Rachel Talalay interview: directing Doctor Who series 8’s finale

Director Rachel Talalay on the Doctor Who series finale stories, and the tactics they used to keep the big spoilers intact...

Rachel Talalay’s directorial career has taken her in lots of different directions. She’s helmed features such as Tank Girl, Ghost In The Machine and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. She’s directed TV shows as varied as Ally McBeal, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), Supernatural and Flash Gordon.

And this weekend? The long-time Doctor Who fan has the small job of rounding off Peter Capaldi’s maiden series as the Time Lord. Talalay has directed both Dark Water and Death In Heaven and – without spoilers- she spared us some time to talk about the challenge…

Please note: this article does not contains spoilers, and we’ve used the most spoiler-free promo pics we can find to illustrate it.

Ad – content continues below

I wrote a spoiler-free review of your episode this morning, and I’ve got to say, it was a nightmare to write…

You can’t say anything, can you?!

Not really, no! But how much of the build up to Dark Water and Death In Heaven are you catching from afar? Because you’re thousands of miles away right now!

I am aware completely! For a couple of reasons. One is that I’m interested. I’m 1000% invested in it. The second is that one of my daughters is a complete geek. So she’s on Gallifrey Base, and she’s also very good at protecting me! We all know that there’s no such thing as opinion on the internet. It’s just ‘you’re an idiot, and that’s a fact! If you don’t agree with me, it’s still a fact!’

When someone takes on a major role in the cast of Doctor Who, a lot is made sometimes of what it takes to break them into the show, and how they’re introduced to it. But how does it work with directors? Do you get a Powerpoint presentation from Steven Moffat about everything? And how much free rein are you given?

You get a lot of rein, within the realm of Doctor Who. What’s so great about the show is that every episode is completely different. For me I started with these genius scripts.

Ad – content continues below

I think it was Peter Capaldi who said that he was taken aside by Matt Smith, and there was a secret Doctor conversation. And there was a secret Doctor conversation between David Tennant and Matt Smith. But there isn’t a secret director conversation! I would love there to be!

The other directors are in their own worlds too. There’s not a fact sheet. Episodic directors are used to going in like that anyway.

The mandate really, well there really wasn’t any discussion. It was just expected that you embrace and bring one’s own vision to it.

Across your television career, you’ve worked through a point where TV has gone a lot more cinematic. That’s in terms of pace and frame. The traditional view has been that television isn’t a director’s medium. But do you think that’s changing a little now?

Ad – content continues below

I think it just depends on the show. I’ve worked on shows all the way through my career that are cinematic, and I’ve worked on shows that were follow the leader, and your attention is on making sure that the comedy or the action works well. Or that the drama works well.

There’s a huge discussion about this being the golden age of television, because movies are dying. Which is so, so sad. But I don’t think that the fact that feature directors are moving to television is what’s changing it. I think the audience is moving over to television. And that there are showrunners who are allowing one to have cinema be more important.

I would say on Doctor Who, from the second of the reboot, that’s what made me want to do it. That was eight seasons ago!

Coming onto your episodes then, you’ve landed the Doctor Who series 8 finale story for a start, so no pressure! But you had no sense that other directors were bringing such a vivid horror tone to the show? You all developed this independently of each other?

Well I had the benefit of being able to watch early edits of probably the first five. But you take on with Doctor Who what your script is. It’s in the nature of where the writers are going. The Caretaker is a very, very funny script. In The Forest Of The Night is very sweet. And Listen is elemental horror. So each director takes on the style of what’s on the page.

What struck me on Dark Water is how committed you are to holding your shots. That there’s a real stillness to it. As lots of people tried to emulate cinema on the small screen, they’ve gone for quick cuts and fast moving. But the pacing of Dark Water is strong, allowing things to build up in the frame. So how much of that is your stamp? And how much is on a piece of paper?

Ad – content continues below

It’s all of us really. My starting place was that this story is so exceptional and I would do it a disservice if I chose style over substance. I don’t want to say that I’m style-free, but quick cuts…?

Then you have these exceptional actors, who can hold the frame. I love that, that they can do that and bring you into it. I have the good fortune, and have had enough experience, that I have such a wide variety [of approaches], and I just want to tell the story. When you watch moments with Jenna or Peter or with Michelle Gomez, you want to stay on them. So you stay on them.

The producers very much also say don’t steal that moment. Let it be. It’s the ultimate combination.

I’d say the vast, vast majority of this is our original edit. Nobody ever gives the editor credit!

Oddly enough, I’m coming to that. Because I wondered if you could take us through the process of putting your edit together? How does it differ from your film experience?

I’m going to answer a slightly different question! The difference between British television and North American television? In North American television, you get three days to edit, then they kick you out and do whatever they want. In the UK? Although the schedule is shorter than a feature, you are absolutely treated like the director. And it’s very much why I prefer working in the UK. The director is respected.

Ad – content continues below

And the notes: I try to explain sometimes to North American producers why giving the notes to the director [is better] than coming in and just recutting it [themselves]… If you say to me ‘I want the impact of that to be different’, I am inside the heartbeat of each thing I direct. I can give you what you want in an aesthetic, because I know the footage so well. You have to go back and look at stuff for the first time, and you have no time, and you’re doing 50 million other things.

They say well what if you disagree? Well, why would I disagree with Steven Moffat? Yes, we did disagree on things, and I did fight for things. But generally it was very clear what he wanted. 

I had a brilliant editor on Doctor Who, Will Oswald, and he was an incredible support, and I want to give a shout out to him. The whole team is incredible, but I think the editor… well, he does the first edit while you’re shooting. You might go in over the weekends and give some quick notes, but the structure is there from him.

You mentioned that you get a longer period to edit. But how close do you run it? How close, for instance, did you get to transmission day before locking Dark Water?

We were the closest they’d ever been! We were still editing within ten days of transmission! And what is fascinating to me is that there’s involvement along the way from the grader who does visual effects, and the offline person. Everyone along the way is tweaking things to make things better. Because this was I believe the tightest season they’ve ever had in terms of shoot dates to transmission dates, so visual effects are being dropped in days before. And basically, it’s not finished now before it transmits, that’s what they say!

Ad – content continues below

You did bits of public shooting for Dark Water and Death In Heaven. Most of this is obviously shot indoors, but are you wary of public location shooting? Especially when you have such major spoilers to protect with this story?

When we shot outside in the two major public places – which I can talk about because of all the press – there were huge secrets to be kept.

We put out script sides that were incorrect. We published for the crew a script that was incorrect. The actors when they finally did the correct lines mouthed them.

We were outside St Paul’s Cathedral with everyone on their iPhone recording. I’m still shocked that the big spoilers, the secrets, have been kept until now. People were taking cameras and sticking them in the tent. Taking pictures of the sound man’s script! So I give huge credit to the team for figuring out a process! I so enjoy all the theories as to who is Missy and what’s going on!

How long have you been sitting on that major spoiler, the one that’s not broken?

Since April!

Ad – content continues below

It all happened so quickly, me getting the job. I read episode 11, the morning it came to me, as I left for the UK. I read it on the airplane and I shrieked! The other day when we were doing ADR, adding in the dialogue, the ADR technician slammed the console and said ‘oh my God, really? Really?’

It was classic, and I thought yes, it’s going to work!

What volume of shrieking are we talking about? Are you a polite shrieker, or screaming the plane down?

No, I’m a polite shrieker [laughs].

You have teased on Twitter that Death In Heaven is going to be a slightly longer episode. Do you know how much longer yet? Another five or ten minutes to play with?

Yes!

Ad – content continues below

And do you know if you’re coming back for Doctor Who series 9?

I hope I’m coming back. There have been discussions with me about coming back.

That sounds like a careful answer…!

[Laughs] The first thing I did when I found out I was offered a two parter, I said so on my Facebook. And my hands were slapped so hard because they hadn’t announced it was a two parter! I had to go back and go ‘oh, I was completely wrong’!

But this is the most important thing I’ve done. I can’t tell you how magical it is to me.

One last thing: is there anything spoiler-free that you can tease about Death In Heaven?

Ad – content continues below