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Interview: Saul Metzstein on the Doctor Who Christmas special

The Doctor and new sidekick Clara take off with the Tardis

The Doctor and new sidekick Clara take off with the Tardis

  • by SIOBHAN SYNNOT
 

WITH frosty foes, a redesigned Tardis and a flirty new travelling companion, director Saul Metzstein tells Siobhan Synnot how he put his own spin on Doctor Who this Christmas

APART from drinking alcohol for breakfast, nothing says Christmas quite like Doctor Who – even though, eight years ago, there was no such thing as a Doctor Who Christmas Special. Tardis forward to 2012, however, and these snow-flecked festive editions are now the big family viewing event of December. This year, the man behind the camera is Scottish film and TV director Saul Metzstein. We arrange to meet, cloak-and-dagger style, in an ­London café on a dark winter afternoon. “I can’t remember what I’m not meant to tell people,” says Metzstein, a lanky fortysomething with a laugh like the Ghost of Christmas Present. Excellent! Off we go then.

In the world of Doctor Who, you’ve arrived if you direct an episode where something happens that changes the Whoniverse, like a regeneration into a new actor. This Christmas it’s a redesign for the Tardis, which Metzstein showcases with an airy 360 degree pan around the interior: something not seen in nearly five decades. “It’s the shot where you can ­really see that the Tardis is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside,” he says. “Because of the shape of the set and the studio, it was pretty tricky to pull off, but visual effects are a lot better than they used to be. The biggest complication was giving Matt Smith enough time to acquaint himself with where all the dials and levers were. Obsessive Doctor Who fans, like [writer] Steven Moffat, are very particular about the continuity of which bits turn round when the Tardis is flying, and what lights react to what. Personally I’m not so bothered.”

New bells and whistles include a new titles sequence, a rearrangement of the theme tune and the arrival of Clara, a new companion played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, who appears to have a flirty, romantic relationship with Matt Smith on screen. “I think the writers wanted someone who could give Matt a run for his money in terms of speed of delivery, and skill at delivering killer lines,” says Metzstein. “Matt is basically a genius who can animate a scene, spout incredibly hard dialogue, and hit all the right cues. Apparently David Tennant was like that as well.”

A more recent tradition remains; executive producer and head writer Moffat has a habit of despatching the Doctor to snowy locations for Christmas, often with a classic Dickensian setting. This time, however, the snow is particularly treacherous; as previewed in the trailer, the Doctor is up against a chilly Richard E Grant and what appear to be a gang of evil snowmen who have sharp icicle teeth, and Sir Ian McKellen on lead ­vocals.

“The snowmen were pretty difficult to get right,” admits Metzstein. “The ones we started off with looked like Zippy from Rainbow, and you can’t have non-scary, almost cute-looking monsters.” In the end he solved the problem by commissioning more menacing CGI faces, “but we were very amused when we saw the John Lewis snowman advert – I guess we’ve made their evil cousins!”

It’s been a tough year for the Doctor: the Daleks returned, he almost died once or twice, and in the last ­episode he lost his long-standing companions Rory and Amy. On the other hand, it’s been a good year for Metzstein, who brought panache to the episode Dinosaurs On A Spaceship, with dinosaurs, a spaceship but also Queen Nefertiti and giant robots with issues, voiced by David Mitchell and Robert Webb. The following week he was back with a cyborg gunslinger for A Town Called Mercy, homaging westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and High Noon in Almeria, Spain.

Some directors would give their eye teeth for such gigs, but Metzstein is not a slave to the sonic screwdriver. In fact, when he was a child, he hardly watched Doctor Who. “People who direct Doctor Who are usually either diehard Doctor Who fans, or they want their children to think they’re God,” he says. “Whereas I have an eight-year-old who pretends to be interested in Doctor Who so I can feel good about myself.”

Certainly there’s nothing in Metzstein’s background to suggest he had the Time Lord as a career goal. The son of innovative architect Isi Metzstein, he studied architecture himself, before working on Shallow Grave and Trainspotting as a runner, and being credited with discovering Kelly Macdonald. “I was sent out to find someone to play Diane by going up to girls in the street and asking them: ‘Do you want to be in a movie?’ Most of them thought I was just a guy using the saddest chat-up line in the world.”

After a series of short films, he made a promising feature debut with a slacker comedy called Late Night Shopping (2001), which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. The boyfriend of one of the actresses, Heike Makatsch, sat beside Metzstein at the first screening. When the first reel broke, Daniel Craig reached across and gave the director a supportive hand-squeeze. “So while we were waiting for the wheel to get changed, I had James Bond holding my hand,” laughs Metzstein.

His next film, Guy X, was a far less pleasant experience. “I was in Iceland in the freezing cold, praying that something would break so that I could go home,” he says, frankly. “It wasn’t fun to make, the people weren’t fun to work with and it didn’t make any money – together, these things don’t make you want to continue making films. There’s only a ten per cent difference between a hugely successful film and failure; at least with TV, you know you’ve got an audience at the start.”

His television work includes documentaries and Micro Men, a deft BBC4 dramatisation of the rise and fall of Sir Clive Sinclair, which joyfully reminded everyone of the crapness of his electric car, the C5. “We put Alexander Armstrong in it for one scene and every time he had to turn, he thought he was going to die. At the end of filming, they offered me the original but it was so bad that I turned it down.”

It was a stint directing a revived Upstairs Downstairs that led to Doctor Who. Although the closest thing 65 Eaton Place got to monster wrangling was a pet monkey, both shows were BBC Wales productions. Since Metzstein hadn’t seen a full episode since Tom Baker’s heyday, he relied on Moffat to bring him up to speed. “It’s very nice to work with someone who knows exactly what they’re making, and early on he told me three things about Doctor Who. One is that there is no cynicism in Doctor Who, so you shoot it like it’s a drama. The second is that you shoot it so fast that no one works out that the plot doesn’t make any sense – time travel will never make any sense. And the third thing he said was, it’s made for eight to 12-year-olds or adults who watch like eight to 12-year-olds.”

He’s just finished two more episodes of the 2013 series, including an adventure written by one of Who’s favourite writers, Mark Gatiss, where Diana Rigg and her daughter Rachel Stirling recreate their off-screen mother and daughter relationship. “He knows them both, and apparently the dialogue includes actual things they have said to each other.”

Metzstein would like to continue with Doctor Who – “if the scripts are good” – and says doing the series has made him feel confident he could tackle more effects-laden projects. In between stints in Cardiff he worked in South Africa last year as the second unit director on Dredd, where the co-operative government passed an act of parliament allowing him to shut down the double-decker section of the M1 in Johannesburg for two days. “It’s the biggest road there, and it’s quite a feeling to look around and see miles and miles of traffic jams all around a city and know that you’re responsible.”

No-one works on Doctor Who for the money – “they are terrible payers. I have a friend who does American TV shows now, and he earns about five times what I earn” – but there are other rewards, not least the respect of eight-year-olds, feigned and unfeigned, young and old.

“People talk about Doctor Who like football fans,” says Metzstein. “They might give you a hard time about what you did, but you also know that they’ll still be back next week to watch you. I find it endearing: it’s people telling you what you did wrong because they care.” «

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

• Doctor Who is on BBC1 on Christmas Day at 5.15pm

 

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