Fans of Good Omens had their day in heaven (or hell, their choice) on Saturday at the SXSW 2019 Conference. The conference, taking place in Austin from March 8-17, which celebrates music, film, and the interaction of culture and technology, presented an interview with Good Omens author Neil Gaiman, an interactive walk-through experience, and a preview of the new Amazon Prime series, with the stars in attendance.
The series, premiering in May, brings to life the tale weaved by Gaiman and collaborator Terry Pratchett, best known for his Discworld novels. In their book, published in 1990, Gaiman and Pratchett tell the tale of an angel and a demon who try to derail the end of the world because they have grown so comfortable living in modern-day England.
Kirsten Vangsness, actress (Penelope Garcia on Criminal Minds), writer, and Gaiman fangirl, gushingly conducted the interview. Gaiman, creator of Stardust, Neverwhere, Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The View from the Cheap Seats, and the Sandman comic series, also took questions from the audience.
Vangsness asked if Gaiman had a special mental world that all of his stories fit into.
“No,” he said, “but when you start writing you always start out thinking, ‘I’m going to write something I’ve never written before,’ and then once it’s done you look back and see how it lines up with absolutely everything you’ve ever done.”
Asked about his motivation for writing, Gaiman observed, “You write fiction to ask questions or to make other people ask the questions you’re asking.”
Questions played a large part in the inspiration for another Gaiman-based television series Vangsness brought up: American Gods.
Gaiman explained, “I’m from England and I moved to Middle America – Wisconsin — and I expected to see certain things. For instance, I was with one of my kids and we saw a sign advertising a roadside attraction, the world’s largest block of cheese. We checked it out and it was a truck with a window in it with a replica of the world’s largest block of cheese that had been displayed years before at the 1961 world’s fair. I asked, ‘Isn’t that a little bit weird’ and got the answer, ‘Nope.’ I saw a car parked out on the ice of a lake. A fellow explained to me that the Lions Club did that every year as a fundraiser and people would bet on the day the ice cracked and the car sank. I asked, ‘Isn’t that a little bit weird’ and got the answer, ‘Nope.’ American Gods was me trying to figure this out.”
Genesis of Good Omens
Vangsness asked about the origins of Good Omens.
“I read all of the Bible,” Gaiman said, “including the Book of Revelations and all that stuff about the sea turning to blood and everyone dying didn’t seem like a great idea to me and I wondered if an angel might agree. I wrote about 5,000 words and sent it off to my friend Terry Pratchett. I then got involved in The Sandman and stopped thinking about it until Terry called and asked me if I wanted to sell him the idea or work on it together. That’s like Michelangelo calling you up and asking if you’d like to paint a ceiling together.”
Vangsness was curious how the TV version of Good Omens came about.
Gaiman recalled, “Terry and I had been looking for someone to make Good Omens, but we couldn’t find anyone. One day he wrote me and said, ‘You have to do this. I know how busy you are, but you are the only person who has the passion.’ Very shortly after that Terry died, so I had to make the thing he wanted to see. As I wrote the scripts, I would think, ‘But Terry wrote that scene and it has to be in his style,’ so I would mentally run that by the ghostly Terry in my head and to see if it was good enough. He’d say ‘No.’”
Experiencing Heaven and Hell
A pop-up fan amusement park was also part of the SXSW Experience. Upon entering the walled, outdoor attraction, named The Garden of Earthly Delights, you were met by a demon or an angel and given the choice of following a heavenly or devilish path. Thank goodness, you could go back and forth.
The tree at the center of the park held the apples that gave knowledge of good and evil. You couldn’t eat the apples, but beneath the tree was a bar with complimentary beverages, so that was good enough. There were “earth-shattering” performances on the stage, plenty of food options, games, and exhibits. My favorite was the Devil Dog training pit. Luckily, all the devil dogs were still puppies and they were fun to play with.
Fans also could get their pictures taken sitting atop the world or in a car from the show. Upon exiting you received your official Good Omens umbrella. Umbrellas? We are talking about a British demon and angel here, after all.
Angel, Devil, and Director
The evening event brought together Gaiman, director Douglas Mackinnon and cast members Michael Sheen, David Tennant, and Jon Hamm, who gave fans further teasers about the show.
Gaiman was not only the writer, but also the show runner. “Normally a show runner is concerned with keeping consistency between different directors on each episode,” Gaiman explained. “But with only one writer and one director we were able to work together.”
Director Mackinnon also expressed his passion for the project, saying, “Neil and I developed a new way to work. He’s quite a good storyteller and our cast contributed so much. We were very faithful to the book. I carried a copy of it around with me. We all loved it and walked away knowing we’d done something special.”
Sheen plays the testy angel, Aziraphale, and Tennant plays the loose-living demon, Crowley, but this was not foreordained at the beginning of time. Gaiman shared that Sheen was brought into the project early on and was cast as Crowley. As Gaiman shared the scripts in progress with Sheen, Sheen began to doubt his ability to bring that role to life. He thought he would do a better job as the angel but was afraid to bring this up with Gaiman.
Meanwhile, as Gaiman proceeded with the script, he began to think Sheen wasn’t right for the part of Crowley but didn’t know how to break it to him. Luckily, Gaiman finally hinted at this to Sheen, and he jumped at the chance to agree.
Hamm plays the archangel Gabriel, a minor character in the book. When Hamm joined the project, Gaiman expanded the role. Hamm said, “Both heaven and hell are bad places to work, although one has a better view. I’m the number two to the big guy and I’m the boss that everybody hates – a terrible bureaucrat sent down from the head office to tell you what to do.”
A Special Story
Tennant, very undemonicly, praised the collaborative nature of the project. He said, “It was a frictionless experience putting it together. The character [Crowley] is pretty explicit in the book and the script. We made decisions together on how to bring him to life. It is written well, so you can read the script and it comes to life in your mind right away.”
Tennant also felt the story was special because people will approach it as a fantasy. But, he said, “It’s about facing reality.”
One of the audience members asked Gaiman if there would be a season two for Good Omens.
“No,” Gaiman replied. “The great thing about Good Omens is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I am now a retired show runner, and I think during my retirement that I might take up writing.”
Then, just to bring the event a sense of normalcy, the stage was rushed by the nuns of the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, rocking out to a unique, a cappella take on Queen’s “Somebody to Love.”
Good Omens premieres on Amazon Prime on May 31.