If you’re a fan of genre television, you’re almost certainly a fan of Rachel Talalay’s work. In the almost 30 years since Talalay first stepped behind the camera for her feature film debut, the veteran director has worked on dozens of TV dramas, from Sherlock and Doctor Who to The Flash and American Gods.
If Talalay were a character actor, she would be Allison Janney before Hollywood got its act together and started giving her the meatiest of roles, and the recognition to go along with them: a skilled veteran in her field turning in consistently stellar work in an industry that creates opportunities for cisgender white men disproportionately more than anyone else. Hollywood gave Janney I, Tonya and an Oscar; can they please give Talalay a Star War?
I had the chance to speak with Talalay at February’s Doctor Who-centric Gallifrey One Convention in Los Angeles last month. The conversation took us inside the world of genre TV directing (on both sides of the pond), as well as inside the frustrations of working as a woman in an industry that continues to fail when it comes to most forms of equality and equity.
When we can’t find a good place to conduct the interview, Talalay suggests perching on either side of one of the hallway’s lounge chairs. The moment and the conversation that follows immediately highlights some of her defining professional characteristics: She is an efficient and creative problem-solver with a seemingly endless capacity to discuss her work, but never in a way that feels exclusive or condescending—rather, she wants you to be a part of it, to understand how wonderful the responsibility of bringing a story to life can be.
Talalay especially lights up when she speaks about working on Doctor Who. A lifelong fan of the show, she stepped behind the camera for seven of Peter Capaldi’s episodes, including the much-lauded “Heaven Sent.”
“The last five years, in doing Who, working with [former showrunner] Steven Moffat, working with Peter Capaldi, but also working on Sherlock, [has been] the best,” she says—and not solely for fannish reasons. After having spent the bulk of the past two decades working in the American network TV system, working on Doctor Who(and then Sherlock), where Moffat is also an executive producer) represented an opportunity for greater creative freedom.
“Many people don’t understand the difference between working in the U.S. and working in the U.K.,” says Talalay, who holds dual U.S./Canadian citizenship, has permanent U.K. resident status, and is based in Vancouver where a great deal of American TV is filmed. “I became a better filmmaker every time I worked in the U.K., where every piece of television is a director’s piece of work.”
TV is considered “a writer’s medium” because the showrunner (or head writer, as the position is known in the U.K.) is in charge of the creative vision of the show. In the standard American network TV model, there is little room for directorial creative input. Rather, the idea is to maintain a consistent, cohesive visual style that is first executed by the director of the pilot episode, as outlined by the showrunner.
In the U.K., the director has a bit more creative freedom, especially when it comes to the post-production process, which sees the raw footage edited into a final cut that will air on TV. U.K. directors have the option of staying on through the weeks-long post-production period, while, in the U.S., the director traditionally only spends a few days in the editing room.
This greater creative freedom seems to be especially true of Talalay’s time working on Who, a 55-year-old series that has cycles of change built into its storytelling DNA.
“Doctor Who excels in variety,” Talalay told Den of Geek in a 2017 interview. “As a director, the variety makes returning more exciting. I have tried to give each episode a different style that worked with the script … In Harry Potter, ‘the Wand chooses the Wizard;’ in Doctor Who, the ‘words and worlds choose the style.’”
While all of Talalay’s Doctor Who episodes have their style, critics and fans alike single out Season 9’s “Heaven Sent,” considered one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time, as Talalay’s defining contribution (so far). A locked-castle mystery that sees Capaldi’s Doctor frantically working to escape before a Death-like figure kills him, the episode is also a gutting exploration of grief, as the Doctor processes the recent death of a loved one.
When Moffat gave Talalay the script to “Heaven Sent”—a script he called his most difficult—he requested: “Make it beautiful. Make it scary.” So Talalay did, meticulously building the visual logic of both the Doctor’s grief and his exhausting escape. The result is a brilliantly-executed collaboration between three artists at the top of their respective games: writer Moffat, actor Capaldi, and director Talalay.
American network TV might not produce a great deal of “Heaven Sent”s, but it does produce a lot, full stop. The model has been perfected for maximum efficiency over the course of decades, and Talalay fully embraces its formulaic nature as part of the job she was hired to do, providing a counter-narrative to the public imagining of the director as an auteur who has complete creative control and who balks at any challenge of that power.
Talalay recounts directing an episode of Supergirl in which she planned to try “an indie film shot” that would place main character Kara on the far left side of the frame to emphasize a moment of heightened emotion: “[The camera operator] said, ‘I’ll do it, but they won’t use it.’ And I said, ‘Thank you for not having me waste time. Every second matters.'”
In the midst of this workmanlike process, Talalay finds ways to keep her “indie film brain” strong.
“I was talking to one of the superhero [series] showrunners, and he was saying how constrained he is by Warner Brothers [and] by the CW,” said Talalay. “He said, ‘Have I lost or am I going to lose my ability in the future to do the indie film version of it?’ I told him that one of the mental exercises I do is ask myself, ‘If I had more time and more money, how would I do this better?’ Sometimes, I process it by just, ‘Wow. People would love that shot in indie cinema.’ And so that shot lives with me.”
The experience of directing an episode of cable or subscription TV in the U.S. aligns more closely with Talalay’s experience directing in the U.K. Recently, Talalay stepped behind the camera to direct the sixth episode ofAmerican Gods Season 2, a series she describes as a “much more complete, artistic U.K. show.”
“It’s [a] very distinctive [episode],” Talalay says of her contribution. “It’s very much a standalone episode. But I was actually interested in the fact that there were a few pieces where they recut it [to make] it even more artsy. They were even braver.”
Talalay laments the fact that she wasn’t able to work with Season 1 showrunner Bryan Fuller, especially because it was on the table, but Talalay’s Doctor Who commitments conflicted: “Bryan Fuller is an absolute genius and he wasn’t involved in Season 2. So I just went in and said, ‘I want to still pay homage to what I think works so well in the first season.'”
“I knew that they wanted the second season to be closer to the book, which I thought was a good idea, and to be more easy to understand,” Talalay says, adding that the production was much tighter with the show’s budget and time in Season 2.
As any good TV director should be, Talalay is very conscious of her respective bosses’ expectations, both in terms of the finished product and the total budget. “I’m a very production-oriented director,” she says. “That means that I have a fairly good handle on: Will it slow me down? Will it beat me up? Is it worth it or isn’t it?”
Unlike many creatives working in the film and TV industry, Talalay doesn’t come from an entertainment background or family. After getting a degree in math from Yale (where she also ran the film society) and working as a computer programmer at Johns Hopkins, Talalay decided she wanted to learn more about the film industry, so she wrote a letter to director John Waters asking if she could have a job.
“And she got one—but she worked for free,” Waters told the Baltimore Sun in a 1991 article. “How good was she? She was producing my pictures less than 10 years later. You could tell even then that she wanted to make movies more than anything in the world and that she’d be great at it.”
Talalay cut her teeth on horror films, working her way up from production assistant to accountant to production editor to producer, before making her directorial debut with Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Despite having produced a previous film in the franchise, Talalay told the New York Times in a 1991 interview that she “would occasionally get internal memos telling me, ‘Don’t be too girly; don’t be too sensitive.'”
Talalay’s most celebrated feature work is arguably 1995’s cult classic Tank Girl, an adaptation of the British post-apocalyptic comic book series of the same name, starring Lori Petty, Naomi Watts, Ice-T, and Malcolm McDowell. Future director Catherine Hardwicke worked as a production designer on the film, which follows Tank Girl as she, Jet Girl, and a group of super soldiers called the Rippers fight an oppressive corporation called Water & Power.
Talalay recently watched Tank Girl on the big screen for the first time in decades, and said she was surprised at what a #MeToo movie it is, even if she already knew those themes were there: “We were dealing with all the #MeToo elements then and we were just sweeping them under the rug.”
“I mean, we all experience some version of it or another,” Talalay says of Tank Girl and its depiction of sexual harassment. “I mean it’s right there in the movie and Jet Girl is dealing with every single bit of it. Because we were all encountering it. It’s just that no one was talking about it. It took until Harvey [Weinstein] was busted [to begin to change].”
When Talalay was making Tank Girl, she was sure the film was going to make a big cultural splash.
“I thought that Tank Girl was going to be it,” says Talalay. “I thought, ‘This is the greatest comic and we’re going to break the glass ceiling and everybody’s going to get this.’ And then it all fell down on me and things didn’t get better until five years ago.”
Discussions with and surrounding female directors tend to perhaps necessarily lead to the question of why there are so few and why the ones who are working are not given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. When Talalay was honored as Woman of the Year by Women in Film + Television Vancouver in 2016, she commented on the filmmaking industry’s gender-based double standard in her acceptance speech, recalling a conversation with her agents about what her future plans might look like following her work on an episode of Sherlock.
“They said ‘Yes, you have done Sherlock. Yeah, the other Sherlock directors have all been offered pilots and features off the back of it. But, remember, you are a woman,’” said Talalay in her speech. “It kind of took my breath away, to hear it stated so plainly. It wasn’t aggressive. It was so painfully casual, they probably wouldn’t even remember saying it. That’s what shocked me.”
According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, in 2018’s American TV, women accounted for 8% of directors, which was down three percent from 2017 and one percent from 1998. In 2018, women accounted for only 17% of directors, with 86% of series hiring zero female directors.
Things are even worse for women creators in film. Of the 250 top-grossing domestic box office films of 2018, women directed just 8%, which was down 3% from 2017 and down 1% from a decade ago. A full quarter of those films employed either zero or one woman in a “key role” (i.e. director, writer, producer, executive producer, editor, cinematographer).
Having found a foothold as a staple director of genre television, Talalay is one of the “lucky” ones, compared to many of the other creators who aren’t cisgender men. Of course, because of Talalay’s decades of industry experience, she knows better than anyone just how many women creators have been forced out of the industry.
“I don’t want to be having this conversation any more,” Talalay said in an interview with Directed by Women. “I don’t want to have to think about how many wonderful women directors were near silenced in the 90s. Thinking how I love Desperately Seeking Susan, Wayne’s World, Girlfight … Lina Wertmüller[‘s] Swept Away. I don’t want gender to even need to be a topic. But the statistics and stagnation just continue. I’m often the only woman on the bus on location scouts and we’re lucky to have one woman in the technical crew. Still. Even now. You can’t be an auteur if you can’t have a body of work. But if you are stopped in your tracks or forced to make movies at such a tiny budget, you can’t survive.”
Despite Talalay proving herself over decades, with comic book adaptations on both the big and small screens, she has yet to make the transition into big-budget movie direction—a move she has repeatedly expressed interest in, and that she’s proven, time and again, that she is more than qualified to make. If someone like Talalay can’t get called up to “the big show,” to the mythmaking tentpoles that so shape our culture, then what hope is there for others who haven’t managed to amass such an impressive body of work?
Talalay still thinks of herself as a film director, as she should, approaching episodes of shows like Doctor Who and American Gods as movies. Despite the “don’t be too girly” memos Talalay has received over the years in some form or another, the director has stayed impressively resilient.
“To a degree, to make it in the business, you have to just constantly be able to pick yourself back up because there’s so many hard knocks,” she says. “And every day is a hard knock. Of course I hate rejection, but I’m so used to it. People look at my career and go, ‘What are you talking about? Look at all you’ve done?’ [But] it’s just littered with rejection after rejection after rejection for things that I really thought mattered and I wanted to do.”
I am inspired by Talalay’s ability to stay empathetic, sensitive to, and angry about the infuriating realities of the current status quo, and her capacity to keep moving passionately forward in spite of it all—to celebrate “the most brilliant part,” as she calls it, of doing this job.
What is the most brilliant part? Talalay speaks about how being on the American Gods set and hearing tales of Fuller’s commitment to every single shot “reopened my ability to love every frame.” She gets excited recounting how, while directing an episode of Doom Patrolearlier this year, “we had a moment where the sun was reflecting through all the shades and the entire wall lit up with these incredible shadows.”
“We were on the fourth floor so there was no way we were bringing the lights up to do that,” continues Talalay. “It’s one of my favorite shots and it was just good luck.” To call the moment “good luck” is ostensibly true, but also downplays the hard work, determination, and artistry that put Talalay there, on the Doom Patrol set, in that moment to catch, see, and appreciate that light.
I have a feeling Talalay, a self-identified Post-Punk feminist Warrior, knows better than anyone how much more she deserves than this hard-won degree of “good luck” she has gotten. “I look forward to the day,” she says, “where I have enough money that I can go into a set like that and say, ‘What if we had a lift?’ And then to actually bring that huge light in and make that look [happen].”
Looking back on how she imagined her career might play out when she got her first job in the industry as a production assistant on the 1981 John Waters film Polyester, Talalay says: “What I was confident of when I started out was that I was going to be successful. I still haven’t had that beaten out of me. I still believe that I’m going to be more successful than I have been. I still believe that that moment’s going to come. That the success that I believe I should have had with Tank Girl will come back to me 25 years later.”
Rachel Talalay’s recent and upcoming projects include: Season 2 of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and DC Universe’s Doom Patrol. You can see her full filmography here. You can follow her on Twitter here.