It doesn’t take much digging around online to realise that some people love, and we do mean love, Good Omens.
What started out as a book written almost 30 years ago by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett is now a breakneck, six-episode whirlwind of a visual extravaganza that’s set to be one of the TV highlights of 2019.
In the final days of filming we got some one-on-one time with author, screenwriter, and rather reluctant showrunner, Gaiman. This is what he had to say.
What were the key differences of working with Amazon?
Better budget, obviously. Amazon were like, “We want to give you all of the money you need to make it. So you can stop looking for partners. We wanna make it”.
And that changed everything. The budget isn’t Game of Thrones level. It’s not even American Gods level. It’s just normal, American television level. But it’s enough money to make the thing that we wanted to do.
Have you ever had an experience quite so supportive before?
No. Never, ever. We haven’t reshot anything. Nothing. And we’re now 85 days into a 107-day shoot on this multimillion dollar production and everybody loves what we’re doing. That I attribute to the grumpy, Scottish genius of [director and executive producer] Douglas Mackinnon.
You seem to have something of a dream team. Could you have designed a better selection of cast and co-workers?
I’m so proud of it. I mean, you look at the cast… Miranda Richardson as Madame Tracy. Derek Jacobi as the Metatron. Sian Brook playing Adam’s mum [Adam, by the way, is an 11-year-old who doesn’t know he’s the Antichrist]. This is the woman who stole the last season of Sherlock, who is now rightly regarded as one of the UK’s finest actors.
But, you know, we’re lucky. Michael McKean… I’ve been a fan of Michael McKean’s since the first time I saw [This is] Spinal Tap in, like, 1984. Having Michael [McKean] as our Shadwell is just so magic.
How important is it for you, whose original vision Good Omens was, to let go a little and let the cast run with it?
If you don’t let people run with it you’re wasting everybody’s time. By the same token, one of the things I’ve learned to do – and I didn’t quite have it at the beginning – is to go “no” to things.
People bring you wonderful ideas, like kids bringing home something they made at school, and you have to say “No, actually, it needs to be better, it needs to be different”.
Taking on all of that, knowing what you do now, would you be a showrunner again?
Are you glad to have done it in this instance?
I did it for Terry. I did it because it was his last request. I did it because Terry said, “You have to do this. You have to write this. I can’t do this. We’ve always done everything together. I can no longer do this. You have to do this. Because you’re the only person with the knowledge and the passion and the understanding of Good Omens that I have. And I want to see this on television before I die”.
And I said, “Okay”. And then the bastard died.
Is it safe to say that Terry would be happy with the result?
I think, knowing Terry, he would have been a mixture of incredibly happy, and then, sometimes I think he would have taken me aside, pointed at something on the screen, and said, “Why didn’t you ask me about that? I could have made that scene 17% funnier?”
I missed him the other day. I had to write the kind of signs that you get in offices for hell.
Do you mean, like, motivational posters, or “Don’t leave things on the copy machine”?
More like, “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”.
I wrote a dozen of them, and I just thought, now is the point where I would send this over to Terry, and he would make half of mine twice as funny by changing a couple of words and adding bits, and he would do a whole batch of his own ones that would be just as good or even funnier.
And the whole would be better than what either of us could have done on our own.
Is there a lot of pressure, given how enthusiastic Good Omens’ fans are, to stay as true to the book as possible?
I hope the fans like it, I hope that they will respond to it. The version they might have of it in their heads is not threatened by the fact that we have decided to get Michael Sheen to play a certain character [Sheen himself originally expected to play the demon Crowley, a role that went to David Tennant, rather than the ornery angel Aziraphale].
I feel an obligation to the fans, to give them something that they enjoy. And occasionally I’d just turned around and say, “We’re not changing that, because that’s that way in the book. And it has to be that way”.
But by the same token, there’s loads of things in this that aren’t in the book, because that’s just as much fun, too.
Whether it’s getting to meet angels in heaven or actually getting to see demons in hell… or watching Crowley and Aziraphale through history, it’s stuff that wasn’t in the book. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It just means that we didn’t write it there.