Doctor Who: Ben Wheatley on Deep Breath and Into The Dalek

At the RTS Doctor Who: Anatomy Of A Hit event, director Ben Wheatley shared his experiences of making series 8’s opening episodes…

Read what Steven Moffat had to say about series 8 at the same event, here.

Since wrapping on Doctor Who episodes Deep Breath and Into The Dalek, director Ben Wheatley has been busy making his latest feature, an adaptation of J.G Ballard’s High Rise. Until now, his filming schedule on High Rise precluded any appearances at the the public events surrounding Deep Breath, so it was a genuine treat to see him talk at this week’s RTS Doctor Who: Anatomy Of A Hit event. Along with Steven Moffat, Millenium FX artist Rob Mayor and Who producers Brian Minchin and Nikki Wilson, Wheatley shared his experiences of making Peter Capaldi’s first full episodes as the Doctor…

On how he became involved in directing Doctor Who:

It started with a conversation with my agent years ago. I asked him ‘can I do some Doctor Who?’ and then he’s slowly been probing it for ages, but I don’t know the deep agent machinations of what happened after that

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Brian Minchin [Executive Producer]: It was really complex in that he rung me up and said ‘I think Ben would like to direct Doctor Who’ [laughter]

He probably waited two years until he made that call, that’s how it works with agents. That was it really. It was something I really wanted to do, and I loved the show and it was a mad thought ‘I wonder if they’ll let me do one’ and it went from there.

On his first reaction to the scripts for Deep Breath and Into The Dalek:

Once I realised I was going to get to do it then I started to become terribly afraid because it was quite a big deal to do the first two with Capaldi. Initially, just knowing I was going to work with the new Doctor as well, that has a whole level of terror to it. Then reading the scripts and seeing how involved they were in terms of action and stuff… oh God. Once I met the team and they started to talk me through it all though, it was fine.

I couldn’t believe I got a Dalek episode, and I got to shoot in a power station. The only thing missing was a quarry [laughter].

On how different Into The Dalek was from Deep Breath:

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Totally different. That was also brilliant. It’s a period piece and then a totally futuristic piece – what other show are you going to get that on? I was chuffed.

On how close the finished episodes were to his original conceptions for them:

I’d storyboarded them a lot because I was particularly worried about the whole thing because of the level of effects work. There was not much margin for error. Basically, it’s about page count. On the last film I did, it was about 3 pages a day, and Doctor Who is between 4 and 11, so that’s the business. On 3 pages you can do a lot of coverage, on 11 you can do none so you’ve just got to get it right. I drew it all and planned it and planned it and planned it as much as I could. When I look back at my scrappy drawings, it’s close to what it was.

It is a thing of looking at an edit that is full of green screen. I’ve done a lot of FX work so that doesn’t faze me too much but if you come from the outside looking at those episodes you might worry.

On his choice of favourite scene from series 8, the moment when the Doctor first emerges from the TARDIS on the bank of the Thames:

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There’s no great production story or hardship behind it, but for me, it’s the moment when Capaldi comes out of the TARDIS for the first time. There’d been a big old set built which was the edge of the Thames and I was just sitting there looking at the monitor thinking ‘Jesus, that’s Doctor Who being seen for the first time’ well, not technically, because he was seen in his regeneration but the first time in his own series, and I just loved the way the smoke went round his head. Peter just looked so brilliant as he popped out, everyone was just going ‘yeah, brilliant’.

On his episodes being among the five that leaked, in their unfinished state:

Why would you do it to yourself? I mean, that whole culture of downloading the scripts and reading them for movies – why would you do it? It’s only going to knacker what happens, you’re either going to go ‘it’s the script I read and these bits are missing’ or go ‘it’s the same as I read before’ and then there’s no surprises. I remember, which is slightly weird of me, reading the comments from people who’d watched the episodes ahead and just thought well, if you’re that big a fan, why would you do it, why would you ruin it for yourself?

On series eight’s use of horror genre influences:

In Deep Breath there are moments which were using… there’s bits of giallo stuff in there. I remember watching it back, and the Dalek episode as well, and thinking I can’t quite believe this stuff is on the main BBC on Saturday night, that was one of my proudest moments, particularly Capaldi going through the Dalek’s eye. I can’t believe we got away with that, it was fantastic.

On what he’s learnt from Doctor Who that he’ll take into his film directing:

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I got to blow up a lot of stuff, which I hadn’t done previously, so I enjoyed that a lot [laughter] and I hope to blow up more things.

I did it because I was a big fan of Who but partially it was also like a boot camp as well, it’s to try to make quality work fast for a director to go in and have to make decisions really quickly and on the spot and complicated blocking, lots of dialogue, lots of characters moving around and working on Who is brilliant for that. I came out of it fighting fit to go into High Rise. It helps to make you think fast and sharp, because as I said before you can’t really… your first impulse is it. There’s a lot hanging on it all the time, there’s no easy days on Doctor Who, except for maybe [the scene in Deep Breath with the Doctor and Clara meeting in the restaurant] because that was quite good, I just put the camera there and they talked for fifteen minutes, it was great. The rest of it is very intense, so that’s what I’d take away from it.