Shortly before the New Year’s Day debut of Sherlock’s latest season, I had a conversation with Rachel Talalay, the fiery feminist director who helmed the opening episode, “The Six Thatchers.” If you’re a fan of Tank Girl, Talalay’s absolutely iconic 1995 film, her name probably rings a bell (and yes, I totally had a moment of squee when we got on the phone together).
With decades of experience and institutional knowledge, she’s seen the film and television industries at their best and their worst—and with directing stints on Doctor Who and Sherlock, she’s had a chance to work with Steven Moffat, a revered producer who’s also infamous for his sexism.
She talked about working with Moffat, but first, we had to talk about Tank Girl; the film had a huge influence on the rest of her career. “I just want to keep Tank Girl-ing along for the rest of my life,” she said, because “now more than ever, we need to keep up the battle.”
S.E. SMITH: Tank Girl was a hugely formative movie for me as a teenager, and in many ways, it feels like the film was ahead of its time.
RACHEL TALALAY: I hear that over and over again now, that it’s really so important to so many people—to me, that’s what the fight is still about. The culture has caught up with it rather than the other way around. [The film] really hurt me. It really hurt my career, but I’d still rather have made that than make the milquetoast version. If I’d been doing that, I wouldn’t have been making Tank Girl. That was back in the day when I was gutsy.
It’s such a sassy film, and there’s so much owning of female sexuality, which I can’t imagine was well received at the time.
Some people got it and thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened, but it didn’t really fit into the mainstream, and it scared the studios so much. But I didn’t think that I was doing...I knew I was pushing the boundaries, but I didn’t know I was making something that radical. I just thought, I’m going to make this film that I really care about, and all these people around me had the same response, so, there’s got to be this world out there. The studio was so scared of it. There was a typical situation where the studio changed hands just before we started shooting, and the new people just didn’t get it. You’re just left fighting every single battle to try to keep it outrageous. There are really wonderful outtakes.
Looking back over your career, you’ve worked in some particularly male-dominated corners of the industry, like horror. What has that been like?
Yeah, none of this was a game plan. I was thinking about it this morning, because when I started at Yale, they hadn’t been taking women for very long. So we were part of this sort of feminist revolution, where it was a new thing, and “feminist” wasn’t a dirty word. I thought, I’m going to be part of this revolution, where I do whatever I think is right, and I’m not going to be stopped. So when horror came along and horror was cool, I did horror. And when I was lucky enough to work with John Waters, I worked with John Waters. And when I was told that some people were sexist, I was like, “No, I’m just doing my thing, and everybody’s supporting me doing my thing.”
I didn’t really hit that barrier until after I left [film studio] New Line. So when I started directing after I left New Line is when I hit the first barrier of “it’s a problem, you’re a woman.” Up until then, I just blithely—say with Tank Girl—I was kicking the glass ceiling and believed I would break it rather than have it break me. So in my younger days, I was just really positive, and because of that, I got these opportunities to work in horror and special effects.
I always say about Doctor Who—everything I learned doing A Nightmare on Elm Street is what I use in Doctor Who. So, I just sort of lucked into that world, and I loved it. I love doing effects. They’re so challenging. It is really helpful to have experience. What we need to do for younger filmmakers is help them get that experience.
Speaking of Doctor Who, what has that experience been like?
I think I’m the only American ever to have directed Doctor Who, and it’s because I’m British as well. The BBC has its requirements, and I’m married to a Brit. I think that I am truly the only American. And I was only the seventh woman ever to direct. I have to say that my experience with the producers on Doctor Who and on Sherlock and with Steven Moffat in particular has been exceptional. It has been just an incredibly collaborative, respectful, incredibly positive experience in terms of director, producer, showrunner relationship.
My relationship with Peter Capaldi and the actors was incredibly positive. I went into Who not knowing...I wanted to do Doctor Who very badly; I’ve been a fan since the ‘70s, and the minute I saw the reboot, saw how amazing the effects were and how good the stories were, I said to my agent, “Can you please keep putting me in there, because I feel like this is the right place for me.” And then when I got the job, I was like, Oh, what if I don’t fit in? It’s turned into this amazing place. I never would have gone back in series nine if the relationship and experience hadn’t been so great.
It’s an incredibly difficult show. Every piece of my experience (and there’s a lot now) had to go into maximizing it and always being there to make it as good as possible.
You know I have to ask—Steven Moffat has a reputation for being terribly sexist because of some of his public comments and plots on Doctor Who. You obviously have a very different perception and experience.
It’s incredibly unfortunate. My argument is that I’m working directly day to day with this man, and he’s been incredible. Heartswood, with Beryl and Sue [Vertue], the company that makes Sherlock, is about as feminist as it gets. I can only counter with what I’ve experienced, which is that he’s been amazing to work with, and there’s never been that feeling of sexism. I can talk about what it’s like working with him as opposed to “I thought this plot point was sexist.”
I’ve worked in the business for a long time, and I’ve viewed all kinds of sexism and had to pretend it wasn’t there. With Steven, I’ve never felt more supported or less aware of sexism. In a way, it should mean a lot that I can be that counter person. And when I read these quotes, which is never anything he’s said to me, I think, These have to be out of context. I’m not seeing any of that in any way. I am very sensitive to it, and I would never continue to work with somebody—I shouldn’t say never, I’m supporting a family—why would I want to continue to work with somebody like that? Why would I, after Tank Girl, work with somebody who I felt like that was a problem with?
I didn’t go into Doctor Who to set up a problem. I didn’t go in saying: “Oh, this must be a terribly sexist environment.” I went in asking how I can fit in and make the best Doctor Who ever. That’s normally how I approach everything, which I think comes full circle, to how we women directors feel we have to do better, do the best possible job, fit in more. Because historically, it’s been so hard to even continue working. I consider the 2000s the dark years for women directors. It was so hard to work at all. Things are turning around some now, though not enough.
With all of Steven’s reputation, I haven’t seen one iota.
You’ve observed long-term trends in film industry sexism. What has that been like
When I did Tank Girl, the percentage of women directors was just rising. Then it stagnated and dropped. All through the 2000s, it was just awful. All I was ever told was “Shut up” and “Never mention anything, do as you’re told and fit in, or you won’t work at all.”
Film school is 50/50 (generally), and then women drop out; the attrition rate is massive. I felt like my job has been to stay in there, and then recently things have improved massively. But, for example, my agent in the U.K. said to me: “Just because all the men who’ve directed Sherlock have gone on to do a pilot or feature film doesn’t guarantee that for you.” People look at that quote and say, “Get a new agent.” She was just saying, be realistic and we’re going to work harder. The better job I do, the more I open the door and support other women. That’s all I can do. Just keep helping with directors and crew members, because if you think it’s bad for directors, then look at cinematographers, and...I don’t even know if I’ve ever met a woman composer who’s not in partnership with somebody.
What’s causing the shift as we come out of the “dark years” of the 2000s?
I think that when the group of women from the Director’s Guild went to the ACLU and the ACLU actually said we have a serious problem that’s a social justice problem, not just a bunch of people complaining, this is a societal problem, and then publicized that they were going to the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] to say this is a legal problem, that’s the point where everybody opened up. All these women came forward and said Yes, actually, for 15 to 20 years I’ve had my career stalled. For me, reading those articles about all those women who went through similar things to what I was going through was such a relief. It wasn’t me alone. So many times, it was so much, “There’s something wrong with you.” People would say: “We’re very happy with your work, but, you know, the crew doesn’t like working with women.” You would hear things like that and have to accept that, rather than [saying,] maybe, “You need to talk to your crew about how that's not acceptable.” All that behavior was just expected in Hollywood.
When this became a legal issue and started being publicized, that was a part of the change, and that’s only in the last three to four years. The EEOC has been researching it for a year and a half now, and we need to pressure them to come forward and continue to say this problem is real.
What can we do for the next generation of female filmmakers?
We need to work harder to have diversity. It’s not just women. I’m seeing companies like Berlanti working incredibly hard to have diverse directors. For me, I think it came out of this ACLU moment. I have two hashtags that I use all the time now. One is #diversevoicesmatter and the other is #nowmorethanever. When I spoke to the ACLU, I said: “Does this seem like less of an issue now that we have so many massive issues that we’re going to be dealing with?” They said: “No. Now even more we need diverse voices.” We need diverse voices in the media, representing people.
All of these things are incredibly important to me. And you know, going back to this question of Doctor Who, and Sherlock, and sexism—they have been so supportive of me. We just did an ACLU fundraiser using my Doctor Who episode as part of the fundraiser. I had to have permission from Steven, not just the BBC, but also Peter Capaldi, and they were all like, “You go Rachel.” They were incredibly supportive that I wanted to do an event for the ACLU with all they’re doing for women directors.
I can’t diminish the fact that effects shows are very hard. Men get many more opportunities than women for those kinds of shows and movies. You also have to set up a support system if you’re going to bring somebody who’s newer in, and you need a system to help them succeed, and I’m seeing more and more of that. You can help younger, newer diverse directors with opportunities.
That’s what I think is so important. It’s easy to say: “We couldn’t find a lot of people with lots and lots of experience.” Well, you’re not going to solve this overnight. What we can do is solve it more directly by having the right support system. That’s the best I can do, is to be one of those people who offers more support, being fortunate enough to work in effects.
At university, I did math, and that gave me some tech experience and computer experience, and there weren’t women doing math. So, it started there, when I was 18, or even in high school, when there weren’t women doing these things. But that’s all the more reason to do it, not think, This is going to get in my way.
What’s ahead for the future?
I feel incredibly fortunate that I got to do Sherlock, because it was a great experience to work on that show under that cast, and they were just such a supportive group. And how lucky can you be, to do something as cool as Sherlock? One of the more fun things, and one of the things I like about working with Steven, Mark, and the crew, is that everything has to be good. Everything is absolutely great. There’s no “good enough.” As we were finishing up, there were a couple things where we said, “This isn’t quite up to speed. This isn’t quite as great as it could be.” So we spent the time to make them better. That’s the dream. Not the pipeline of television where you have to just keep pumping it out, but actually to say, “You know what? I can make this shot better, just give me another couple of days, let’s actually spend the time on it.” That’s just wonderful. I feel like I’ve had such an incredibly fortunate time and just hope we can keep passing it on.
When you’re pushed in the way that cable television and Sherlock are, when I interviewed for Sherlock, they said, “How do we keep this fresh?” And you’re going: “Well, you’re already brilliant to start with.” I don’t give an interview where I say, “I’m going to make it even more brilliant.” All I can do is say, “Here are some ideas, I’ve just got to make sure we keep raising the bar.” I think that’s what’s great about cable now, is there’s an attempt to make it...there’s such a tough time in the movie business, so you’ve got to take advantage of making television as high quality as it possibly can. And this group has been wonderful from that standpoint. Benedict Cumberbatch came straight from Doctor Strange to Sherlock! How wonderful is that, getting a movie star that big, loving a character like that? He and Martin [Freeman] just work all the time to just make that relationship more colored and more complex, and that’s filmmaking. There’s nothing conveyer belt about that kind of filmmaking.
Any chance of a female Doctor?
Yes, there is a chance, we’ve certainly shown that Time Lords can regenerate into women. I honestly don’t know...I know there’s a split in the fandom, but the right person finds themselves in the right era and at the right time. That’s part of what’s kept Doctor Who going all these years.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.