Television is known as a writers’ medium, but that doesn’t mean the director isn’t a vital contributor to the creation of an on-screen television world. This is especially true when one director has the chance to direct every episode of a TV season, which is normally not the case in the traditional TV model.
This is the case for Amazon’s much-anticipated upcoming adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, the story of a demon named Crowley (David Tennant) and an angel named Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) who team up in an attempt to prevent the apocalypse and the end of life as they know it.
Director Douglas Mackinnon is behind the camera for all six episodes of what looks to be a trippy, distinctive, and wonderfully weird adaptation of a beloved book.
Mackinnon knows his way around both an adaptation and a fantasy world. Standouts on the Scottish director’s long resume include Doctor Who‘s “The Husbands of River Song” (he’s directed eight episode of NuWho), Sherlock‘s “The Abominable Bride,” and the first three episodes of Steven Moffat’s highly underrated Jekyll.
Den of Geek had the chance to talk to Mackinnon and the cast of Good Omens at the recent New York Comic Con.
“It’s Douglas who’s focusing on source material,” said Sheen of working with Mackinnon, noting that it was the director whose copy of the Good Omens book was the most thumbed-through, and who was the most actively engaged with keeping the adaptation faithful to the spirit of the book.
“[Douglas] was the guardian of the book weirdly in the way that you’d think Neil would be the guardian of the book. But, actually, it was Douglas who kept the book pinned down, which allowed me to be much freer in kind of messing around with things a bit. You had the confidence of the authorial voice to go, ‘All right, that was the book, but we’re doing this.’ And Douglas would keep going, ‘There’s that bit in the book. There’s that line in the book.””
Both Tennant, who’d worked with Mackinnon before on episodes of Doctor Who, and Jon Hamm, who plays Archangel Gabriel in the series, remarked on MacKinnon’s ability to manage the broad scope of the adaptation.
“I think what’s brilliant about Douglas is that he has an absolute grasp of all the disparate elements of what Good Omens is, and there are a lot of them,” said Tennant. “There’s lots going on that we [actors] never really get to truly understand or know. There’re whole plot lines that I can’t wait to see what they’re about, some characters that we’re never in a scene with.”
“You’ve always felt like Douglas—he’s been working on this project certainly a lot longer than I have—had a real sense of what everything was and how it all had to be pulled together. And I felt, probably because I knew him before, probably because of the sense that he brought to set everyday, I could trust that. I didn’t have to worry about. I just had to look after my little corner of it because he was in charge.”
Hamm, who was part of a separate roundtable discussion from Tennant, echoed the sentiment.
“It’s a treat to have a unified vision over something so sprawling and vast,” said Hamm, who is a longtime fan of the book. “And just the scale and scope of this project, especially giving that it has such an international following and is so adored by so many, because then you want somebody who has experience and knows what he is doing, but also has the ability to play nicely with others and to understand that Neil and the book are the sources of all of this and really use it to his advantage.”
From the actors’ perspective, Mackinnon is a delight to work with because he understands that the relationships between characters is at the heart of any good story.
“Douglas’s personality, maybe just on this,” said Sheen, “mirrors the challenge of the book which is the enjoyment of the craziness of the world, of the universe. This kind of huge, silly, absurd stuff going on, but at the heart of it is something very, very real about relationships and something that matters.”
“You want to be able to enjoy both,” Sheen continued. “You have to be taken along by the narrative engine of why it matters, what’s going on, in order to enjoy the crazier elements of it. And I think Douglas has that. When you meet him, you think he is making jokes all of the time and being kind of silly, but actually, underneath, he has a very serious commitment to what it’s really about. I think that’s why he was the perfect director [for Good Omens].”
“He’s very good with all the bells and whistles. He understands how you can be drummaging in work. He likes doing fancy things with cameras. He gets excited by all that. But, ultimately, only really cares about what’s going on between the actors.”
Miranda Richardson, who plays Madame Tracy in Good Omens, has been working in this business a long time. Where does Mackinnon fall in the context of her experience?
“He knew what he wanted so that’s always a relief as a performer,” said Richardson. “He’s also one of the most relaxed bosses, you know, not in Australia that I’ve ever had, really.”
What does Mackinnon himself have to say about the responsibility of bringing the world of Good Omens to the screen? Den of Geek asked the director specifically about bringing London, a location and setting that has a rich history on screen and that Mackinnon has worked with as a setting before, to distinctive life.
“Good Omens is a very—I’m going to use a very particular word here—is a very English production,” said Mackinnon. “It’s very English. There’s no British, no UK. It’s very English.”
“I’m Scottish, when I read the book it felt so much like a … I wouldn’t say cliché or stereotype, but it’s so much about how English people talk to each other,” continued Mackinnon. “That’s why with Aziraphale and Crowley, they’re both English. And so, the London that I wanted, and the Soho that I wanted, and also the Tadfield I wanted … There was an English playwright who died a number of years ago…”
“Dennis Potter,” Gaiman contributes, giving us a peek into the partnership between these two men, who have been working closely together on this project for months and months.
“[It was] Dennis Potter,” continues Mackinnon, “who said that, he was dying and he said that, ‘The blossoms were the blossom-est blossoms that he’d ever seen.’ So, I want the Soho-est Soho that I’d ever seen. I want the London-est London. I want the Tadfield-est Tadfield.”
“It means that, in Crowley’s flat, he’s got heads of Parliament outside his window,” continued Mackinnon. “It means at St James’s Park you see Buckingham Palace. There are red buses going past all the time. And, for Tadfield, [where] we went and shot, the last major film that was shot there was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. So, you can’t get more English than that.”
“My theory was that, when Aziraphale and Crowley were walking down the street of Soho, they would just fit in completely, but when they got to Tadfield they standout like they’re crazy guys… Especially, if you turn up with a burning Bentley.”
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