Exclusive Interview: Rachel Talalay
The new series of Doctor Who continues this Saturday and, unless you’ve been stuck in the Medusa Cascade, you’ll know that this episode will mark the beginning of the epic finale.
Anticipation and speculation is at all time high and we recently caught up with one of the people at the centre of the mystery – the director of the final two episodes, Rachel Talalay!
Rachel chatted to us about being at the helm of such an important story in the Twelfth Doctor’s debut series.
Big thanks to Rachel for answering our questions. Dark Water airs on Saturday at 8:15pm.
Q. Hi there, Rachel! So when did you discover you had a passion for directing?
A. I wasn’t born with a camera in my hands, but with a passion for movies. I came from a science household. My father is Professor of Pharmacology at Johns Hopkins. He just made a remarkable discovery about how broccoli/sulforaphane can potentially help with autism. But my parents also have a love for art. My Aunt and Uncle owned a modern art gallery. They had Christo wrap it for its opening. My parents are British so I was brought up in an eclectic, fascinating household. As I was producing the Nightmare on Elm Street series, I became more and more creatively involved, or my false memories are egomaniacal. As I worked more closely with the directors, the itch grew.
Q. Are there any directors who have particularly inspired you, both professionally and on a more personal level?
A. So many varied influences, from art and music and life, but I always come back to Stanley Kubrick. Sometimes Polanski. Sam Raimi. Sophia Coppola. George Clooney. Hitchcock. Frank Capra. Carol Reed. David Fincher, Powell & Pressburger. Sometimes it’s just perfect moments in media. I never fail to laugh at the Catherine Tate/David Tennant Comic Relief skit. I’m excited by Kate Tempest. Elvis Costello has always been an obsession. Some of Tracey Emin. Enjoying a binge-time with David Mitchell. There’s even something about Mr. Men… On a personal level, though, it’s John Waters.
Q. And how and when did your involvement with this year’s series finale of Doctor Who come about?
A. I’ve been pursuing it since Season 2, and I absolutely credit my agent for following it up year after year. But you’ll have to ask producers Brian Minchin and Steven Moffat as to how and why I floated to the top of the list for this season’s finale. It’s not something you really ask when you start. “Um, why did you end up hiring me?” It gets in the way of the “director swagger’!
Q. Well, you made it! What was it like to make your Doctor Who debut with two such important episodes?
A. Don’t blow it! Actually, when they interviewed me for the second time, I thought, “If I get this, will I screw it up because I want it so much?” Just because one likes a show, it doesn’t mean that you will be a good director for it. But with Doctor Who, I thought “this is an intersection of my passions and my experience”. So one hopes that that will mean something. Nothing is guaranteed, though, or, better said by Elvis Costello, “They told me everything was guaranteed. Somebody somewhere must have lied to me”. I had the most incredible team with me on the finale. I can take credit, but it’s totally the sum of the parts.
Q. Were you already a fan of the series?
A. Oh, yeah. Tom Baker was my Doctor of the past and I have loved all the new incarnations. It would be impolitic to pick amongst them. Needless to say, I bow down to Peter Capaldi. His talent seems boundless.
Q. We know you’ve been sworn to secrecy (spoilers!), but is there anything at all you can tell us about the finale?
Q. It’s funny, actually. One of the first interviews I did, I tried to be all sneaky by using the most generic adjectives ever. The internet fans just over-interpreted what I said, instead of flaming me for saying such banal things as ‘emolional’ and ‘action-packed’. So, this time, I’m scared to say anything. You’ll have to live with Steven Moffatt’s words in Doctor Who Magazine. But I will say that his scripts left me breathless.
Q. Throughout your career you’ve directed a range of different genres, from comedy-drama in Ally McBeal to children’s drama in Fabulous, as well as your fair share of science fiction. Would you say these past experiences all put you in good stead to take on a Doctor Who adventure?
A. Well, of course I would say that, it’s very American to self promote, isn’t it? But I have been incredibly lucky to work in a wide variety of genres. And Doctor Who needs that. After all, it’s adult-childrens programming. It works on so many levels. Comedy, drama, action, effects… Especially useful were the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Tank Girl, Wind In the Willows, and Touching Evil. Every day on Doctor Who, I used tricks I learned when working at New Line Cinema.
Q. Each episode of Doctor Who is a blank slate in terms of their setting, themes and genre. Was this a prospect that was particularly exciting for you coming in as a director?
A. Bring it on! Part of my delight was that every episode is a mini-feature and it could be set anywhere. I love researching for work – location scouting means going places you would never go, or even be allowed in, if you weren’t part of a film crew. People open the doors to their facilities and teach you about their worlds. Fascinating.
Q. What thoughts and feelings were going through your mind when you stepped on to the Doctor Who set for your first day of shooting?
A. Really, the magic is the first time they take you on the TARDIS set. You just think “Really? Is this really happening to me?”, ad you are trying not to bust out into the hugest smile. Ultimately everyone does, though, when they start fiddling with the console! The first day of directing is always, ‘Oh, my God! They’ll figure out I’m faking it. I’m a fraud!’, but then you settle down and do your work and fall in love with it over and over again, even when you can barely move from exhaustion and pressure.
Q. What are your favourite memories and moments from working on Doctor Who? We know it’s probably impossible to choose!
A. Being offered the job. Reading the scripts for the first time and having my mind blown by them. The obvious one: filming outside, and stepping inside, St Paul’s Cathedral with Cybermen and the Doctor and Missy. Taking selfies with Chris Addison on the TARDIS. Then birthday on the TARDIS, with a kids TARDIS cake. But less obvious ones… I was talking over a scene with Peter Capaldi and after a fairly extensive conversation about the depth of Steven Moffat’s writing, I said, “Remember behind all this, you are…”, but I can’t say what word I used – spoilers! Then, Peter opened his notebook where he kept all his notes and thoughts on what he was doing – which we all want to get published – and he showed me where he had written exactly the same description in the margin in capital letters.
Another memory, I was watching Peter and Michelle Gomez work out a scene together. They were just playing with different tones and textures and really experimenting with one another and the text, when I had a multi-consciousness experience. I just made that expression up, but you know those moments where you are thinking on two planes? I was watching them intently, but also, outside the moment, I was thinking, “I wish I could record this, because it’s going to be lost, and this is the absolute true magic of creativity, unfolding before my eyes…”
We were screening Episode 12 for the post production sound team and halfway through, they became so absorbed, they stopped making notes, stopped asking questions, and just watched. These are professionals who do this all the time, and they just sat there, engrossed. The editor looked at me and we shrugged and just let it play. Then we had to go back and do the work.
In the ADR room, a secret was revealed and the ADR technician slammed the console and said, “Oh, my God, really?!”
When the lead Cyberman decided to pretend he was ticklish in his suit and did a full-on laugh-attack routine. That had the crew in stitches but we missed filming it.
And those are just a very few…
Q. Drawing from your own personal experiences, what’s the one piece of advice you would give to any aspiring directors reading this?
A. Teflon skin. Respect and appreciate everyone you work with as best you can, which isn’t always easy, or even possible. And to quote Doctor Who: “Listen”. Also, don’t follow rules – see, not even answering the question properly, re: “one piece of advice”.
Q. Finally, have you got any upcoming projects you can tell us a little about?
A. A lot of things I can’t talk about, including a low budget feature I’m trying to finish. I’m currently doing episodes of a new US horror series called South of Hell. An upcoming ‘event’ TV movie which I can’t talk about yet. A collaboration with John Waters. I want to do a Marvel movie. There, I said it.