Moving Heaven And Hell
Gaiman’s TV adaptation of his and Terry Prachett’s Good Omens is coming to UK terrestrial TV this January and here’s its director and executive producer Douglas Mackinnon talking about it…
This has clearly been a splendid partnership between you and Neil. What have you most enjoyed about working with him?
It’s been a fantastic experience. It’s been a complete collaboration. He’s very generous in that way. We work very well together. Rather than getting stuck on a problem, we turn it to our advantage. We have a really unified vision. My task as a director is to dig into the brain of Neil and the brain of the book. I see my role as an enabler. If someone says to me: “We can’t afford to do the Kraken,” it’s my job to find a way of doing it that fits with our budget.
We managed to secure Shakespeare’s Globe as a location, but we couldn’t afford to populate it with a large crowd. In the book, the scene is the first week of Hamlet. It’s a great success, and the Globe is very crowded. So I said to Neil: “How about doing the same scene, but Hamlet is a disaster and no one is coming to see it, so we don’t need a big crowd?” In the scene, Crowley and Aziraphale turn up at an empty Globe and have a conversation about their relationship. Crowley says a line, and Shakespeare steals it!
We shot an 11-person scene set in a church during the Second World War with all the principal actors, Mark Gatiss and Steve Pemberton – all in one day. We also shot Atlantis, a Kraken and a flying saucer. Those things would be the centrepiece of an episode of Doctor Who, but we threw them away in two minutes. Also, the bookshop needs to look like it’s in the heart of Soho. But it needs to go on fire at the end, too. That was a very expensive set to burn!
Tell us how you have paid respect to the late Terry Pratchett…
In Good Omens, Neil has been carrying out a personal mission to represent Terry everywhere. One of the things I said to Neil very early on was to repeat the rule I had with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss on Sherlock – I never needed to know who wrote what line. I think that’s more respectful to Neil and to Terry. Sometimes Neil would say: “That’s a really important scene to me.” One example was the sushi scene. He and Terry had made a pact with each other to be there for the filming of that scene – perhaps because they wanted free sushi. Neil passed on that sentiment to me. We have also dropped in some tributes to Terry. For example, it is Terry’s real hat that hangs in the bookshop.
You famously have the most thumbed copy of Good Omens in the world. Was that book very useful on set?
Definitely. The book is the solution to everything. Our respect for the book was the beginning and the end of it all. Even in the cutting room, Neil would say to me: “There is something not quite right about this scene. I wish there was another line we could add here.” I would reply: “There is a line we can add here. You wrote it 30 years ago in the book!” When we were editing, the structure of the book really helped us. Five million people have read Good Omens. Maybe there is something in Neil’s storytelling!
What music have you chosen for Good Omens?
We’ve got 15 Queen tracks, which is a great coup, especially considering the success of Bohemian Rhapsody. In the book, Bohemian Rhapsody plays when Crowley gets his instructions about what to do with the Antichrist. We even have a Freddie Mercury impersonator. When I was hoping to get this project, I wandering around Vancouver – where I was filming Dirk Gently – listening to Queen and reading the book. I’m a lifelong Queen fan, so I wasn’t such an idiot when I was listening to them when I was 14!
Why is Frances McDormand such good casting as God?
She has this amazing voice. She helps the audience through this very complex story, so she is our guide as well as God. She’s Terry and Neil’s representative in heaven.
How would you characterise the tone of Good Omens?
Before we started, I played all departments two David Bowie songs. First of all, I played them Life On Mars with Rick Wakeman’s marvellous, pure piano accompaniment. I told the departments: “That’s not Good Omens. It’s too perfect.” Then I played them Aladdin Sane where Mike Garson plays this wonderful cracked piano solo. I said to the departments: “That’s Good Omens.” It’s not something pure. It’s something that shouldn’t be beautiful, but is. It’s like when the Japanese break pots – they paint over the cracks with gold. You celebrate the scar.
What message do you hope that people take away from Good Omens?
I hope it doesn’t sound pompous, but it shows that peace can win over war. You can talk most problems out. You don’t have to fight them out. But for me, the biggest element in all drama is relationships. As EM Forster said, drama is about displaying relationships. Seeing Crowley and Aziraphale – the ultimate representations of good and evil – get on so well is the most beautiful thing. It’s like Butch and Sundance or Thelma and Louise. It all depends on the very special chemistry between David and Michael. That’s the core of it. From the moment they meet in the Garden of Eden, there are classic couple. They bicker, but love each other and find a way through their differences, which are pretty extreme.
Why does the partnership between David and Michael work so well in Good Omens?
The success of the show lies in their chemistry, which comes from them enjoying doing something different from their previous projects. Michael has described their scenes together as like a little dance. It’s a very high-powered version of Strictly Come Dancing. Does that mean I am Bruce Forsyth?