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'Good Omens' at SXSW: Neil Gaiman, stars reveal divine, infernal inspirations

Natalie Mokry, special to the American-Statesman
Actor David Tennant walks the red carpet for the Amazon Prime series" Good Omens" at Zach Theatre during SXSW 2019 on March 9, 2019 in Austin, Texas. [Scott Moore for Austin360]

"Good Omens," the widely beloved book by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, will come to life on Amazon Prime's streaming service in May as a six-episode TV series. A "Good Omens" event at South by Southwest on Saturday featured a few exclusive clips from the show, as well as a panel moderated by Aisha Tyler that included stars Michael Sheen, David Tennant and Jon Hamm; director Douglas Mackinnon; and Gaiman himself, who all peeled back the curtain on the production.

The story follows the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant) as they work together to stop the end times. At one point, adapting the story seemed to be an impossible task, but Gaiman said he worked to accomplish it in order to honor Pratchett's request.

"I was probably ready to just let it slide when Terry wrote to me and said 'I know how busy you are but you're the only person that has the same amount of love for "Good Omens" as I do, and you understand it, and you have to make this so that I can see it before I die.' And then he died, which left it as a sort of awful last request. I had to do it," Gaiman said.

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While Gaiman is a co-author of the book, he is also showrunner for the "Good Omens" series. As he discussed during the panel, a traditional TV production involves numerous writers and directors, all of whom the showrunner must keep on the same page. For "Good Omens," however, Gaiman is the only writer, and Mackinnon directed all 6 episodes.

Gaiman cited Mackinnon's work on the series "Jekyll" as one of the reasons he was the best person to direct the entire series.

"There was something very specific he did on 'Jekyll' where it was funny and it was scary and it was romantic and it was domestic. And it was all of these things, and he didn't try and turn it into just one thing," Gaiman said. "What I loved about 'Good Omens' the script was, I thought, it's only going to work if I get a director who is willing to accept that it is all of these things all of the time. So we did."

While adapting "Good Omens" for the screen might have been unthinkable at one point, Mackinnon also remarked that the combination of Gaiman's storytelling and the cast's talent helped the show to come together in a way that paid reverence to the source material.

"We were very faithful to the book," Mackinnon said. "Neil knows this, that I carried around the book with me, a version that is as tatty as any other version of 'Good Omens' that everyone in here probably has, but it sat in front of my monitors every day, and it was our reference to Terry all the time, as well."

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As for the cast, Sheen and Tennant discussed the process of working together and how their characters are more "one unit," as Sheen described it, than they are separate entities.

"It's the only part I've ever played where, when I think of the character, I don't just think of the character. I can only think of Aziraphale with Crowley," Sheen said.

Adding to this sentiment, Tennant likened the series to a "buddy movie" and noted that "there are not a lot of scenes where they aren't with each other, and they do exist as one, I think."

While Crowley and Aziraphale now are a prominent duo, Gaiman shared that during the writing process for the book, Aziraphale was nonexistent at one point.

"I wrote the first 5,000 words of 'Good Omens' and I had the protagonist as a demon called Crowley, who was a demon, but he was a lot like Aziraphale," Gaiman said. "What Terry did, the big thing that he brought to that when he did his draft of it, was split that character into two."

In the series, Hamm plays the archangel Gabriel, a character who is only mentioned in passing in the book but gets a larger role in the show.

"I play the kind of No. 2 guy to the big guy. And I'm everybody's boss that we've all worked for that you just hate because he's constantly smiling and telling you what a terrible job you're doing, and could you maybe do it a little faster," Hamm said.

When asked during the audience Q&A whether or not there will be a second season for "Good Omens," Gaiman denied the prospect.

"Well, the lovely thing about 'Good Omens' is it has a beginning, a middle and an end. So season one of 'Good Omens' is 'Good Omens.' It's brilliant. It finishes. We have six episodes and then we're done."

Gaiman did, however, graciously share the title he and Pratchett had come up with for a book sequel, which was "668: The Neighbor of the Beast"

Good Omens premieres on May 31 on Amazon Prime.