Interview: Michael Ralph and Gavin Finney Discuss Crafting ‘Good Omens’

From Ancient Rome to the escalators for Heaven and Hell, Gavin Finney and Michael Ralph share the joy of bringing Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's vision to life.

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For cinematographer Gavin Finney and production designer Michael Ralph, “Good Omens” was something of a dream come true.

Finney has worked mostly in television since the early 90s. With many of his projects based in his native UK, where he studied at the National Film and Television School. He won a BAFTA TV award for his work on “The Fear” in 2013, following nominations for “Going Postal” in 2010 and “Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather” in 2006.

Likewise, Ralph has spent much of his recent career in television, too. “Good Omens” is the latest in a steady collection of projects that include “Dickensian” and “Living the Dream.”

Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, “Good Omens” is the story of an angel, Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and a demon, Crowley (David Tennant). The pair are friends who inadvertently set in motion a chain of events that will usher in the apocalypse if they are unable to stop it. Told over the course of six episodes, the series was written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Douglas Mackinnon.

Terry Pratchett, who passed away in 2015, shares the co-creator credit with Gaiman.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with both Gavin Finney and Michael Ralph about their work on the impossibly creative world of “Good Omens.” Here are both interviews, conducted separately, but with enough overlapping themes and discussion that they are presented together. Please enjoy learning more about “Good Omens” from two of the men that helped create it.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: How did you first get involved in the series?

Gavin Finney: I know the director, Douglas Mackinnon. I’ve known him since film school, actually. And we’ve worked together on a few projects. In this job it’s quite often you go for years and you can’t get together with people because you’re on your own projects and commitments. But this kind of came out of the blue. I’d heard about the fact that Amazon was making “Good Omens,” and when I heard Douglas was involved, I was excited just because I knew he’d do such a good job. I thought that would be great…When he offered it to me, I was absolutely overjoyed because… I love Neil Gaiman’s work and Terry Pratchett’s work and the opportunity to work in that world was fantastic. So Douglas asked me if I was interested and I said absolutely and dropped everything to come and join his show.

Michael Ralph was working on another project in Savannah when he got the call for “Good Omens.” He describes preparing for his first meeting, one in which he did not know Neil Gaiman would be present.

Michael Ralph: …I had the script sent to me and the script is a very complicated script to get a handle on. It is all over the place and it’s very difficult to find a through-line or what connects it. It takes a lot of research and a lot of soul-searching and visualizing to sort of figure out, to find a hook. To find out what it is that makes the show tick for you and also how to visualize that. How to make that palatable and empathetic visually to an audience. Because there’s a lot of unconnected dots. I mean, they’re connected narratively, but they’re not connected visually or color-wise. And it jumps about… It’s the oddest project to look at and say how we’re going to design it.

So the only way I could go about that was…I put together seven pieces of concept art before that meeting. I felt so inspired by the idea that I needed to just throw it out there and do something incredibly unusual with it because that’s all I can do. I can only depict it how I instinctively feel about it. So I just went mad, really. And in that madness… I connected those seven ideas. I did a concept piece of art for Eden. I did a concept piece of art for Adam’s world where he used to play. And then I did a piece of concept art for the narrator, for God. And then I did one of the bookshop, and it went on. All of those had connective tissue, if you like. They all had DNA that crossed over. They all had a reason to be. They all had some basis or foundation in religion or basis in human nature or basis in humor. There was something to pull them all together in visual statements that gave it a sense of all belonging to the one show. So I had theories. I had tons of theories about how this works and why it works and I gave things depth, visually, that wasn’t there on the page, but then there was so much information on the page. Neil’s writing, when I read the book also, was such a dense piece of work. It was so much to depict. How do you tear it down? How do you get from an orchestral visual down to a single note? How do we pare it down to being as powerful as a single note?

And interestingly enough, in this meeting, I sent all that visual concept over, and the meeting was just to say hi! But everyone had these copies of the concept art. I remember Neil saying, “Hi, Michael, this is Neil Gaiman.” I said hi, and he said, “How did you come up with this?” And he said, “In my wildest thinking I would never have thought of this. We’ve been trying to think of what this would look like for a couple of weeks and we really couldn’t come up with it and here it is.” And he said, “Now, I cannot really see it any other way.”

I thought that was a monstrous compliment from Neil… which I didn’t know was in the room. And from that moment on, I basically clicked so strongly with Neil, and also with Douglas, and this was just prior to Douglas coming on board. So I’d already been employed on the project just before Douglas Mackinnon…

And if you can imagine out of those pieces of concept art, four of those pieces ended up being the sets we built for the show.

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KP: What were some of the early conversations you had about how to craft this world?

GF: It was difficult and a really great challenge because it’s not like any world. You can’t really reference what you’ve done before, or what other people have done before. Because often when you start talking about a film with a director you start to think about films that may suggest themselves. But there’s no reference to a Neil Gaiman world because it kind of exists on its own. There were sort of vague ideas we had for sequences. Neil Gaiman, as the script writer and showrunner had ideas for certain sections. Overall, we realized we would have to start from scratch and the look of the show would come out of the show. It would grow organically rather than saying we’re going to make it look like X or Y or this film. It would have to come out of the locations and also out of the designs. So Michael Ralph and Claire Anderson and Costume, Anne Oldham for Makeup, Hair, Production Design, all started to create drawings and plans and started to create looks that we could all discuss. It sort of grew out of everyone’s input, really. We just knew it had to have ambition, it had to have sweep, it had to have a lot of energy. And then we had to let it find itself, really.

KP: Color kind of feels like a character in itself, the way that you photograph, the way it changes through the story. What are some of the ways you made sure to hone in on some of those changes?

GF: There are so many different balls you have to keep in the air because we needed to give each place you were in a signature. For instance, Hell, you always know when you’re in Hell because there is a particular grade and look we applied there. In Neil’s mind, Heaven and Hell are in the same building, in a sense. Heaven has amazing penthouse suites with atrium windows looking out onto global architecture. Hell has the crappy basement with the leaking roof and pipes and nothing works, lights flicker on and off. So Hell is subterranean and has this sickly green, fluorescent color to it. The flickering lights and dark, slimy walls and shadow. And Heaven is as you kind of expect, bright, and we expose right at the top end of the camera, massive sets with metal floors and walls and huge windows which were all lit glowing white. So we shot that very fast and with very wide lenses, because it’s going off into infinity. We want the audience to know when we jump around, because we jump around a lot in time and in place. We just need to help people know exactly where they were very quickly and give these places a different look.

And then there’s this kind of present-day 2018, and a near-present day 2007, so that had to have a slightly different look. And then we have the 70s, the 60s, the 40s, Victorian England, French Revolution, Elizabethan London, Arthurian knights. And each one of those had a kind of genre feel, so Neil and Douglas wanted a scene in the church, in the blitz and he wanted it to be this film noir, 40s spy thriller look to it. We really went to town with that, with the shafts of moonlight and silhouettes and candle lights and great costumes from Claire.

The Arthurian knights were in lots of mist and fog. The look for Ancient Rome, there’s a Victorian painter called [Sir Lawrence] Alma-Tadema. He had a kind of particular look that he did in his imaginings of Ancient Rome. So that was a reference, that was a painting reference for the Rome sequence. Every section has a kind of reference we’ve discussed. And then there’s an arc through the six episodes of the look that takes you through the story arc. And then there are the sub-arcs through the time periods and the Heaven and Hell areas where you are, and then the kind of psychology of Adam and his story arc. So quite complex. A lot of work, and then to tie it all together so it didn’t look a mess, really. That was a complex color correct, grade period, which Neil and Douglas sat in on most of. Because the look was so important to the way this story is told as clearly as possible.

KP: It’s a very unusual story, it’s not linear, the narrative is fascinating. There are different periods of time, a lot of different locations. How did you go about preparing for all the different sets and locations you would be working in?

MR: Imagine that if we lean on Crowley and Aziraphale, both those people are front and center all the time. Both their characters and their relationships and their humor is there through the ages. So it doesn’t become ancient because they’re in ancient times. They’re as modern back then as they are now. So there’s somehow a connective tissue through all of that. Suddenly you have something that exists in every single frame of everything you’re doing.

Okay, now how do we support that? How do we characterize what’s around them? How do we make where they are something they choose to be a part of. And then how do we improvise on that to be part of their characters?

To me, it was symbolism. I built in all these symbols. I can’t help myself. I have to know everything about everything. I need to go and do research about everything I possibly can about a period of time and a thing, so I can actually throw it away and then I’ll just work instinctively. I can’t make a mistake about the period, time, or thing, because I’ve known so much about it it’ll be second nature to me. And then it becomes original because it comes out of a collective in your head. Almost an eclectic vision of what you do.

So when it comes to something like the bookshop, for instance, I went to Bobbington Airfield. I chose the airfield to build it on, and the airfield was in the middle of nowhere. It was a landscape made in Hell. There was nothing to protect you from the wind, and there was nothing out there but where B52s used to land. It was cold, horrid, flat, and featureless. And in the middle of this place, the only reason I chose it was because it had a flat section I could use for a road. I built a crossroads of SoHo, which had something like 12 or 15 buildings, the corner bookshop, Aziraphale’s beautiful bookshop was built there. All the guttering, all the curbing, the crossroads, Chinatown. We built all of SoHo in the middle of nowhere.

And with that, I took something like the bookshop. The reason I wanted it to be a crossroads was it always had to be on a corner. For me, through time, going back hundreds of years starting with villages or tribes, towns, cities, everything was depicted at the crossroads. Everyone talks about the crossroads as being a decision-making place. People are either hung at the crossroads or signs were proclaimed at crossroads. Speeches were made at crossroads. People made a decision not to go or to go somewhere else on a crossroad. It went North, South, East, West, and that’s where I really wanted to put Aziraphale. On a crossroad. Because that’s where his life is, going: north, south, east, west, settled right on the corner.

So on the corner, I’ve built the bookshop around a compass. So it had an oculus skylight roof. And there was North, South, East, West built into the mezzanine level. I put them there in big, brass letters. And when Aziraphale’s office was underneath, at the bottom floor, it was on the left-hand side, at the Eastern side of the compass. When Aziraphale was a guard, an angel, a guard at the gate in Eden, he was at the Eastern gate. So I wanted Aziraphale to remain in the east. For the whole of his life. Wherever he was. So he found this perfect bookshop on a crossroads with an eastern side. And he still sat at the Eastern gate, so to speak.

How poetic is that? How beautiful is that?

KP: It’s one of those things that maybe a lot of people don’t consciously notice it, but it’s such a significant detail.

MR: There was a lot of that. I buried so much symbolism into it that those things are so beautiful, but they’re there for Michael Sheen, they were there for Neil and for Douglas. When I told Neil and Douglas about it, it seemed so right. It seemed like it’s not said. It didn’t have to be said. Either audiences might see it or not, but there’s a subliminal value to this. That the foundations of this building even existing in a set the way we built it in an airfield. How wonderful for an actor to walk into a scene and really feel that this has been so thought out that they believe they’re still at the eastern gate. It adds so much to your feeling of belonging.

KP: What has been the most satisfying thing about working on “Good Omens?”

GF: It’s a difficult one to say. There’s so many elements. Every single day was different. The number of sets and locations we went to. We never repeated a thing. And I think that shows in the program. There was no limit to the ambition that Amazon and BBC and Neil and Douglas had for the show. The joy was that there was no limit. The atmosphere was let’s just think how big can we go, how mad can we go? It’s in the book, can we create this? Can we create better than what’s in the book? And there was a real energy all the way through about every location we saw, every set we saw, is this “Good Omens?” Is it big enough? Is it impressive enough? That was always the key. And it was great to be in a team thinking that way. All the creators were pushing the limit of what we could achieve in the time to that scale an that was a joy.

To work on a show where you’re not limited by the real world, you’re not limited by real locations, so the limit is your imagination. That’s a great challenge, to get through a whole show like this and see it through post-production to the end without any limit is wonderful and I hope that comes across with what we did.

MR: We’ve picked up this phraseology in our family now, where we can tip a glass to each other and say, “To the world!” Which is what they say to each other. It’s such a beautiful thing to just cheer the world… I think it’s a wonderful message in there.

It was great. Big, difficult, strange. And we really could not have done it, it was impossible to have done it, if we had any creative clash. Can you imagine taking on a project that’s so diversely creative that you never had a creative clash? If either one of us were wrongly chosen or any one of us weren’t diplomatic or understanding or somehow didn’t click, there would be nothing but difficulty and hardship all the way. So we worked pretty well. The silliest thing we could say was then manicured into the most amazing ideas. I think that’s the fun of it. It was a joy and I hope I work with Neil again in the future. And Douglas on something else. It would be great.

All six episodes of “Good Omens” are now streaming on Amazon Prime.

 

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