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How Good Omens' stairway to Heaven and Hell ended up in a lux London skyscraper
Perhaps they thought he was mad, although the primary instruction for the Good Omens production had been to bring on the madness. But there was production designer Michael Ralph, lying down on the shiny marble floor of the foyer of the Broadgate Tower as the rest of the team had started walking up the escalator.
"Come back down and see this!" Ralph yelled at them.
**Spoilers ahead for Good Omens.**
A scouting group — including Ralph, director Douglas Mackinnon, location manager Nick Marshall, first assistant director Cesco Reidy, among others — had arrived at the London skyscraper to visit the rooftop to see if it might make a good Heaven. But after walking through the turnstile, Ralph noticed something unusual happening on the foyer floor: It was so reflective he could see the escalators perfectly duplicated in a mirror image. What if, he wondered, someone took the escalator up to Heaven, but took the darker reflection to go to Hell? What if Heaven and Hell were actually in the same building?
"I can't believe that idea fell right into my head," Ralph told SYFY WIRE. "That concept wasn't in the script. It wasn't in anyone's mind. If anything, you'd get to Heaven by an elevator or a separate entry. Heaven and Hell weren't connected. And it's such a beautiful idea, such a dramatic image, and I only just caught it in my peripheral vision." Instead of going upstairs, the team joined Ralph on the floor for the next half-hour, and Good Omens' own stairway to Heaven (and Hell) was born.
From there, the team realized they had the solution to one of their toughest design questions, Mackinnon says — make Heaven and Hell the best and the worst of the same building.
"Heaven gets the top floor," he says. "And Hell gets the basement."
It's not the standard depiction of either space — no fluffy clouds for Heaven, no fire and brimstone for Hell. Ralph originally had designed tunnels full of fire for Hell, and was a bit disappointed when he showed them to Gaiman, whose response was, "These are wonderful, and they're completely wrong."
"We were sitting in this incredibly unpleasant building, a former post office, at the time," Gaiman says. "And I said, 'Basically, Hell just has to be the offices below us that nobody would want, and everything's a bit s***. That's your key to hell. Everything's a bit s***.’”
The top floor, or actually, the top two floors, is spectacular, the best real estate in the world. You can look out across all the cities of the world and see their crown jewels — the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Chrysler Building — but some of the space just feels empty. "It's too much space," Mackinnon says. "It's endless. And it's boring."
The production used a building with an unfinished floor, which helped keep the look shiny. Cinematographer Gavin Finney spent a week frosting some 132 floor-to-ceiling windows, so people couldn't really see outside, and any light coming in had a more ethereal look.
"I was blown away by it," Michael Sheen, who plays the angel Aziraphale, says. "And it made me laugh, the first time I saw someone in Heaven going past on a Segway in the background, so the angels are gliding."
Meanwhile, down in the basement, there is no space to glide, not that anyone would be in any kind of a mood to, even if they could. It's too crowded. "There are thousands of doors, and too many people working," Gaiman says.
"Lots of filing going on," Mackinnon agrees. "It's that shuffling feeling of nothingness."
Hell was shot in a former slaughterhouse, "which was hellish to start," Mackinnon says. Once the production cleaned up any sign of its past use, they made it hellish all over again — this time by painting a dusty grim color over everything, and keeping it wet and slimy. Rubbish is in the corners. The nagging sound of water dripping is ever-present. And making things worse throughout the limited space are dingy de-motivational posters (penned by Gaiman) with messages like, "We hate you," "You don't matter," and "For more efficient service, just rip out your own throat with a stapler."
"Neither space is over-the-top," Jon Hamm, who plays the archangel Gabriel, says. "It's an extension of the idea that really, Heaven and Hell are the same idea. You're so far out of the periphery that you can't feel anymore. You have to get close to the center to understand real emotion, be it pain or joy."