The first 11 time lords of British series Doctor Who. (photo via the BBC)
There was quite a stir within Doctor Who's extensive fandom last week when news broke that two episodes of the BBC sci-fi show's next season will be directed by Rachel Talalay, the director of cult classic Tank Girl and a producer of Hairspray. The current incarnation of Doctor Who has gotten some heat from its many feminist fans in recent years for failing to cast its leading star—an alien time-traveler who could presumably take many forms—as anything other than a white dude and for its writing of female characters in general. Tank Girl and Hairspray are both one-of-a-kind films created with a clear feminist bent, so some people took the hiring as a sign that Doctor Who might have heard the critiques.
I tried to look up information on Rachel Talalay and pretty much fell flat: most of the interviews with her focus on her work for the Freddy Kruger Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, where she was a producer and director. Very little discussion online about Talalay's work focuses on Tank Girl, the 1995 film inspired by the over-the-top British comic series by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, probably because the bizarre movie bombed financially and commercially. It feels to me like people are starting to come around to appreciating the outrageous visual aesthetic of the movie, so I thought it was high time someone talk to Talalay about her approach to the movie that is brazen absurd in every frame. While in pre-production in England for the 11th and 12th episodes of the upcoming season of Doctor Who, Talalay graciously took the time to talk with me about her old work, the skills she's bringing to Doctor Who, and what it's like being a feminist director in the golden age of television.
SARAH MIRK: I want to start off talking about your older work. Basically, there's no other movie like Tank Girl. It's so entirely its own strange look and feel—it's disturbing and awesome. What was your thinking going into that movie? What did you want it to feel like?
RACHEL TALALAY: I succeeded at the one thing I was trying to do: make a movie that was the opposite of a bell-shaped curve. Meaning: either you get it and you love it, or you don't get it and you don't like it at all. I didn't want anyone to give it a five out of ten. People either give it a ten or a one. And some people give it a negative ten. If you don't get it, if you ask, "Why does she have a different hairstyle in every scene?" then you shouldn't be watching the movie. But if you get it for its attempt at complete originality, at being different and out there... I really felt like I saw the comic, I fell in love with the comic and it was elementally kick-ass. It was part of everything that made me interested in punk. I wanted to break that glass ceiling and prove that female action characters could work. I didn't like the fact that female action characters were by nature just emulating male action characters. I wanted to try something very different with that.
Was that a hard sell? Wouldn't movie executives be shooting to appeal to the "bell curve" audience? When I watch this movie, I always wonder how it got made.
I was a very different time. We did have three offers to make it, because the comic book was so popular. You don't have to sell anything except this fantastic picture of this totally punky girl. We had two independent offers and then MGM. And then MGM changed hands when we were in the middle of making it and the people who came in were like, "Why are we trying to make something new and original?" We really were ahead of our time. I really wanted to push the envelope. If we'd made it four years later, it would have been too tame. It's shocking now that it's rated R. I mean, there's nothing in it—there's edgy stuff, but it's not really R rated compared to stuff I see now that's PG-13.
Since you were trying to be totally original, what were you drawing from in terms of inspiration for making an action movie? What were you trying to avoid?
In terms of the look, Jamie Hewlett who drew Tank Girl did the major conceptual designs, so it is his world that we then had to make practical, from his giant imagination. So it draws very clearly from the source material of the comic, he was incredibly involved in the visuals. Then we hired Catherine Hardwicke as the production designer. At that point, she was very little known, but she came in with 1,000 ideas. The combination of Catherine and Jamie's eclectic minds was just electric. I had a combination of those visuals and just enough story—which, to me, doesn't work very well—to allow them to make it. In a way, the story is the least effective part of the film. It was all about the character and the qualities of the character and the look and the feel and the energy of it. It was never about, "Oh, is she going to have this battle? What's going to happen with the bad guy?" That was the least important part.
The overwhelming feel of Tank Girl is pretty disturbing to me, but also so colorful and kind of joyous in its anarchy. When I looked up your work and saw you'd made Freddy Kruger films and worked with John Waters, I thought, "Oh, this makes sense. Tank Girl is somewhere between John Waters and horror."
Yeah, with also my very strong interest in punk music and feminism. My parents are very interesting and original, but they're very conventional. I did have a pretty straight-ahead upbringing and then I studied math at Yale, so it didn't come out of—I was just the black sheep of the family. But it does come out of feminism in that I wanted to make a kick-ass comic more than anything, starring this amazing woman who makes you think she can take on anything. I wanted to be that person and so did every single person who worked on the film. We all wanted to be her.
Tell me briefly how you went from studying math at Yale to being a Hollywood director.
I knew when I was accepted at Yale that I was interested in film, but it's not a film school and there was no point in pretending to turn it into a film school. I didn't know anybody in the film industry when I graduated from Yale. I was working as a computer programmer at Johns Hopkins and there was an ad that John Waters was making Polyester. I basically sent in a resume, which must have really made them laugh, and said basically, "I'll make coffee." They called me up and said, "Do you have a car and will you work for free?" That was basically my entree in working in the film business. Through working on Polyester, I met the head of New Line, Bob Shaye, who really liked hiring smart people who were motivated and reliable. So I went on to work with New Line and that went on to working Nightmare on Elm Street films. My whole sort of meteoric rise was on the Nightmare on Elm Street films: I started as the accountant on the first film, then the production editor on the second one, then the producer on the third and fourth, and then I said, "I'd like to try my hand at directing" and they said okay. So I have to give New Line credit for that. .
Of the films that you've made—Hairspray, Polyester, and Tank Girl—do you feel like they still have an influence on films that have come out in the past 10 years, or do you feel like the film industry has changed so much that there's not going to be films made to look like that now?
Now it feels like the film industry has changed so much that there are only the mega-blockbuster-Marvel-Godzilla-effects films—the tentpoles for the studio. There's been this complete squeeze-out of the kind of films I grew up on: the two to 10 million dollar films where I was allowed to train. Now, in the digital world, those kind of films are being made for $50,000. So there's no marketplace between the super-low budget and the blockbuster. Everything has moved to television—which is not necessarily bad, because television has improved to a degree. But it's very hard for directors to own their projects in the television world. The whole economics of the film business are these massive tentpole movies, which do nothing for the female audience.
It sounds like you were trying to make a truly original female action hero with Tank Girl and sort of blaze a new path, but I'm hard-pressed to think of many female action heroes on screen in the past 10 years, much less one who's really new and different.
It's terrible. It's just such a rough time for women actors, women everywhere. I didn't think that things would disintegrate so much. I don't understand how feminism became a dirty word, because we all believe in what we can do and in equality. The cinema-going audience is 51 percent female and the most encouraging thing I've seen is the box office for The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Twilight—though I have mixed feelings about Twilight, but these teen female-centric pieces are the most encouraging things I see in Hollywood.
Lori Petty as Tank Girl and the original star of the comic, as drawn by Brian Bolland. Photo via Pinterest.
So as for Doctor Who, I know you can't talk about any details of the episodes you're directing, but what is your intention with the show? What aesthetic are you hoping to bring to it?
It's hard to answer that. Every episode of Doctor Who is like a mini-feature and they're all completely different. They're massive. I'm so exciting to get to work with the show. When watch them, I just think, "This is so creative, this is so out there." It fits into my kind of out-there, pushing-the-envelope, trying to give the audience something to grab on to… I don't approach it in terms of, "What am I bringing that's different?" I'm approaching it in terms of, "How the hell do you do this?!" It's so hard! It's so big and so hard and so ambitious. When you're working with a wonderful script, you just think, "How to I tell this story beautifully and blow away the audience?"
Feminist criticisms of Doctor Who include that there's never been a female director doctor and, just generally, the not-so-great writing of various female characters throughout the show. You clearly have a feminist viewpoint, how do you think it's going to affect your approach to the show and how did that affect your involvement in the project to begin with?
I did joke around with [showrunner] Steven Moffat in our first meeting. Immediately there was press saying, "woman woman woman" and so I said, "It's clear if I read the internet that you hired me because I'm a woman." And he said, "Oh, you're a woman? Maybe I just looked at your resume and your reel and your credentials and hired you because of that." We both agree that that's what we hope I was hired on. I should stop there and say I'm incredibly fortunate to have the experience in effects that a lot of women don't get. So I was able to put together a reel of special effects and action that most women don't have.
Wait, why don't most women get training in special effects?
It's a catch-22: If the assumption is that you can't do it because you've never done it, who's going to give you the opportunity? That's an extra fight as a woman. I had special effects experience because of producing the Nightmare on Elm Street films, I had to learn all that stuff. We did make-up, we did visuals, we did stunts, we did action, we just had to learn the process. A lot of women who want to do the shows that I get on, there's just an assumption that they don't know how to do that stuff and they don't have it on their resume. So the marketplace is more likely to give that opportunity to a man.
What brought you to doing TV shows? Were you looking for more creative freedom or was it more of an economic decision, like that's where you can get a job these days?
It was getting a job. I was not able to be that starving artist, you know, I'm raising a family. Some of it has been fabulous, some of my best work is my television work. And some of it has been the most degrading, demoralizing, depressing experience. I generally prefer the work I've done in England, where directors are treated with much more respect. Generally, the grind of the TV industry in the US is incredibly difficult for directors. The current marketplace is even worse, because with the new "Fantastic cable! Amazing shows! We're going to let Martin Scorsese direct the pilot!" attitude—where is the room for people to train anymore? Television is so hard, because you're shooting your episodes in seven or eight days. So if you're an up-and-coming director, where can you train?
That's interesting, because a lot of times we celebrate how good TV has gotten—people say we're in the "golden age of television" today. It's great for the audience to have TV shows that are produced by top directors and have high production values, but what you're saying is TV used to be the place where people could learn skills and move up. So when networks hand those jobs to Martin Scorsese, you're losing new voices.
Yes. Therefore, the new voices are pushed to making these independent films, but to make one of those you have to mortgage your house, you have to put it on your credit card. I'm really discouraged by how the marketplace has changed. It's wonderful to see the quality of the new shows. The success of something like Orange is the New Black is just incredible, it's encouraging—every woman I know loves that show. But you have to think about, "Where are the independent voices?"
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Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media's online editor. She was way too chicken to watch Tank Girl as a teen.