Stuffed Ep 21 - Neil Gaiman on making Good Omens into great TV, keeping promises to Terry P, and honouring fat Aziraphales - Stuff

Stuffed Ep 21 – Neil Gaiman on making Good Omens into great TV, keeping promises to Terry P, and honouring fat Aziraphales

Stuffed Ep 21 – Neil Gaiman on making Good Omens into great TV, keeping promises to Terry P, and honouring fat Aziraphales

This interview with author Neil Gaiman and Stuff editor Craig Wilson was recorded at a noisy coffee shop in Cape Town, South Africa, in February 2018. Shooting of Good Omens, the Amazon Prime and BBC co-production of the novel of the same name Gaiman wrote with the late (and great) Terry Pratchett, was nearing an end.

We take full responsibility for using a mobile phone to record the interview instead of higher-end kit. We concede that mistakes were made. We should’ve known better. At the time, we didn’t intend to turn the interview into a podcast. But then, well, it turned out to be such a delight that we wanted to share it.

Please accept the lovingly transcribed, unabridged account of proceedings below by way of an apology. And, if you can’t face reading it yourself, save it this story to the app Pocket (which you should be using anyway for all the wonderful things online there aren’t enough hours in a lifetime to read), tap the headphone icon so the app reads it to you, and, you know, pretend Gaiman is an android (albeit an American one) who, umm, sounds female in the way the Google Assistant sounds female.

Stuff: What were the key differences of working with Amazon? Freer rein, more budget?
Gaiman: Better budget obviously. I wrote the scripts, working with the BBC, I handed them in, then… if you’re existing on a probability curve, the probability when you’re starting is about 50% of the show actually happening. I handed them in, and then could feel the probability of it ever happening plummeting as the BBC looked at these scripts and went, “This is really expensive. This is not a cheap thing. We can’t even make this at Dr Who levels. This demands a real budget and we don’t have that money”. And I could feel everything going away.

And then [the BBC] went out very nervously to Amazon. We had a couple of meetings with a few American networks that they had to contractually go to first. They had to talk to AMC first because AMC owns BBC America. And you could see a faint, blank puzzlement at AMC as I did my pitch. And then, once all the scripts were in they went out to see if Amazon would like to sort of partner with them… and Amazon were like, “Actually, we want to put it on first. We want to give you all of the money you would need to make it. So you can stop looking for partners. We wanna make it”. And that changed everything.

So, it’s been amazing being able to just do it with the budget. Having said that, the budget isn’t Game of Thrones level. It’s not even American Gods level. It’s just normal, American television level in this sort of Netflix, Amazonian, HBO world. But it’s enough money to make the thing that we wanted to do.

Would it have been possible a few years ago?
No.

Because there have been a few attempts. Terry Gilliam tried.
Terry came really close to making it in 2002. He had Robin Williams lined up to play Aziraphale, Hastur the demon and Madame Tracy. Johnny Depp was gonna play Crowley. And Kirsten Dunst was going to play Anathema. I mean, [a] great, wonderful cast. He had all the money pledged from all around the world. He said, “I just have to go into Hollywood, find out which major studio wants to pick it up, they get a $70 million movie for $10 million… this is going to be the easiest thing in my career.” And he went out and it was post-9/11, and a.) He terrifies people…

Right, lose money in film, ask Terry Gilliam how…
Yeah. Which is fascinating, because the only thing he’s ever done that went over budget was [The Adventures of] Baron Munchausen. He was, like, you know, “12 Monkeys: on time, on budget. Fisher King: on time, under budget. But they’re still terrified of him. Mostly they’re terrified of him because they know that he doesn’t take them seriously.

He hasn’t traditionally been a good box office bet, I guess. Years later things like Brazil are hailed as classics, but at the time they don’t fill theatres necessarily.
It wasn’t even that with Brazil, it was that the studio had recut their version with a happy ending and Terry managed to arrange a screening with the foreign press and got the Golden Globe as best movie, which then put them into this impossible position where Terry took out this ad saying “Are you going to be re-releasing my film?” and they released it incredibly badly and grudgingly. But you can’t not release a film that just won the Golden Globe for Best Picture.

Well, talking about meddling, we’ve gotten the impression in this instance that hasn’t been the case. You don’t seem to have corporate overlords breathing down your neck, wanting to see dailies and wanting to control the messaging.
The hilarious thing is that both the BBC and Amazon get the dailies, and we get notes from them. The notes come in every couple of weeks – every two or three weeks – we get an email going, “This is amazing guys, we can’t believe it, we love it, thanks so much!” And a couple of weeks later we get another saying “Oh my god, this is amazing!”

Have you ever had an experience quite so supportive before?
No. Never, ever, ever. You know, I was watching what Bryan Fuller and Michael Green went through on American Gods where Starz [the TV network and production company] were going, “We’ve seen these dailies, you’re going to have to reshoot this…” 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 Douglas Mackinnon. [Mackinnon is the director and executive producer of Good Omens]

You do seem to have something of a dream team. Could you have designed a better selection of cast and co-workers if you’d tried?
We did try. That’s how we got here. 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… this is the woman who stole the last season of Sherlock, who is now rightly regarded as one of the UK’s finest actors… and she plays Adam’s mum, with Daniel Mays playing his dad. And they’re both doing it because they love Good Omens. They loved the script and they wanted to be involved in the project

…and the rest of the League of Gentlemen coming in for it.
And the rest of the League of Gentlemen coming in for it. Again, because they want to be part of this. So, you get this wonderful kind of snowball-turning-into-an-avalanche where of course you want to be part of it. Everybody cool is part of it. And that is all, really, down to Michael Sheen having read the book when he was at drama school and loved it, and when I reached out to him and said, “Michael, I want you to be in Good Omens,” and he said, “You want me to be Crowley, right? I can wear the shades. I can be cool and sexy.” And I was like, “No, actually, I want you to be Aziraphale, ’cause he’s the heart of the whole thing”.

I love the fact that we’ve got this world now where Michael, who is far and away the finest Welsh actor of his generation, has also never played anybody that people fell in love with. He does an amazing David Frost, or Tony Blair, or whatever. He’s never played a character where you simply just get happy… when he walks on the screen, you get happy. You watch Michael and he has comic timing finer than I had ever imagined. I knew that David [Tennant] had great comic timing, but I’d never actually watched Michael doing anything that demanded comedic delivery and comedic timing and I’m just going, “You are amazing. I didn’t know that…”.

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 with no idea what to expect as a young journalist seeing it at the preview. Having Michael [McKean] as our Shadwell is just so magic.

These things are so inherently collaborative – so many moving parts, so many people, actors with enormous personalities who want to bring something to this – how important is it for you, whose original vision it was, to let go a little and let them 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”.

Knowing when to put your foot down?
Yeah.

And that’s also your prerogative. That’s the role you’ve been assigned?
Absolutely. I took it myself. I, sort of, grabbed it, and said “The only way that I will do this, is if I can do all of it”.

Taking on all of that, knowing what you do now, would you be a showrunner again?
No.

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.

I can’t ring him up and say, “Terry, you know, I really need to get back to writing novels or whatever”. I had a conversation with my wife the other night where she was like, “Well, I wanna get the novelist that I married back, but I understand why you’re doing this, given the money and stuff…” And I was like, “Hang on. Hold on. You do realise that the only reason I can afford to spend three years of my life working at BBC rates on six scripts and showrunning an entire show, is because I’m a best-selling author whose life, right now, is being funded by the sale of already-written books?”

It was great, Norse Mythology came out, and went up to number one, hung out there. That’s wonderful, but that was my income for last year. Once you spread that income over four years… and you start working on it in the beginning of 2015 and you end it at the end of 2018, honestly, this is an expensive hobby. This is like owning a racehorse or a boat. But I promised Terry.

So no, no, I wouldn’t have done it in the beginning. I had to explain to Enrica [Brocardo from the Italian version of Vanity Fair] last night at dinner, she was like, “I’ve seen you said that you would retire after this from showrunning.” Yeah. “But you also said that you are good at it.” Yeah. I am. Turns out. Who knew?

Those don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
She was saying, “Why would you retire?” And I’m like, “Because, I’m a novelist. I want to… I want to get up at 10:30 in the afternoon, if I want, and not have to get up at 05:00 every morning. And I want to not have to deal with… you know… I became a novelist to not have to deal with budget conversations and office politics and all of the stuff that you… you sign up to be a novelist, because you are a control freak. And you want to be in control of your own life.

Your own destiny and your own hours…
…My own destiny, my own hours. And when I can stop and play with my child. And I want to go back to that.

And then 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… taking me aside, pointing at something on the screen, and saying, “Why didn’t you ask me about that? I could have made that scene 17% funnier? You know how that goes, all you need to do…”. 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 you know, ‘Don’t leave things on the copy machine’?
More like that, along with the sort of ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps’.

Right, right.
You know, ‘Please clean up after yourself, your mother doesn’t work here. You don’t have a mother’, and things like that, but, and I wrote, you know, a dozen of them, and I just thought, now is the point where I would send this email 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. And he’s not here. So everyone’s just gonna have my posters, which are probably going to be, you know, off in the corner of your eye mostly, and not even read.

But I think those are the little details that the avid fans love. And maybe that’s a good place to wrap up… I wonder about the perceived pressure when something has such rabid fans who have such strong ideas themselves about what should stay and what should go. Do you feel any pressure from that? Or do you go, “Actually, sod off, I wrote the book, I wrote it for the screen, and you’re just going to have to trust that I know best?”
I wrote a thing for Tumblr, because over on Tumblr you have communities that people who have loved Good Omens for many, many years, and who do art for Good Omens, and love the characters and all have their own visions. And… and I wrote a thing saying, “Look, you may have your head canon of how our characters look. And it’s true. It’s fine. It’s real”.

Mackinnon, Tennant, Sheen and Gaiman

There are ones who have beautiful, ethereal, Aziraphales, who look like Michelangelo’s David. And that’s true. And then there are ones who have Aziraphales who are very short, and incredibly fat, and wear check trousers, and have spectacles and curly hair. That’s true, too. And the ones whose Aziraphales, you know… they pick all sorts of different things, and they love them, and they’re true for them.

And my attitude is, that’s absolutely great. And that’s absolutely true. And, by the same token, nobody’s asking you to give up any of that. Treat this as if Good Omens were Hamlet, and you’re going to see a production of Hamlet. Nobody’s ever expecting you to give up the Hamlet in your head, for this particular production.

I hope you will like it, I hope that you will respond to it. The idealised Hamlet in your head is not threatened by the fact that we have decided to get Michael Sheen to play Hamlet. This is what you’re going to deal with. And so, 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 whether it’s 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. So now, it embiggens.

Neil, thank you so much.
You are so welcome.

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