‘Doctor Who’ Director Alice Troughton talks the significance of the female perspective in film
In previous Fierce Female features we’ve touched on the universal female superpower: multi-tasking. Internationally acclaimed director Alice Troughton is no exception to this. Alice holds credits of directing projects like the BAFTA-winning Doctor Who episode “Midnight”, the multi-award winning film Cucumber, and several episodes of supernatural/sci-fi shows adored by millions: Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Teen Wolf, In the Flesh, Atlantis, Merlin, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Torchwood, to name a few. Her most recent project that has fans thrilled is the TV adaptation of the wildly popular All Souls Trilogy novel series, titled A Discovery of Witches.
As Alice called in for our interview from the UK, her superpowers were already in full-force. Having just spent an hour making homemade macaroni and cheese for her 10-year-old son, Alice was simultaneously packing for a three-month filming trip in Morocco where she will serve as an executive producer on a new project. Adding a lovely, quirky, fantastical element was her cuckoo clock announcing 4pm in the background, which hilariously spouted a sheep “baa-ing” sound versus the familiar call most clocks ring.
We began our chat gushing over her latest project, Sky One Productions’ A Discovery of Witches, agreeing how perfect the casting of actor Matthew Goode is for the broody, dreamy vampire Matthew de Clermont. As the conversation continued, Alice easily flowed into the topic of gender equality in the entertainment industry and the factors that contribute to it. From toxic environments spawned from niche groups to accountability to ourselves as strong women to speak up, Alice shines her powerful female perspective on the positive change growing in the industry and how we can all contribute.
Bonus: Alice is a sci-fi geek like all of us, and speaks mounds to supernatural fandoms spattered across the globe.
PURE FANDOM: [After we’ve spent minutes fawning over A Discovery of Witches] Have you always been drawn to sci-fi fantasy projects and the limitless imagination their worlds provide?
ALICE TROUGHTON: I loved the [All Souls Trilogy]. The world that [Deborah Harkness] created, like all great worlds… well, I’m obviously a bit of a fantasy geek. Not exclusively; I’m also a massive fan of [pop] culture. [Sci-fi] is certainly not necessarily how I’ve made my choices of what I want to do, but I would say that I choose things that go up against the popular perception, or at least when I started directing what women directors “should and can direct.” So, for a very long time you’d be offered [to direct] the love story in the series arc, or be offered emotional scenes, probably women-driven. But, you know, not a lot of women directing action. And I’m talking television now, because obviously what happens now is were getting a lot more closer with genres, budgets have certainly gotten a lot more closer together. But certainly when I started off directing, there were certain areas you really didn’t get asked to tread in. And those were always the ones that really interested me. Genre, to start with, which is where I cut my teeth … I was always a massive Doctor Who fan, but now with things like Tin Star, it gives [me] more of a chance to get my teeth into things like western and action and violence. I think it’s really important with the female gaze that we turn our eye into some of those dark, patriarchal areas. So, I want to look at that. I want to look at subjects that I have not been into. I want to go into that fustian dining room club and go “yeah I’m here, how do I shoot this?” Baghdad Central, what I’m doing now, is about the Iraq War. It’s about being a male point of view in the middle of the occupation. That for me, as a female storyteller, [is] a really interesting area to shine that light into. It’s a big driver for me to look at what I feel hasn’t been really tackled.
It makes sense that you would want to open up those parts personally, while also provide that additional perspective for your work. When you come up with some of those more challenging scenes, do you look to other people to help influence how you should shoot things, or is more of an individual experience?
I think as I have got on I can relax into the judgment of how I want to do things. I certainly respond, like anybody does, as a punter watching things and go, “wow that’s amazing”, and that gets calculated in to what you get excited by. [Even things that aren’t gender driven] that [have brilliant subjects] that are brilliantly told, beautifully filmed, I find that kind of filmmaking really exciting. And you can’t really help being influenced by that really. Then you have something like Mindhunter, and you’re looking at the quality of that being made for high-end television—it’s astonishingly beautifully choreographed—so you’re always absorbing. I’m in a project for so long and, like, 20 things out on High Street will remind me of Iraq; it’s just where your focus is at that time. I mean, if I had been on that same High Street back in November, it would have reminded me of A Discovery of Witches, and I would have been looking for vampires. I think you became a bit of a sponge. Well, I mean I do. Everybody works differently. I use songs, I create a playlist, and I start to put together mood boards, and it’s very much me and my designer and photographer and we start to conceptualize the project together. And with Baghdad Central I’ve gone back to some of the older dramas like Edge of Darkness which was a massive hit about a lone detective looking for his daughter. I’m [watching] and going, “oh my god, it was just so amazingly filmed,” and getting really excited about that. I’m also looking at a lot of Middle Eastern films, so Hany Abu-Assad who did [Academy Award-nominated films] The Idol and Omar… it’s just a massive privilege for me to gain a whole load more information and influence and ideas. That’s why I love directing. It just opens your world up.
Had you always wanted to be a director, or did you find yourself a storyteller and found that directing was the best way to do that [full time]?
I knew I wanted to be involved from my early to late teens. I started off looking at the theatre; I did a lot of theatre. I started as a stage manager and then quite quickly realized I wanted to be a part of the creative process, although I really enjoyed stage managing and it really gave me a kind of discipline. I think that was because at that age and stage [in my life] it never even occurred to me that you could even become a television director. I didn’t think it was even an option. You could go into theatre and there were enough university courses in performing arts or theatre studies, but [it was] quite dry academics, very little vocational work. You could do the drama degree, but really I don’t think it ever crossed my mind that I could be a television director. So I did theatre, but it wasn’t a bad way of getting into it because it helped me realize and identify what was good about performance and how to work with actors. Which it took me some time to kind of work out, that you [can’t] just boss people about (laughs). Well, you know, you’re 18 and going, “stand over there!” Then I did lots and lots of different jobs in fact, writing screenplays and doing care work at the same time. Ironing actors underwear at theaters and working in a place called Ticketmasters at nightshift. I think there was a time in my twenties when all of my friends were doing three jobs to try and get to the job that they wanted to get to. I didn’t start directing until I was 33, and I was slightly older than the contemporaries that went into it, but I had done a lot of other things, all of which were really helpful to bring to the table. You know, it could be communication skills, organization, and script reading, and learning to write… all of those things actually hit a bit of a sweet spot when I finally did start to direct.
Since you have worked on so many different sci-fi projects, I imagine there’s additional work with CGI/post-production using different technologies. How often do you work with new technologies, or what’s the continuing education like when you’re directing, especially when you’re dealing with special effects?
There’s something we say [in the industry] that there’s two areas where people really try and like to keep you out. I’m not sure whether this is gender-driven or not; I suspect it might be, but I don’t know because I’ve only got my experience as a female filmmaker. One of those areas is stunts, and the other is effects. Certainly, historically, that’s how it was. They were very sort of closed-shop. “You don’t need to know how to do this, love; we’ll do it for you.” That made me want to kick the door in and go, “no, but surely if you’re doing it, I might be able to understand it too.” And that’s been my ongoing attitude to technology and visual effects and innovation within the industry. It’s really easy to get left out of, but there’s always somebody to explain it to you if you ask them. And actually people don’t mind, they say, “well, oh you are quite interested, let me show you how ‘this’ can work”… and then you realize that it gives you quite a lot of dialogue and language and vocabulary to make your point across when you’re talking about shots. It’s done me a world of good to know how to discuss visual effect shots and to be realistic about what I can achieve with the effect shots, which actually is masses now. I mean, practically everything we know could have an element of an effect in it without us even noticing. Especially when you’re doing a period drama set in Iraq in 2003, and there aren’t any satellite dishes, you go, “oh, ok so how do we tackle this?” I think it’s kind of shining that bright torchlight of femininity and female gaze in traditional areas where we’re not allowed to go. Or, areas where people might discourage you from going. Or, areas where there’s so much jargon that you think, “oh, well I’ll never do that.” And that’s bollocks. That’s bollocks. Because there’s always somebody who can explain it to you and will explain it to you and you can always learn and understand.
“‘You don’t need to know how to do this, love; we’ll do it for you.’ That made me want to kick the door in and go, ‘no, but surely if you’re doing it, I might be able to understand it too.’ And that’s been my ongoing attitude to technology and visual effects and innovation within the industry. It’s really easy to get left out of, but there’s always somebody to explain it to you if you ask them.”
And that goes across several industries. Any industry really.
Yes, I think that there’s a thing that we like to do which is jargon-ize our way into making other people feel that they can’t become part of it. It gives kind of a light reassurance of “us over them” in a kind of closed-shop, clubby atmosphere. And really, actually, I think that’s the sort of atmosphere we should be fighting. Because that’s the atmosphere where toxic cliques can arise from. As women in the industry who are [fighting] for gender quality, that kind of closed-shopness can’t be acceptable at any level. You know? So I tend to treat it with very little respect.
“I think it’s kind of shining that bright torchlight of femininity and female gaze in traditional areas where we’re not allowed to go. Or, areas where people might discourage you from going. Or, areas where there’s so much jargon that you think, “oh, well I’ll never do that.” And that’s bollocks. That’s bollocks. Because there’s always somebody who can explain it to you and will explain it to you and you can always learn and understand.”
Do you have a group of people that you work with that help [fight] that? Or, a group outside of work that helps you persevere though situations like that?
I don’t have a group that I take to every project with me, because I think in television it’s about team building. You’re lucky if you can take the same team everywhere. But also, [the same team] slightly shrinks your world if you insist on taking the same team everywhere. And it’s not necessary—there’s brilliant people working in television. [However] I do tend to go, “oh, could I work with that lovely DP [director of photography] I’ve worked with before?” because that gives me sort of an immediate, instant communication. But if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I think I rely on myself, really, [to try and explore]. Because at the end of the day, it is your responsibilty to educate and familiarize yourself. That’s your role if you’re going to lead. I’m a big fan of if you’re going to tell other people to do it, [you should have done it, too.] I’ve tried doing stunts with my actors, experience things with my actors, I try and learn about different departments so that I can have the vocabulary to talk to people. I think that’s part of your job. Communication is a big part of [our] job.
It’s difficult to go outside of your comfort zone, but that’s how you grow.
How thrilled are you for the first female Doctor?
Oh, it’s brilliant! I know the team a bit, I know Chris [Chibnall] a bit, because he was involved with Torchwood and Matt Strevens produced Cucumber, and he’s now the executive producer … so it’s a team I think is fantastic. It’s going to be amazing. I love Doctor Who; I still love it. I have a 10-year-old and we just sat down and watched… oh, where are we? Let’s see, we’ve watched from the start—this is new-new Doctor—but we did go back and I did show him Tom Baker, because Tom Baker was my Doctor. We’ve worked our way to Matt Smith’s third series—is that the one Amy gives birth? It’s been marvelous to see again. Jodie is picking up an amazing mantel. It’s exactly the right time. I don’t think it’s overdue, I don’t think it’s too late, I think it’s hit the sweet spot of casting; she’s going to be fantastic. I’ll be watching every episode, as I sit on the sofa with my son, just like I sat with my dad watching it. And that’s why those shows, those three-generation television shows where we can sit down in a room with our whole family, curry on the lap, and watch, are so invaluable. I feel really proud having made shows like Doctor Who and Merlin and Atlantis. [Those are] shows [that] everybody can watch together.
All of those are such wonderful fandoms, too. I grew up watching shows like that with my dad, too, and my three younger brothers.
What were your favorite shows?
Oh gosh, so my dad is deep into sci-fi, so Battlestar is a big one.
And obviously this is a movie series, but we’re big, big Star Wars fans. We would read the books, and when the movies came out, you know, it was so special because [my dad] would say, “I remember going with my older brothers to see A New Hope, and it was something that we had never seen before, it was so magical.” When he took us to see Episodes I-III, which, you know, take ‘em or leave ‘em, it was still that kind of magical experience!
Did you like them?
Well, yeah, I mean I was 11, so … whatever (laughs.) They had their moments! I think they have some of the best lightsaber battles. Then my dad took us to see the most recent trilogy, and at the time I was pregnant with my daughter, and it was really special. He said, “I’m here with my daughter, who is about to have my first grandchild, and we’re still seeing these movies.” Sci-fi has a very specially fandom universally.
Absolutely. Absolutely it [does]. With [San Diego] Comic-Con and those things, it’s not just escapism because it’s expansion and escapism as well. It’s not a retreat, it’s actually an expansion into other universes. Don’t shrink your imagination! My grandad used to work with Arthur C. Clarke when he was dreaming [stories] and you kind of think, “my god, there was a man who was just thinking about it, and it becomes this enormous thing.” He was a lover of science and sci-fi and fantasy, and it’s not that far away. I think it’s really important. I think it’s a really important comforter and it’s a really important mind expander.
What advice would you give someone, maybe in their 20s, who is screenwriting and directing and looking to follow your journey—what’s something you would pass on to them?
Well, I think find good people, be mental, accept and ask for help. There’s a film and TV support phone line that’s gone up in the UK that I’d really like to publicize, because I think it’s really important. It’s called the Film and TV support line, and the number is a free number, which is 0800 054 0000. That is a phone line that’s been set up by The Film and TV Charity, and it’s a free 24-hour support line for people in the film and television industry to help them if they’ve been victims of bullying or harassment or [to provide] any kind of general advice. It’s a help line. There is help, look for help, ask for help. Look for people who are not toxic. If you’re exposed to toxicity and inappropriate behavior in the industry, it’s on you to say something about it and make sure that you do say something about it. Because being quiet about unacceptable situations can lead to things never changing. And we do need to crack open this situation now that is open for change. I want to encourage people to use the resources that are now being set up, alongside the [Film and TV Charity] and the BAFTA’s bullying and harassment guidelines, and I want to encourage women in power to go towards inclusion riders. So on Baghdad Central, I have done an inclusion rider. And it is the first kind of cultural [inclusion clause]. People are open to the possibility of gender equality at least. And zero tolerance on inappropriate behavior. That for me really is where our responsibility to young directors is: to make sure the paths that were quite rough [for us]—lots of people [have] scar tissue around us—much easier for them.
But, there is help. It is difficult and it is rocky and there is inappropriate behavior. We just need to get rid of it.
Featured image: BBC