Neil Gaiman is no stranger to having his fantastical literary works adapted to other media. Whether it’s Coraline, American Gods or Neverwhere, his writing has mutated into successful movies, TV shows and radio dramas. But when it came time to work on Good Omens – the upcoming Amazon series based on the 1990 novel he wrote with Terry Pratchett – Gaiman says he’s being “much, much, much more protective”.
I first got to talk to Gaiman about the upcoming Amazon adaptation of Good Omens last summer, when I was part of a group of journalists invited to a set visit for season two of American Gods. Gaiman was still working as a showrunner on Good Omens at the time, while also making himself available to American Gods’ writers and former showrunner Jesse Alexander. Then, earlier this month, I got the chance to talk to him again as he made the promotional rounds at SXSW.
Working on two high-profile productions in different capacities has been an educational and stressful journey for the celebrated author. In the edited and condensed interview below – which is drawn from both our conversations – Gaiman talks about what he’s learnt.
On the Set of American Gods Season 2
Gizmodo: With Good Omens, this is your first time actually working as showrunner. What do you know now that you’re seeing things from a different vantage point?
Neil Gaiman: I am significantly less easy to bullshit now. It’s different once you’ve actually gone down there on the ground. I’m being the kind of showrunner where there’s a lot of heavy lifting. I’m sort of more showrunner-y than a lot of my friends who are showrunners. Because story is my business, getting this thing to be exactly the thing in my head is my business, and I wrote all six episodes. I picked my director. My director shot all six episodes. We built a relationship with me sitting next to him – a foot behind him – while he shot it all.
The first month, he was like, “My rehearsal with my actors is inviolate, you can come in when the crew are all there.” A few weeks after that my phone keeps ringing while he’s in director’s things. “We just have a question for you...” And after that, at some point, I noticed that he’d put me on the call sheet. He’ll have me turning up for the director’s rehearsals, because actually, both of our lives would run easier if I was just there. It meant that I didn’t see things and then go, “Look, this was meant to do that...” So, it’s been an amazing relationship.
Gizmodo: You’re closer to this kind of process than you ever have been. It must churn up all kinds of feelings.
Gaiman: It makes me highly emotive. I definitely look at things I put up with from previous showrunners where they’d be like, “This is the way we do this” and I’d be like, “Well, okay...” Now I’m like, “Why the fuck would you do it like that? You do it like that because you’re lazy. You do it like that because you couldn’t be bothered.” It’s that sort of thing. I think it means that I’m slightly less reasonable. I’m slightly more willing to go, “This needs to be fixed and you need to go fix it” and less likely to go, “Ahh, this is an expression of personal taste and creativity...” Having said all that, I also realise there are probably as many ways to run shows as there are showrunners. It’s like writing comics. People say, “How do you write comics?” And I say, “The truth is, there are as many ways to write comics as there are writers of comics.” No two writer's scripts are alike. There is no rule. And even the people who think there are, by script number five, they’re writing their own way...it’s just a thing. And I think...that’s how you show-run. It’s personal style.
Gizmodo: It’s a term that’s become common parlance but still kind of a mystery to people who aren’t involved in television production.
Gaiman: You, as an individual, define what showrunning is. At the end of the day, as a showrunner your job is, “Hey, we have a show...” and you have to bring it in. If you cannot bring it in on time and on budget, somebody else probably can. It’s, “We love your vision and we love whatever it is...and now go bring something in.”
It’s really been interesting watching Jesse [Alexander]. Jesse can take notes on a script and give you back a much better script, using the writer’s room. You get a script and you’re like, “This plot doesn’t really work. I’m not sure about this. That feels a bit odd, and this is a bit wordy.” Or whatever. And he goes, “Oh... good notes. OK.” And then…you get back a different script! You can tell that all his writers have worked on it, they’ve all done stuff but the stuff that didn’t work, now works. And pretty often there’s completely different stuff in there, as well. Then you go, you know, this is really cool.
There’s a process there that I had never seen before. I’m very used to sort of the thing where you give somebody notes, and you get the thing where they’ve sort of grumpily reformatted it a little in the hopes that you won’t notice everything is pretty much the same. It’s one of many, many species. There are two ways to take notes. One is to explain why you were right all along, and the other is to fix things. It’s one of Gaiman’s Laws of Art: “When anyone tells you that they had a problem with something, they are very probably right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are very probably wrong.” Because very often, it could be that the problem with that scene is that it’s not set up properly. The scene itself is fine, but the stuff that should have happened before doesn’t exist. Or it’s in the wrong place. Or actually the entire thing has gone off the rails shortly before that, so trying to fix this thing is like putting make-up on a flesh wound. It’s never going to fix it, you have to sew up the wound first. Bandage it. It’s that kind of thing. And right now, when scripts are being created...
Gizmodo: You can prevent the wounds from happening in the first place...
Gaiman: The process of making television is a fascinating one. It’s one of the few places where the sausage-making process is really cool to see. But the sheer demand of it all means you also have to be able to turn your back on [other] work. In the first season, they built the bar set…and it was huge…badly lit…and they didn’t have enough extras and background actors to make it look like a real place. They shot the meeting of Shadow and Wednesday, and the Mad Sweeney fight scene. It was all cut together, and we were like, “Oh, it looks like a weird, brightly-coloured cartoon. And it doesn’t look like a real place with real people.” And they had to go back and do it again. Change the set, relight, get different actors to make the whole thing work. And now, for my money, you have one of the best scenes in the whole of American Gods.
Gizmodo: You talk about showrunning being a matter of personal style. Do you have a different sort of emotional tether to Good Omens because Terry is not here, compared to American Gods which is your own work?
Gaiman: Yeah. I do. It’s weird, with the stuff that is my own, I’m much more willing to go, “I have done this. Go play with it.” Because it’s mine and I did my thing. With Good Omens, I’m much, much, much more protective, because I’m going, “Terry basically asked me to do it.” We couldn’t find a writer who would do it, so I did it. But then it became a moral thing. When it came to doing the adaptation, there were scenes I was much more willing to lose that I’d written. I’d wound up at one point with some producers pushing me to save a bunch of budget by pushing me to lose certain things. And I said, “That was what Terry brought to the table when he started, he was incredibly proud of that. He told me about that. We’re going to do it and do it in a way that would make him proud.” Because he’s not here. And that’s my job.
Discussing Good Omens at SXSW
(left to right) Neil Gaiman with actors Michael Sheen, Jon Hamm, David Tennant and Good Omens director Douglas Mackinnon. Photo: Getty Images for Amazon Studios
Gizmodo: It’s interesting that the two things you’re currently adapting have such strong regional flavours. American Gods, obviously, is premised more on an immigrant experience, and there’s a core of Britishness to Good Omens that I think is a large part of its appeal. How do you communicate that globally? What are the different challenges when thinking about, “Okay, this a metaphorical immigrant experience thing, vs. the end of the world is coming and we’re all going to be very proper and British about it?”
Gaiman: You know, a lot of it is the tone of voice. With American Gods, when I was writing the novel, I needed to figure out a tone of voice in which the narrator almost vanished. The narrator, he’s there, but he’s way, way, way back in the shadows pretending that he’s not. The narrative voice of Good Omens is everything. And despite the fact that it’s a very English voice, what I did was write a narrator and then go, actually, what I want is an American woman to say to these lines and I asked Frances McDormand and she said yes. Which made me really happy.
Gizmodo: The casting is really crazy.
Gaiman: We were just incredibly lucky. Everybody we wanted said yes but it also just felt right. So, so much of it was how do you get that [narrator] voice to work. But the flip side of that was [getting] the finest Scottish actor of his generation, and the finest Welsh actor of his generation. Both of them were like, “What accent am I doing this in?” And I’m like, “English. You want plain English. You’re playing a particular kind of English.” Michael [Sheen] was like, “Who am I looking at for Aziraphale?” You know, we talked about Dirk Bogarde and about the young Derek Jacobi. We talked about finding a voice that is precise, an accent that doesn’t sound dated, but works...
Gizmodo: …and evokes a certain period.
Gizmodo: Can you talk about the challenges of visualising these characters that you’ve lived with for so long? How do you interpret them visually for the modern day? The novel is decades old at this point, and you may have had a certain vision in your head for how they looked then. How do you update that look now?
Gaiman: A lot of it was trust. A lot of that trust, actually, was Claire Anderson who did costumes and Annie Oldham who did hair and make-up. Lots and lots of sketches were produced and there was a certain amount of saying “No,” a certain amount of saying “Absolutely not,” and, on occasion, a certain amount of “Are you out of your fucking mind?” But, there was also a lot of “Oh, that looks really cool!” And then they got to play with our leads.
With Aziraphale, my briefing to Claire was, he finds clothes and likes them and hangs onto them as long as he can. So he probably bought his coat new in Victorian England in the 1820s and he’s just been wearing it since. We’re going to see him over the years so we need a sense of style for him that can carry through. The point that I think he’s happiest in his clothes is in the French Revolution. When we meet him in the Bastille, in prison, he’s in these incredibly fancy, sparkly kind of aristocratic duds. Crowley meets him in prison and he’s saying, “What happened?” “I got peckish.” “You what?” “They’ve got the crepes and the brioche, and you can’t get them in England." And Crowley looks and he says, “Dressed like that?” “I do have standards...” His complete obliviousness to turning up like that during a revolution is glorious, but that’s how we built up a kind of style that gives you this thing that is faintly oblivious. He does kind of look like that in the 1930s, and when we seem him in the 1930s he basically looks like that but has a hat. And some of the stuff is newer. He’s replaced things as he goes.
Crowley, on the other hand, just thinks he looks cool. Probably doesn’t. There’s this weird little balancing act where they went off and figured out what he looked like, and did it again with the hair. The idea was creating something so visually contrasting for them so you just never want to be in any doubt visually about who and what they are. Then you get to know them and see there’s a lot they have in common.
Gizmodo: In terms of tone, the trailer feels kind of sprightly and light, in keeping with the book. Still, you’re dealing with grim, apocalyptic end times stuff...
Gaiman: It’s all kind of hard because, on the one hand, we have six hours of television and on the other hand, we have a two-and-a-half minute trailer. It’s cut to a Queen soundtrack and you’re just trying to get as much possible in there, little action moments that are fun and everything. Really, the tone of Good Omens is whatever Good Omens needs in that scene. I remember talking to [director] Douglas [Mackinnon] right at the beginning and Douglas saying, as far as he was concerned, the style was “there is no style”. And, “it’s whatever that scene needs”. Which was exactly what I wanted to hear.
I got Douglas to do it because I had loved Jekyll. Not because I loved the Sherlock episode or his Doctor Who episodes, all of which I had, but there was something about what he did in Jekyll in those first three episodes where the funny stuff was funny and the scary stuff was scary and the romance was romantic. And it’s like that. You’re not trying to flatten out this weirdly shaped thing you’ve got and homogenise it.
And I just remember when I made Neverwhere for the BBC and meeting a director who said, “Look, I’ve read the scripts, but it’s funny and it’s scary and it’s romance and it’s action-packed. You’ve got to make up your mind. You’ve got to be one thing. What is this? And then I’ll make that.” And at the time I was like, “But, no, it is all of these things.” And that, for me, is the joy of Good Omens and what Douglas and I did together. It’s serious and funny and silly and dark…and it’s not like anything else. You can’t point to anything. I’ve enjoyed those people who have seen it having the problem of trying to explain it to other people. Normally, someone in there will mention Monty Python, which is just fine by me. Because Python is astounding. But that’s sort of more about tone and the fact that people are making jokes. They’re in the reality they’re stuck in trying to cope with it as best they can.
Gizmodo: How much of the book does the first season encapsulate?
Gaiman: All of it. It’s not a first season, which is a lovely place to be. It’s it. This is the thing. You have six episodes. You have Good Omens. It says “new series” but it could just as well say, “the thing”. Here is all of it. It starts, there’s a beginning, a middle, it’s done. The best thing about this glorious new world of television we’re in is, what Amazon wants is lots of people to watch and love Good Omens. Amazon has no investment in everybody watching Good Omens at 10 o’clock on a Monday night for the rest of time, which was the old network thing. Coming from England, where things came and went, it used to drive me mad when I moved to America. The goal was simply, “You will own 7:30 on a Sunday night” forever. And it was just like, don’t you realise that is antithetical to producing something fucking wonderful? It may give you something solid and it has produced occasional things of great brilliance and beauty...but...
Gizmodo: …it’s also produced things that have lived long past their expiration date.
Gaiman: And you’re not allowed to end things when they’re doing well. You have to wait until they’re limping along. So, for me, the joy of Good Omens is “Yeah, this is the whole thing” And Amazon are fine with that.
Gizmodo: When we spoke in Toronto last year, I asked about showrunning and what the experience of showrunning was, and what you knew now versus then. And you said people can’t bullshit you as easily. So, how has your bullshit experience changed since last June?
Gaiman: American Gods had its own unique set of problems. When I was up in June, they were shooting episode four or five and I was having meetings about episode seven. The biggest frustration for me the entire time was not even the can-we-bullshit-it part. It was that, for most of that time, I was 5,000 miles away, working six and seven day weeks for anywhere from nine to 15 hours a day [on Good Omens]. And there’s not much you can do, right?
Someone sends you the script, you can read it and give notes but you can’t actually make sure those notes are followed through. And you absolutely cannot, because there’s not enough time in the day. You don’t have the hour-and-a-half to watch the dailies and give notes on the dailies you would love to have. Because you have to sleep sometime. That for me was the most frustrating thing about American Gods getting into weird territory while I was a long way away. On the other hand, coming out to Toronto was really useful. Because I got to talk to [co-executive producer] Heather Bellson and get really deep into it with her because she was there. And I talked Pablo [Schreiber] on the background of Mad Sweeney we used to write episode seven with. So being there meant that I talked directly to writers about some of the stuff in episode six and seven and felt like I was really part of the process.
American Gods season two is available on Amazon Prime; Good Omens hits Prime on May 31.
Featured photo: Getty Images for Amazon Studios