The Age of Steel!! Gaspode Chats Up The Director Of Tonight’s DOCTOR WHO!!
Published at: Nov. 3, 2006, 12:16 a.m. CST by hercules
I am – Hercules!!
My man “Gaspode” could be the hardest-working man on Ain’t It Cool News, and he pretty much covers only one show. And it’s not even a beautiful American show. Here we go …
Graeme Harper: Living in the Age of Steel
[Talk about a classic good-news, bad-news scenario: when director Graeme Harper signed up to work on the second season of the new Doctor Who, he was given a pair of hugely ambitious two-part Cybermen episodes to direct. But as Harper soon discovered, he would have to shoot all four episodes simultaneously and back-to-back, all within a period of about ten weeks. Add in night shoots, bad weather, a gang of Cyber-actors in full armor, countless visual FX shots and an impatient producer standing on set looking at his watch as each hour quietly ticked away, and it’s a wonder that any director could have got it all done in time, let alone with his sanity intact.
But to his credit, Harper has not only managed to turn in four of the season’s most complex and episodes, but he’s also been asked to direct a pair of episodes for season three, starting in a couple of weeks. This interview is the first of a two-parter, the second part of which will hopefully appear to coincide with episodes 12-13 when they air on Sci-Fi about six weeks from now. I’ve tried to keep this one spoiler-free, so don’t worry about proceeding too carefully…]
Did you have any idea what you were in for when you signed on to the new Doctor Who?
Graeme Harper: I came up as an assistant director and did some Doctor Who, but I didn’t direct it in the seventies. I knew the new series it would be complex, because it always had been and that wasn’t going to change. It was going to be complicated, but with better technology around, it might be more interesting and better for it, and in fact, I have to say this is the toughest job I’ve ever done in my whole career, both as an assistant director coming up and a director. It was tough, because it had to be good and you really want to make the best you can out of it, and therefore you push yourself into (I hope) the far realms of your brain for the originality and ideas and whatever. I hope that comes over, but what Russell and Julie do, and Phil, they really inspire you to want to gauge the furthest points you can reach in your brain to stretch yourself and make it the best you can, to make the most exciting thing happen within it, and to bring your ideas forward. Obviously I have ideas and so do the producers, and the rest of the team within the design area, which can also include the CGI area as well as the design department, and those guys give you thousands of ideas. They’ll toss your own ideas back at you, but maybe from a different point of view, and suddenly you have everybody on board offering you ideas, sometimes too many, so it’s difficult to decide and you need to cut that back down. It didn’t happen like that in the eighties. It was a much smaller affair, with a smaller group of people thinking about it. Here, there’s a vast crew of people all giving you ideas of what you could actually go for within the ideas that you originally threw into the pile.
Presumably when you were an AFM [assistant floor manager] for directors like Michael Briant or David Maloney on Doctor Who in the seventies, you were trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible, knowing you wanted to do it someday.
Harper: Oh yeah, I was able to discern the good and the bad and what I really wanted to achieve for me. Obviously a lot of it rubs off on you, because you work with people that you respect. They don’t always have to be the greatest directors visually, but maybe what they got out of the artist or how they got their ideas put over or what they got back from people; that’s what I was interested in.
How did you get involved in the new series?
Harper: Doctor Who was a fantastic opportunity for me as a young director in the eighties, and I was really disappointed when it was killed off, because it didn’t need to be. There was always going to be an audience for it, and it would have got better and built up its audience again. Well, of course time proved that after a long lapse and having not been on the screen for a long time, there was new interest both from the old fans who had been with it loyally all the way through, and a huge new generation or two generations who had not seen it, and thankfully Russell was in charge of that with Julie and then Phil was obviously on board, and those three people have made it very exciting. I knew Russell a bit, because our paths had crossed on two shows over the last 20 years, so I actually wrote to him and put my name in saying, ‘I would really love to show what I could bring to it, because I always wanted to help bring Doctor Who into the 21st century!’ That was before they had done series one, and I got a letter back from Russell saying my name would be in the pot, thank you very much. I personally never heard anything more about it during the first year, because by the time the series was starting, I had already taken another job anyway, a pretty interesting job up in the North of England.
What happened through was during the first year, I know I had been sounded out about my availability, but nothing happened because I wasn’t free anyway. Last year, when they finished the first series and they were planning the second one, I wasn’t pursuing it anymore, but I suddenly got a phone call out of the blue from Phil Collinson saying would I be pleased to meet Russell and he for lunch some place and they would like to meet me and see where we all stood for the next series? After dinner they said, ‘We would love you to come and do a block,’ so I said thank you very much, and about a month later, I finally got an offer, and I couldn’t believe it: it was for two blocks; one on the middle and one at the end, and one of them would definitely be Cybermen. I was absolutely over the moon. It was absolutely thrilling, because the first series had started going out by the time we met, and wow, talk about bringing it into the 21st century, and what a pompous oaf I was, but they did it, and by the time it had gone out, I definitely wanted to do it, but I didn’t pursue it anymore. They came to me, which was absolutely brilliant and I was so flattered by that.
Did you know your two shooting blocks would be filmed back to back and simultaneously?
Harper: When I came on board, I didn’t know any of that because I wasn’t told. When I first met, them, I didn’t even know they were going to offer me two, but when I came on board and sat down with the production manager, we talked about dates and I got a huge shock. A ten week shoot, okay, I can do that, and I’ve done six one-hours in nine or ten weeks, so I was prepared for that but these were very complicated stories, and to have all the facilities absolutely set up and ready to go on any one day that you need to get to it; that was a huge task. We could not sign off on the scripts early enough to really lock off everything in time for the shoot, so we had to do it not necessarily piecemeal, but certain things had to take precedence over others, and we gradually agreed and signed off on various design concepts while we were shooting. All the major ones were done, but there were all sorts of small things that had to be agreed as we were going, and I had to plan a lot of my shoot as we were going, on the weekends. I had a general map of the whole shape of what I was going to do, but yes, it was a shock. I had hoped to persuade them to give me a break in the middle for everybody to have a break of maybe two weeks, so we’d split it into two blocks, but it was too far committed by the time we got there and so many other things were affected by the fact that if we did that, there would be a huge knock-on effect and I think it would become very expensive for the rest of the series.
You were probably very grateful for the Christmas break.
Harper: We had six or seven weeks to start with and then Christmas and a final three-week burst, but it saved everybody’s lives health-wise. It got us all rejuvenated and fired up again to finish.
And of course you had some bad weather on location, which doesn’t help the schedule.
Harper: Strangely enough, now looking at it, in the 1980s, you would never ever do something like that. I think we did 15 to 20 days of nights, all night shoots; imagine doing Cybermen at night! That is the way to shoot them, because of the creepiness of the lighting, so I’m not reaping the benefits of that as I’m putting it together and seeing what a piece of luck I had.
What was the tone you were trying to create for the first two-parter?
Harper: The very first thing I ever said in the very first meeting with Ed Thomas the designer, I had only read the scripts once, and I said to him, ‘We must think art deco, pre-second world war. It’s George Orwell’s Big Brother watching you.’ The whole feeling of it is that even through we’re set in 2006 and what you see is 2006, there’s an aspect of it that you will see as soon as it comes out that takes you right back to the austerity of pre-second world war England. So that was the general concept. From there onwards, the details of the Cybermen were drawn from an art deco kind of feel, so you’ll see art deco weaves its way subtly through the first two episodes and the overall tone is Orwellian, it’s Big Brother. That’s what I was after.
Did the fact that it was set on an alternate world give you a certain amount of freedom?
Harper: It did, and if you’ve seen photographs of the new Cybermen, they are different but with a very respectful bow to the original design concepts. They’ve changed many times over the years, but the basic shape and feel of the Cybermen is still there. I just felt we needed to be very up to date with what would be acceptable. Some of the designs of the past were a bit, I wouldn’t say cheap, but for me they didn’t come off totally. They’re still a bit of fun, but we’re very used to seeing much more dynamic creatures now, so I thought and so did everybody else, that we needed to come up with something really scary and interesting and solid; a killing machine.
But aren’t audiences so much more sophisticated nowadays as well?
Harper: Absolutely. Hand on my heart, I cannot believe that people will laugh us off the screen with these characters. I might be wrong, I might be kidding myself, but I think they really seem to do the business, and I find them quite frightening and creepy and very believable.
Did you find there were a lot of changes made to the original scripts? Those early drafts were a bit nasty, weren’t they?
Harper: I’ll tell you what I thought was brilliant. When I first came on board, I read the scripts, my first drafts, which were probably three or four drafts down the line, and they were massively over-ambitious. I said, ‘I don’t see how were going to do this in the time, for the money,’ and although I know money is thrown at Doctor Who, it’s not that kind of money. This is big feature film stuff, but Russell and Phil and Julie said, ‘Look, we go for the big ambition and we really work hard to keep everything that’s big and exciting and takes you into other worlds, so we have to go for it,’ but of course we had to cut down and cut down. But once you’ve done your homework with what you can do with the most expensive, complicated big number, even when you bring it down, some of that sticks, so you still get an epic concept even thought it’s now, 35, 40 50% less than it was or even more. You still have a big overall desire, so the whole feel of it feels bigger and more epic. It’s really weird, I didn’t feel that so much on the first Doctor Who that I worked on, but these are epic. I hope you’ll agree, but they feel epic to me. I’m not kidding myself that I’m a feature filmmaker, but they feel as though you’re making feature films. That’s what we were trying to achieve, but I’m not going to say whether I pulled it off or not, that’s really the test of being watched by the people.
My biggest worry was I had ten Cybermen figures, men in suits, and two spare, separate much more malleable Cybermen suits, because the main suits are much more solid. You can’t do much stunt work in them, so we had two suits that were made of another material that was more flexible so that stuntmen could do rolls and falls, and even those were difficult in the suits and helmets. My biggest problem and my biggest fear was how do I make, in the time we’ve got and the multiplication shots, how do I make ten Cybermen seem like 40 or 50 on occasion or a hundred or eventually even more? How do I do that? Well, we achieved some multiplication shots; we didn’t get many, but we have some where you see maybe 150, 200 if you’re lucky, but those are meant to represent, if you multiply that by so many more across the world, you end up imagining there are five million or whatever. My problem was, how do I make scenes look as though they’ve got masses and masses of them, and I hope I’ve been able to pull that off, because that’s the brain damage time.
Your first filming days were in London, weren’t they?
Harper: They were. We just did two days in London and that was to cover some scenes outside and the exterior of the Tyler flat, which is set somewhere in East London, and then some Embankment sequences, which begin and end the first story.
Is it easier to shoot in South Wales rather than Westminster?
Harper: It wasn’t a piece of cake in Wales. The problem with Wales is if you want it to be London, it can be, but only in small doses. You’re limited in the areas you can shoot to make it look like London but you can, and that was our big problem: how do you get iconic London in the background? Where do you shoot scenes that are the city for example, but you have a space where you can put St. Paul’s in the background, or the Monument or whatever, so we haven’t done that a lot, but we have done some in Cardiff. I didn’t have much time to shoot London, so we couldn’t rush around doing too much else, but there are two iconic places that we did shoot. A second unit went and did stuff for me while I was shooting main dialogue sequences, and now you know you’re definitely in London because the story is set in London by those shots. Cardiff is a much easier place to shoot than London. Even in the main streets, it’s much more flexible and production company-friendly. London seems to still be a nightmare to get permissions. We seem to be a pain in the bum to the authorities, whereas they should look at it as a way of selling London. We should be using and giving these people as much space and time and agreements as possible, but I still think it’s very difficult to shoot in London.
But to be fair, aren’t they dealing with a lot more security concerns now?
Harper: But who knows what we’re going to turn up and shoot? London obviously does have a few more possibilities of terrorism that are going to happen in it, but I don’t see how that makes a difference. Yeah, we’re a pain in the ass because we’re there when something else might go on, but it’s not going to go on because we’re there, so I don’t think we add to the complication, but that’s from my point of view.
Let’s talk about casting. Do you find it’s easier to get bigger names now, because there’s a certain coolness factor to appearing in Doctor Who?
Harper: I think that’s right, but that has to be because of the fantastic professional success that the show has achieved. It looks and feels magical, and all the guests in the first series felt very comfortable, didn’t they? They just seemed to enjoy being there, which is lovely, as opposed to, ‘I don’t know what the bleeding hell I’m doing here, but my grandson is going to enjoy the fact that I’ve got street cred.’ I think they actually enjoyed it, and I know the artists that we had all thoroughly enjoyed the fact that it was fun. There aren’t a lot of laughs in my stories, although there are some lovely humorous moments, but they are quite serious stories and I think everybody loved being in quite a gripping thriller. But you’re absolutely right, there are very small moments for some guest artists who came in, big names who offered to come in and play tiny moments, and when you watch it, you’ll see how they all fit in and I was thrilled that they came in. I met one particular person, a big household name and she said of course she couldn’t resist, because she was a Doctor Who fan her entire life and B) she’s got enough young people in her family that it gave her street cred, so how could she dare refuse it?
And you got Roger Lloyd-Pack, a very well known character actor to play Lumic
Harper: What a clever bloke he is. I’ve worked with him once before and we get on ever so well. He came in and played something else for me in Stay Lucky, and he was fantastic in that. That was something like ten years ago, and when I saw the twinkle in his eye, I knew we’d have a laugh. We had a week with him doing all his stuff and he was terrific. I think he was wondering at first, ‘What am I doing here?’ but it was fun and he gave us a fantastic performance. If you’re just doing a block of scenes, you don’t see get a chance to see how the other scenes are being done and you’re a bit isolated, aren’t you? You’re insulated, because you’re just in that bit, but gosh, he was fun and everybody fell in love with him, he’s such a great guy.
Was it difficult to keep the look of the new Cybermen under wraps?
Harper: Some of it upset me, not personally, but I had to sign the trade secrets act or whatever it was. I found it hard that I was trying to keep very secret and also not give too much away of the Cybermen away early in the storytelling, because we had a new breed of Cybermen, and I planned to show a little bit of eyes or mouth or a bit of hand or metal, maybe some out of focus blurs and just a hint of something, so you know they’re coming eventually, and once you see them, you see them in abundance for the rest of the episode and the rest of the next episode, but getting to it, I wanted to leave it as long as possible for the audience to get their taste of Cybermen were, and guess what? Publicity photographs were being sent to newspapers, so there was a fantastic photograph of the Cybermen given to the papers, and I said, ‘Why have you done that? I’m doing my shoot in the way I’m doing it, and you’ve showed what they look like and wasted my time!’ They said the problem last year was that some information and photographs from mobile phone photographs got out to the press, whether it was a monster or an actor or a design or whatever, and Russell and Phil were so upset that that they were crappy photographs. If they’re going to be stolen and shown, at least make them good photographs, so they decided, let’s preempt all of that, we’ll give out the best publicity shot we’ve got and let the audience see it and they won’t be able to top that so that’s what they did.
But with so much location filming, wouldn’t it have been difficult to keep them a secret?
Harper: I absolutely agree, there’s nothing you can do about it other than what they did and that was the best course of action. I just made me think, ‘What’s the point of me struggling to do my thing?’ but actually there is a point so I mustn’t give up on the audience. I don’t want to do that, so I continued. My other thing about it is because of the clever film making and techniques that other directors are using in the film world, you’ve really got to be sharp in television. We always do everything in massive close-ups and I don’t want to do that. I want to not just compete with films but widescreen television allows you a totally different concept now in the way you shoot stuff. Like a movie, you’ve got more space to see something in the background, so you can go wider and you use your lenses in a different way. I try to use lenses much more interestingly now, because you can and one of the biggest things I wanted to try and achieve was fear. When I used to watch Doctor Who, I wasn’t a kid. I was 15 in 1963, so I wasn’t a little baby, but I did get worried and scared by some of what I was watching. I’m not sure I hid behind the sofa , but I wanted to get back to that idea of the family saying, ‘Oh God, what’s going to happen next?’ and keep everyone on the edge of their seat, so I’m hoping that’s what we achieved. I wanted to get the thrills and excitement going, so you’re watching a really gripping story. When it comes to the FX, I think they’re fantastic, and what The Mill does is absolutely fantastic, but it adds to our story; it should not be the reason we’re watching it. I should not have to rely on CGI and all the cleverness that they do; I want to rely on the actors and what they do and how they tell the story. The rest of it is just fantastic icing on the cake, big icing as well.
Did you get to finish episodes five and six first, before starting on 12 and 13?
Harper: I wish I could have. No, because the Mill needed a lot of shots to start planning, so as I started working on episode six, they were saying, ‘We need stuff from 12 and 13,’ so I already had to start editing some scenes. I finished five and six and got them underway with the producers so they could look at them get back to me with their notes. And then I tried to look at 12 and 13 although I was not involved with them yet, just to get the FX shots sorted so that I knew what shots I wanted to use. Well, of course your brain starts going ahead to that, so you’ve got your brain really muddled with four different episodes and getting your head around the way you want to put them all together, but we did.
Has this experience whetted your appetite for doing more Doctor Who?
Harper: I absolutely love SF. I could never understand why the BBC has not done much SF and still to this day, there are not many series you can think of that they’ve done. I’ve done two: I’ve been involved with Doctor Who and I did Star Cops, which was killed and it shouldn’t have been, because it was a terrific series. It was a really nice concept, but no, let’s kill it, we don’t want to show the audience that, and I don’t know why, because the audience that did watch said, ‘Can we have some more?’ I love SF; I find it interesting and exciting, so I want to do more Doctor Who, and with Russell and Phil and Julie at the helm, long may it reign, because they really are inventive and exciting with it.
And you’ve now established yourself with four of their biggest episodes.
Harper: Wouldn’t it be awful if they went out and people said, ‘God, didn’t he make a mess of that lot?’ I hope not, but I’ve got a feeling that won’t happen, because Russell wouldn’t allow that. I would certainly know by now if I had failed. You know, what’s interesting is I worked with David Maloney for example, who must have directed 30 or 40 episodes of Doctor Who. Douglas Camfield is dead, God bless him, but I worked with him several times in my life and he was a fabulous director, and I think he actually holds the record for directing 50 episodes of Doctor Who in his career. I only did four half-hours and two 45-minute episodes, so I suppose I can claim to be old school, but I can’t claim to be an expert in Doctor Who, so I am a link, but only just. I’ve done many more things other than Doctor Who that make me a better link for whatever that was. It’s really weird, I feel like such a new boy on Doctor Who.
[To be continued…]
8 p.m. Friday. SciFi.