indeed a voice of the book, that we would amalgamate a lot of that into God herself.
So, then we ended up having the twin sort of terrors of God and Satan, and then we’ve got Gabriel and Beelzebub, and then the more minion-y type demons and angels, and then we’ve got the brilliant Doon Mackichan doing Michael and Paul Chahidi doing Sandalphon and so on.
So, we ended up with a structure that in a very, very complicated show the audience can perhaps hold on to a little easier.
ROB WILKINS: Very little of that was in the original book; Neil and Douglas created that for the show.
Another brief example would be the whole of the beginning of episode three, of Aziraphale and Crowley through the ages, and that obviously is not in the original book. That whole thirty odd minutes was created to nail home their friendship, that they’ve been friends for over six thousand years, and what a strange friendship it is for an angel and demon to have.
But Douglas and Neil created this wonderful, wonderful beginning to episode three that shows their friendship from the Garden of Eden all the way through to World War II up to the 1960s London. It’s remarkable, and none of that was in the book.
DOUGLAS MACKINNON: A friendship through time.
ROB WILKINS: A friendship through time indeed.
I was going to ask about that decision, to make parts of the series nonlinear, and if you thought that maybe that was something you could do easier on a streaming service than you could on television, jump in and out like that, while still keep the audience.
DOUGLAS MACKINNON: I think the thing that we were desperate to do, was to be faithful to the book, and with Neil as showrunner and with me as the sole director, we actually felt that we were making a six hour movie rather than a six part television series.
And to be honest, the thing that we hope people will do, is binge watch it, and I think, you know, surprise, surprise a lot of fans will do that. That’s one of the reasons we really wanted to have it all go out in one big lump rather than it be a single episode per week event. Some series that's perfect for, I’m not denying that, but I think, for us, we’d love people to be sitting down and watching two or three hours at a time and be hooked into it.
And I think that allows the nonlinear thing to happen more freely, because you can go off on these little diversions, and it sort of bypasses the story to come back in.
And I know that what Neil feels very strongly about, and I never had the good fortune to meet Terry, but I know Terry’s works are the same, is that they both felt and feel that storytelling is not something that should be stuck in genre and stuck in a traditional structure. It should be the story you want to tell with all the bumps and grinds around it in a very human way.