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Rachel Talalay talks going from Tank Girl to Sherlock

Even Talalay’s agents blame her career’s highs and lows on her gender

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Robert Viglasky/Hartswood Films 2016

It’s been almost three months since Rachel Talalay began shooting the premiere of the new season of Sherlock, and even now she is still on a high from working with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman on the beloved PBS Masterpiece sleuth series. “The fact that it takes three years to get them together long enough to be on the series and then be invited to direct it is phenomenal,” she says. “It’s a tremendous experience on every level.”

It’s just the kind of experience Hollywood told the 57-year-old she’d never get. Although the original, unaired Sherlock pilot was directed by a woman — Coky Giedroyc — Talalay is the first to oversee a full episode of the series, and she describes the gig as “a massive feather in my cap.” In actuality, though, it’s the latest of several. Over the past few years, this self-confessed nerd has directed The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and four episodes of Doctor Who, including last year’s acclaimed “Heaven Sent,” which was basically a solo showcase for star Peter Capaldi. 

“There are a lot of people directing, but very few who are really special,” says the actor. “Rachel is. She will get the best out of any scene — technically, dramatically, visually, and emotionally — and is wonderfully collaborative to work with. She excels at getting beauty and drama to flourish in our punishing schedules, not a task for the timid or mean-spirited, and has the heart and eye of an edgy smart artist.”

“Rachel is very special,” agrees Steven Moffat, the executive producer of Doctor Who and co-creator of Sherlock. “It’s not often I meet someone geekier than me, but Rachel has an unselfconscious love of hero detectives and space monsters, and that comes through in the gravitas and sincerity of her work. Fantasy of any kind is a genre that can never apologize: It has to fix you in the eye and make it real, and Rachel never fails to do that. On Doctor Who, I gave her the challenge of ‘Heaven Sent’ and in the hardest circumstances, with the most demanding of scripts, she gave us one of the best episodes ever.”

The director’s achievements are doubly impressive given her history. In the early ’90s, Talalay was a Hollywood up-and-comer. Then she made Tank Girl, a post-apocalyptic action-comedy with a feminist streak as wide as the armored vehicle driven by Lori Petty’s titular character. Released in 1995, the movie recouped just $4 million of its $25 million budget. Talalay admits such a commercial failure would be a black mark on anyone’s résumé but believes the fact that she hasn’t made a major studio film since has more to do with her gender than her talents.

“So many men fail and then get their next opportunity,” says Talalay. “I didn’t.”

She claims this wasn’t the first time her gender adversely affected her career, and her dream of making another big Hollywood movie could remain just that at a time when around 88 percent of film directors are still men. “[Women] can do anything and everything,” says Talalay. “It’s crazy that the statistics are so terrible.”

Born in Chicago and raised in Baltimore, Talalay spent long spells of her teenage years in the U.K. thanks to the peripatetic career of her father, renowned cancer researcher Paul Talalay. While in Britain she embarked on what would prove to be an enduring obsession with Doctor Who. “I can’t believe now that I’m considered a Doctor Who director,” she says. “It’s amazing.” The teenage Talalay also developed an intense love for films, first classics like Citizen Kane, and then what she describes as the “visual feast” of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, whose lead actor Malcolm McDowell would later play a villain in Tank Girl.

As a mathematics student at Yale, Talalay was offered a job at IBM but instead went to work as a production assistant on Polyester, the 1981 cult classic by John Waters, who became a mentor.

“She was thrown into a world of complete lunacy that I don’t think Yale had prepared her for,” Waters recounts. “It was very much an independent movie. The neighbors were calling the police, trying to get rid of us. We were the only movie that had scary hairdressers working on it. But she handled it really well.”

Soon after, Talalay got a job as an accountant at New Line Cinema, which was about to break into the big time with Wes Craven’s 1984 horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. The problem? Talalay didn’t know anything about accounting. “They said, ‘Can you do it?’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I just figured it out.”

Talalay swiftly rose through the New Line ranks, ultimately becoming a producer on 1988’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. Next, she performed the same duty on two Waters movies, 1988’s Hairspray and 1990’s Cry-Baby. “She was great on those movies, producing,” says the director. “I mean, she had to deal with the studio heads, and everything, and she did it well. She learned quickly.”

In turn, the director officiated Talalay’s wedding to British film producer Rupert Harvey. “It was so much fun, the wedding, I have to say,” recalls Talalay. “I mean, it was like having a John Waters comedy routine. I think he charged $7.95.”

Talalay and Harvey are still together and have two daughters. “One of them is a huge Doctor Who fan and the other is a huge Sherlock fan,” she laughs.

Talalay made her directorial debut with 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, the sixth movie in the still low-budget franchise. The film grossed an impressive $35 million but did not prove to be the career launchpad she expected. “Coming off the Nightmare on Elm Street films, the three directors before me all went on to huge action films,” she says. “I wasn’t afforded the same opportunity, and I feel that was absolutely to do with my gender.” In fact, the director of the fourth Freddy movie, Renny Harlin, went on to direct the lavishly budgeted Die Hard 2, while her immediate predecessor in the director’s chair, Stephen Hopkins, was hired to make Predator 2. Talalay’s next film, meanwhile, was the obscure sci-fi thriller Ghost in the Machine.

In the absence of big-studio offers, Talalay took destiny into her own hands by optioning Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin’s ultra-hip comic Tank Girl — which follows the adventures of a boozy, buzz-cut, no-crap-taking outlaw — and selling it to United Artists. Talalay assembled notable teams in front of, and behind, the camera. Petty and McDowell’s costars included the then unknown Naomi Watts, Ice-T, Big Trouble in Little China star James Hong, and a cameo-ing Iggy Pop. The film’s production designer was Catherine Hardwicke, who would go on to direct Thirteen and the first Twilight film, while Courtney Love helped assemble the film’s soundtrack.

Although the shoot was tough, Talalay’s real problems began when the studio excised a large amount of footage, including one scene that showed off Tank Girl’s well-stocked collection of dildos. “I feel [Tank Girl’s] the precursor to Deadpool,” she says. “We were really ahead of our time. If we had made it even four years later, at the point when the South Park movie came out, they wouldn’t have been so frightened of it.”

Despite the cuts, Tank Girl remains a jaw-droppingly bonkers movie, which finds Petty’s post-apocalyptic riot grrrl repeatedly taunting the male baddies over the size of their genitalia. “Hi! Feeling a little inadequate?” our heroine gleefully asks a pair of McDowell’s goons, lying astride her tank’s enormous phallic weapon. At another point, the film’s plot simply grinds to a halt for a Busby Berkeley-inspired song-and-dance routine during which Petty performs the Cole Porter classic, “Let’s Do It.”

Over time, Tank Girl has acquired an army of fans, many of them women. “I hear from people all the time, ‘I watched this with my mother, she wanted to introduce me to it, and it’s become the film that speaks to me,'” says Talalay. “Yeah, yeah, finally! I’m absolutely delighted to have that iconic film that I made.”

At the time, however, the film’s failure torpedoed her career. “Utterly, completely in Hollywood jail,” she says.

Waters agrees that his protégée’s sense of injustice is not misplaced. “Well, certainly, I failed plenty of times and was given another chance,” he laughs. “But the subjects that Rachel liked were not girly things. It wasn’t like she was trying to do romantic-comedies. I mean, she liked movies that men would have directed: horror, and action, and everything.”

Talalay relocated to the U.K., where she produced the children’s film The Borrowers and found work as a director of TV dramas. She also spent years attempting to adapt writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon’s arguably blasphemous and inarguably hyper-violent comic Preacher for the big screen.

“I was the first person to option Preacher,” she says. “I went into a comic book store and heard the ‘Comic Book Guy’ saying, ‘This is so outrageous! This is so outrageous!’ I was like, ‘Well, I have to have it!’ I was like, after Tank Girl, let’s go to the next level of impossible. [Laughs] We were very close to making it, and then the option ran out, and, understandably, Garth wanted a lot more money. They did well just optioning it to all sorts of amazing people.”

Indeed, the project would pass through a number of hands — including those of Skyfall director Sam Mendes — before finally debuting earlier this year as an AMC TV show exec-produced by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Sam Catlin. Following the show’s premiere, Talalay hit social media to ask if anyone wanted to buy her issues of the comic.

“That wasn’t a bitterness thing,” she laughs after EW asks if this was an act of passive-aggressive displeasure at someone else having succeeded in delivering Preacher to the screen. “That was just, I’m trying to de-clutter [and] it’s probably at the top of the marketplace, right now. That was an entirely practical thing to [help pay for] my daughter, at U.S. university. That’s so funny that it could be interpreted as a bitter statement as opposed to, Let’s sell the comics at a profit in the marketplace where somebody would really, really want it. I have the graphic novels. I feel no regret. I’m glad that it went to Seth and Evan. They were exactly the right people to make it.”

By the start of the aughts, Talalay was back in the States, paying the bills, if not necessarily satisfying her soul, making shows like Ally McBeal and Cold Case, while discovering she’d lost out on jobs because certain casts and crews didn’t “like” women directors. “That was a very common thing I heard from my agents,” she says.

The roots of Talalay’s current renaissance date back to 2005 and the BBC’s revival of the long-mothballed Doctor Who. “The minute I watched it, I called my U.K. agent and said, ‘I need to do this show,’ ” she recalls. Talalay met with Who producers on a couple of occasions, but to no avail. In between, she sharpened her fantasy and sci-fi chops, directing episodes of Supernatural and Syfy’s Haven. Finally, as the Who team was gearing up to shoot the 2014 season, Talalay put together a reel of visual F/X and action scenes she had directed and sent it to executive producer Brian Minchin. Impressed, Minchin and his fellow EP, head writer Steven Moffat, hired her to direct the two-part season finale.

“The first thing they do is say, ‘Would you like to go on the TARDIS?’ ” Talalay told EW at the time. “You’re like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Moffat, who was helpful to Talalay when it came to getting the Sherlock gig, too, and seems more than happy with the result. “She’s unusually fluid, her style always shifting to fit the demands of the narrative,” he says. “I’d challenge anyone to watch her four Doctor Whos (and now one Sherlock) and identify them as the work of a single director.”

Certainly, Moffat can’t complain about Talalay’s tight-lippedness over spoilers. “I can tell you one thing, which is not very helpful,” she says. “It’s a very strong episode in terms of introducing the themes of this entire series and it also harkens to Arthur Conan Doyle very strongly.”

The director is more loquacious on the subject of witnessing firsthand Cumberbatch’s effect on the public. “The time I was most amused, we were on Vauxhall Bridge, right across from MI6, and these tour buses are driving by,” she says. “I actually have dailies where you can hear them, these open tour buses. Because there’s Benedict in the middle of Vauxhall Bridge, dressed as Sherlock Holmes, and you can hear the first person notice him, and then the next, and the next, and suddenly there’s screaming as the bus drives off. This is the best thing ever, to watch that enthusiasm and excitement.”

Like the Elm Street franchise, Sherlock has proved a career-enhancing showcase for many of its directors, but Talalay is aware that this once again may not apply to her. When not in the TARDIS or at 221B Baker Street, the director can be found at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where she teaches film. In June, Talalay was honored as Woman of the Year at the Women in Film + Television Vancouver awards. In her speech, she recalled meeting with her agents to talk about post-Sherlock ambitions: “They said, ‘Yes, you have done Sherlock. Yeah, the other Sherlock directors have all been offered pilots and features off the back of it. But remember, you are a woman.’” Though she points out that her reps were simply being realistic, Talalay admits she was crushed. (The full text of that speech is available to read online, preceded by the Talalay-penned words, “Trigger warning: feminism included.”)

Despite (or because of) it all, Talalay is determinedly upbeat about securing a future for herself and for women filmmakers in general. Last year, she directed On the Farm, the true-life story of a Vancouver serial killer and the marginalized women he murdered and terrorized. She made the film for Canadian TV, but it’s beginning to play festivals, and she hopes it will be distributed theatrically.

“I think there is the potential for strong change now that women are speaking out,” she says. “I’m still fighting. I’m taking the Sherlock credit and going off to have meetings. I’m on a mission with Marvel to get them to give me one of their big films — I would really love to do She-Hulk. I really, really want to direct Game of Thrones.”

Sounds like her agents’ suggestion that she manage her expectations has fallen on deaf ears. “I feel that part of my career was repressed after Tank Girl and many opportunities were not afforded to me,” she says. “I want them back.”