good omens review

Filmmakers have been trying to adapt Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel Good Omens for decades. While Pratchett is no longer with us, Gaiman is finally doing it himself and the result is a six-episode miniseries. 

In the series, angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and demon Crowley (David Tennant) are friends who enjoy Earth quite a bit. So when the antichrist comes of age and begins kickstarting the apocalypse, Crowley and Aziraphale work to prevent it, even though both Heaven and Hell want it to happen.

Gaiman spoke with /Film outside a room at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles. He revealed how much of Good Omens was inspired by director Terry Gilliam’s development work and how he decided what still had to be cut from the book. We also spoke about his upcoming reboot of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. Good Omens premieres Friday, May 31 on Amazon.

Do you expect the black Adam and Eve to ruffle some feathers, since some devout people still assume they were white?

You’re talking here about a drama predicated on the idea that the antichrist might actually be a nice kid in which a demon and an angel are working against the orders of Heaven and incidentally Hell in order to stop the apocalypse from happening and save the world. On this basis, I think a black Adam and Eve is a nice way of letting anybody who would be significantly offended by any of those concepts know that they can stop watching this now. It is safe to turn off. Look, you’re three minutes in. If you’re offended enough by that, you’re going to have problems with the rest of it. If not, I think if you can fit a black Adam and Eve into your head, you can fit the rest of it into your head.

Was that something you would have specified in the book already?

No, that was specified in the script, black Adam and Eve. Why would they be white? It’s not as if the Garden of Eden is going to be situated in Oregon, I think. Let’s at least play fair a little bit.

Terry Gilliam was working on a film adaptation for a while. Did you see any of his work?

I did. I read some fabulous scripts. I would have loved it to have happened. In fact, it was actually Terry’s idea that we do it as television. It was in about 2011-ish, 2012 at the Egyptian Theater in L.A. We were at the Egyptian and they were screening Coraline in the afternoon and 12 Monkeys in the morning which meant that Terry Gilliam and I met actually, peculiarly enough, with Michael Sheen for lunch. It was during that lunch with me and with Michael Sheen that Terry Gilliam said, “You know, the world is changing. We could do Good Omens as television.”

Was he hoping he would still be involved?

I think yeah. I think the decision not to make it as television was Terry Gilliam’s. I think it was the point where he realized he was going to have to shoot six pages a day that he decided that he really didn’t want to do that. He was too old for that game. But, he’s been incredibly supportive and in fact, there was one piece of casting which I’m not going to tell you what it was because we didn’t do it. He had a casting gag in his script and I remember e-mailing him and saying, “I would love to steal that idea from you if I can cast this person.” He said, “Absolutely, go for it. Don’t steal anything else. Just that one idea.” And I’m like, “Absolutely.” We weren’t able to make that casting work which made me sad, but the casting is wonderful that we have in the show.

Was Satan the last role you cast?

I think so. I may technically have been the last role that we cast because I wound up having to voice the animated bunny rabbits who get murdered on screen and some of whom survive in episode four, which was just because I was saying to Douglas, “We need somebody to come in and do those voices for the bunnies.” “You’re right. You’ve got yourself a job then.” So I wound up doing the bunnies but before that I think it was definitely Benedict [Cumberbatch].

Was music  a new tool you had in film and television, actually playing the songs you may have written about?

The lovely thing about the music in Good Omens is of course it comes straight out of the book. It’s one of the few books where you wind up with this sort of Queen soundtrack, this weird Queen classical soundtrack. What was amazing was getting David Arnold who is most famous for his Bond and for his big wonderful scores to do what he says is his favorite job ever on making the Good Omens soundtrack. But even then, we knew that in order to work, the Good Omens soundtrack was going to have to include Queen and Thomas Tallis at the same time.

Is the art of visual effects an extension of your own drawing?

No, what I think is amazing about visual effects now is it’s just another filmmaking tool. It’s like having the props person. When I wrote an episode of Babylon 5, you had to make out the VFX bit and the two moments of VFX were huge and important and it was like, “I hope this gets in.” Even the first season of Doctor Who, any VFX moments were marked. I remember my first episode of Doctor Who, I was basically told, “Okay, now you have to go and do the VFX rewrite to take all the fancy stuff out.” What’s interesting for me about VFX now though is the best VFX in Good Omens are invisible. I mean, you’ve seen Good Omens. So the street in Soho is VFX. We built a quarter of a block. We built Aziraphale’s book shop and a quarter of a block across the street. That beautiful Soho street in London that you see the car coming down mostly doesn’t exist. That is the VFX thing that I think is so amazing. Instead of literally having to close down central London for five days to make our show as a James Bond film would’ve had to have done, we create something that’s utterly visually convincing. And it’s invisible. You don’t notice it’s there. That kind of thing for the VFX fascinates me in many ways much more than the Satan or the flaming M25 or whatever where you look at it and go, “Well, of course this is going to be VFX.” Or Crowley and Hastur going through the Internet. Absolutely it’s beautiful special effects. It’s VFX but the fact that the sequence on the airfield in episode six was filmed over a period of about five weeks which took us from autumn into winter at all times of the day through rain, through wind, through horribleness. Which means that every single sky in that sequence has been replaced by the sky that we wanted to have at that moment, and you never notice it. It’s absolutely invisible. For me, that’s the stuff that should be winning the awards, not even the appearance of Satan or the street aflame, just the invisible stuff. On the other hand, I’m pretty proud of the Garden of Eden.

You were able to update American Gods with Technical Boy’s new technologies and New Media. Were you able to update Good Omens with cell phone outages and traveling through the Internet?

What’s lovely is that stuff was in the book. Everything we did was in the book but the book was 1989. So we had the idea of Crowley takes out all mobile phones. At that point, a mobile phone was about the size of a brick and they were basically in your car or you carried them around in little cases. You’re pissing off 20,000 people rather than 15 million people, but it was the same gag. Likewise, traveling through the phone line becomes traveling through the Internet. The only thing that we had to do, rather than update things was occasionally create a world in which it was convincing that weird old fashioned things would still happen. The lovely thing about that is if you believe in Aziraphale and the one on the screen in that book shop, you also know that if Crowley decided to give him for Christmas a beautiful iPhone or mobile phone, it would still be sitting in a box somewhere in the back because what’s the point of that? He’s got his phone on the desk and that’s what he answers and he occasionally makes phone calls if phone calls come in. And you believe in that character and you go okay, the lovely thing about the future is it doesn’t happen all at once.

What did you still have to leave out even though you had six episodes?

Oh, the other four horsemen of the apocalypse got left out from the book which made me really sad because I love them. And we started casting them and the guys we had playing them were really funny. Then we were a couple of days away from the read through and we were told by the way, we need to lose one and a half million from the budget, and they went away which made me a bit sad. I wish we’d been able to get more of the fish in. The falling fish were there in the script and we even shot the scene of the police officers and the falling fish, but the BBC at that point were just like, “VFX budget, we can’t do the fish that you need to make this scene with the police work. We just don’t have the money.” And it’s like well, okay, you’re the BBC, so it went away.

Were the animated sequences ever on the chopping block?

No. They never were. It’s funny, the whole thing about things on the chopping block, the reason I made myself showrunner, which is a bit like making yourself King, was because I was tired of and not going to play the game where I write a script and I hand it over to people and things appear or they don’t appear more or less randomly, and then I go around to people saying, “No, no, no, trust me. When I wrote it, it made a lot of sense. No, the thing that I wrote honestly, it made sense, it was really good.” So making myself showrunner was all about being able to say, when people came to me and said, “Well, can you cut this? Can you cut that?” In episode three, all of the stuff pre-credits, 25 minutes of human history, there’s not a scene in that that somebody or other at some point in the production didn’t send me an e-mail or take me aside to tell me that we had to cut it for budget reasons. And no, we have to cut the Globe. We have to cut the church. We’ve got to lose 1960s. To all of them, it’s like, “Yeah, but if we did that, it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t work. We can’t do that.” So what was great is they would come to me and I would say no. Sometimes I would wind up drilling down into, “Well, why would we cut this?” For example, with Shakespeare, we had a couple of producers who were desperate to get that scene cut. Eventually I’m like, “Okay, let’s talk about why we can’t afford it. It’s not the rental of the Globe. We can afford that so what is it?” And it was in order to make the Globe work, we need 600 extras sitting in the seats. And I said, “Oh, okay, I get that. Bringing in 600 people at five o’clock in the morning. We’re not going to get them all in, we have to get them all made up. We can’t start shooting until it’s light. It’s not light ‘til eight o’clock in the morning. We have to be out of there at eight so this is going to be really hard. I absolutely get it.” Then I turn to Douglas [Mackinnon], our director and I said, “Okay, do you want it to be a rehearsal or a flop?” He said, “Oh, a flop is much more fun.” So I rewrote the sequence entirely. I put Shakespeare in it now and Hamlet, nobody’s come. That’s the whole fun of the scene is you’ve got half a dozen extras and we didn’t have 600 extras.

When you do The Storyteller, will you retell any of the stories from Jim Henson’s series?

I don’t know. We haven’t actually thought about that. What we’ve thought about and talked about in Storyteller is the idea of continuing the thing that Jim Henson did that was so incredibly brilliant, and that Anthony Minghella who wrote all those episodes did that was so brilliant, was instead of doing Beauty and the Beast which everybody knows, they did Hans My Hedgehog which nobody knew. You don’t even know that it’s going to be come a Beauty and the Beast story until you get to the end of the episode. So that’s definitely one of the things that I’ve said we do. We take the less famous versions of stories just as they did, and the ones where people don’t quite, you know how it goes generally but you’re not going to know really how it turns out.

You’ve said you want to delve more into the character of the Storyteller. Had Jim Henson left behind any backstory?

No, there was no backstory other than what was in the show but that, for me, became the fun bit. Storyteller was Lisa Henson’s baby. She was the one who had just graduated from college with a degree in classics and fairy tales. She was the one who wanted to do that. What I said to her was in Today’s era of binge television, let’s get some stuff outside going on. There’s no reason why we have to be stuck by the fire with the dog. Stories can be told in all sorts of situations. More than that would probably be saying too much.

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