Lawrence Gough interview: directing Doctor Who

How do you go about directing an episode of Doctor Who? We chat to Lawrence Gough, director of series 10's The Pilot and Smile to find out.

The first two episodes of the current Doctor Who run, The Pilot and Smile, were both directed by the same man. That man is Lawrence Gough, who comes to Doctor Who for the first time, having built up an impressive collection of TV credits following his low-budget horror feature, Salvage. In between the transmission of The Pilot and Smile, he chatted to us about his work on the show…

I’ve just been watching footage of you receiving a film award from Sean Connery back in 2009!

Yes! God, yes.

That was a Trailblazers award from the Edinburgh Film Festival eight years ago, and since then, you seem to have had quite a journey. Can you take us through it?

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Yeah! I trained as an actor for four years, but I had no interest in becoming an actor. I wanted to direct, but training as an actor was a way to find out about the acting process, and what you’re pointing the camera at.

I did that, then made, I don’t know, maybe four or five hundred shorts. All of them quite terrible! Then some of them got better, and got selected for festivals. Then we started winning awards. Then the UK Film Council contacted me, and gave me money. I went through all their tier systems of money, before they have me a few hundred thousand to go and make a feature film.

I wrote and directed it, Salvage, and it world premiered at Edinburgh, and I won that award for best newcomer at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

And then I was working on some other features, got commissioned by the BFI to do some writing, and then I’ve been doing TV ever since.

Is that by design too? You say you trained as an actor, which sounds like a calculated move…

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Very calculated!

As television has got more cinematic, have you chosen to pursue it, or did television come calling to you?

A bit of both, really. I’m about to go and do a feature I’ve written, and I’ve finished a couple of commissions for writing features. In this country, making a country is at least three or four years of hard slog. A labour of love. In the meantime, television has been great, and as you said, you can pursue certain cinematics within TV. It’s got bigger and bigger and is a lot of fun. Balancing the two, really.

I think it was Ben Wheatley who noted that more people will have watched his Doctor Who episodes than the feature films that he’s made!

Yeah, absolutely.

Is Doctor Who in your blood? Is this something you were set on. And how do you get a job directing Doctor Who episodes?

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I don’t really know how it happened! Well I do. I’m 46, so in my day it was Tom Baker, who funnily enough was my stepmother’s best man.

Back up, back up: what was Tom Baker’s speech like!?

I wasn’t there, but apparently he quite liked to hold court. [Pause] Er, you know he’s in the room! [laughs]

Doctor Who is in the blood, in terms of being a kid, and the joy of growing up with it. I actually switched off, though! I remember making a conscious decision to stop watching it when the Doctor regenerated, because I’d never experienced a regeneration before, and I was totally shocked at the notion of that. I couldn’t accept that! That he’s changed, so I have to stop watching it, so I did!

Then I got into film and TV, writing and directing, and I worked on Atlantis. I first worked with Ashley Rowe, the DP on that, and we became very good friends. Ashley recommended me to Pete Bennett [producer, Doctor Who]. I touched base with Pete, and every couple of months asked him things were going, what he was up to. Eventually, he asked if I wanted to meet. I met with him, Brian [Minchin, executive producer] and Steven [Moffat], and the loved my stuff. And then they made the offer.

To get the first two episodes of a series, too. No pressure.

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It was an interesting pressure. I try and seek out projects that give me pressure. It was a challenge, and I wanted that. I had a few thoughts in my own head about how I wanted to approach and to try and mix it up a little bit if I could, particular with performance and character. I was pretty heavy on giving feedback on script, as much as I could do.

How long was that process, then, from the point where you’re asked to direct, and then you’re standing on set?

I guess it was about four months, five months. I was finishing up another TV series. I got the offer before Doctor Who was officially commissioned again, but knowing it was going to be commissioned, that it was just the process you go through. Then Pete rang me and asked if I wanted to do a little teaser, that Steven wanted to put something together for the F.A. Cup break [to introduce the character of Pearl Mackie’s Bill], and that was a good way to get the ball rolling. Embracing the world of Doctor Who.

That breaks the ice with the actors as well too, presumably?

Yeah, absolutely. It got me to think about Pearl, and Peter, and that dynamic, and how that might work. Just seeing how they work as actors. Seeing the two of them, how I could cajole and push them.

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And you went straight from one episode to the second?

Yeah. We shot episode one [The Pilot] first, and then Smile. Doesn’t always work that way, but in Doctor Who, I guess it does! We had the luxury of being able to say that’s how we wanted to do it.

Going back to that four month gap between getting the job and starting. You say you gave script feedback, how much influence do you get? The old cliché is that television is more the writers’ than directors’ medium?

Yeah. Certainly with someone like Steven, it’s not like working with a new writer where perhaps you have a bit more of a voice. But Steven’s script on that episode did not need a lot of work. In the early stages, when Steven’s scripts come in, they just don’t need much. It’s the lovely position of just being able to suggest refinements really, and also trying to find the peak and the troughs. I’m really pleased with how they ended up appearing in the episode, in terms of refining how can we maximize the moment, where Bill comes into the TARDIS for instance.

Can you go nerdy on that moment for us, then? Because you do a shot there, where you pull back as Bill turns round and sees the innards of the TARDIS for the first time. Can you take us through that?

Just going back to watching Tom Baker, and my experience of Doctor Who, I was incredibly lucky to be doing the opening episode, and also introducing the new companion. I was hoping that Steven would embrace all the things that we love about Doctor Who. Who this man is, Pearl’s work, finding the TARDIS. That to me is what I remember, and ultimately part of it is the joy of experiencing those moments.

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It’s so great that Steven wrote those out of all the moments, and through her you discover more about the Doctor. It was perfect. I thought that’s a real bonus to come on board and do that kind of direction. My first thought, then, was how do I reveal this space, a space that’s been revealed so many times?

What I thought was there was a visual flair to the reveals that’d not been done, and I came up with the idea of doing it on a wire cam. I found out the diameters of the TARDIS and worked out the widest point, and we rigged a steel cable from outside the front door of the TARDIS – we took out a pane of glass that you don’t see – and put it right into the rafters outside the build. We were able to travel the camera the maximum diameter of the TARDIS using an extremely wide lens.

I do have to ask: what are the dimensions of the TARDIS?!

Oh Christ! You’re probably looking at maybe between 20 and 30 metres. It took quite a time, and then we had to digitally remove the cable, of course, because it was in shot. But it worked. And we looked at the grid of the way the lights work in the TARDIS and we played with those. Everything is controlled and on separate circuits, so you can control when it comes on – you probably know all this! – and the way the lights come on.

The rest was in the grade, when we held back on the darkness as far as possible, so it looked like we were pulling back, and then the reveal.

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I gather with television that reshoots are not an option. That what you get is what you work with.


Coming from an economical feature background where wastage isn’t really an option either, did you ever find yourself shooting much material that wasn’t used when it came to Doctor Who?

It was very well planned. I literally storyboarded the entire thing, every frame. A couple of thousand boards or something. Everything is pretty much done, and of course there’s what you find on the day. But it’s the way to do it, really. Especially when you’re dealing with so many layers. You’ve got the action, the schedule, the visual effects, then what can you do in camera? That was one of the things I tried to do, to keep things in camera as much as possible.

The first half hour of Smile really gets that across. And the pacing, in fact, of both of your episodes have in common that neither shoots out of the traps. There’s measure to it. How much influence do you get over that? Was that something you find in the edit, was it there from the start?

It was there from the off. Not to get too drawn on the conversation between cinema and TV and if there’s a difference, well yes there is, but what is it?

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I come back in my work to studying as an actor. Allowing the actor to breathe in the frame and not steering the audience for every beat. Not doing tons of coverage, but doing the coverage for the scene, and allowing the blocking to be right. Not just doing blanket coverage and making it in the edit. What’s the essence of the scene? What’s this scene about? How do we get Pearl to move around the TARDIS for the first time and get the coverage you need to move the story beats forward?

Was there anything notable that you did have to leave out, when it came to the edit?

There was a whole sequence in the bar scene, where Heather and Bill first meet, and we spin around them. When we spin around them, what was originally revealed was that the Doctor was on stage playing guitar. It’s a great sequence, it was lovely to shoot. She hears the guitar and people part, and as she goes to look who’s playing this eerie tune, which was Clara’s Theme, played in a heavy metal way. Then she runs to Heather, and the camera spins round to see the Doctor in-between them, as if he’s drawing them together. It’s all part of that time and space montage.

It was lovely, and it was a really great sequence. Peter was great, and with all the extras, the place was packed out. He did this whole sequence on the guitar, and we filmed the whole thing. Everyone was really into it, as if you were in a club watching a band. In the edit, though, we wanted that bit to be montage-y and quite pacey, so it was one of those things that had to go. Something had to go, so that went.

It’s a shame people don’t buy DVDs any more, as that’d be a deleted scene on the discs!

Who knows!

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Just looking to Smile, then. In terms of visual design, it’s dramatically different from The Pilot, and I’m curious how much was real, and how much was digital? And was your aim to keep it very human-focused in the way you shot it?

The remit of a city 5000 years in the future, that would be very boring to build. Nor would it be economical, and nor, I’d imagine, would it be much good, even if we had tens of millions to build it!

The first port of call with me and Pete was to try and find a physical place that we could frame and light, and manipulate in a way where we can get something fresh and new, something we’ve not seen in Doctor Who. Something where we can physically place the actors within it, so they can move and breathe and inhabit the frame.

Eventually we found the science park in Valencia and it was just perfect. And it gave us enough scope to do what we needed to do for the script, if not more really. It was typically embracing the real space, placing the actors within it, and creating the world.

I’ve spoken to a few writers of Doctor Who stories, and when their episode is on, they have a viewing party, maybe treat themselves to a new telly for the occasion. I’ve read an interview with you in the past where you say you don’t like rewatching your own stuff…

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Oh gosh, no!

But once you’re done and dusted, does that stay the same even on something like this?

Well, for the first time in quite a while I guess, I made an exception [with The Pilot]. I did watch it on Saturday night at 7.20. Mainly because, again for the first time, I’m pretty pleased with it, because I think it does what it needed to do. More importantly, I think there’s a real emotional punch in it. Which ultimately, when watching anything, is the thing you remember if it’s decent. The emotional connection. And it felt good. I felt quite proud of it!

I’m not surprised, and congratulations to you! Lawrence Gough, thank you very much!

Lawrence Gough’s next project, a feature film, is set to be officially announced shortly.