Neil Gaiman on honouring Terry Pratchett’s last request: ‘You have to do this’
The writer explains how his four years of intense devotion to ‘Good Omens’ will never happen again
Neil Gaiman. Photograph: Sasha Maslov/The New York Times
“Bigger and weirder” is how Neil Gaiman describes the evolution from American Gods, his 2001 dark twisted fantasy novel, to American Gods, his television series that came to our screens via Amazon Prime Video.
With a gleaming cast including Ian McShane, Ian Whittle and Gillian Anderson, it visualised the unvisualisable, and brought together his worlds of forgotten gods and rootsy America in one esoteric show.
Or for Gaiman to explain the premise more elaborately,“when people came to America over the centuries, over the millennia, they brought their gods with them. And they kind of abandoned them, so now you have old gods in the corners. They’re stealing, cheating, taking small jobs, they’re getting by.
“And a man called Shadow Moon has come out of prison,” he continues. “He discovers that his wife is dead, and he’s hired as a bodyguard to an elderly grifter, played by the glorious Ian McShane, called Mr Wednesday. And very soon he finds himself way out of his depth.”
Thereon, the plot twists and turns with a speed that better serves those already familiar with the source material, but still, the initial eight episodes didn’t cover even half of the novel. Instead, we’ll return to this band of otherworldy vagrants in the second season. Despite a tricky change of the main writers/producers – the original showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green left early on in the process of the second season, and their replacement Jesse Alexander exited too – the series is, Gaiman assures at its London launch, shaping up to be “pretty glorious”.
Joining the cast are Dean Winters (Oz, 30 Rock), Devery Jacobs as Sam Black Crow and Kahyun Kim, as New Media to replace Gillian Anderson’s Media.
The better news is that it’s only the start of Gaiman’s televisual offerings for 2019. Last year, the cult comic book creator, novelist, children’s writer and journalist (for starters) signed an exclusivity deal with Amazon, and Good Omens will be the first release since.
The series, which lands at the end of May, is based on the book Gaiman co-wrote with the equally revered author Terry Pratchett, in 1990. If the responsibility of reinterpreting a deeply-loved classic wasn’t enough, Gaiman also found the project being Pratchett’s last wish before he died in 2015 of Alzheimer’s, a disease which Pratchett referred to, with wonderful humour, as an “embuggerance”.
“[Terry and I] spent many years trying to get it made as a movie, but failed,” says Gaiman, explaining the history of the adaptation. “Finally, we thought, let’s make a TV series out of it, so we went out, and began looking for someone to do the adaptation.
“And in the summer of 2014, when Terry had a very peculiar Alzheimer’s where he was very compos mentis but couldn’t deal with objects – it was tragic and awful – he wrote me a letter, and he said, ‘you have to do this because I want to watch it before the lights go out, and you’re the only person who has the same care and love and passion for the old girl that I have’. I was basically saying okay and then he died, which made it a last request.
“So I spent 18 months writing six scripts and trying to reinvent it for television, while still staying faithful, because I knew that we have tens of millions of people around the world who would murder me if it was not. But also, I wanted surprises, I wanted excitement.”
The story begins a week before the world is doomed to end, an event that would be an inconvenience to the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley. In hope of averting it, they seek out the Antichrist, who, due to a mix-up at birth, has grown up in an Oxfordshire home, unaware of his powers.
Gaiman’s surprises come in the form of digressions from the novel, for example, new characters like the dashing archangel Gabriel, played by Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame. But before purists fret, Gaiman conceived many of these changes with Pratchett’s input.
“Some of the extra things were stolen from plans that Terry and I had for sequel we never did, and for work that we planned out for a film script version in 1991. We figured out our angels and stuff like that back then,” Gaiman explains. “Terry and I had this whole idea of what heaven was like and what hell was like. And in order for Gabriel to be Gabriel, he needed to be best-looking, coolest, most irritating angel that you could possibly imagine. Obviously the good looking bit is going to be a stretch for Jon, but he can do the other bits.”
At the same launch event, Jon Hamm explains why he accepted the role. “I said yes because I knew that whatever version it was going to take, it would be excellent,” he says. “Then I saw who else was in it, and I thought, well this is going to be fun too ... so it was a no brainer for me. I was happy to be asked.”
We suspect the answer speaks for the rest of the cast too. Taking the lead roles of Aziraphale and Crowley are David Tennant and Michael Sheen, but expect characters and cameos from The League of Gentleman’s Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, Josie Lawrence (who also played prophet Agnes Nutter in the radio adaptation), Nina Sosanya (Women on the Verge, W1A), David Morrissey (The Walking Dead, Britannia) and Konnie Huq (Blue Peter, The Xtra Factor) plus Derek Jacobi as the voice of God and Frances McDormand as the actual God.
Certainly, part of the appeal for this all-star cast is that Gaiman took control of the series by writing the episodes as well as acting as showrunner (or lead producer, depending on your terminology) to ensure his and Pratchett’s creative vision was honoured. The decision came after learning from writing two episodes of the Doctor Who TV series: The Doctor’s Wife in 2011, which won the Hugo Award and a Bradbury Award, and Nightmare in Silver in 2013, which didn’t quite meet his expectations.
“I’m really glad that my second Doctor Who episode left me with a bad taste in my mouth, because when Terry said to me that you have to make this thing … it also meant that I was like, ‘OK, well if I’m going to do it then I’m going to be showrunner’,” he explains. “I can’t just write the scripts, hand them over to somebody and hope that I get something fantastic back. I may or I may not. If this is going to be fucked up, it’s going to be fucked up by me personally, with love and dedication.”
Throughout the scriptwriting and production, Pratchett’s spirit was very much present.
“When I would get stuck, I would do a kind of imaginary angel on my shoulder,” explains Gaiman. “Terry would be sitting there: ‘Ah, grasshopper, the solution to the problem is contained in how you ask the question’. And I would say, ‘Terry don’t just say that, give me an answer!’”
Of course, there were other moments when reviving their joint venture made Pratchett’s absence more pronounced.
“Part of the joy of writing Good Omens together was my audience was Terry, his audience was me,” recalls Gaiman. “So when either of us would do anything clever, we would ring the other one up, and say, ‘ah, you’re going to like this’.
“I remember cracking the shape of episode six and I’d been chewing on it for months because I knew [it needed] a completely different plot. The moment I solved that one, all I wanted to do was phone Terry. Probably more than anything else in the entire process of making it, in that one moment I missed him more than anything, and I wanted to just call him and say, ‘okay, I figured it out’.”
Tributes to Terry
The series will slip in tributes to its co-creator – keep an eagle eye out for Pratchett’s trademark hat, and piles of his books. Once Gaiman has honoured his friend’s last request, we shouldn’t expect sequels of “Even Better Omens, More Omens, Just As Good Omens”, as Gaiman puts it. Instead, Gaiman is aiming to recalibrate, spend time with his family - wife Amanda Palmer and their son, plus his three older children - then return to his usual rate of working. As well as his creative endeavours, he’s just launched a long-awaited online course in writing.
But “I’m never going to do what I’ve done with Good Omens again, in the sense that I’m going to spend [four years of my life] writing and rewriting and in post-production and promoting one thing, which I’m doing basically because my dead friend asked me to. That’s never going to happen again,” he says. “With Amazon, I’m going to create things, I’m going to write things, I’m going to make things, I’m going to find terrific collaborators. But I’ve also got novels to write, I’ve got a family. I’d like to see daylight.”
Certainly, the four years he has intensively devoted to Good Omens will be appreciated by fans of the novel and both authors’ work. And Pratchett too, wherever he may be.
American Gods Series 2 airs on March 11th and Good Omens will premiere on on May 31st, both on Amazon prime Video