Love And Monsters!! Gaspode Chats Up The Director Of Tonight’s DOCTOR WHO!!
Published at: Dec. 8, 2006, 12:58 a.m. CST by hercules
I am – Hercules!!
Gaspode, the man who loves “Who,” checks in with the director of tonight’s “Love and Monsters”!
Dan Zeff: Directing ‘Love and Monsters’
[In every season of Doctor Who, there always seems to be one episode that the fans either love or despise, with very little middle ground in-between. For season two, that seems to be episode ten, ‘Love and Monsters,’ an off-format story in which the Doctor and Rose actually take a back seat for most of the episode. Although that was largely due to the fact that it was being shot at the same time as ‘The Impossible Planet’ and ‘The Satan Pit,’ requiring producer Russell T. Davies to pen a script that was Tennant and Piper-lite, the episode also allowed Davies to seemingly make a few not-so-veiled comments about the nature of fandom in general. This interview with director Dan Zeff is fairly spoiler-heavy, so you might want to come back to it if you haven’t seen the episode yet, but I suspect there will be a very spirited talk-back to follow…]
How do you feel ‘Love and Monsters’ turned out?
Dan Zeff: I’m really pleased with it. It’s had some really good previews and it seems to have struck a nerve. I think it’s quite an unusual episode, but for me, that’s a lot of the attraction of it. I was very pleased with it, and the whole ending with the work that the sound guys put in and the composer as well; I think he did a lovely score for us that had quite a lovely dark fairy tale feel to it. I was very pleased with the very ending of it, and Russell [Davies] and Julie [Gardner, the executive producers] came to the final dub, and they were delighted with it, so it definitely ended on a high.
Is it strange how an episode of Doctor Who can get so much attention for a director nowadays?
Zeff: It is interesting, because on the other hand, I came in doing short films and also I’ve worked in film and done a couple of screenplays. In the film world, it seems that the directors are often overly hyped, so everyone knows who directed a film, but often no one knows who wrote it, but in television, it’s the other way around. In some ways, the balance is slightly better, because the scripts and Russell’s writing on Doctor Who are obviously very crucial, and this episode is one of his scripts, which is one of the reasons I was I attracted to it.
You came into this series a bit late, didn’t you?
Zeff: It was really fortuitous actually; I’d worked with [producers] Phil Collinson and Julie Gardner before and I’ve always wanted to work with them again. Phil actually rang me when he was first doing Doctor Who and I was involved in a series for Steve Coogan’s company with Johnny Vegas, which was taking up a lot of my time, so the timing with Doctor Who just wasn’t right at all. And then this episode came along and I really don’t know what the background was, but it was brilliant to be involved. I was very frazzled at the beginning, because I was still finishing off Ideal while starting on Doctor Who so it was all a bit crazy, but I was desperate to do it when the opportunity came up and the fact that it was one episode was lovely for me, because I was able to really focus on it. As I say, it’s quite an unusual little piece, but something I’m really proud of.
Hadn’t you worked with David Tennant before?
Zeff: That was the other real attraction to it, and they’re very keen to get me to do more and I would love to, but I’m keeping it open at the moment, because I’ve been away from London a lot and I’ve got very small children and I can’t run off straightaway. But yes, David was a real attraction. I did a short film with him, I think possibly it was his first film that played at film festivals and he had just come from doing Romeo and Juliet at the National Theatre and he was lovely in it. It’s a mad little film; he plays a guy who is trying to split up with his girlfriend and is so awkward about it and desperate not to hurt her feelings that she misunderstands and thinks he’s proposing to her and it escalates very quickly in ten minutes, with everything getting out of hand, the parents coming around, and he’s caught in this situation, so it’s a comedy, but it’s quite a touching comedy, so it was lovely to renew that relationship.
It’s a bit ironic that he only appears in a few scenes of your episode.
Zeff: I know! It was really nice the days he did come in, which was the reason he said, ‘You’ve got to come back and do more!’ because I genuinely get on very well with him. I think what’s lovely about this episode is although the Doctor is not in it an awful lot, his presence is absolutely blueprinted across the episode, so I hope you don’t miss him but when he finally turns up, it’s like the cavalry arriving. There’s something very powerful about his final arrival, but I think I’ve got such a marvelous supporting cast. Marc Warren and Shirley Henderson really carry the emotion of the piece and Peter Kay is a superb villain. Marc’s character is the one that we empathize with, and that we experience the story through. I think he’s so empathetic that hopefully as a viewer you love the Elton character. He’s not too geeky and not too cool; he’s somewhere in-between, but he’s very lovable and really carries you through it, so when the Doctor finally turns up, he’s a very significant character to Elton and you really feel the shadow that he casts over the episode.
What was the tone that Russell was going for in the episode?
Zeff: He’s very clear about what he wants, and I think his scripts are lovely to read, because you get a real sense of the tone, which was important because it’s quite a funny script that has a lot of comedy in it, but it’s also very touching and moving. I think the most important thing I got from him, and it’s very much the way I would want to approach it anyway, was that things mustn’t be too pushed, that we weren’t trying to force the comedy, but equally we weren’t trying to push the emotion in a heavy way, so there’s a certain naturalism to it. Although this is the world of Doctor Who, so there’s a real pace and energy to the episode, there’s also a real sense of reality. As an example, with Elton’s little dance to ELO, it was so important that we weren’t laughing at him. That could have been so many different things with him looking geeky or stupid dancing, it could have been him posing, but what I hope you get from watching it is quite a warm feeling, because it’s quite natural. He and he does look a bit silly, but in the way that we’d all look a bit silly if somebody was watching us when we didn’t think anybody was looking at us dancing to the music, so there’s a sort of innocence to it. I suppose there’s a very delicate tone to the episode, so that was one thing. The other thing that I really picked up on was that you wanted things to feel quite empty. You didn’t want lots of extras around when we were shooting outside, so when we shot in the park for example, we went to what looked like quite a real London park but looked very empty so the people felt like these little pinpricks of warmth that needed to huddle together. They’re adrift in a world that’s a little bit deserted, so there’s a real sense of urban alienation, for want of a better word. The feeling I had in my head was that this was a place that was once busy and really lived-in and energized, but for some reason, everyone had left as though there had been a plague or an attack of bird flu and everyone had left the city, so you had all these streets and spaces that felt quite familiar but quite cold and cast a shadow and this slightly dark fairy tale feel over everything. But yes, it’s hard to pick out exactly what came from Russell, but certainly that was a major part of it and just the fact that he didn’t ever want the comedy to be forced or overplayed. I think there are certain episodes where the art department can really go to town and have a lot of fun, and I think there was room to have a lot of fun in this episode, so there are a lot of lovely touches in there and I think everyone put quite a lot into it, but it also had a more naturalistic flavor, and that was key really, to get the Doctor Who-ness of it, but we’re not suddenly in some soap opera. We had to keep it believable, so Elton’s attic room for example when he’s talking to camera, that felt kind of real, and with the flashbacks, we weren’t suddenly doing a wild, mad 1970s kind of thing, but just that it felt really genuine, that is a four year-old child who did grow up in the seventies so obviously it had to have a period feel, but it was just little touches, little bits of the toys around and stuff like that, that were just hopefully there to give you an emotional flavor of what was going on rather than it being some kind of design fest.
How complicated was the casting process?
Zeff: It’s a dream cast. You often work on things where you don’t get your first, second or even third choices. You generally end up with people you’re very happy to have, but casting can be quite a stressful period, although I’ve got to say, this wasn’t at all. That’s part of the testament to the show, and also just how powerful Doctor Who is, but equally the job that Russell and Julie and everyone has done so far that people are so keen to work on it, and it was a lovely script to send out, so you’re confident that you can send it out and that if people read it, they would love it. I was particularly pleased about Shirley, because on paper it’s not such a big part, and were she kind of actress that counted lines, it might not have attracted her, but I talked to her about it and she loved the part and she loved the script. There was a really delicate quality to the script and the nature of the relationship between her character and Elton’s that was beautifully understated and that really attracted her, and I think that’s a real credit to her, because I think she is one of the best actresses of her generation around. I was so delighted to have her on it, and she was absolutely my first choice. It was almost like, ‘Let’s ask Shirley Henderson, but we probably won’t get her,’ so to have her come back and say yes was a dream. I think Elton was a wonderful part, and it was great that Marc Warren was willing to do it and was available as well, because he’s so busy at the moment, but I’ve admired him for a long time and in particular, he did a part in State of Play that was very funny but a very original, special performance and I think Marc is very talented. He can do a lot of different things, and I think he makes it feel almost like Elton is completely natural. People would feel that it’s him, whereas I can see how he crafted that kind of innocence, so he really worked on that, so it was great to get him.
What about Peter Kay?
Zeff: Again, that’s one of the lovely things about this. They rang me and I had a conversation with Phil and Russell about it. They said they were thinking about it, and I think Russell had been in touch with Peter after the first series anyway and said how much he liked it, and obviously it had been an idea they were very keen on, so it was an idea that I was listened to and given a veto as I was with all the other casting. They spoke to me before they offered it to Peter and I had never worked with him, but I was certainly very happy about it, and having worked with Johnny Vegas for a while, I wasn’t scared off by comedians. I know they can be absolutely brilliant on screen and you can often capture something quite natural because they’re so actorly. We had quite a few standup comedians on Ideal, and the discipline on set is slightly different, but you do get moments of magic through that unfamiliarity. Obviously Peter has done a lot, so he’s not unfamiliar with the camera, but he would come up with different things that were quite different in different takes and that can be really attractive sometimes for a director, those little moments of inspiration, because they’re so used to thinking on their feet.
But this is a very different performance for Peter.
Zeff: I agree, and I was really worried, because the biggest thing for me I did not want it to feel like it was Peter Kay in a costume playing a pantomime character, because everything depended so much on the realism of the episode. We had set up these lovely relationships with this little group and they all had their vulnerabilities, and the script itself was so textured and obviously with this underlying sense that it’s all about Elton losing his mother, so that was the underlying emotion, and equally the relationship between him and Ursula had to be played completely straight and that could only work if the monster had a genuine sense of menace, and Victor as well. You had to believe that he could be evil, because he was quite larger than life, and I gave him that ridiculous opening coming down in the lift and appearing in silhouette, so that was a lot of fun, but equally, you had to believe that they would go along with him, so if he played it as camp evil, you wouldn’t believe it, so we had a small conversation about that, and he was keen to do that as well because it was something different for him. While he wanted it to be funny and obviously bring his qualities to it, which I did as well. He was completely keen to make it credible as much as a green absorbing creature can be credible.
Was it difficult, trying to create a balance between comedy and scares?
Zeff: The whole dark fairy tale thing was what we were going for as a tone, but there’s something quite soulfully moving about him, especially now with Murray’s mournful score added to it. It’s a very haunting Edward Scissorhands-like score, and the sound FX we added as well. Although we essentially kept Peter’s northern accent, we treated the voice and gave it a gravely, scarier dimension. And I think there’s something about the nature of absorbing people and then being on the skin and then the things that Russell put in about people not being in pain particularly, but somehow sucked in that is quite haunting and quite soulfully moving, so in that sense, it’s ludicrously comic, and of course it’s Peter Kay as well, so it’s kind of iconic in that way. And it comes the week after we had an episode with the devil in it as the monster, so Peter is just like a bloke; it like there’s 100,000 other Absorbaloffs on the planet Glomm and he’s just one of many, rather than him being THE Evil Absorbaloff, so there’s something about his blokishness that comes out that is really lovely, because it’s really understated, but there’s a real sadness, particularly with Ursula and what happens to her. I think it’s a great advertisement as an episode that from some adversity can come some brilliant things. I can’t think of any example now, but there are millions of great examples in world cinema of things that wouldn’t have happened or a person who wouldn’t have been cast; all sorts of things that wouldn’t have happened is something hadn’t gone totally wrong.
As soon as I read the script, I knew exactly what Russell was going for, and we talked about the understating of it and it’s a tone that I felt more than comfortable with. With Russell’s script, I can’t really claim too much authorship, because it’s so authored by him, but whether it’s coincidence or not, I feel emotionally attached to it in a way that I haven’t for many things. I’ve written some of my own pieces, but other than that, it’s quite rare to feel like that. Even with ELO, they were the very first band I was into, I’d actually bought, at the age of 11 or 12 with my best friend, we used to put ELO music on and take turns to pretend that we were playing different instruments, so that was sad. It was the first album I bought, and then I completely forgotten, because I started getting properly into music and going to gigs, but ELO was before that. I think because I was a younger brother, I might have heard them through my older brother and it was at a time when I was only into one band, and that was ELO, so I had three ELO albums and listened to them all the time and I had quite forgotten about that, so that sense of youth and innocence, there were so many things that straightaway felt, ‘I get this!’ There are so many Doctor Who episodes that are brilliant, but as a director I may not have got, but this one suited me somehow.
Do you have to get the clearances for the songs in advance?
Zeff: Certainly if you’re going to film something that’s going to commit you to using it, you do. Blue Sky and Don’t Bring me Down were both written in, so they would have checked that in the script before we filmed it, and actually I ended up using Mr. Blue Sky a lot more. I also put in another track for the Jackie Tyler sequence, which was Turn to Stone, and I think I even had another one in at some point. Again, credit to Russell and the reason why I used it so much in other points is because it’s emotionally absolutely right. It’s not just a name-check of some funny band that people haven’t heard of; it’s not Russell thinking, ‘Oh, what would be a good band that would be funny in here?’ It’s not a gag. Mr. Blue Sky is a lovely song partly because it has that sense of innocence, and I think we may have found some other tracks to use in there, but it wouldn’t have been easy to use David Bowie or somebody else in there. This choice was absolutely right, and there was obviously something that appealed to me when I was that age and I still like them now. It’s one of those bands that if you take them too seriously, they fall apart. I’ve only just got my albums back from the art department; I dug them out just in case they wanted them for set dressing, so it was a real pleasure to go up to my loft and dig them out.
Was it tough to find the right tone for Marc’s character?
Zeff: Marc and I worked very hard on that character at the beginning to get that innocence and yet he’s not some naïve geek. In some ways, he’s quite a normal bloke, but he’s got quite a lot of deliberate youthfulness which I think in some ways you can explain through his mother have died when he was very young. And once we had that, we talked about it in the context of Jackie, and there were lots of little questions about how overt to make it. Is Elton aware of it? How sexual is Jackie being here, or is she just being friendly? We really put a lot of thought into that, but for me, I think two of the most important things are casting and script, but more in the way it was performed I’d say, and where I can in, I was really just coaxing and tweaking the performance and getting that right and the right sense of awkwardness without turning it into some big physical comedy. I love when he steps back to that corner of the room where the mantelpiece was, so he’s cornered a little bit, and Marc is brilliant at playing those subtle things. It’s just real.
Were you worried about those scenes with Elton and Jackie? They could lend themselves to caricature if you’re not careful.
Zeff: She’s actually very natural and obviously knows her character very well. Equally, I felt that a lot of things I was saying were just reinforcing what she was doing anyway, because I think she naturally doesn’t overplay. She wasn’t going to play that in a big vampish way; she’s got a naughtiness to her, but she plays it quite lightly and gets the tone very well, so I think it was just a matter of reinforcing that so she’s friendly, she’s obviously making a pass, but it doesn’t need to be hugely loaded; it’s not like she’s enjoying his discomfort. Again, she’s just genuinely attracted to him and thinks he’s attracted to her and is pushing that. I think Marc absolutely gets that level right as well, as somebody who is made uncomfortable but also quite up for it. It’s a really delicately judged performance and in some ways, it’s just a matter of finding the right way to say it at the right to them rather than overloading them with too much to think about, because their instincts are pretty good. I was really pleased with both of them, but obviously the viewer is feeling it through Marc and I think he plays it absolutely perfect and it was a joy to edit as well, because he does slightly different things, but essentially gave us a lot of options, so it was really enjoyable to be able to craft that in the edit.
Was your job made easier by the fact that you didn’t have a lot of special FX to deal with?
Zeff: Until the end, yes; I suppose that’s true. Certainly as a first episode as well, as a way into it, it was gentle in that sense. There was still some lovely FX work to be done and some lovely special FX stuff as well, like blowing up windows and things like that, but they were fairly isolated and contained and I could really focus on what I enjoy focusing on, which is largely the performances. So yes, I think the thing that was good in that was that it was quite an attractive element to me in the script, which isn’t to say that I would have enjoyed more of it, but I think what I wouldn’t find a pleasure so much would be doing something that was all about the FX where somehow the emotional story became less important because the FX took over. And I actually think on the whole, partly because of budget reasons but also for me certainly in terms of things I like, it’s not a question of showing everything in a big way. It’s what you don’t show, so if there’s a big strong moment, it’s more about how that moment affects the people involved. That’s what is going to move you emotionally. Sex scenes aren’t just about showing sex; they’re about what you don’t show, so in that sense, it was nice to have something that was not constantly FX-led. Apart from anything else, I think I would have found that a little boring after a while, because there’s only so much blue screen and stuff that you can do in different ways that will really excite you. It’s really people that make things interesting.
Your episode is almost a breather before the big season-ender coming up, isn’t it?
Zeff: In a way, I’m really happy about that. I was a little worried that in some ways it was going to be the runt of the series, but it’s also what I really love about it, and in a way, the more it’s different, and it may alienate (but I hope it doesn’t) some die-hard Doctor Who fans, even some of the younger audience as well, because there’s quite a lot of rich human stuff going on in the middle, but it has a lot of thrills and spills at the beginning and obviously the last 15 minutes as well. Who knows? I hope it’s got enough in it to keep the youngest kids entertained too, but even so, I really do feel very proud to be attached to it. I watched the first Cybermen episodes, and when I was filming, I was getting slight monster envy. I remember some of the great creatures from when I was a child, like the Sontarans and having monster envy I suppose, but apart from having a great monster in the Absorbaloff, I kind of feel as a director at the age I am now, I feel really emotionally attached to this in a way that I don’t think I would have been too much to another one, so while I love watching the other ones as a viewer, I kind of feel very pleased and proud to have done one that I feel very bound up with.
Do you think you’ll be doing another episode?
Zeff: I would love to, but I don’t want to just go back and repeat the experience; it would have to be something different, but they’ve certainly been very open in terms of keeping the door open to go back, so for me, I think it’s all about timing; the being away from home factor and various aspects, but yes, I very much hope so. It was very enjoyable and all of us got on incredibly well.
What’s been going on with work-wise since you finished ‘Love and Monsters?’
Zeff: I’ve actually had a screenplay that I wrote a while ago was picked up by Tribeca, so we’ve got the development money and we’re looking for a writer now. I wrote the first draft, but I’d quite like to find someone to work with on the second draft. And I’ve got various other projects in development, one with Steve Coogan’s company Baby Cow, so all of these projects are in the early stages where they need some nurturing and time, and I’m quite happy to spend some time with those projects in development. Like most directors, I want to try and juggle as many things as possible, but I’d love to make films as well as telly, but the thing about those projects is they do need a bit of time to push them along. So that’s where I am at the moment.
8 p.m. Friday. SciFi.