Exclusive Interview: Saul Metzstein

January 7th, 2013

We are delighted to be able to bring you our interview with Doctor Who director Saul Metzstein!

Saul joined the crew in Series 7 and already has memorable and acclaimed episodes to his name. He helmed Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and A Town Called Mercy, as well as the show’s accompanying Pond Life adventure, plus the most recent episode The Snowmen. With two more episodes yet to air this year, Saul has very kindly taken time out to chat to WhovianNet exclusively about life on the Doctor Who set.

He discusses his own encounters with dinosaurs, Gunslingers and killer Snowmen below.

Q. Firstly how did your involvement with Doctor Who come about and were you a fan of the show before you joined the crew?
A. I’d worked for BBC Wales before so they knew me already. I directed an episode of the first series of the reboot of Upstairs Downstairs. I think it was that, plus the fact I’d directed 2nd Unit on the new version of Dredd – with a lot of VFX shooting – that made the producers interested in hiring me.

I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with modern Doctor Who. I watched Doctor Who as a child, the Tom Baker years, but hadn’t really seen it since then. Of course I made a point of watching lots of episodes before meeting the producers. I watched the whole of Series 6, so I became a big admirer of Matt Smith’s acting and Steven Moffat’s writing. But I think somehow the format felt very familiar to me anyway.

Q. Have you always had a passion for directing? Were there any particular directors that inspired you as you were growing up?
A. I think I was about sixteen when it occurred to me that directing might be a fun thing to do. I always liked films – I’m of the generation that really noticed filmmaking when we saw the opening shot of Star Wars with the little rebel craft being chased by the Imperial Star Destroyer.

There have been lots of directors that have inspired me, although I don’t think it is very discernible in my directing style who they are. Fellini, Tarkovsky and Bertolucci were early favourites. Kubrick too. Ernst Lubitsch later on.

Q. Your first Doctor Who episode was Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. What was it like to work on such an ambitious story which relied so heavily on CGI?
A. Well, I think one of the reasons that I was hired to do that episode was that I was relatively experienced with complex CGI, but technically it was a fairly tricky episode to make. Having said that, the producer, Marcus Wilson, and The Mill – the company who did the VFX – had already discussed Dinosaurs on a Spaceship as being a sort of showcase for the next level of Doctor Who episodes well before I was hired.

The dinosaur sequences were storyboarded by me and Andrew Wildman, storyboard artist, so the actual filming is logically structured. Having said that, I was amazed that we got so much out of the riding on Tricey scene – it was a lot of shooting in a short space of time, and was a mix of a CGI dinosaur and a big half-dinosaur rig/puppet.

Q. As Doctor Who enters its 50th year, what would you say are the factors that have contributed to its ongoing success?
A. It is a genius format because it is fantastically flexible – it can be set anywhere in the universe at any time in history. Plus, with regeneration, there are different ways of casting and playing the Doctor. It is never going to run out of story permutations, and anything can happen.

What I personally particularly like is the way Doctor Who can make dramatic, sudden shifts in tone, and that the stories are all laced with humour.

Q. One of the distinguishing features of Doctor Who is its variety of genres and styles, so was this something that particularly appealed to you about working on the series?
A. It positively encourages crazy, baroque filmmaking – most TV is stylistically very safe compared to Doctor Who. I would never want to direct a standard police drama or a hospital drama where the style of the programme had been set years earlier.

Q. Speaking of its ever changing genres, you also worked on the Western adventure A Town Called Mercy. What was it like taking Doctor Who out on location in Spain for the filming of this episode?
A. All directors deep down want to make a Western, so yes, it was great. One of the fun things about shooting in Spain was that, because there were these sets already there and because the weather was consistent, it was like shooting in an enormous outdoor studio. It’s quite different from shooting Victorian England in Cardiff, where there are all these modern things that you have to avoid looking at. It was also great to be able to work on an enormous scale.

I think the crew loved shooting in that heat – there was a lot of sunburn. Having said that, we returned to a particularly wet summer in Wales, which wasn’t much fun.

Q. You also helmed the most recently aired episode, The Snowmen, which introduced Jenna-Louise Coleman as the new companion. Did you approach this episode differently knowing her arrival was marking the start of a new era for the series? Did you watch it on Christmas Day?
A. We shot The Snowmen just after shooting an episode from the 2013 series, so the tricky thing was remembering that The Snowmen was (sort of) her introduction to the series. But Jenna had already shot other episodes, so she wasn’t really new to it.

The trickier introduction was the new TARDIS set. A big, complex set requires quite a bit of getting used to, both for the crew and for the actors. Also, I was determined to make a really special shot for the first time you see the new interior. I convinced the producers to let me do this Stedicam shot in which the camera comes off a crane and follows the Doctor and Clara into the set, through the doors of the blue box. It is the shot that finally shows that it really is bigger on the inside! They were fairly resistant to me trying to do it because it was costly and slow to do, but in the end they were really in to it. The Mill pulled out all the stops to make it beautiful and seamless.

Did I watch it on Christmas Day? Absolutely!

Q. Doctor Who is becoming progressively more ambitious and movie-like – what techniques are used to achieve this stylish filmic look?
A. Doctor Who like most programmes and films nowadays is shot on Alexa cameras, which give a lovely cinematic look, almost as good as 35mm film, and that helps.

I was lucky enough on all but one of my episodes to work with the most experienced Doctor Who cameraman, Stephan Pehrsson, who has a great eye and understanding of the programme. Stephan shot Toby Haynes’ episodes in Series 6, which are really stylish, and, for my money, some of the best Doctor Who episodes ever.

I like to keep the camera moving as much as possible to make the whole programme feel fluid. Every day we have Stedicam and a crane and two complete camera crews, and that helps too. A lot of the credit has to go to the shooting crew, in particular Joe Russell the camera operator and Gary Norman the grip.

Q. We’re often hearing stories from the cast and crew about the generally great atmosphere behind the scenes…
A. Oh no, it’s all terribly hard work and completely joyless (he lied).

Q. What advice would you give to any aspiring directors out there?
A. Firstly, just go and direct – even at a very small scale or without any budget. Even if the projects don’t turn out very good you will have learnt an enormous amount.

Secondly, watch lots and lots of films – and don’t just watch films like the ones you think you want to make. Be adventurous, you won’t regret it.

Thirdly, develop scripts. It’s all in the writing.

Q. Finally, what projects have you got in the pipeline, Doctor Who related or otherwise?
A. I have two episodes of Doctor Who that haven’t been aired yet – neither is quite finished, but both should be quite soon.

We would like to say a huge thank you to Saul for answering our questions!

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