Austin, Texas feels like the center of a nonsensical apocalyptic event of biblical proportions, with random people floating around dressed in vivid white angel wings and evil dark suites characteristic of a demon. Bikers roam the streets, while grifters hold signs and pass out literature to reinforce their insistence that “the end is nigh.”
Also, nuns are literally everywhere. Every. Freaking. Where.
First off, yes, Texas’ weirdest city is full of rowdy, unapologetic sinners from all walks of life. Secondly, no, none of them caused this — rather it’s an enormous promotional blitz Amazon Studios created at the annual SXSW conference for its adaption of the novel Good Omens written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
Fans may recognize these women of the cloth as the Order of Chattering Nuns of St. Beryl, who initially could be seen in droves at the show’s Garden of Earthly Delights activation booth. As the weekend progressed, though, it became clear that this was a truly immersive stunt.
If you go anywhere there are crowds, you’re likely to see nuns doing things like walking rescue dogs that are wearing red “Hell Hound In Training” vests. Or, you may see them traveling in large groups and treating people to a choir version of a Queen song. Nuns are also wandering around holding signs about the end times and dispensing cheerful comments (even if they’re about the apocalypse) pretty much anywhere there is a concentration of attention.
Not even SXSW sessions were shielded from the holy order.
The first big nun invasion happened at a keynote session featuring Gaiman’s thoughts on upcoming projects, his writing process, and some delightful background on the creative process of writing the book with his co-author. Just as Gaiman was near the end of a story about how Pratchett would make a game of outdoing each new contribution with an equally brilliant contribution of his own, the Chattering Nuns busted through the door to perform a song for the crowd.
“I did tell you I had a cult following,” Gaiman joked just before the Order began.
The session, hosted by actress and writer Kirsten Vangsness (Criminal Minds), delved into plenty of topics, including how the Good Omens TV series is the sort of passion project that Gaiman only undertook for one primary reason.
“Good Omens was the one thing that I’ve written over the years that I could read with pleasure, because I only wrote half of it,” he said before pausing for the musical number. “And what’s even better these days is, I no longer remember which bits I wrote and which he wrote.”
Way back in the 1980s, Gaiman wrote the beginning of the book — the first 5,000 words — that would eventually become Good Omens, and sent it out to a handful of friends, including Pratchett. But the collaboration between the two authors also meant lots of rewrites and each of them taking turns trying to come up with a better version of something that was just written. But the book was put on the backburner when Gaiman’s comic book work for DC Comics began to take off.
“Then one day I got a call from Terry, saying ‘You remember that [story] you sent? Are you doing anything with it?’ and I said, no, I’m doing Sandman,” he explained, adding that Pratchett then told him he knew what happens next.
And thus, a brilliant novel was conceived. Yet, the journey of getting it adapted from novel to TV series didn’t come together quite as easy, according to Gaiman. Not only are religion and morality constant themes of the story, but Good Omens is also such a mix of comedy, spiritual soul seeking, and witticism (among other things) that the consensus was it couldn’t be done as anything other than a book. The pair approached several TV writers they admired, only to have the inquiry to adapt the book into a script be denied time and again, citing that Good Omens was “too formless, too weird, too shapeless — and [they] couldn’t get a grip on it.”
Things didn’t officially get going on the TV series, which pushed Gaiman into the new role of showrunner for the first time, until later yet again.
“Not long before he died, Terry wrote to me and said ‘You have to do it because I want to see it,’” Gaiman continued. “I said yes, and very shortly after Terry died. So now he couldn’t see it, and I had to make the thing that he wanted. Which meant that it became the sort of mad passion project…” that drove him to see it through in a way that wouldn’t have happened on a smaller project that he’d have been more amenable to liberties taken when trying to adapt a book to the screen. The initial set of producers, who later departed, were urging for changes to the original story to offset what would have been costly scenes to film — suggesting that a narrator could just explain a particular scene and still be just as good, (wouldn’t it?).
“When I’d mentally run that back to myself with the ghost of Terry Pratchett in the back of my head, [Terry] would’ve said: ‘Fuck ‘em.’”
That said, the Good Omens TV adaptation seems wonderfully uncompromising. And that’s also one possible reason for all the nuns running around town at SXSW.
In a later panel with some of the cast and crew, Gaiman revealed that the thing Pratchett would be most delighted about from Good Omens push to TV would probably be the nuns, both those roaming downtown Austin and the ones on screen.
“I just think Terry would have had an utter nun-blast,” Gaiman said.
All six episodes of Good Omens will premiere worldwide on Amazon Prime Video May 31, 2019. Based on the clips shared this weekend, I’d imagine fans will be binge watching it for the first quarter of the day instead of doing responsible things like working.
[All photos & video by Tom Cheredar for Geeks of Doom.]