Tag Archives: Douglas Mackinnon

Angels and demons

Michael Sheen, David Tennant and the cast of Good Omens reflect on starring in the eagerly anticipated adaptation of the hugely popular fantasy novel, under the stewardship of showrunner Neil Gaiman, who co-wrote the book with the late Terry Pratchett.

It’s a bitterly chilly November day and we’re surrounded by bunkers on the decommissioned RAF base of Upper Heyford in the English county of Oxfordshire, once a nuclear weapons site during the Cold War. It all feels unavoidably appropriate for the filming of Good Omens, the six-part adaptation of Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett’s apocalyptic comedy. Telling the story of an angel and a demon who, having grown to love Earth, join forces to prevent the coming of age of the Antichrist (an unwitting 11-year-old called Adam, living quietly in rural Oxfordshire) and the End of Days.

L to R: Douglas Mackinnon, David Tennant, Michael Sheen and Neil Gaiman

Its co-creator is, inevitably and aptly, dressed in regulation black and fizzing with delight at how the shoot, now at its halfway stage, is going under director Douglas Mackinnon. “We have the best cast I’ve ever worked with,” says Gaiman, who is showrunning the series.

After a close shave with Hollywood courtesy of Terry Gilliam and derailed by 9/11, it took the combined financial muscle and creative ambition of Amazon and the BBC for it to come to screen with an astonishing cast in tow, from Frances McDormand as God to Benedict Cumberbatch as Satan, via Anna Maxwell Martin’s Beelzebub and Jon Hamm’s Archangel Gabriel. It is produced by Amazon Studios, BBC Studios, Blank Corporation and Narrativia.

Leading the spectacular ensemble are the men trying to avert Armageddon and avoid an unwanted return to their desk jobs: Michael Sheen’s upstanding, eccentric angel Aziraphale and David Tennant’s louche, dangerous demon Crowley, sparring partners ever since Crowley persuaded Eve to eat that apple.

David Tennant as louche demon Crowley and Michael Sheen as eccentric angel Aziraphale

“I knew how much Michael loved Good Omens,” Gaiman recalls, “so I had dinner with him and asked if I could send him scripts. He rapidly came on board and once we had Michael Sheen, everybody else just went, ‘Oh, okay – it’s real.’ I had to talk Michael into being the angel, because you could absolutely have gone the other way with him as Crowley and David as Aziraphale. They love the idea that, if ever we did this as a stage production somehow, they would swap roles each night.”

“I’ve always been interested in how we portray goodness,” says Sheen, looking striking indeed with a bleached blond barnet (“I now find myself going, ‘Ooh, look at my roots!’”), tartan bowtie and flannel trousers. “The stereotype is that it’s fun to play the baddie because evil’s interesting and goodness is just boring. Certainly, there’s something holier-than-thou about Aziraphale, but over the course of the story the edges get knocked off him a bit. For someone who’s eternal, actually he does change as the piece goes on.”

“I didn’t know the book, I’m ashamed to say,” admits Tennant, deeply unsettling with prescription yellow contact lenses (“They’re prescription, which helps”), enormous orange quiff and snakeskin boots. But he has been made aware of the pressure being applied by its authors’ dedicated fans.

“Nina Sosanya [playing Sister Mary Loquacious] said, ‘I would have done anything to be in this. It’s my favourite book of all time.’ That’s the sort of refrain I keep hearing. So of course, once you realise you hold something so precious to people in your hand, you don’t want to disappoint them, while still bringing it to a wider audience. I’m sure some people will be furious and some people will be utterly delighted. All you can do is do your best.”

Miranda Richardson as medium and part-time sex worker Madame Tracey

The presence of one of its creators doesn’t hurt, of course. “He’s like a very kind and gentle surgeon,” enthuses Miranda Richardson, fresh from playing with a “thundergun.” “He’ll come up and say something like, ‘The trick is this…’ or ‘Think about this…’ It’s not that you’re doing anything wrong, he’s just adding to the mix.”

Outside the tent, the towering Death stalks by with a cheery smile, green mask off (and to be replaced by a CGI’d skull in the final edit, along with the voice of Brian Cox), while War waves a fiery sword around. It has started to drizzle, but the mood remains upbeat.

“Laughter keeps you going on days like today,” Richardson adds. She plays Madame Tracey, a medium, part-time sex worker and “generous person.” “She comes from a very good place and becomes a vessel for Aziraphale who at one point is looking for a body and a voice.”

Mad Men star Jon Hamm plays Archangel Gabriel

“My character is also a vessel, but more like a leaky canteen,” says Michael McKean, who plays the Scottish Sergeant Shadwell, the last witchfinder standing. “He’s given himself over, because no one else wants him, to the eradication of witches on this earth. He looks upon life with a very jaundiced eye.”

The Spinal Tap star’s accent has been monitored throughout by Scots Mackinnon and Tennant, the latter of whom “commends it to the roof.” Shadwell’s sidekick has also been preoccupied with accents – his quailing mentee, Newton Pulsifer, is played by Jack Whitehall.

“It’s not a posh character – finally!” laughs Whitehall. “In terms of the costume I went down the Harry Potter route in the hope that it would help me put to bed some of the dreams that I still have. I got to use my northern accent for Newt’s ancestor, who I also play. I’ve been honing it for a long time. I always want to throw in a ‘yah!’ but I resist!”

Newton Pulsifer gives Jack Whitehall the chance to try an accent

Aria Arjona plays Anathema Device, a descendant of the witch who correctly predicted the end of the world and was burnt at the stake by Shadwell and Newt’s ancestors. The Puerto Rican True Detective actor has found filming in the UK to be eye-opening. “It’s a completely different style of working than in America – a little more technical, and the schedules are crazy, but everything ends up being done. For Anathema, like all my characters, the wardrobe is what gets me there. Once I put the boots on it all fell into place. She has a kind of wire up her spine, a tension which came as soon as I got them on.”

Speaking of tension, the uneasy geopolitical situation has ensured the series, which debuts worldwide on Amazon Prime Video tomorrow before rolling out on BBC2 in the UK, feels regrettably topical. “It’s quite a tonic to come to work and almost be making a joke of the end of the world,” says Tennant. “I think probably we all need to do that. I just pray we make it to transmission…”

“It’s never a bad time to re-establish why it’s good that we don’t all blow each other up,” Sheen concludes. “Good Omens is very British about the end of the world, and there’s something reassuring about that.”

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Good timing

For years, Neil Gaiman and Sir Terry Pratchett’s cult novel Good Omens was deemed unfilmmable – until now. Gaiman and director Douglas Mackinnon tell DQ how they turned this funny and fantastical story of the end of the world into a six-part TV spectacle.

When Jon Hamm signed up for a miniseries version of Neil Gaiman and Sir Terry Pratchett’s novel Good Omens, the Mad Men star joined a team taking on what many had deemed an impossible task. “I thought it was one of the funniest, coolest books I’d ever read,” he says. “It was also, obviously, unfilmmable.”

For a long time, Gaiman would have been excused for thinking so too. He wrote the book with late fantasy author Pratchett in 1989 and it was published the following year, quickly winning a cult following.

Then came many years of failed attempts to bring about a movie adaptation, either because it was too weird, there were too many characters, or both. But in the summer of 2014, with Pratchett suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, he wrote to Gaiman asking him to make Good Omens himself because he wanted to see it before he died. Sadly, it was a dream he never realised, passing away in March 2015. Gaiman knew then he had to fulfil his dear friend’s last request.

Neil Gaiman

“I feel a little bit like one of those people who manages to do something completely impossible because nobody mentions to me that it’s impossible,” showrunner Gaiman tells DQ. “I should have had a clue in retrospect, because we went to half-a-dozen of the best writers in the world over a period of a few years and asked them to do the adaptation of Good Omens and they all explained that it was probably impossible to do.

“But then Terry asked me if I would do the adaptation. Up until that point, the deal Terry and I had was that we would do something together on Good Omens or not do it at all. Here we were with Terry actually saying, ‘I can’t do it so you have to because I want to see it before I die.’ Then he died – which left me with Good Omens as a thing to see through, and I couldn’t let myself believe at that point that it would be impossible or unfilmmable because I had to give this to Terry. I was fortunate in that, at the end of writing the script, people liked it.”

Gaiman spent 18 months writing six scripts, reinventing the story for television and injecting extra excitement and surprises while trying to stay loyal to the original material – the story of a friendship between an angel and a demon who have been on Earth for too long and now want to stop the apocalypse.

Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex) and David Tennant (Doctor Who, Marvel’s Jessica Jones) star as fussy angel and rare-book dealer Aziraphale and fast-living demon Crowley, respectively, who have lived on Earth since The Beginning and have become fond of the lifestyle and each other. So it’s terrible news for them when they discover that if Heaven and Hell have their way, the world will end next Saturday. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan, until it’s discovered that someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist…

The series was commissioned by Amazon Prime Video and UK pubcaster BBC2, with Amazon set to premiere the six-part fantasy drama this spring before it launches on the BBC. The show is produced by Narrativia, The Blank Corporation and BBC Studios, which also distributes.

“When people are making films, there’s a lot of time spent worrying about things like tone and consistency and telling one story clearly, whereas what Good Omens does is tell multiple stories with multiple characters, albeit with Aziraphale and Crowley at the heart of it all,” explains director and executive producer Douglas Mackinnon. “It wanders off into many different paths and thoroughfares, and yet the main theme – good against evil – glues it together. When I read the script, I felt it wasn’t impossible, just quite a big challenge.”

David Tennant (left) as demon Crowley and Michael Sheen as angel Aziraphale

When it comes to adapting one of his own books for the screen, Gaiman jokes that his writing process is to say, “No, get somebody else to do it.” American Gods and Lucifer are two other series currently on air that are based on Gaiman creations. But with Good Omens, he no longer had the option to pass it on, owing to his promise to Pratchett.

With six episodes to write, he took the novel, cut it into six parts and began to explore what that might look like. Quickly, however, he found if he did it that way, neither Crowley nor Aziraphale would appear in episode three, so he ended up writing additional material featuring them both to insert into the original story. “But actually that wound up becoming incredibly important to what we were doing and encapsulated a lot of the themes and made them feel even more prevalent than they were for the rest of the series,” he says.

Gaiman admits some of his favourite bits in the book didn’t make it into the script because, ultimately, they were unfilmmable. Sequences taking place in people’s heads or conversations between a group of helmet-wearing bikers riding with the roar of their engines, for example. Other bits, however, were added in, such as a role for Mad Men star Jon Hamm as Archangel Gabriel.

“The angels were characters Terry and I had talked about, planned out and thought about a lot after we wrote the book – and had we ever done a sequel, they would have been in that more,” Gaiman says. “So I got to go and steal from the work we did back then and create four angels who aren’t anywhere in the book: Gabriel, played by Jon; Michael, played by Doon Mackichan; Paul Chahidi plays Sandalphon and Gloria Obianyo plays Uriel, and they’re wonderful – these incredible angels in very sharp suits.”

Mackinnon, whose directing credits include Sherlock, Doctor Who and Line of Duty, says working on Good Omens has been a complete collaboration with Gaiman, who has been on set for large parts of the shoot, was involved in casting and choosing every costume and, more recently, has been in the cutting room every day. He didn’t want to impose a particular style on the show, however. Anyone who’s read the book will know it has a unique tone of its own, and it was the script that subsequently informed Mackinnon’s decisions. He would also carry a copy of the book around with him during production.

Mad Men star Jon Hamm (left) plays Archangel Gabriel

“I did one or two episodes of Line of Duty and it’s a very different show, and the style presented itself for that,” he says. “This has a much more epic, cinematic feel that the storytelling in the script deserves.”

But it was the scale of the production on a daily basis that proved to be the biggest challenge for the director. “We’d seldom stay in one location for one or two days,” he says, with filming taking place in London, Oxford and South Africa over 93 days. “We had to come away with all the material each time. With 200 speaking parts, just casting that and organising it has been a massive task, and that’s been the challenge. But it’s been a wonderful challenge, really exciting and a brilliant one as well.”

Gaiman describes Good Omens as a “mammoth, gargantuan project,” but says he loved the fact that no reshoots were needed. “We went in, we got what we needed, we came away and that was amazing,” he adds.

But showrunning won’t be a role he’s likely to repeat in a hurry, if at all. “I’m very much looking forward to becoming a retired showrunner,” he quips, revealing his ambitions to create and write more television, novels, children’s books and poetry. “By the time this goes out, I will have given four years of my life to it and there are lots of other things out there that I want to do. I’ve learned so much from Douglas and from working with everybody about the minutiae of making a show like this. I think I will be much more useful in the future, as I will be able to create things and communicate to showrunners much more successfully.”

Gaiman says that, at its core, Good Omens is a book about humanity and friendship. But what he’s proudest of is that the show doesn’t feel like anything else on television, which is quite a feat considering the 500-plus dramas now on air.

“Normally, if you’re trying to describe something, you do it by comparing it to other things. You’re like, ‘Well, it’s Casablanca in space,’ or whatever,” he says. “With this, it’s not like anything else. It’s Good Omens – and when people see it, that’s what they compare it to. It is the only thing like it, for good or for evil, for success or failure. I don’t care. What I do care about is we’ve made something that feels unique, feels special and, at least to me and Douglas, feels absolutely magical.”


Assembling an ensemble
When it comes to casting, there can be few better ensembles on screen than that collated for Good Omens. With Michael Sheen and David Tennant leading off as angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley, the supporting cast includes Jon Hamm (Archangel Gabriel), Miranda Richardson (Madame Tracy), Mireille Enos (War), Mark Gatiss (Harmony), Derek Jacobi (Metatron), Anna Maxwell Martin (Beelzebub), Daniel Mays (Arthur Young), Sian Brooke (Deirdre Young), Adria Arjonoa (Anathema Device), Nina Sosanya (Sister Mary Loquacious) and David Morrissey (Captain Vincent), as well as many other notable names.

Miranda Richardson alongside fellow cast members Hamm, Sheen and Tennant

Tennant and Sheen had known each other for a while and had even appeared in a film together, 2003’s Bright Young Things, though they never acted together. But playing a pair of unlikely best friends meant they too became extremely close, sharing most of their screen time throughout the long shoot.

“We spent a lot of time sitting on park benches discussing the end of the world, what restaurant we were going to go to next or what else we’ve done that’s just fucked things up even more,” Tennant jokes, speaking at Amazon’s Prime Video Presents event in London in October. “We did know each other but we’d never worked together and you think, ‘This could be awful. What if we rub up against each other the wrong way?’ But mercifully I think we found a rhythm very quickly. If you’ve got two characters that feel completely new and instantly recognisable, that comes from the writing. You know what this really unique, odd, peculiar world is straightaway, the minute you start playing it. It was a joy.”

Sheen continues: “Whenever I think about playing the character, and this is not true of any other part I play, I only think of it in terms of me and David. I don’t think of it as just an individual character, I think of him as ‘us.’”

Richardson plays Madame Tracy, a psychic and part-time courtesan who provides a helping hand to Aziraphale and Crowley as they try to save the world from Armageddon. “Physically embodying her with all the help that any of us always gets on a production in terms of hair and make-up and costume was a lot of fun, but also because it is a performance for her. It’s huge fun and a great thing to do.”

Hamm, best known for playing Mad Men’s Don Draper for seven seasons, had read the book some time ago and was a fan of Gaiman. So when the writer emailed him about playing a character that didn’t exist in the book, he admits “it was a very easy ‘yes.’”

“I knew that whatever direction it was going to take, it was going to be excellent,” Hamm explains. “Then I saw who else was in it and I thought it was going to be fun, too. I love working over here [in the UK]. I got the chance to be over here for five or six weeks and really just play at this exciting, fun job. So it was a no-brainer for me. I was just happy to be asked.”

But how does he respond when people ask him what Good Omens is about? “I say it’s a comedy about the Apocalypse,” he adds. “That usually gets a little head cock and demands further explanation, and that’s the best way in.”

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