With Love and Respect to the Characters: A Q&A with Director Douglas Mackinnon

By Mary Jo Watts (mid0nz)

Behind the scenes of Sherlock, “The Abominable Bride.” Left to right: Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes), Douglas Mackinnon, Martin Freeman (Dr. John Watson) Photo by Robert Viglasky
Behind the scenes of Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride.” Left to right: Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes), Douglas Mackinnon, Martin Freeman (Dr. John Watson) Photo by Robert Viglasky


Sherlock fans? We’re a thirsty lot. We fell in love on the 25th of July, 2010 when the first episode, “A Study in Pink”, debuted on the BBC. Until January 1, 2016 we had only nine full-length episodes to drink up, with at times years between the three seasons. Millions of fans all over the world live in limbo, a nearly perpetual state of hiatus. Each broadcast of a new episode is a respite.

We swim around in the new canon flooded with information and feelings. We make gifs. We draw. We write metas and fic. We craft. We edit videos. We attend cons. We cosplay. We play music. We tweet. We tumbl. We squee. We debate. Eventually the drought takes its toll. We grow weary. We reminisce. We grapple. We fight. We make up. We splinter. We ebb and we flow. Then preproduction starts on the new series.

When filming starts we queue at the oasis for a glimpse of the action. We relay all details and dissect them at the speed of light. #setlock spoils us (those of us who revel in it) and sustains us. It’s a thing.  The powers that be, the Sherlock makers, tease us on social media with the most minute details and playful red-herrings– drops of rain in the desert. In 2015, Douglas Mackinnon joined them, tweeting teasers in the tags #shspesh, and #221back.

Douglas is well-respected among Doctor Who fans. He has a long, award-winning, successful history directing some of the best episodes of that legendary series including the glorious 2015 Christmas special, “The Husbands of River Song.” “THoRS” is a wacky and heart wrenching farewell to River, my most treasured Time Lord, written by Doctor Who show-runner Steven Moffat. Moffat is the co-creator, with Mark Gatiss, of Sherlock so it didn’t surprise me when Mackinnon was tapped to direct the Sherlock special, “The Abominable Bride”, which Moffat and Gatiss (Mofftiss as they’re known in the fandom) co-wrote. It’s a labyrinthine romp through the post-modern interior life of Sherlock Holmes set mostly in Victorian England, and partially in the present day. We think.

I’m a production geek. I’m obsessed with how the show is made, what the makers think, how they feel about their work, how they learned their craft. I was thrilled when Douglas kindly agreed to quench my curiosity about his role behind the scenes on the set of Doctor Who and Sherlock, how he helps tell the stories that mean so much to me, and to millions of other fans all around the world.

-Mary Jo Watts


MJW: How did you become a director? Was that always your ambition? What was your career trajectory?

DM: I’m still trying to be the director I want to be. I always will, I think. It wasn’t always my ambition; I don’t think I knew what a director was as a child. I read a lot—sci-fi and things about animals, mostly.  After a few wrong turns after leaving school, I got a job as a trainee press photographer, then went to stills photography college, then the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield.

MJW: What films or television shows do you love?

DM: Films: The Searchers. Edison the Man. Television: Doctor Who. Sherlock. Star Trek (the classic). Battlestar Galactica (the new incarnation). All trash telly….

MJW: If you could have worked on any show or film in history, what would it have been?

DM: I’d like to have directed the first episode of Doctor Who, but I have directed the last one to go out, so I can’t really complain.

capaldi mac kingston
Behind the scenes of Doctor Who: “The Husbands of River Song.” Left to right: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor), Douglas Mackinnon, Alex Kingston (River Song)

MJW: I’m really interested in the process you went through to achieve the looks of the Sherlock (“The Abominable Bride”) and Doctor Who (“The Husbands of River Song”) specials. They’re so visually striking and unique! Can tell me a bit about how you settled on the aesthetics for them?

DM: With “The Abominable Bride”, as with all projects, the visual style evolved after we received the script, through pre-production. The thing I had to get my head around for the Victorian sections of the film was that we wanted to retain the ‘brand Sherlock’ feel, and yet do a period drama. The modern version is described widely as a re-boot from the original Conan Doyle stories, so I had to somewhat un-boot the re-boot, but then re-boot our version into Victorian times. I had several strategies to achieve this. Firstly, I wanted the Victorian world to be non-ploddy, I wanted it to be energetic and vibrant, just like modern Sherlock. I wanted to make it feel like we had actually turned up in Victorian London and just shot there. So the street scenes are a busy mess, not ordered and slow. And there’s only one way to play Steven and Mark’s dialogue – and that is fast and furiously. And then there’s the costume, hair, make-up and design choices. And of course the amazing cinematography. The collaboration with all departments is intense and fast. Part of my job is guiding, but part of it is also leaning in to the vast and wonderful experience of the Sherlock team.

MJW: What’s your communication style with your crews?

DM: You’d have to ask the crews about my communication style, but I hope it’s serious fun.

MJW: “The Abominable Bride” is incredibly dark (bravely dark) which suits the story and looks great in cinemas especially. How did you settle on that choice? Did you think of it as risky at the time?

DM: Do things sometimes feel risky? Not really, but they do feel exciting when things are working.  If you are working in a creatively brave environment, with people who want you to create and engage with the project, we all find a language on a project that feels right.  It becomes obvious that one hat is more right than the other hat, that the carriage that Sherlock turns up in should be the red one, not the yellow one.  We tune in to it, to the point that you know when you see a location, or a prop, or a costume, or an actor, or a performance or a lighting set up, or a camera move, that it fits the project.

Simply put, I seek out style from the story we have to tell, as the story is the foundation we all stand on.  The edifice will only stand up and be strong if the story is strong.

MJW: You’ve done many shows, including both specials with Suzie Lavelle as the director of photography. (I find her immensely talented!) As a director, what do you appreciate most in a DoP?

DM: She’s amazing. Your DoP is one of your key creative team in prep and during the shoot. Their first job is to make the light magic, but that only happens if we—me, and Locations, and Design, and everyone else—put the DoP in a place where that can happen.

MJW: What were your visual references for the specials?

DM: For Doctor Who, I watched and analyzed a pile of screwball comedies from the Thirties/Forties/Fifties et cetera, as well as sci-fi films like Forbidden Planet

For “The Abominable Bride”, I read a lot of Conan Doyle and looked at a lot of the original illustrations [by Sidney Paget], and Suzie and I fed each other lots of imagery. Plus I watched all nine episodes of Sherlock again, of course. And again.

MJW: You did a fantastic job helping us say goodbye to our beloved River Song (if indeed it is goodbye!). How do you approach filming what is bound to be a hugely emotional story for the Doctor Who fandom?

DM: Carefully! And with love and respect to the characters. I had directed a few scenes with River and Matt Smith’s Doctor, that were DVD extras, so I have history with River…

MJW: How do you go about realizing Doctor Who’s mythic places, such as The Singing Towers of Darillium? Do you have a vision that you communicate to the artists? Do they come to you with suggestions?

DM: I started everyone off on an image of a landmark on the Isle of Skye, where I was born and brought up.  It’s called the Old Man of Storr…. Then axisVFX developed things from there. Things like this will start with an image or a thought from me, and possibly from the writers (through the script or otherwise), and then through evolution and discussion, we end up in (hopefully) the right place….

MJW: How do you work with storyboards?

DM: I do storyboards to focus myself and the crew on what we’re doing, mostly in prep. But I seldom use them on set.

Storyboard for Doctor Who: “The Husbands of River Song”

MJW: Doctor Who is the quintessential franchise with many episodes a season and a well-established look and pace. What distinguishes the episodes you directed from all the others? Do you think your episodes have an identifiable style or other hallmarks?

DM: I think this is for others to judge.

MJW: Did you direct “The Abominable Bride” with the cinematic release in mind? If so, what were your considerations?

DM: We all knew that there was a strong likelihood that “The Abominable Bride” would end up in cinemas, but we were all just working to tell the story to the best of our abilities.

MJW: Steven Moffat tends to give a lot of detail in his scriptseverything from production design tips, to suggested camera angles, to soundtrack hints, to the emotions that the actors ought to be expressing. Mark Gatiss’s scripts are a bit more open-ended with brilliant dialogue and more room for visual interpretation. What are some key elements that appear in the final cut of “The Abominable Bride” that weren’t explicitly scripted? How did they come about?

DM: Oh, it’s all a process between all of us—some are in the script, some come from the art department‘s input, and then there’s my contribution. But usually it’s an evolutionary thing that goes on through pre-production. In this case, of course, it was the first written by Mark and Steven together. I never asked who wrote what; I didn’t want to know.


MJW: Many of the “The Abominable Bride” transitions are so striking that the audience is clearly meant to be aware of them. In general, how do you decide how to get from one scene to another?

DM: I always search for interesting ways to transition between scenes, especially when they’re complex flashbacks like these. I wanted to be loyal to the contemporary version, but to find organic ways to use imagery from the Victorian era. Again, storytelling is the key—if that’s not part of the transition, it won’t survive the edit…


Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride”

MJW: How did you conceive of and technically realize that incredible “The Abominable Bride” speed ramp deduction scene?! It’s seamless— you can’t detect the cuts without scrubbing.

DM: We were doing speed ramps in Jekyll (another Hartswood production, written by Steven Moffat), and obviously Sherlock has had them lots before. Mark and Steven had written a lot of detail into the script, so for me, it was a matter of focusing, again, on the storytelling. We did a lot of prep and were well organized by the time we got to doing the shot. The pigeons that fly up as the guys run up the street were not planned, by the way, but I named them Ridley and Tony [Scott]….

Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride” featuring Ridley and Tony the pigeons

MJW: Do you have a preference between shooting in the studio or on location?

DM: It’s all shot gathering to me; I don’t really prefer studio or location, I just want the shots.

MJW: Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Dr. John Watson) and most of the rest of the Sherlock cast own those parts, and they’ve been at them since about 2009. What does a director need to keep in mind when working with actors who are seasoned in their iconic roles?

DM: First of all, I of course respect their craft and expertise, not only in these roles but as actors at the top of their game. What I’m arriving with is a unique story to put those characters in. So I think the healthy thing to do is to ask questions and not make statements, and to navigate a path together. “The Abominable Bride” was of course particular because of its mostly period setting, and also because of its particular Sherlock perspective….

MJW: There’s a good deal of CGI in both specials. How do you help actors prepare for green screen work versus acting to the camera or other actors?

DM: Mostly to turn up knowing what will go in the green space so you can help the actors in the moment. But we don’t have time to prepare the actors before the day of shooting, so they have to trust you….

river green screen
Doctor Who: “The Husbands of River Song” Alex Kingston (River Song)

MJW: How and at what stage in production do you decide what shots and angles you’re going to film?

DM: That varies from scene to scene and shot to shot. Some are there from the first read; some turn up on the day of. I’ll always have ideas, but if you get locked in, if you’re not open to change on the day, you might miss something magical. But I’ll always seek out the storytelling shot—if it’s a great shot, but it’s not telling the story, it goes….

MJW: Do you tend to shoot more coverage or less?

DM: I don’t like the word ‘coverage’. I always aim to shoot the story.

MJW: How much do you rely on your editor(s) to help shape the final cut?

DM: Andrew McClelland was my editor on Sherlock, and we’ve done lots together: Jekyll, Line of Duty, et cetera. He is a brilliant and calm figure sitting apart from the mayhem of the shoot, and he tells me the truth (good and bad) as we travel. He’s my Thelma [Schoonmaker], my Walter [Murch]….   

MJW: How much do you collaborate on the soundtrack? What direction do you give to composers David Arnold, Michael Price and their team, for example?

DM: We had the usual music spotting session with David and Michael after we’d locked picture. They are hugely collaborative and open to suggestion, but they have such wonderful authority and are great guides as to what will and won’t work.

MJW: How did you and Arwel Wyn Jones collaborate on the two Victorian 221bs? (It was a brave move to put 221b outdoors. Worked beautifully in the end.)

DM: There was only one 221b; we took most of the wall from the studio set and put it on location. Arwel is fantastic to work with, always optimistic and ambitious.


MJW: Television and film production are heavily male-dominated fields. What practical advice would you give a young woman who aspires to be a director?

DM: Easy to say, but don’t get squashed by the domination of men. That’s going to change, it has to. And be yourself, that’s what will make your work stand out.

MJW: To your mind, what are the hallmarks of a well-directed television show?

DM: Great direction comes from loving what you’re doing. You can see it when people love what they’re doing in any walk of life.


Douglas Mackinnon is an award-winning film and television director from Portree, Isle of Skye. He has directed more than fifty hours of network television drama and feature films, including London is Burning, The Flying Scotsman, Sherlock, Outlander, Doctor Who, Line of Duty, Robin Hood, Taggart, Jekyll, Bodies, Silent Witness, and single television films for ITV and the BBC. He wrote and directed the children’s drama, Calum Dongle.

Mary Jo Watts is the editor and founder of Powers of Expression,  an on-line arts journal forthcoming in the Spring of 2016. She earned her Master of Arts in comparative literature from Rutgers University with specialties in modernist literature and film. MJ lives in Ithaca, NY where she fangirls over Sherlock under the name mid0nz.


Thanks to Jude Ellison and sunnydisposish.

15 responses to With Love and Respect to the Characters: A Q&A with Director Douglas Mackinnon

  1. I love Sherlock and Doctor Who. This is a great article and interview. I’m so glad that Sherlock is back! I loved the Victorian episode of Sherlock.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.