Good Omens

Fans of British television comedies have a new treat in Amazon Prime’s Good Omens. The six-part mini-series is a co-production of BBC Studios and Amazon Studios. It is the screen adaptation of the 1990 hit novel by the late Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, entitled Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Just imagine if the Book of Revelation had been written by Edgar Wright or the Coen brothers. Toss in a bit of The Witches of Eastwick and I think you’ll get the picture.

The series stars Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex, The Good Fight) as Aziraphale (an angel) and David Tennant (Mary Queen of Scots, Doctor Who) as Crowley (a demon). Although on opposing sides, the two have developed a close friendship going back to the beginning of humanity. Now it’s time for the Antichrist to arrive and bring about Armageddon. Except that the two have grown fond of humans and their life on Earth, so Crowley and Aziraphale aren’t quite ready to see it all end. They form an unlikely alliance to thwart the End Times. Naturally this gets off to a bad start, when the Antichrist child is mixed up at birth and ends up misplaced with the wrong family. The series also stars an eclectic supporting cast, including Jon Hamm (Baby Driver, Mad Men), Michael McKean (Veep, Better Call Saul), and Frances McDormand (Hail, Caesar!, Fargo) as the voice of God.

Neil Gaiman (Lucifer, American Gods) was able to shepherd the production from novel to the screen by adapting the screenplay and serving as show runner. Douglas Mackinnon (Doctor Who, Sherlock) directed all six episodes. I recently had a chance to speak with Will Oswald (Doctor Who, Torchwood: Children of Earth, Sherlock) and Emma Oxley (Lair, Happy Valley), the two editors who brought the production over the finish line.

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[OP] Please tell me a bit about your editing backgrounds and how you landed this project.

[Will] I was the lead editor for Doctor Who for a while and got along well with the people. This led to Sherlock. Douglas had worked on both and gave me a call when this came up.

[Emma] I’ve been mainly editing thrillers and procedurals and was looking for a completely different script, and out of the blue I received a call from Douglas. I had worked with him as an assistant editor in 2007 on an adaptation of the Jekyll and Hyde story and I was fortunate that a couple of Douglas’s main editors were not available for Good Omens. When I read the script I thought this is a dream come true.

[OP] Had either of you read the book before?

[Will] I hadn’t, but when I got the gig, I immediately read the book. It was great, because this is a drama-comedy. How good a job is that? You are doing everything you like. It’s a bit tricky, but it’s a great atmosphere to work in.

[Emma] I was the same, but within a week I had read it. Then the scripts came through and they were pretty much word for word – you don’t expect that. But since it was six hours instead of feature length the book could remain intact.

[OP] I know that episodic series often divide up the editorial workload in many different ways. Who worked on which episode and how was that decided?

[Will] Douglas decided that I would do the first three episodes and Emma would edit the last three. The series happened to split very neatly in the middle. The first three episodes really set up the back story and the relationship between the characters and then the story shifts tone in the last three episodes.

[Emma] Normally in TV the editors would leapfrog each other. In this case, as Will said, the story split nicely into two, three-hour sections. It was a nice experience not to have to jump backwards and forwards.

[Will] The difficult thing for me in the first half is that the timeline is so complicated. In the first three episodes you have to develop the back story, which in this case goes back and forth through the centuries – literally back to the beginning of time. You also have to establish the characters’ relationship to each other. By the end of episode three, they really start falling apart, even though they do really like each other. It’s a bit like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Of course, Emma then had to resolve all the conflicts in her episodes. But it was nice to go rocking along from one episode to the next.

[OP] What was the post-production schedule like?

[Emma] Well, we didn’t really have a schedule. That’s why it worked! (laugh) Will and I were on it from the very start and once we decided to split up the edit as two blocks of three episodes, there were days when I wouldn’t get any rushes, so could focus on getting a cut done and vice versa with Will. When Douglas came in, we had six pretty good episodes that were cut according to the script. Douglas said he wanted to treat it like a six hour film, so we did a full pass on all six episodes before Neil came in and then finally the execs. They allowed us the creative freedom to do that.

[Will] When Douglas came back, we basically had a seven and a half hour movie, which we ran in a cinema on a big screen. Then we went through and made adjustments in order. It was the first time I’ve had both the show runner and the director in with me every day. Neil had promised Terry that he would make sure it happened. Terry passed away before the production, but he had told Neil – and I’m paraphrasing here – don’t mess it up! So this was a very personal project for him. That weighed heavily on me, because when I reread the book, I wanted to make sure ‘this’ was in and ‘that’ was in as I did my cut.

[OP] What sort of changes were made as you were refining the episodes?

[Will] There were a lot of structural changes in episodes one and two that differed a lot from the script. It was a matter of working out how best to tell the story. Episode one was initially 80 minutes long. There was quite a lot of work to get down to the hourlong final version. Episode three was much easier. 

[Emma] By the time it got to episode four, the pattern had been established, so we had to deal more with visual effects challenges in the second half. We had a number of large set pieces and a limited visual effects budget. So we had to be clever about using visual effects moments without losing the impact, but still maximizing the effects we did have. And at the same time keeping it as good as we could. For example, there’s a flying saucer scene, but the plate shot didn’t match the saucer shot and it was going to take a ton of work to match everything. So we combined it with a shot intended for another part of the scene. Instead of a full screen effects shot, it’s seen through a car window. Not only did it save a lot of money, but more importantly, it ended up being a better way for the ship to land and more in the realm of Good Omens storytelling. I love that shot.

[Will] Visual effects are just storytelling points. You want to be careful not to lose the plot. For example, the Hellhound changes into a puppy dog and that transformation was originally intended to be a big visual effect. But instead, we went with a more classic approach. Just a simple cut and the camera tilts down to reveal the smaller dog. It turned out to be a much better way of doing it and makes me laugh every time I see it.

[OP] I noticed a lot of music from Queen used throughout. Any special arrangement to secure that for the series?

[Will] Queen is in the book. Every time Crowley hears music, even if it’s Mozart, it turns into Queen. Fortunately Neil knows everybody!

[Emma] And it’s one of Douglas’ favorite bands of all time, so it was a treat for him to put as much Queen music in as possible. At one point we had it over many more moments.

[Will] Also working with David Arnold [series composer] was great. There’s a lot of his music as well and he really understands what we do in editing.

[OP] Since this is a large effort and a lot of complex work involved, did you have a large team of assistant editors on the job with you?

[Emma] This is the UK. We don’t have a huge team! (laugh)

[Will] We had one assistant, Cat Gregory, and then much later on, a couple more for visual effects.

[Emma] They were great. Cat, our first assistant, had an adjoining room to us and she was our ‘take barometer.’ If you put in an alt line and she didn’t laugh, you knew it wasn’t as good. But if there was a chuckle coming out of her room, it would more often stay.

[OP] How do you work with your assistants? For example, do you let assistants assemble selects, or cut in sound effects or music?

[Will] It was such a heavy schedule with a huge amount of material, so there was a lot of work just to get that in and organized. Just giving us an honest opinion was invaluable. But music and sound effects – you really have to do that yourself.

[Emma] Me, too. I cut my own music and assemble my own rushes.

[OP] Please tell me a bit about your editorial set-up and editing styles.

[Will] We were spread over two or four upstairs/downstairs rooms at the production company’s office in Soho. These were Avid Media Composer systems with shared storage. We didn’t have the ScriptSync option. We didn’t even have Sapphire plug-ins until late in the day, although that might have been nice with some of the bigger scenes with a lot of explosions. I don’t really have an editing style, I think it’s important not to have one as an editor. Style comes out of the content. I think the biggest challenge on this show was how do you get the English humor across to an American audience.

[Emma] I wouldn’t say I have an editing style either. I come in, read the notes, and then watch the rushes with that information in my head. There wasn’t a lot of wild variation in the takes and David’s and Michael’s performances were just dreamy. So the material kind of cut itself.

[Will] The most important thing is to familiarize yourself with the material and review the selected takes. Those are the ones the director wanted. That also gives you a fixed point to start from. The great thing about software these days is that you can have multiple versions.

[OP] I know some directors like to calibrate their actors’ performances, with each take getting more extreme in emotion. Others like to have each take be very different from the one before it. What was Mackinnon’s style on this show as a director?

[Emma] In the beginning you always want to figure out what they are thinking. With Douglas it’s easy to see from the material he gives you. He’s got it all planned. He really gets the performance down to a tee in the rehearsal.

[Will] Douglas doesn’t push for a wide range in the emotion from one take to the next. As Emma mentioned, Douglas works through that in rehearsal. Someone like David and Michael work that out, too, and they’re bouncing off each other. Douglas has a fantastic visual sense. You can look at the six episodes and go, “Wow, how did you get all of that in?” It’s a lot of material and he found a way to tell that story. There’s a very natural flow to the structure.

[OP] Since both Douglas Mackinnon and Will worked on Doctor Who, and David Tennant was one of the Doctors during the series, was there a conscious effort to stay away from anything that smacked of Doctor Who in Good Omens?

[Will] It never crossed my mind. I always try to do something different, but as I said, the style comes out of the material. It has jeopardy and humor like Doctor Who, but it’s really quite different. I did 32 episodes of Doctor Who and each of those was very different from the other. David Tennent is in it, of course, but he is not even remotely playing the Doctor. Crowley is a fantastic new character for him.

[OP] Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share about working on Good Omens?

[Will] It was a pleasure to work on a world-famous book and it is very funny. To do it justice was really all we were doing. I was going back every night and reading the book marking up things. Hopefully the fans like it. I know Neil does and I hope Terry is watching it.

[Emma] I’m just proud that the fans of the book are saying that it’s one of the best adaptations they’ve ever watched on the screen. That’s a success story and it gives me a warm feeling when I think about Good Omens. I’d go back and cut it again, which I rarely say about any other job.

©2019 Oliver Peters

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