Style & time: Rachel Talalay on 'Riverdale' and 'Doctor Who'
Rachel Talalay probably wouldn’t have directed this week’s episode of Riverdale had her daughter not encouraged her to pursue the job in the first place.
Talalay has helmed feature films like Tank Girl, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, and On the Farm, and fan favourite episodes of beloved series like The Flash, Supernatural, Sherlock, Legends of Tomorrow, and Doctor Who (including the most recent Christmas episode, “Twice Upon a Time,” in which viewers said goodbye to Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor and met Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor; more on that below). The genre-hopping, Vancouver-based director – who was Women in Film & Television Vancouver's Woman of the Year in 2016 – is celebrated throughout multiple fandoms for the skill with which she weaves together compelling stories and performances with sumptuous visuals.
Which is why Talalay’s 16-year-old daughter Lucy believed that Riverdale – The CW’s dark and twisted take on comic book icon Archie Andrews (KJ Apa) and his similarly iconic friends – and her mother would be a match made in TV heaven (not to be confused with “Heaven Sent,” YVR Screen Scene’s favourite Talalay-helmed episode of Doctor Who).
“Lucy said, ‘You have to watch this show, Mom, and you need to get on this show, because it’s a good show, and it’s also really stylish, and you will be interested in this show because they care about how it looks, and we the viewers care about how it looks,’” recalls Talalay in a recent phone interview.
And so Talalay binged the entire first season and quickly arrived at the same conclusion as Lucy. “Style is part of the fabric of the show,” says Talalay. “The look is part of the whole.”
It wasn’t long before Talalay had arranged a meeting with Riverdale showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. “We talked a lot about Sherlock, and how the rule on Sherlock was, ‘No frame should be boring, and yet style should never be over substance,’” says Talalay, whose Sherlock episode “The Six Thatchers” kicked off the fourth season in January 2017. “I think that conversation with Roberto is what made him interested in hiring me on Riverdale.”
Talalay’s episode of Riverdale airs this Wednesday (January 31) on The CW. The episode is entitled “Chapter 25: The Wicked and the Divine,” and just as her daughter predicted, Talalay found Riverdale “such a joy to work on. They’re very attentive to the details of their scripts. I had a script that was written by Roberto, and I always feel fortunate when I get a showrunner’s script. He spoke very personally about some of the topics in it – which I can’t talk about because of spoilers – but there were some very personal bits to him in it, which then required me to talk to him about, ‘Why is this personal to you?’ And that’s great.”
Talalay likens Riverdale’s visual style to Twin Peaks, film noir, and William Edgerton photography. She offers Pop's Chock'lit Shoppe as an example. “You walk into that diner, and you’re imagining this brightly lit diner, and instead it’s lit so dark and ominous that the neon pops, and it’s all about dark and light, and at no point is anything light for light’s sake,” says Talalay, who worked closely with Riverdale director of photography Brendan Uegama. “You just don’t light an area, and your angles aren’t just your angles. We were constantly looking at what can be reflected into what. There are a lot of subtle things that we did that you’ll have to examine frame by frame to see where we reflected things in. The diner which could look exactly like a big, bright 50’s diner instead has all of this texture and colour.”
On one level, Riverdale’s visual style is filmic and experimental, and yet “to the general audience, it just has this feeling of being richer and more stylish, and that also adds to the horror elements of it,” says Talalay. Being a veteran of the horror genre, she was happy to find those elements in her script. “I’m so comfortable in that world,” she says. “When we got to those elements, I said, ‘Can I pitch you some things?’ And Roberto is such a horror film fan. That’s so much a part of his vocabulary.”
Even though she was the one to encourage this match, Talalay’s daughter has yet to screen Wednesday’s episode in its entirety. “She’s specifically asked not to see it because she didn’t want spoilers, and then I said, ‘Do you want to look at this one piece that I was pleased with?’ And then she watched it and she said, ‘It looks so great, I know your episode is going to look so great, Mom.’ She knows my style.”
DOCTOR WHO: “TWICE UPON A TIME”
This section contains spoilers about the Doctor Who episode “Twice Upon a Time,” which aired on Christmas Day 2017 and is available on iTunes.
On December 25, 2017, diehard and casual Whovians alike gathered in living rooms and movie theatres around the world to watch “Twice Upon a Time,” the highly anticipated Christmas episode of Doctor Who.
The episode was highly anticipated for several reasons: It marked Peter Capaldi’s final turn as the 12th Doctor. It offered a first look at Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor (the first time the role would be played by a woman). It would revisit the Doctor who started it all (David Bradley in the role first played by William Hartnell). It was to be the final episode penned by outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat.
And it was to be directed by Rachel Talalay, who had helmed some of the most critically acclaimed episodes of Doctor Who in recent memory: "Dark Water," "Death in Heaven," "Heaven Sent," "Hell Bent," "World Enough and Time," and "The Doctor Falls."
Heading into this historic episode, Talalay was keenly aware of the significance of the task at hand. “To use a horribly overused word, it was really special, and I felt incredibly fortunate,” she says. “Peter and Steven had both been quite anxious for me to be the person who directed the episode, and I felt lucky from beginning to the end that I was part of this journey.”
The Doctors’ journey in Twice Upon a Time touches on multiple aspects of the human experience, chief among them: what makes us human? Says Talalay: “Are humans memories? Is Bill Bill if she’s only her memories?”
“I saw this entire episode as about those things,” adds Talalay. “It was about life and death, and what’s regenerating about? Regenerating isn’t really death.”
Also present in Twice Upon a Time: the First Doctor, who, having helmed the TARDIS from 1963-1966, is tonally different from his 21st century incarnations. The script addresses those disconnects between past and present Who. “It’s dated when you watch [early Doctor Who], and that’s fascinating,” says Talalay. “I don’t believe that we should erase our history, and I sometimes debate this with my children when we talk about sexism and racism and the way it was. I’m incredibly delighted that we’re evolving, but you can’t then erase it.”
The script for “Twice Upon a Time” – emotional, substantive, entertaining, and multi-layered as it was – was penned by outgoing Doctor Who showrunner Moffat. Talalay describes Moffat’s scripts as “complex, and yet they’re completely human. He has this incredible ability to write human emotion with such depth, and really simple things: ‘never trust a hug; it’s just away to hide your face.’ To me, that just grabs me by the heart; every time I hug someone, I think that.”
Adds Talalay: “Every so often, there would be a line like that that’s so warm and so human, within these incredibly complex stories that I love, and brilliant speeches, like the Doctor’s speech in “The Doctor Falls,” but also the conceit of “World Enough and Time”: we have a 400-mile long space ship backing out of a black hole, and how do you represent the fact that time is moving at a different speed at the top of the spaceship than at the bottom? That was so exciting for me to visually represent. That was such a fascinating idea. It’s been wonderful collaboration.”
It was a particularly poignant shoot. Talalay describes moments during filming that deeply affected the cast and crew: in No Man’s Land, when the English and German troops raised their voices together in song; Capaldi’s final moments as the Doctor; Whittaker’s first moments in the role. “It’s a different kind of lump in your throat when you watch Peter’s final scene, and it’s a different kind of lump in your throat when you watch Jodie’s first scene,” says Talalay.
Although the episode wasn’t filmed in chronological order, the final scene that Capaldi shot as the Doctor was his regeneration scene.
Capaldi prepared for the powerful scene on the TARDIS set. “He uses the TARDIS as his quiet place when we’re on that stage; it’s his place to reflect and be the Doctor while we’re setting up, so I went in there alone and we just talked about [the scene] and the things he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it,” recalls Talalay. “He had a thousand notes on his script, and he said, ‘Well, I’ve had a lot of time to think about it,’ which made me laugh.”
Talalay says she was “very much in Peter’s hands in terms of he’s brilliant and he knew what he wanted to do, and he wanted to play with it, which is great, because he’s very varied, and he can give you many different colours of the performance. One of the things that would be so fascinating would be to go back and show people how different some of the takes are: the angry take; the funny take. He’s so versatile.”
After Talalay and Capaldi rehearsed the scene, they opened the rehearsal up to the crew. “He had a standing ovation from the crew, and you could see people holding back tears even then,” she says.
Talalay is equally enthusiastic about the new Doctor. “I love Jodie, and I loved working with her for the two days that I got to work with her,” says Talalay. She learned the identity of the new Doctor along with the rest of the world on Sunday, July 16, met Whittaker on the Tuesday, and filmed the regeneration scene on the Wednesday. “It was so amazing to do that scene in a totally different way than it was to have that moment of history with Peter,” says Talalay.
Incoming Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall has left the door open for Talalay to return, she says, but Whovians shouldn’t hold their breath for a Talalay-helmed episode in series 11. “I do not think I’m going to work on series 11, but it has to do with something that people might not understand, which is what it’s like to commit to four- to eight months away from home,” she says.
Talalay had extra reason to celebrate in December 2017: the Full Flood Endowment Fund – which Talalay and her husband, producer Rupert Harvey, established in 2016 to support charities and qualified organizations that seek to raise awareness and enhance the lives of children and families of missing and murdered women – reached its first funding milestone which will allow them to begin distributing funds this year. The fund was first announced at a July 2016 screening of On the Farm, Talalay's profoundly moving feature film that told the Robert Pickton story through the eyes of his victims.
“We want to distribute every year,” says Talalay. “We have to keep that going. It’s a new fund and it’s its own journey as well.” To contribute to the fund, visit https://www.vancouverfoundation.ca/fullflood