Exclusive chat with Farren Blackburn, director of this year’s Christmas Special
In the new issue of SFX (#217, in the shops this Wednesday) there’s a major set-visit feature on this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe”, including an exclusive interview with director Farren Blackburn. But as usual, there was more to the interview than we could fit in the magazine. So buy issue 217 for all the juiciest bits, but here’s some extra bits just for this site:
SFX : Was it daunting to have the Christmas Special as your first Doctor Who ?
Farren: Absolutely. Absolutely. I'm completely aware of the size of Doctor Who as a show and as a brand, anyway. I knew what I was getting into but I was daunted, thrilled and excited at the same time. So I leapt at the opportunity without hesitation, but it was daunting and it was tough.
SFX : New Doctor Who producer Caroline Skinner was producer on The Fades , for which you directed three episodes. Did she suggest you for the job?
Farren: No, actually. I had a real laugh with Caroline Skinner on The Fades so I’m glad to be working with her again, but I was offered the Christmas special before she was even mentioned as being the new producer so it was a pleasant surprise. I'd met with Piers, the outgoing exec, probably a year beforehand. He had seen samples of my work and we'd met a couple of times. We got on really, really well and he expressed an interest in me directing for the series and tried to find a couple of episodes that I could do. But it clashed with me doing The Fades . I just wasn't available.
So he said to me, “Would you be interested in the Christmas special closer to the time?” And of course I said, without a shadow of a doubt most definitely. He stayed true to his word and he asked me to go and have a further meeting producer Marcus Wilson. And I had to have a conversation with Steven over the phone just to make sure he was happy with the way I saw things. Thankfully they all agreed and I got the job. It was a big day in my career when Marcus rang me and offered to do it. It was fantastic.
SFX : How much influence do you have over casting and production design?
Farren: I think one of the great things about the show is it’s very collaborative. The people, the producers and the execs, certainly Steven, they care about it with such a passion. That obviously comes with a sense of, we want to make sure that everything is right and everyone agrees on concepts and design ideas and the look of it. So everyone will have their input.
But I felt that there was a lot of freedom, initially, for me to say, “This is how I'm hoping to shoot it; this is what I’d like it to look like in terms of production design; these are my thoughts.” And we bang them in with everybody else's.
The production designer is really imaginative and I had a really collaborative relationship with him. We would spar ideas and get them drawn up into concepts and show them to Marcus and to Karen and to Steven and they'd go, “That's great,” or, “Not so sure about that,” or, “Can you fine tune that?” And that was how it worked.
So the thrill was initiating ideas and not being too precious where they weren't quite right or somebody didn’t quite agree. Ultimately, the reason, I hope, that they brought me on board is because they want your ideas and they want you to challenge the script and the show and the story and everything about it.
SFX : What was the tone you wanted to create for this special?
Farren: I would say there is a kind of mix. It goes through several worlds. It's most definitely a classic action-adventure but I think it merges into the Edwardian children’s story and there's a sort of Tim Burton-esque magic about it as well. I think there's a magic throughout the episode, but there is an underlying suspense and tension and darkness to it as well. So I think it merges those three things with an awful lot of Christmas about it.
Steven was very vocal initially saying he wanted it to be the most Christmassy Christmas special ever, and I've tried my best to give him that. So there is quite a lot of snow which was fantastic but painful all at the same time.
SFX : Did you enjoy working with Matt Smith?
Farren: I’d never met Matt before. I think he is just a fantastic actor and I was so looking forward to the prospect of working with him. He is the most rounded, down to earth, humble individual you could ever meet. I'm not just saying that, I mean that. I had a fantastic time with him. He brings so much to the part. He is so well prepared and he knows the Doctor inside-out. I can't speak highly enough of him, and he was an absolute joy to work with. And he's brilliant. He's absolutely brilliant.
He has an amazing capacity for physical comedy as well. Sometimes just the way he moves he reminds me of John Cleese and the Monty Python guys, and to be able to do that with the straight drama and the emotional moments with the action-adventure and all that – it's rare. I don't think you could find many actors that could package all that and do it so well.
SFX : What was your favourite sequence to direct?
Farren: I think that there are two moments. The opening is just fantastic. It's full on action-adventure. [He expands on this more in the magazine article.]
But there is also… I can't say too much about where we go, but there is a turning point in the story where the young boy, Cyril, is attracted to this big glowing parcel under the Christmas tree and he does what every young kid is told not to do and he opens the parcel before Christmas Day. And it’s revealed that it’s a entrance into another world.
Once you get into that other world that’s where the magic really starts for me. So all those sequences beyond that were fantastic to shoot. That's where all the Tim Burton moments take over and I really felt like I was making a movie at those points. The director of photography and I, between us we talked about how we wanted this world to look and it’s ended up just magical – beautiful and dark at the same time so that was thrill as well.”