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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.”