Julie Gardner interview: Torchwood, Doctor Who, Miracle Day and Russell T Davies

Producer Julie Gardner talks to us about making Torchwood: Miracle Day, her time on Doctor Who, and what she’s up to next….

The unsung hero of the likes of Doctor Who and Torchwood, producer Julie Gardner has been the engine room of Doctor Who in the Russell T Davies era of the show, and in her role at BBC Worldwide, has been instrumental in the return of Torchwood to our screens.

We caught up with her at the press launch for Torchwood: Miracle Day, and she told us how she did it…

You’ve got one of the really hard jobs here. It’s always said that the greatest enemy of making television shows in Britain is time. But my understanding of the American system is that they give you a lot more money, but that everything then costs more to do, and they expect you to do it quicker.

That’s true. It kind of works.

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This is the first show I’ve made extensively in the US. The UK has longer prep time, less crew, slightly more hours, and slightly more shooting days. And then the US has very short prep time, but bigger crews for the shoot, and shorter days. Because they just put more manpower in to compensate for the difference in culture, of the long prep time in the UK versus the shorter time in the US.

When it comes to the shoot, the crews are inevitably bigger, and the trucks are bigger, and there are more of them. Because you have to prepare for almost any eventuality. Whereas in the UK, you’ve done so much advance prepping, and the budgets are so small that you can’t quite carry such high numbers.

So, neither’s really ideal?

No, neither’s ideal. An ideal would be some kind of hybrid, which I’d hope we’ve kind of almost got with Torchwood. Because it was ten episodes, we didn’t do the conventional American thing of running a writer’s room all the way through. The usual twenty-two-part series. We had a writer’s room for five weeks. We sent them off in quite a freelance way to write their own episodes. We then script edited them down, in a very British way.

In terms of the shoot, it was a mix. Our lead director is Bharat Nalluri, who’s very experienced in the UK, has also worked in America. So, in a way, he was a bridge between the two cultures, and could kind of work in the crossover area of the two cultures.

Given that Britain already has its Torchwood audience, though, didn’t you have to lean it more, say 60/40, towards America?

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We never thought like that. It was always about the story. That’s what led absolutely everything. Where is the story taking these characters? Where are the plot beats moving for these characters?

The US component, for my mind, allowed us to tell a global threat in a more realistic way than we’ve been able to achieve before. So, it’s, obviously, the first show that we’ve been able to shoot in the UK and in the US. And that immediately gives, by its nature, the fact that the light is different, and the fact that on one side of the pond you’re seeing palm trees and they’re driving on different sides of the road to how the UK does. It made the global threat feel broader and more significant.

How would you identify what Torchwood is?

I’ve come to think that Torchwood is three things. I think it’s, obviously, Russell T Davies. Having him as a lead writer and full time exec on the show, that defines it. With that, it’s that tone, very light hearted, then spinning that into real tragedy and real consequence.

The other things, for me, are Eve plus John, and the more time I’ve spent looking at it and working on the scripts, there’s a heart to the show with that double act.

And then we’ve got amazing new characters and performances, from Mekhi Phifer as Rex and Alexa Havens as Esther. It’s wonderful to see a new, odd, international team form.

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But at the heart of it, Torchwood is that relationship, built across years.

In terms of putting Miracle Day together, this one’s not just America and Britain. You’re dotting around the world. How does that affect the logistical and cultural challenge?

It’s taxing, but you can do that in L.A. You can dress backlots, you can dress locations. You’ve got a kind of infrastructure to realise areas of the world, without leaving.

So, whenever you ask a question as to how to do something in Los Angeles, chances are somebody’s already answered it?

That’s true. But at the same time, if you look back to our time on Doctor Who, it was all shot out of Cardiff, with the odd occasional excursion, it’s amazing what you can do if you’re really thinking about it.

Can you try and encapsulate what must be a manic almost-decade for you. Because you started on Doctor Who

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– in 2005! Actually, 2003. I was working on it eighteen months before.

So, that’s nearly ten years.

Oh, my God, age me!

When you look at what’s gone on the screen as a result of that, though?

It’s been an amazing time. I’m so enormously grateful and proud of the time. I look back and think it’s always been such a laugh. We’ve tried to make it as much fun for people as we can. It’s serious. I take the job ferociously serious. I think TV is important. I think TV drama is important. It’s got to be the best that you can possibly do within the budget and schedule you’re operating within.

It’s been an amazing rollercoaster. I can’t quite believe we’ve done all the things we’ve done. But then, there’s more to do. There’s always more.

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Russell’s view is very much my own. You have a moment of success and you either enjoy that and relax, or you capitalise on it. And when our first season of Doctor Who was the success that it was, and we’d begun to talk about Torchwood, and how maybe that could feel, we really went after it. And then we loved Elisabeth Sladen so much, coming back into Doctor Who,that we wanted to do a third show.

It was the creative. It was about doing three different forms of sci-fi that would appeal across a wide spectrum of age range. But it was also practical. We had a great crew working with us, and we wanted to keep them. For us, Doctor Who was a year-long job. But for the crew, it was, at most, eight to nine months, and you just wanted to hold onto them for the rest of the time, before they got poached away.

And in terms of personal projects, outside of science fiction?

Oh, loads! I work for BBC Worldwide Productions, and Russell has a completely different script with me that it so far away from sci-fi. It’s an absolute stonker of a script. So, I hope to get that away. That would be my dream for the next thing.

But I’m working with other writers on all kinds of things. I think you need that yin and yang, that mix to keep you nimble.

And there’s a growing boldness, particularly in the cable sector in America?

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Yes, there is.

I wouldn’t say it’s lacking from Britain, exactly. But cable in the US is offering a lot more sensational stuff?

It absolutely is. I find shows to love in America, but then I come home, get on the BBC iPlayer, and I’m whooping with joy. Rejoicing for the output of the BBC.

There’s nothing like the BBC, and there are so few times that people sing its praises in the current climate. The range of programming that you can get in one night is unsurpassed anywhere in the world.

Going to America presumably cements that view?

It really does. The grass is not greener in one country. There are bits of emerald green grass when you look at some of HBO, or Starz, or Showtime’s output. But then you come back and look at the BBC, and some of ITV’s work, and it’s world class.

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Finally, can we talk about the way the cast pulled together on this, particularly the pockets of names that popped up. The US system is based on the guest star mechanic a lot, but there’s guest stars, and there’s Wayne Knight!

The casting of the show was one of the great joys. It took me quite a while to learn American casting and get the landscape of it. In the UK, you’ve got the shorthand of watching shows across ten to twenty years, and I didn’t have that here. With Mekhi Phifer, Alexa Havens, people like that were a real joy on set. Everyone got on. There were no egos and it was really good fun.

It was lovely, then, to bring some of the American cast to the UK. Just seeing Mekhi Phifer in the UK, shivering his butt off, and really struggling with the conditions and looking for the heaters! If it drops to fifty degrees in L.A., you’ve got a row of heaters!

Mekhi started at an exterior Cardiff airport and it was freezing. He had no thermal underwear on, thinking it was going to be easy. By the end of two hours, he had seven layers. He had bulked up to the most ludicrous degree, and he couldn’t fathom it!

Julie Gardner, thank you very much!

Read more about Torchwood: Miracle Day here.

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