Rachel Talalay, a University of British Columbia film professor, fell in love with the British TV series Doctor Who after it was rebooted. Some people might have just bought a DVD set, but Prof. Talalay put in a pitch to get work directing the show.
And she eventually got the job.
When she’s not in the classroom, Prof. Talalay is on sets. She was a producer for U.S. filmmaker John Waters, produced some of the original Nightmare on Elm Street movies and directed the sixth film in the series. In 1995, she directed the cult sci-fi film Tank Girl. She has had a long run directing TV series, including work on Ally McBeal, and lately she has called the shots for episodes of Bomb Girls, Reign and Continuum.
Before all this, she was a child in England watching Doctor Who. A jewel in the crown of British pop culture, the series debuted in 1963, went off the air in 1989 and returned in 2005. The series chronicles the adventures of an alien being who travels in time, facing threats such as Daleks, Cybermen and the Weeping Angels.
The Doctor occasionally regenerates himself physically, which has allowed 12 actors to play him. The latest, cast last August, is 56-year-old Peter Capaldi.
This summer, Ms. Talalay got the Doctor Who call and went to Cardiff, Wales, where the show is shot, to direct two episodes. On Aug. 23, the Space channel, in Canada, will begin running the first season of episodes featuring Mr. Capaldi. Ms. Talalay’s episodes will cap the season when they air in November.
Ms. Talalay spoke to The Globe and Mail from Cardiff.
What can you tell me about the episodes you worked on?
I am doing the two-part finale. Both parts were written by Steven Moffat, which is fantastic. There’s so much action and effects and emotional material. It’s a Cyberman episode. We shot in London for two days. One day we shot outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. There were a billion tourists circling us while we were trying to film. Part of what we were tasked to do was replicate some classic shots – from the sixties show – of the Cybermen outside St. Paul’s. It’s a whole new story.
What was that day at St. Paul’s like?
We had a big scene with Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez – a dialogue scene. We had about seven hours of shooting and quite a bit of material to cover. I didn’t factor in that we were basically given five-minute periods to shoot, then we had to let pedestrians cross. So for every five minutes of shooting, we had about 20 minutes of moving pedestrians. It was very hot as well, which made it also very hard. The Cybermen were scorching hot in their suits. You’re all the time worried they’re going to pass out.
You’re trying not to have all your scenes prerecorded and posted on people’s iPhones and on the Internet before you have finished your own shooting. You’re trying your hardest just to keep focused. You just go, ‘Here are my priority shots. Here’s the absolute minimum we need to get, and let’s just stay concentrated on that.’
How did this gig come about?
I campaigned very specifically to get on Doctor Who. The minute I saw the reboot – which I was very skeptical about before I saw it – I saw how good it was. I have an agent in the U.K. I said to her, ‘Get an interview if possible.’ I had done The Wind in the Willows, which Mark Gatiss was in. I said to Mark as well, ‘Could you please put in a good word for me?’ I sent a reel full of effects and action to show I was not just any old filmmaker, but had experience in that world. As a woman, you have to remind people you do the things that you do. From the time my agent contacted me and said, ‘There are two episodes. Are you interested?’ to my leaving B.C. was nine days.
What did the Doctor Who team say about why they wanted you?
I said to Steven Moffat, ‘If I was to read the Internet I would believe you only hired me because you were pressured to hire a woman.’ He said, ‘I think they need to know I hired you because of your reel and your material and what we believed you would bring to it.’ I know that I brought effects experience, but I don’t know what makes anybody hire any director, really.
Visual effects. Is that a challenge many female filmmakers face in securing work?
I’ve been incredibly, incredibly fortunate. Early in my career when I did the Nightmare on Elm Street films, I was exposed significantly to visual effects and to action and to makeup effects and mechanical effects. There are many, many women filmmakers who are pigeonholed into women’s stories. I’ve never had that problem. I love visual effects. I love action. I love that kind of material. A lot of women filmmakers say, ‘How come you get those projects?’ You have to prove yourself. Women, more than men, have to prove themselves.
What advice would you offer to starting female filmmakers on this issue?
To do whatever you can to get the experience even if it’s shorts and also to learn those crafts. Doing effects is really hard. You have to make certain decisions and you have to think in a certain way. Spending the time to really understand what’s required in the shooting of action and effects, getting that experience even if it’s shadowing or meeting with visual effects companies and going into the editing room. All those elements will help because it isn’t the same type of filmmaking as dramatic filmmaking. As I said, I was just lucky that I ended up on the Nightmare films. I engaged so strongly with how you make these films as good as possible with so little money.
What did you see in the Doctor Who material that said to you, ‘I want to get in on this?’
It looked so amazing. What they did in every episode is totally different. Every episode is a small film. The great thing about time travel is past, present, future, fantasy. Everything and anything is fair game so every week you are going to go into a completely different world. There is only standing set in the BBC studio for Doctor Who and that’s the Tardis. Most shows run with, ‘Here’s your police station and here’s your apartment …” – all their standing sets. To start from scratch with ‘What world is it this episode?’ I thought, ‘How are they doing this? How are they accomplishing this and keeping this quality?’
And then why are these scripts so good? There’s so much humanity in them? Sometimes you are on shows that are very, very visual and then you can slack off on the acting. Sometimes you are on shows that are very, very dramatic and you can slack off on the visual. In Doctor Who, everything was equally important. The story itself. The acting. The emotionality. And the visuals. There was no room for, ‘Ah. This is good enough for this show.’ It was, ‘It has to be at its peak.’
Did you watch Doctor Who when you were a child?
Yes. I grew up in the U.S. My first memories of watching science fiction were Outer Limits and Star Trek. Then we spent two different years when I was growing up in the U.K. My parents are British. That’s where Doctor Who became part of my vocabulary. Tom Baker was my Doctor when I was growing up. And I was fortunate to work with him on a show called Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). That was my next Doctor Who exposure – getting to work with Tom.
Peter Capaldi is relatively new as a Doctor. Has he found the character or did you have to help him along?
He has very much found the character. Nobody had any doubts about his ability to act. The biggest challenge was he’s Doctor No. 12. He was constantly worried he had 11 Doctors he might be mimicking. Pretty much anything you do in some ways is going to mimic some other Doctor. Becoming completely your own Doctor is fine when you’re No. 2, but a much greater challenge when you’re No. 12 and you have the 50-year history. I think he was truly challenged by that concept. But even when I saw the very first footage from the first episode, which I was privileged enough to see as soon as I arrived, it was clear he knew exactly who he was as a Doctor. For me, David Tennant and Matt Smith, both of whom I absolutely adore, are these young, romantic Doctors. When I went to interview, before they had even announced Peter, they said, ‘We’re going to go back to the older Doctors.’ Not age, just a slightly grumpier, more complicated Doctor. They chose a different direction and different type of Doctor. For me, [Peter] is the Doctor now because that’s what I have been living with for the last four months.
What do you do as a director to help him ?
At one point, I said to him, ‘That scene wasn’t necessarily how I imagined it but it was so clearly your Doctor that it was a revelation to me how well it worked as your Doctor.’ And he said, ‘Thank you.’ Because what I had said was, ‘You are your Doctor.’ That was the most I could do. Peter is such an incredible actor and so vertsatile, you’re not telling him how to act in any way as a director. He also likes to give you a lot of variety in performance so there’s no difficulty to say, ‘Try it a different way.’ .
How did people in the United Kingdom – customs officers, cabbies, waiters – react when they heard you were in the country to direct two Dr. Who episodes? He’s an icon in the United Kingdom.
They will either say, ‘I don’t watch it, often, because it scared the hell out of me when I was a kid’ or ‘My nephew or my uncle or my brother is the biggest fan.’ In terms of me, I am just known as the Tank Girl director. And there’s a lot of attention to the fact that I am a woman. There’s very little attention to the fact that I am North American. There’s a lot on the Internet, questions about the fact that there have been so few women – even fewer women writers than directors. There’s been attention to that. To my surprise, the Internet has been incredibly kind – so far. I should not jinx anything. It has been kind about it being offered to me.
Mr. Capaldi, I am sure, will be the Doctor for quite some time but do you think it’s time for them to consider a female Doctor?
They should consider whoever seems right for the role at that moment and things changed. There were some definite discussions and rumours that it might be a woman this time and it didn’t come to pass. I’m not really privy to those conversations. I would embrace that absolutely, but I don’t think it needs to happen. I think it has to be true to who’s right to be the Doctor at that point.
Why has Doctor Who lasted for 51 years?
Time travel and science fiction are great topics. It allows for massive variety. They have been very smart on touching on elemental stories in a Brothers Grimm kind of way. There has been a love of the series itself that has just grown and grown. But it also has an incredibly strong human element. I am amazed, in my episodes, how much humanity is in there. I look through the episodes of this season and they’re so varied. That helps too. You don’t have to like every episode. There’s something for the boffins. There’s something that harkens back to 1963 and 1968 and there’s something that is entirely new but there’s very elemental themes.
You said there’s something for the boffins?
That’s a British term for the nerds, for the people who want to know every single detail, everything about time and space and space travel and how that relates to every single episode of Doctor Who. There are the people who have watched every single episode and will analyze specifically how this relates to that. It’s a hard series. My parents who did not know Doctor Who because it’s actually after their time because they are elderly. They asked, ‘What should we watch?’ It’s hard to explain because it is so mythic, the size of it. You can dip into specific episodes but it means so much more if you have some history of the relationships, of regeneration and who was the Doctor before and how that relates to this. They are individual episodes with their own stories but they almost always touch on things that have happened in the past and who the Doctor was in the past. When the 50th anniversary episode came out at Christmas, Mark Gatiss did a docudrama about the first episode called An Adventure in Space and Time. That’s what I have given to everybody who said, ‘Where do I start?’ It’s a wonderful piece of work that tells you the history of the very first episode. That’s where I start people at.
How much latitude, as a filmmaker, did you have to put your own stamp on the material and, in a way, on the Doctor as well?
I don’t think you put your own stamp on the Doctor. The Doctor is the Doctor. It would be wrong to come in with a whole new point of view. You have a dialogue with your actors, but it would be wrong to be creating something new. Because every episode is completely different – it’s its own world. Where is it taking place? Am I doing Victorian England? Am I doing the future? Am I doing a new planet? How am I presenting that? And they embraced that. My scripts were so wonderful. All I did was embrace such great writing.
How have you juggled your TV directing assignments with your responsibilities at UBC?
It’s a challenge. UBC has been quite flexible with me. In this case, I happen to be on sabbatical this year. It happened to all work out beautifully. I’ve had to definitely teach rather than direct. Sometimes if I have a local job – a regular TV episode is only three weeks – I’ll just bring my students and make it part of the class. That’s a great thing about production. Being on set is critical for them.
It’s interesting. I used to sometimes show clips of Doctor Who. You would always get people who would go, ‘Oh?’ Showing Doctor Who would always get a few people in class thrilled. It would be like, ‘Oh my God. My old prof is hip enough to be showing us Doctor Who.’ I like to give students specific scenes to break down. ‘How would you shoot this?’ And, after we break them down, ‘OK. How did I shoot this?’ What choices did the director make?’ When critics talk about things, they ascribe intent. Frequently, it has nothing to do with what you were trying to do. It’s what happened at that time. Ninety-eight per cent of it is problem solving. It’s great that it’s perfect in your head when you read it, but what happened on set? And how are you going to solve that? That’s your UBC education in a nutshell.