On Kaffeeklatsches and Zoo Animals

Directors Ben Wheatley and Jamie Childs with panel moderator Edward Russell.

Zoo Animals

On a recent episode of the podcast, Radio Free Skaro (#676), recorded live at Gallifrey One, Doctor Who director Jamie Childs was asked how he was enjoying the convention so far. Jamie replied, “You never know what to expect with these kinds of things. Turns out it’s quite fun to be a zoo animal.” Jamie went on to explain the unsettling experience of going to a coffee meet-up and being asked to stand on display in the corner in a narrow box-like alcove when the kaffeeklatsch guests arrived. “Yeah, I’m definitely a zoo animal,” he told himself. In the end, he said, the meetup turned out to be quite fun.

I remember that initial offbeat moment because I was one of the guests—and he’s right. It was a bit strange. When we filed in the door we were all asked to squish into that narrow alcove with him. A moment later, the kaffeeklatsch attendant pulled out a camera, snapped a picture of us, then gave us the go-ahead to disperse and sit down for coffee with Jamie Childs. 

Coffee with Jamie Childs

This experience at Gallifrey One was the first time I’d ever participated in a kaffeeklatsch at a convention. If you’re not familiar with the format, it’s really just an informal coffee meet-up with a con guest and about ten or twelve other attendees held in a small conference room. If you’re intimidated by the social awkwardness or the expense of more formal evening receptions offered at a con, then this more intimate, structured gathering might be for you. Plus there’s no price tag at all. It’s totally free. But be prepared to drop everything to hit the online reservation form when it goes live a few weeks before the con; there’s a lot of competition for spots at the table. 

Yes, it’s true. When you enter the room, the folks running the kaffeeklatsch corral everyone in a corner for a quick photo with the guest. When do you see these photos? The organizers told me they would email them to us in mid-March, otherwise I’d add a photo to this post. After the photo op, you help yourself to tea or coffee at the setup in the corner, and sit down at the conference table for an informal chat with the guest. The whole session lasts just under an hour. 

Jamie Childs directed the first and last blocks of Doctor Who Series 11, including Jodie Whittaker’s debut, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” the moving historical episode, “Demons of the Punjab,” “It Takes You Away,” and the season finale, “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.” 

Jamie was incredibly kind and down to earth, and conversation flowed very easily. About halfway through the meet-up, we found ourselves leaning across the table to look at photos on his phone of the construction crane set-up taken on his first day of production on “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.” No easing into the shoot with a quiet dialogue scene, Jamie said, but instead, his first day was a daunting full-scale action sequence with construction cranes and The Doctor’s leap through the air from one crane to another. He explained that while they faked the set-up to some extent so that the cranes were much closer to the ground, they were real cranes, there was a gap, and Jodie made that leap herself.

We also learned a bit about Jamie’s background and how he originally trained in sound design work when he was in film school before eventually breaking into directing for television, working with legends like Brenda Blethyn on ITV’s Vera. He also shared that he was initially taken aback when he saw that Series 11 was going to center around an ensemble cast—the fam played by Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole. But he learned a lot from the challenge of blocking longer, more cinematic scenes for multiple actors, working with space and depth, so that people moved out of the background and into the foreground to pair off, deliver lines, interact with each other, and then move out again to make way for the next character and the next beat of action.

Some other details he shared:

  • Jodie Whittaker is channelling a lot of her own personality when she plays The Doctor. “That’s really her,” Jamie said. She’s a bundle of energy, loves to talk to everyone, and never gets bored. He joked that sometimes he wants to tell Jodie, “Hey, wait—save some of that energy for the take!”
  • Behind the scenes, Jodie and her co-stars really are the best of friends. They laugh a lot, play games, hang out, and keep each other company during their down time waiting for the next set-up. The on-set camaraderie was one of the things that made Jamie’s time on Doctor Who such a great experience.

As a former film school grad, I loved hearing about other geeky directing details like the experience of shooting with anamorphic lenses and the challenge of shooting on a tight budget in Wales and Sheffield. He said that the new series he’s working on (His Dark Materials, episodes 4, 5, and 6, if I’ve done my research correctly), has about ten times the budget, which is awesome, but certainly has its own share of challenges. 

Finally, Jamie shared that Jodie Whittaker and he are both huge film buffs and they had lots of conversations about what kind of tone they wanted for The Doctor and the world she inhabits, referencing directors they admired and scenes and characters from other films. He kept Jodie’s confidence, though, and wouldn’t share any specific titles they talked about. Still, it was fun to hear that they drew upon a common series of references that helped them make connections, flesh out what they wanted to do, and develop a good working relationship with each other.

Honestly, the hour flew by, and before we knew it, the kaffeeklatsch guy was knocking on our door again and telling us it was time to go.

If it’s any consolation, Jamie, you weren’t a zoo animal to us. If anything, this type of event lets you, the fan, drop all pretense and interact with directors, writers, artists, and actors as fellow people without any of the weird transactions that take place at autograph tables. It turned out to be one of the best things I did at Gallifrey One this year, and I’ll be back next year to fight over seats at the table again!