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Good Omens' Neil Gaiman and Jon Hamm went on a crazy, Shakespearean journey
It was quite a shock to walk into the press holding area in the Hotel Van Zandt, a hipster-y hotel just off of Austin's most hipster-y street, and find oneself in a recreation of Aziraphale's bookstore. Gone was the typical hotel conference room, drab gray walls replaced with warm bookshelves lined with fake books and various nicknacks.
That set the mood for a chat with the co-creator of Good Omens and one of the stars of the upcoming BBC/Amazon adaptation of one of fantasy's most beloved books. This has been a long time coming. Good Omens has almost been adapted a few times over the years, most notably when Terry Gilliam tried to make a feature film version of it in the aughts.
That wasn't meant to be, but what we ended up getting had co-creator Neil Gaiman having a heavy hand in how the adaptation of his project turned out. Not only did he write the screenplays for all six episodes, he also served as showrunner.
My time with Gaiman and Jon Hamm, who plays Archangel Gabriel in this end of days fantasy story, was focused mostly on the troubled journey bringing Good Omens to screens, a bittersweet experience for Gaiman who had to do it without his co-author Terry Pratchett, who sadly passed away in 2015.
The chat began simply with Gaiman reading the label of the bottled water offered to us just as I sat down. And he does it in the most Neil Gaiman way possible. Enjoy the chat!
Gaiman: It is "captured and bottled locally." The idea that there are these hunters who go out and capture this otherwise free rainwater... I'm glad it's not Smart Water. Otherwise, it would suffer.
I've been covering movies for a very long time and I remember when you guys were trying to get a movie adaptation going with Terry Gilliam. It's been a long road with a lot of false starts along the way. Can we start by talking about the journey this story has taken to finally make it here?
Gaiman: You know, the funny thing about Good Omens is it never perceptibly set the world on fire as a book. When it came out in the UK it was number two on the bestseller list when The Silence of the Lambs was number one. So we never go to number one, but we also were very aware that we were selling a fraction of the amount that Silence of the Lambs was selling at number one every week as we sat there at number two.
But what we had was very nearly 30 years of it being out there and being people's favorite book and people lending it to other people. Every copy of Good Omens gets read by five or ten people and then falls apart. Then somebody has to go and buy a new copy.
Hamm: I was definitely recommended it by someone.
Gaiman: That's the thing. People told people about it. When the BBC did a thing about 15 years ago to find out the hundred favorite books in the UK, there was only one book on that list that had never been filmed or made into a TV show. And that was Good Omens. It was sitting there at number 68 or whatever and everything else in that top 100 favorite British books had been adapted. Even just the fact that we were people's favorite was fascinating.
We've had this sort of gradually growing under swell that meant that by the time that we came to make it people knew that there was an audience because we could say, well, it's now it has sold... I forget. Somebody else had to do the work and figure out how many millions of copies it's sold, which leaves aside the fact that you can times that by five by how many people have actually read it and loved it.
So the process was slow for a lot of years. It was just standing by Terry Gilliam. It actually re-began with Terry Gilliam and Michael Sheen was there. In 2010 I was in L.A. at a screening of Coraline and Terry Gilliam was there doing a screening of 12 Monkeys. Terry and I got together over lunch and he was saying, "It's sort of a weird world we're in now. Everything's being made for the telly." And I'm like, "Okay, let's do that."
And then I think Terry Gilliam realized very quickly how many pages you need to shoot a day to make television and decided that he didn't really want to do that. Bless. But Terry Pratchett and I went looking for writers and we talked to a lot of the best writers in the business who said no, they didn't want to do it because it was too weird and too big and too sprawling and they didn't really know what the plot was, even though they loved the book. What I kept hearing was so much of what's good about the book is the way that the story is told.
Then Terry, with Alzheimer's, basically said to me, "You have to do this because we can't find somebody else to do this. You understand it, you love it as much as I do. Make it for me so I can watch it." And then the bastard died, which meant now I had to do it.
You didn't have a choice at that point.
Gaiman: Actually, no. It really didn't feel like I did. It felt like one of these sorts of obligations and it's like, okay, then I have to do this. You know, in four years I could have written definitely two, maybe three novels and been financially significantly better off and would never have had to be on the phone with anybody arguing about budgets. So given the choice…
Hamm: You don't have to argue novel budgets?
Gaiman: No! Anything you put down on the page is the thing! It's magic! Nobody ever says to you, "You know that sequence? Can you write it cheaper?" They never say that. They never say, "Hey, can you cut that sequence on page 411? Because we just don't have the money or we've lost the location."
So, Jon. What was your entry to this crazy world?
Hamm: I had read the book, definitely not in the first pressing. At some point, the book found me through somebody else who recommended it. I was a big comic book fan. I was a big sci-fi/fantasy reader, so it was very aware of Neil's work. I was turned onto to it at some point in the '90s, I imagine, and then had the good fortune to actually meet Neil and his family and get to know him a little bit over the years and then this came along. He said, "Would you be interested in doing this?" And I said, "Yes, absolutely."
I'm thrilled that the project got made the way it got made, that the BBC were smart enough to know their limitations and find Amazon and use them to the proper capacity. I'm thrilled that Neil was able to adapt this because that meant that it was going to be done correctly.
And any changes that might be made are suddenly done with by one of the original creators.
Hamm: Right. So I thought this is going to be great. I haven't really had the opportunity before to work on something that I genuinely enjoyed in its other iteration. I have never had that opportunity. It was such a delight, so much so in fact, when we were shooting it... I mean, I kind of pop up interspersed through various episodes and pop in and wreak havoc, but they were like "We can get you out in two weeks," and I was like "Don't worry about it. I want to hang out. I literally want to come to set and look at stuff."
I remember the first day on set when we got to see all the stuff and I was just like, "This is going to be so cool," and it genuinely was. They've created this beautiful world and fortunately, we don't end it. Spoiler alert. We keep it around. I'm thrilled for people to get a chance to see it. It is a sprawling story and a story well told and it has all the cool bells and whistles on it that you want.
It's got to be crazy to walk around a world you're a fan of and even crazier if you're the co-creator of it.
Gaiman: Aziraphale's bookshop? We do these interviews and we never say, "By the way, one of the unsung heroes of this is Michael Ralph, our production designer." But let me just say: Michael Ralph, our production designer... Amazing! What he pulled off with things like Aziraphale's Bookshop... we recreate Soho and we create this bookshop that you go into it and it's just the bookshop of your dreams. It's the old used, weird bookshop that you want to live it if you could. Walking around in there was just like, "I'm in my head somehow been allowed to just walk around inside my head." It's amazing.
I don't know if there's really a precedent for a creator being as involved in something like this as there is here. Robert Kirkman is very involved with The Walking Dead, but he's not writing and showrunning the whole thing, making sure everything's coming together.
Gaiman: On this, I couldn't figure out any other way to do it. Honestly. I really would have much rather not [laughs]. If I could have done it some other way, I would have not done it. My wife would have been much, much happier to have me at home. She'd be like, "I married a writer. You're meant to be wandering around in your bathrobe, holding a cup of tea."
And that wasn't you on set? Wandering around in a bathrobe, holding a cup of tea?
Gaiman: That was not me on set, no. You know, I became a writer so I didn't have to get up early in the morning and here I am with my 5AM pickups to spend my entire day freezing my ass off on an abandoned airfield.
Hamm: At least it was damp.
Gaiman: The great thing about that was we had so many of the cast there that everybody gets to share the misery.
Hamm: Yes. No one was spared. Yeah, we shot it on a decommissioned nuclear something or other…
Yeah, I'm sure you're fine. Nothing to worry about there. I'm sure you guys are fine.
Hamm: It was actually really fun because we were all there. It was fun to just sort of bundle ourselves back into the camper and make ourselves laugh and tell stories. It's not the worst thing out with Miranda Richardson and Michael McKean.
Gaiman: There were some amazing people. That was really the great thing about it. You don't normally get to cast it, for example. You don't normally get to actually say no to the people who go "We need to cut the scene because it will save money." Instead, I had to learn nuance, like drilling down. Well, why will this save money? What is, what is it that is expensive?
There's a scene set in the Globe Theater where I was just told what I'd written was too expensive. I drilled down. What is it that is too expensive? And eventually, I discovered it was the 300 extras that we would need to fill the Globe Theater. And it was like, "Oh, that's the problem? Do you want this to be a rehearsal or a flop?" And Douglas (Mackinnon, director) said, "Oh, write me a flop!" (laughs)
I said, "Great!" So I got to write this wonderful scene with Shakespeare. Reece Shearsmith is a fabulous Shakespeare and nobody's there. There are half a dozen people and some of them are drunk and a few of them are asleep. And Crowley is just going "You said we'd blend in with the crowds!?" "Hang on. This is one of Shakespeare's gloomy ones? No wonder no one's here!" It's so much more fun.