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Michael Sheen: Making Good Omens' glorious apocalypse was 'the most depressed I've been'
“It was the best of times,” starts Michael Sheen, who plays the angel Aziraphale. “And it was the worst of times,” adds David Tennant, who plays the demon Crowley. Shooting the climactic sequence of Good Omens was one of the most miserable — and rewarding — experiences for the actors and crew involved, and not just because Satan shows up at the end.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Good Omens**
The script called for the scene to take place at the U.S. airfield, and so the production found one in Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire that looked American enough ... but was distinctively British in climate. “It was an amazing location,” cinematographer Gavin Finney said, “but it was flat, cold, and windy, and we were shooting in December, which gave us a short shooting window. It would go dark at half past three o’clock.”
Over the course of the eight or nine days that they were shooting, the weather kept alternating from sunny to raining, so to give the site a more consistent look, they decided to keep it wet, spraying down the tarmac with the help of fire engines.
“It also looked good,” Finney said. “It gives good reflections, and gave the tarmac a glittery sheen.” But the constant wet also made the area feel even colder. “It was hell, because it’s the most depressed I’ve been,” Sheen explained. “I think if you look up the definition of ‘bleak’ in the dictionary, there’s just a picture of us doing that scene.”
Us, in this case, refers to nearly the entire principal cast, “except Nick Offerman,” said Jon Hamm, who plays the archangel Gabriel. “Nick wasn’t there, because that was in my contract.” (He’s joking, we think.) As for the rest of the adult actors, sometimes they felt like they were just standing around, waiting for the kids to finish their parts.
“It was like the Harry Potter challenge,” Sheen said. “Lots of actors who would normally be the leads in something, having to stand around and watch kids act, day after day.” (“Delightful kids, though,” Tennant added.)
Sharing the same misery at least provided a sense of camaraderie. In between takes, they could rush back to the buses being used as trailers, where there were heaters to warm them, freshly made cocoa to drink, and old movies to watch on a vintage television set. Michael McKean, who plays Shadwell, and Miranda Richardson, who plays Madame Tracy, would entertain the rest of the cast with stories from past productions.
“I can remember the feeling when they would go, ‘And… cut! Okay, everybody back to the trailers,’ and the feeling of elation walking back to sit on the bus, nice and warm,” Sheen said. “And then the knocking on the door, ‘Okay, we’re ready for you! We’re ready on set!’ and the terrible feeling of getting up and having to go back out again.”
“We kept getting pulled back out to the location, and everybody’s shoulders would sink,” Tennant said. “It just felt like it was never going to end.”
“In the trailer, it was heaven,” Sheen added, “and outside the trailer, it was hell.”
And then, in a major departure from the book, Satan showed up. Or rather, the illusion of Satan. During the early development of the CGI character, the VFX team initially came up with concept art of the 400-foot-tall Satan being quite monstrous and scary, exploding out of the ground, but Gaiman asked them to scale it back, make him simpler and his entrance more grounded in reality.
Satan’s horns became a horned crown, and his skin more textured, with extra wrinkles, according to VFX supervisor JC Deguara. The basic model was built, and when Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as the voice of Satan, the modeling team blended a bit of the actor’s distinctive facial characteristics into Satan’s shape. But the overall idea was to keep it real.
“What is it that brings a story home? Do we need spectacle all the time?” director Douglas Mackinnon asked. “People are bored with 20,000-person armies running up the hill. The only way CGI works is if you personalize it. I felt really passionate about our CGI looking kind of messy and handmade, and not slick. It’s grungy and earthy.” Especially when it’s exploding out of the earth.