Doctor Who director opens up on Flux, filming struggles and Jodie Whittaker’s final episode
Jamie Magnus Stone directed half of series 13, and it sounds like quite a battle.
As Doctor Who directors go, Jamie Magnus Stone has had quite an introduction. First arriving in the series’ orbit for an online short starring Jenna Coleman in 2013, he properly made his debut by bringing Sacha Dhawan’s Master to the screen in 2020 episode Spyfall.
At time of writing, he’s now helmed eight episodes – including the upcoming centenary special, marking the departure of Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor and showrunner Chris Chibnall – but it’s safe to say his experiences making the serialised adventure Doctor Who: Flux will be what linger longest in his mind.
As series 13 comes to DVD we caught up with Jamie to look back on the challenges of Flux, the real Crimean War he battled in the mud and rain and reveal the biggest challenges he faced creating a world of Weeping Angels, Ravagers, Sontarans and multiple timelines.
Plus, we picked his brains for a few tidbits about Jodie Whittaker’s upcoming regeneration episode. Spoiler alert: things get emotional.
Jamie, obviously you worked fairly extensively on series 12. Was it different coming back for series 13?
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It was really good coming back having had season 12 under my belt. I always find on any job that I spend ages with this slightly nervous, first-day-at-school feeling. It takes you a while to figure out everybody’s strengths, and how to get decisions made quickly.
So it was really lovely coming back, and hitting the ground running in that respect. But also, it felt different because the plan from the start was to make it serialised, so that gave the whole endeavour a different flavour..
Obviously you also had the COVID of it all, which must have been a challenge.
I wasn’t really a party to what the original plan for the series was before it became what it is now. I did have a Zoom call a couple of months before we started with Chris and the producers – I think it was in that first wave, still, when productions were really figuring out whether they could actually go ahead or not.
We were really feeling our way through, and trying to figure out whether it was possible to do it. We decided that we would definitely throw ourselves in, and make it as best we possibly could, and there would be no overseas filming, but we would take that travel budget, and add a little bit more to the VFX budget and the set builds.
Did the serialisation play into that?
I think part of the plan of the serialisation was actually that our set builds could be more ambitious. Quite often for a standard series of Doctor Who, you’ve got the TARDIS as a standing set, but then every other set you’re building, it gets put up, and used for one episode only, and then gets ripped down again.
So the plan was to be a bit more clever with reusing the standing sets like the Temple of Atropos. And that would help on the COVID front, to do more in the studio, because the hardest thing to do with COVID is to shoot interior locations.
It’s one of these things where once we started filming, we had to learn some new rhythms. We shot it single-camera as opposed to multi-camera, which we usually do. There were a few things to get used to.
I think overall, as a production, we were quite lucky on the COVID front, in that we didn’t get shut down. Which was fortuitous.
What was the hardest challenge that came with it?
I think the hardest day, weirdly, was shooting in the Arctic Circle house in episode one, because I think that was the only sort of small interior location that we had to shoot in. And you had to do this human Tetris, because you couldn’t have any more than four people or five people per room. And it’s quite a small house full of small rooms.
In order to get a lens from outside – so, the camera – you had to do this weird Jenga of shuffling people around, to make sure that you never had more than however many people it was per room. It was all a bit of a headache. After that, we decided to build our interiors as much possible.
My absolute personal highlight of the series was Village of the Angels, obviously an episode you directed. There are so many great sequences in that – what was your favourite to pull off?
Ooh, I don’t know. I really enjoyed doing the episode as a whole, because the script came in a little bit later than the other two, so we actually shot it on its own. Ordinarily we shoot multiple episodes at the same time, so you’re keeping a lot of different plates spinning. But that one was really lovely, because it was self-contained, and we shot it all at the end of my shooting block, kind of as one piece, so you could really focus on it.
A personal favourite for me was this trick shot we did in the mirror with Claire. I’d always wanted to do a shot with a fake hole in the wall instead of a mirror, and I really enjoyed the orchestration of that, and the little details. I’m a big fan of old-school camera tricks when we have the time to plan them out. There was something really satisfying about getting that all choreographed, and it had a really spooky atmosphere to it.
The end sequence with Jodie turning to an angel was great as well. I mean, a huge credit to the VFX team at DNEG for pulling it off. It was a fiddly move to shoot, and it took lots and lots of takes to get. But we got there in the end.
What is the shot or scene you’re most proud of from series 13?
I think probably the stuff in the Crimea, because it was really difficult to shoot. I think we shot that in the November of 2020, and the elements were really against us. It was really difficult filming conditions. All of our equipment was soaked.
We have these E-Z UPs, that are basically like tents that are meant to keep your equipment dry. There were such high winds that we lost seven or eight of these tents. They just blew away, and ripped off our equipment. The stuff got soaked. A lot of technical problems.
It was really hard for the cast, because they were just getting soaked through the whole time. It was really difficult for hair and makeup to keep on top of the weather, and the winds. It felt like it was such a battle to get any shot in the can, across the Crimea.
And we did have a few little COVID curveballs as well, with people testing inconclusively, or a couple of positive cases. Which meant we had to shuffle things around, quite often at the last minute. So it was a bit like being in a battle, shooting all that stuff.
But I think, in the end, it worked well for the episode. I think there’s a real kind of truth to the grit, and the mud, and the smoke, and the rain, and the sleet, and the texture that is there on screen. I think it served the tone of that story really well. And I guess I’m proud of it because it was so miserable, and so difficult to shoot.
Were there any moments in series 13 where you planned to do things one way, and then had to do it another? Or did everything just kind of progress to plan?
I wouldn’t say "progress to plan", because the plan had to be, as ever on Doctor Who, a sort of evolving, nebulous concept. We don’t get all the scripts all at once, and sometimes we even get an individual script in pieces as we go. It’s something that you have to get used to, building up a very malleable plan in stages, that you can execute bits of. You always have to be aware that it’s probably going to change as you go.
That was even more true than usual this year because of COVID. There was a huge chunk that was meant to have filmed in Liverpool, and then Liverpool was hit really hard early on in the pandemic. And all those locations got pulled out. Some of them we relocated and we found Cardiff equivalents, and some of them had to be rewritten because they were around Liverpool landmarks.
But that kind of makes it exciting. I sometimes find that if there’s a scene that’s existed in the script for a very, very long time, and everyone really knows what they’re doing with it, and I’ve got it storyboarded and everything, sometimes it come out a bit flatter than some of the ones where you’ve had to improvise. You know, the script has changed two days before, and you’re in a location that you haven’t recced. Sometimes those scenes are the most lively, and the most sparky when you get to the edit.
There’s a kind of crackle and an electricity to making these discoveries as you go on the day, while you’re rehearsing or while you’re blocking where you have to kind of invent your way through things.
Whereas the stuff that I’ve meticulously planned, sometimes it doesn’t have the same kind of fizz that the more improvised can do.
Was there anything that surprised you by being either easier or harder than you expected?
Ooh, that’s a tricky one. I think early on, I found the prosthetics quite hard. There was Karvanista, and the Sontarans, and there’s the Swarm, and the Ood.
I thought, "OK, this is going to be nice and easy, because it’s all there. You don’t have to imagine that much. You can sort of see it." But there’s definitely a knack to lighting prosthetics, and making them look real and fleshy. And practicality-wise as well, it’s really tough on the performers underneath them. With the studio lights especially they start to sweat, and the prosthetics can slip off and fall, and then it gets harder and harder throughout the day to keep them on their faces.
It was a bit of a learning curve for me. I had to learn the hard way that I always need to shoot the prosthetics first, because if I don’t they’ll sweat and fall off. And then I’ll end up having to reshoot it again months later, which happened a few times where I had to go back and reshoot the close-ups after the fact. So they were a bit harder than I thought. Although the team did an absolutely marvellous job, and they looked terrific.
Something that’s easier? I don’t know. It was quite hard [laughs]. It was quite a hard shoot in a lot of ways.
It’s fine if there isn’t anything easier.
[laughs] There was nothing that was easier than I thought it was going to be! I’m a bit too optimistic on how easy I think things are going to be, often, and the reality is usually harder than I think it’s going to be.
Also, there must have been a certain pressure in the fact that this was Jodie Whitaker’s last series. Did you feel like "Oh, right, we’ve really got to nail this"?
The whole series had this kind of extra weight, and extra significance to it, and extra poignancy. We knew there were going to be these specials. I’m very fortunate in that I’m directing the last one of them. So I’m actually doing her regeneration.
But even so, it felt like, specials aside, this was Jodie’s last complete story. So it definitely felt like an extra responsibility, to do it justice.
I was actually going to ask about the centenary special that’s coming up. I know you can’t say much, but was it quite an emotional shoot for everyone?
Yeah, it was, especially Jodie’s last day of filming, because we scheduled it so that our last full day — well, we did do a couple of extra pickups afterwards. But basically her last day of filming was most of the crew’s last day of filming as well. So it was all orchestrated to have this big, final last day. And we shot that last day for Jodie in story order. So we ended up on her last scene.
But before that, there were so many tears. Everybody clapped her – and Mandip, actually. Everybody clapped them into the TARDIS for their last time, and then there were some tears. And we shot the last-ever scene in the TARDIS, and said goodbye to the TARDIS, and then there were some tears.
And then we went out to film, basically, her regeneration. And the last shot that we did, I think, will be the last shot in the episode as well. So it was really nice to do things in sequence. And it was mostly Jodie and Mandip’s scenes on that last day. So it was just super-emotional.
And then at the end, Jodie gives this wonderful speech. It felt really – I don’t know – like the end of an era, and very important, but very lovely. And there was like 100 extra people on set that day. Everyone came down to watch the last slate go up.
So, yeah. I felt very lucky to be a part of it.
That sounds emotional!
[laughs] Yeah, it was. At the same time, it’s really hard to move people along when it’s a big, emotional, significant scene, but you’re like, "Guys, we’ve got like half an hour to get this last scene in. Can we hurry up?"
But it all worked out really nicely. I think everything we shot that day is going to be absolutely lovely. Yeah, I can’t wait to show you guys.
I can’t wait to see. I guess you’ve got another few months of working on it as well, before it actually comes out?
Yeah. We’ve been editing it over the last few months. We’ve got a little bit more to do in the edit, and then lots of work, and lots of things. But it’s nice to know that it’s not on TV until the autumn. That’s a nice load off.
You’ve done Jodie Whitaker’s last series and her regeneration – if you don’t do more would that be a nice way to cap off your Doctor Who career?
Yes, definitely. With a show as historical and with such a legacy behind it as Doctor Who, it’s an honour to do any episode. So I feel extra lucky and extra grateful.
To get to do the last one of the era, and to do a regeneration, and also, on top of that, for it to be feature length, and for the BBC’s centenary, it was a huge honour. I’m very grateful for the guys giving that to me.
A portion of this conversation previously featured in the Radio Times Doctor Who podcast. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.