Satan Pit!! Gaspode Has A Sit-Down With The Director of Tonight’s DOCTOR WHO!!
Published at: Dec. 1, 2006, 8:13 a.m. CST by hercules
I am – Hercules!!
This week Gaspode interviews my cousin James, who directs the exciting Brit TV.
Investigating the Satan Pit
[Unlike most of the interviews I’ve been posting on AICN over the past several weeks, this one actually took place on set, during the final week of filming on Doctor Who: season two. Director James Strong was wrapping up his final couple of days on the two-parter, ‘The Impossible Planet’ and ‘The Satan Pit,’ so if this conversation seems a bit brief, that’s because Strong probably had a few more important things on his mind, such as finishing a three-page scene involving virtually every principal character, not to mention a bunch of complicated on-set pyrotechnics, stunts and a couple of visual FX shots that were going to be added in post-production…
You came on to this series without an awful lot of genre experience, didn’t you?
James Strong: Yeah, I suppose it’s quite hard to get genre experience in this country, because there hasn’t been much sci-fi or anything like this really, but being a fan of it as well, it was something I wanted to try and do. It’s funny, but I trained at Granada Television and when I was a trainee, I said that drama was what I really wanted to do, and they said, ‘Well, go to the drama department and somebody will show you around!’ and it was Russell [T. Davies, the executive producer and head writer]. So Russell showed me around and we sort of became friends, and at the time, he said, ‘I’d love to bring back Doctor Who; that’s what we should do,’ and ten or twelve years later he did. It was really nice to get back together and say, ‘You’ve done it!’ By that time, I was directing myself.
Did he ever say, ‘If I do it, I’ll give you a call?’
Strong: I was interviewed for the last series , but I hadn’t done any CGI stuff then, so maybe they didn’t think I was ready, but I did a series last summer called Rocket Man, which was a sitcom that had a lot of CGI, and that seemed to go really well, so that sort of pushed me through.
What were the major obstacles that had to be overcome in this two-parter?
Strong: First of all, Matt Jones did a fantastic job with the script, so first of all you think, ‘How can I realize what’s on the page?’ and then you break it down start going through it. I suppose it’s making sure that all the different sets and worlds and areas we visit are actually… [A massive bang in the background interrupts the conversation. ‘That was the window blowing in; one of the stunts’ Strong explains] and that was one of the notes from Russell, that although it’s SF and it’s set in the future, it doesn’t want to be a very glossy sci-fi; it wants to be very real. And also, we wanted it to be a very dark episode, as scary as we could make it, so we looked at the original Alien films, in terms of how we were going to shoot it. We’ve got this small crew that is very isolated, and then an evil presence begins picking them off one by one. If you look at Alien, it’s very low-tech and practical, so they look more like truckers in space, so that’s what we tried for. In designing the sets, we needed a lot of corridors to run around in so we had to make sure that when we designed it, we could get in and move the camera around fast, do in a practical sense, they look real, but we can get the camera in there to give us the energy we need for a Saturday night episode of sci-fi.
Many people would consider Alien more horror than SF.
Strong: There are definitely some horror elements to it too; certainly some of the subject matter in ‘The Satan Pit,’ where we touch on Satan and quite dark stuff. When I was a kid, Doctor Who was classic behind-the-sofa stuff, and hopefully this will create a generation of new sofas.
How difficult is it to deal with all the visual FX elements that have to introduced?
Strong: I’ve had some brilliant help from the guys at The Mill who come in and work with you, so it’s very much a collaboration where they co-direct some of it because they have a much better idea of what the shot will look like, with the black hole in it for example, so they know what you can do and what you can’t do. It all goes back to the original discussions about what it’s going to look like so that you know it’s going to be designed in a certain way, the surface of the planet or the black hole are going to have a certain feel, so you all have to agree on that look. These guys are much more used to working with green screen, so it’s not unusual for them, so they can just get on with it. With part of this set, we have to imagine that there’s an enormous black hole bearing down on you and I’m very excited to see what they’re going to come up with.
Also, there’s an entire scene with the Doctor talking to the devil, and that’s difficult: one actor talking to nothing, so I’ve been reading in on those scenes. The challenge of working with all the special FX, is trying it all together so it doesn’t just feel like a special FX shot. It usually looks best when they’re very integrated into the other stuff so you don’t look at it and say, ‘That looks like a CG bit.’ I think they look best when they’re going on in the background and they’re helping with the story, but it all comes from the script really. That’s why Russell has had such an enormous impact on the series. He is also a big resource and if you ask him a question, he knows exactly what is going on in every script and scene. If you need him, he’s always there. He has very clear opinions, which is why we have these discussions early on. Russell has an overview of the whole series so if you’re not sure about something, he’ll be very keen to tell you what you need to do, so it’s brilliant to have that kind of support. We have endless meetings where you wrestle with things like, ‘Is it going to look like this?’ so you go in that direction for a couple of days and then you go in another direction, so you keep refining things, all within a relatively short period of time because the schedule is very limited.
Is it a bit scary to have this devil character that plays a major role in part two, who’s essentially being created in post-production?
Strong: I suppose so, but we sat down and talked about it together and we’ll be working together as it continues to evolve. The way the devil is personified, it’s just a monster that is part of it, so there’s the CG element, but there’s also another element as well. As with all stories, it’s the human story that’s important. It’s the faces of the actors. However mad the story and situation is, it’s still the basic human story that counts. That’s what gets people, rather than the special FX which are great and exciting.
It sounds like this has been a tough shoot.
Strong: I think this is one of the most ambitious sets of episodes they’ve ever done, and it is immensely complicated, because every scene either has some kind of FX, whether it’s CGI, an explosion, the alien Ood or the makeup that had to be done on Will. There’s never a scene with two people just having a chat. Every single page of the script has something different. We had one scene where one of the actors had to sit in the control room for the entire day yesterday, because every scene had screens, smoke, lights, lighting changes, and that was just one guy sitting in a room all day.
Has this two-parter episode been deliberately more studio bound?
Strong: We have done a bit of location work. We went to a quarry at night, where it all looks very different, but I think it’s maybe less location-based than some of them, but we went to a chemical works up the road and converted into one of the areas, but our guys have built two or three big sets that we’ve been using a lot.
Did you make a conscious decision to go with a younger guest cast?
Strong: Yeah, I suppose they wanted to have some appeal for a younger audience, so it’s a young team or a young crew on their first mission if you like. They’re explorers, and younger people tend to have that kind of devil may care attitude. They’re the ones who would say, ‘There’s a signal on the other side of the galaxy; we’ll explore it!’
But conversely, you didn’t want to get inexperienced people.
Strong: Absolutely. In terms of the actors, it’s a fantastic cast. But that’s the great thing about working on a series like Doctor Who, is that it attracts the best names in the business because everyone wants to do it, so you really are spoiled. You make your wish list up, and invariably they all say yes.
There’s also a great marquee value to doing Doctor Who, isn’t there?
Strong: I think it appeals to all ages and generations, but because it’s so good, and actor will read the script and say, ‘This is great, I want to do it.’ It’s the great stories that I think have been tremendously helpful in trying to attract actors to it.
What are you happiest with at this point?
Strong: At the moment, I don’t know if I’m happy with anything, because all I’ve seen so far is the rushes, and I think you really have to wait until you get into the cutting room and start putting it all together. But the tunnels look great, the big chase through the tunnels. It really felt claustrophobic; it felt really scary being in that confined space and scuttling like rats, so I think that’s going to be great when we put all the music in.
8 p.m. Friday SciFi