With Good Omens now streaming on Amazon Video, I recently got to participate in a group interview in London with Neil Gaiman, director Douglas Mackinnon, and producer Rob Wilkins. During the interview, they talked about the challenges of trying to make the series on a TV budget, the casting process, David Tennant and Michael Sheen’s fantastic chemistry, the homages to iconic British filmmakers and comedians throughout the series, why they loved working with Amazon, and so much more.
If you haven’t seen the trailers or read the book, the six-episode series is based on the 1990 novel co-written by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, and follows the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant), who have struck up an odd-ball friendship over the course of 6,000 years serving as emissaries on Earth. When news comes down of the impending apocalypse, the duo set about trying to delay the endtimes. The series also stars Adria Arjona, Jon Hamm, Nick Offerman, Jack Whitehall, Miranda Richardson, Adria Arjona, Michael McKean, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mireille Enos, Frances McDormand as the voice of God, and Benedict Cumberbatch voicing Satan.
One of the reasons I enjoyed this series is it is unlike anything else on television and the chemistry between Sheen and Tennant is palpable. It’s worth watching just to see the two of them interact. Thankfully, the rest of the cast is also fantastic and also worth your time.
Check out what Neil Gaiman, director Douglas Mackinnon, and producer Rob Wilkins had to say below and you can for all our previous Good Omens coverage.
Question: No matter how much money you have, you’re always going to be against the wall in terms of time and schedule. What were the bigger challenges of trying to put this thing together with the money you had, and was there anything that had to be removed or altered because of that?
DOUGLAS MACKINNON: I’ve been pondering this a little bit, in the last little while, but we landed at the top end of television drama budgets, but the far, far bottom end of your Guardians of the Galaxy, DC, Marvel budgets. But we’re trying to make it look like it’s the top end. And sometimes it’s a struggle. We’ve had 17, 18 days per hour to make this, whereas Guardians of the Galaxy, we’d have, I don’t know, 150 days to their thing. So, it’s just a balancing act there. We were at the top end of television money, and yet we kept on running out of money, and kept on pushing the ambition, as you always do. Higher, and higher, and higher, because the storytelling is so complex, and rich, and beautiful, and everything else. I, as a director, didn’t want to miss a moment that Neil had written, and he didn’t want to dump anything.
NEIL GAIMAN: We had one producer, in the early days, who kept sending us emails. Rather frantic and worried emails explaining that we had to reduce the size of our ambition. We could not be so ambitious, we just simply had to curb our ambition. So we said goodbye to that producer, because we thought, “There are two ways to do this, and shooting for the stars is the only way.”
MACKINNON: Absolutely, and so what we did was if Plan A couldn’t be afforded, instead of moving to Plan B, we moved to Plan AA. That was one thing. But Neil came up with the best phrase to not confront money in the history of making anything television, or film. He said to the money one day, “What I’d like to do is just keep the bits that I love.” The room just went completely quiet. Neil went, “That’s what we want, I think!” So it was my job to go off and manage that into existence, and that’s what we did.
So, they’re sitting in episode 3 where we’ve got The Globe Theatre to see the first week of Hamlet. Neil originally wrote that scene, it was the first week of Hamlet, and it was a huge hit. Place was packed out with 500 people. My team got access to the Globe Theater for the first time in history to film in there, but they could only get us five hours, and I said to Neil, “Even if we could afford it, we won’t get 2,000 people in and out of the Globe Theatre in period costume.” So, he rewrote the scene better and made it the first week of Hamlet, and it’s a dud, and nobody’s turned up. Suddenly, you see the architecture of the Globe, it’s a great gag, and you see David, and we see an actor on stage playing Hamlet, saying the words “to be, or not to be,” and they’re not working. And so, it’s Plan AA.
ROB WILKINS: And the one thing that Terry Pratchett wanted most in a director was somebody that, when the money ran out, they could use their ingenuity. I have to say, channeling Terry here, that Douglas did that absolutely, using ingenuity when there’s no more money, and that’s huge.
MACKINNON: Thank you for that, but the ingenuity is really to do with storytelling, and my reference point was always in stages. Neil, who is usually sitting behind me at the monitors, and then after that, it was the scripts, and then after that, the foundation of all of it is Terry and Neil’s work in the book itself. It’s the book. All the actors were in the book.
What about the casting process? I mean, the actors are really amazing, and perfect for their roles. Were they in your mind?
MACKINNON: So usually, when you’re casting anything at all, what you say to your casting directors, “Can you find me somebody who’s a bit like Michael Sheen? Can you find somebody who’s a bit like David Tennant, and John Hamm, and Frances McDormand’s voice? That’d be good. You could get Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice, that’d be better, and all that stuff.” What we did was we asked all these people, and they all went, “Oh, yeah, okay.” That was it. And that was the casting process.
GAIMAN: The casting process, in a lot of ways, not for everybody, but for a lot of the significant people was the fact that I’m fortunate in having been around for a while, and I’m fortunate in the fact that the book has fans. Michael Sheen’s favorite book, at drama school, was Good Omens, and his favorite graphic novel was Sandman comics. So, he was onboard from the moment that he knew that we were doing this.
MACKINNON: Jon Hamm was the same.
GAIMAN: Jon Hamm, when I came up with the idea, when I had written Gabriel, we needed to cast him, and we were talking to Douglas and saying, “I think Jon Hamm.”
MACKINNON: And I went, “Yeah, sure. Okay.” Somebody like Jon Hamm.
GAIMAN: If you can get him. So, I wrote an email to Jon, and I said, “Look, I know that you love Good Omens. You told me. Do you want to be in it? It’s a part that isn’t in the book.” And he wrote back, and he just said, “Yes.”
MACKINNON: Nick Offerman is another great example. Nick, he got a really quite small part in the series. He’s in two episodes briefly, and he had to come to South Africa for these two scenes, and his fantastic thing was, what my first assistant director said to him, “It’s a long way to come for not very many lines.” He said, “I would have come twice as far for half the lines.”
Actually, David Tennant is the exception to this rule, because David hadn’t read the book, and he didn’t know it, and actually for me, as a director, that was a very useful lack of knowledge on the set, on a daily basis. Because Michael, who is always super prepared, and who would’ve read the book as well, and David always super prepared as well, but he arrives with a different sort of energy, and that combination of knowledge and not-knowledge was just really interesting, and it ended with a fantastic conversation. Michael going, “This is why we’re doing it,” and David going, “I just don’t get that.” And we turn to Neil and go, “What is it?” And then Neil would come out with a revelation on set about what it actually meant, or just say, “No, it’s just a bottle of water.” [laughs] So that discussion between the four of us, primarily, if anything’s working, it’s because of that set of…not arguments, but discussion that evolved, that thing we’ve got, and the chemistry that I hope you enjoy between David and Michael particularly.
You can tell how much [Sheen and Tennant] like to play with each other.
GAIMAN: There is some special chemistry, and that we got lucky on.
MACKINNON: I wish it was skillful.
GAIMAN: Yeah, it wasn’t skill. It was the fact that I think it’s incredibly well cast. Douglas and I worked very hard on it, but the magic that you see when David and…
MACKINNON: It’s all mine, you were going to say.
GAIMAN: It was this thing that Douglas managed to bring to it, a coaxing performance. We started to see it during the read through.
WILKINS: Ten minutes in.
GAIMAN: About ten minutes in, suddenly, it was as if they started dancing together. That dance continued to the end.
MACKINNON: We started to think they would learn the lines and turn up, and they would be good, and everything else, but I mean, Michael himself talks about that dance, he sort of said, “Suddenly, I was saying a line, and then the other line…” I think it’s worth saying as well, because you’ve said it publicly before that the two characters started off as one character and you split them at some point into the two characters I’m from Scotland, which won’t surprise you. There’s an ancient Celtic myth of when God first created a human being, she basically created a two-headed, four-legged, four-armed creature, and then it wasn’t working, so split it in half, and the idea is that we’ve almost being trying to get back together again ever since, you know? It’s almost like that what’s David and Michael are. In a very polarized world that we live in now, they represent those two polar ends of life, and yet they run along together. So if they can get on, why can’t everybody else? I suppose that’s our message.
Is there a little Terry Gilliam, Monty Python homage, too, in the intro?
MACKINNON: Everywhere. They’re everywhere.
GAIMAN: That and Douglas Adams, I would also say. Our first opening sequence is me very much tipping my hat to Douglas Adams.
MACKINNON: The Hitchhiker’s Guide.
GAIMAN: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the original. But it’s also trying to say, “This exists in the lineage, on the family tree of British comedy.”
MACKINNON: I’d also say, we talked very early on about British filmmaking as well, and I’d say in that tree that includes Python, for definite, and Douglas Adams. You’ve got Powell & Pressburger as well, 100%. Michael’s character’s voice is based on David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death. I think he’d say that himself, that it’s a huge influence at least, if not based on. There’s one particular scene where he definitely went all the way into David Niven, in the pub scene. You know, that’s there. And I think all these little trails of Terry Gilliam’s work, everybody knows that Terry Gilliam was attached to this project for ten years. If people get that flavor, then that’s a pride moment.
GAIMAN: I have rarely been more thrilled than seeing Eric Idle tweeting a couple of days ago that he watched the whole of Good Omens and he loved it, and then somebody said, “What are you doing? Just logrolling?” And he said, “No, no, no. My wife and my daughter made me watch it, and we all loved it.” That made me as happy as learning that Terry Gilliam’s coming to the premiere tonight, that makes me happy.
MACKINNON: They didn’t make him watch it. He watched it, and then they watched it as well. It’s slightly different. [laughs]
I love that streaming has opened the door on what’s possible now, because something like this couldn’t have worked as a feature film, but it works so great as a six-episode series…
MACKINNON: But we think it is a film. It’s a six-hour film.
But I’m very curious, you signed a deal with Amazon. Can you talk a little bit about why Amazon, and what fans of yours can look forward to in the future?
GAIMAN: Why Amazon is, I have never felt so incredibly supported, and I think Douglas and Rob here would agree. They’ve been fantastic, and we’ve made something huge, mad, and expensive, and I’m used to television and film companies that try and rein you in, that try and go, “This is just too weird.”
MACKINNON: We’re in control here.
GAIMAN: Yeah, and Amazon have been enablers.
WILKINS: Allowing Neil and Douglas to be as creative as they possibly can.
MACKINNON: They’re constantly, from the beginning to the very end, to the edit room, to the CGI shots, which all of which they have theoretical approval on, ceded to us in the end. They give notes all the way through, just like you would expect, it’s their money, so it’s kind of okay. But everything was about enabling the vision of the book and Neil’s scripts. That’s how they supported us from beginning to end. Couldn’t ask for more.
WILKINS: These are really smart guys, but they allowed Neil and Douglas to be as smart as they could possibly be, and we could’ve asked no more than that.
MACKINNON: So we think they actually figured out that maybe if they let Neil’s visions appear on Amazon Prime, they might make money out of it as well. “Hang on! If you let the creatives run free, we might make money out of that instead of trying to stop them, or control them, and try and impose our vision of Good Omens,” which we’ve all had experience of. Where some people come in and try and go, “No, no, you can’t do that, because that’s a different thing. We want our thing.” But no, they just went, “Oh, please. Just go ahead and do it.” It took a long time for us to actually figure that out. That’s what we were up to.
GAIMAN: To answer the second half of your question, what’s also been great about Amazon, is yes, they’ve signed a deal with me, but they’re in no hurry, and they know we’ve been finishing this off, and I’ve been working on the marketing of this now for months and we’re just kind of at the end of that. So at some time in the next few months, we’ll take a look at what the future is going to bring, and I think it’s going to be some things that are really fun. But the first thing that I have to do, which again, Amazon know, and are just absolutely cool with, is… I’m very much looking forward, as I’ve said, to becoming a retired showrunner, and taking up writing.
MACKINNON: I’ve broken him.
GAIMAN: I stopped writing a novel in the middle of chapter 4, in April 2017, when I went “this showrunning lark is actually a full-time gig, and I have to do it properly, and I have to finish rewriting these things,” and it was like, “Novel, I will come back to you.”
MACKINNON: I think you’ve proved that showrunning is not a full-time gig, it’s full time plus another life, because it’s been so intense. What Neil and I have done together, in the last two years, there’s usually… If you look at American Gods or any other production of this scale, there will be a team of producers and a team of directors and everything else, but the only way we could see to make it properly, and get that vision out, was just to do it with the two of us, principally, with people like Rob backing us up all the way through, and just being in the tent going, “No, go on, it’s fine. You’re doing really well! Keep going!” He’s actually experienced showrunning in a very extreme way. It’s like extreme showrunning. Extreme running. That’s a new phrase. I’ll use that again.
Why do you think it is that Amazon are more relaxed about their creative process?
GAIMAN: I think a lot of it actually has to do with the fact that Amazon do not appear to do the thing that I’ve seen a lot from other places and people, of thinking that they know what people want, and they know better than the people. I had a very enthusiastic but baffled representative of the BBC turn up in New York, and they made this, and hearing his sort of, he sort of saying “Wow! In this new television, they can make strange things like Good Omens,” the subtext being that “I would not have made this at gunpoint, because it’s very odd!”
Amazon get to look at the world, they get to go “Good Omens… Well, we sell a lot of books, we know that this book, Good Omens, has been quietly, for thirty years, one of the best-selling books in the world.” It sort of chunters under there, but there are millions upon millions upon millions upon millions of fans out there. Just in the same way as the BBC were rather puzzled and did not really extrapolate from when about a decade ago they did their 100 Best Loved Books list…
MACKINNON: It was the Guardian, I think.
GAIMAN: No, it was the BBC. They did a huge thing. 100 Best Loved Books in the UK, and they discovered the best-loved book was Lord of the Rings, and sitting there at number 64 was Good Omens, and I went down the list and realized that Good Omens was the only book of which there had been no adaptation into another medium. Everything else on there had either, as a series or as a thing, been turned into a film, or television, or at least a radio series, or something. And then there was Good Omens, just sitting there as the one little odd thing.
MACKINNON: To give you a measure of that, which you might be aware of, I did a Sherlock episode, and I looked up the stats, and Sherlock Holmes has been translated into stage or screen 150 times. We’ve talked a lot about this, about how Good Omens couldn’t have been made until now, because television and the television landscape that Amazon and Netflix inhabit allows shows like this that perhaps would be niche in one country, but aren’t niche when you take the whole world into account, because it’s huge. I often say about Neil, that you’ve been a superstar in your niche, but now suddenly the world wants the niche, and the geeks are growing up.
WILKINS: And the geeks shall inherit the Earth.
MACKINNON: The geeks are in the room, and on your t-shirt. Here we are. There’s enough of us to merit making this. I also think we shouldn’t be naïve about it. I think Amazon want to do shows like this because they think they will make money out of them, as well. One way or another. Maybe not in the traditional way. Maybe not in the buying of enough DVDs, but we’ll attract enough people to their website, because we’ll be at the front of it for a while, people will go, “Oh, that’s the place I want to be. That looks like a good place.” But, who knows.