Exclusive Interview with Matthew Jacobs.
Doctor Who — celebrating his 50th anniversary on the airwaves — is massive news again. Not bad for an alien interloper known for his dependable ability to return to life in surprising guises. This is also not bad news for Matthew Jacobs, a man who could be described using nearly the same terms.
Jacobs is the versatile writer who gets credit for the 1996 American Doctor Who special starring the eighth Doctor, Paul McGann. As any reputable Whovian knows, McGann’s incarnation of the Time Lord was stiffed for his series-traditional rebirth. His chrononautic fate was left tragically twisting by fickle television production tastes.
Until this week, that is, when modern Doctor Who master Steven Moffat plucked the eighth Doctor’s fate from the time stream. Moffat revived Jacob’s and McGann’s incarnation of the Doctor to star in a short film that leads into this Saturday’s Doctor Who 50th Anniversary program, “The Day of the Doctor.”
Stand By For Mind Control recently spoke with Matthew Jacobs about his take on the Time Lord, his stint writing for The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, his new indie film Your Good Friend, and more. Getting his attention wasn’t hard — the real-life Rabbi who stars in Matthew’s soon-to-be-released micro-budget movie is my Pops.
SB4MC: Matthew! Thanks for talking with us during the run up to the Doctor Who anniversary special. What’s it like to have your incarnation of the character back in front of fans?
Matthew: Actually quite moving. The die-hard fans have always loved Paul’s incarnation, but the majority of the now massive worldwide audience that follows the show doesn’t really know him. So Moffat using Paul McGann to set up the 50th has taken McGann’s Doctor right into the spotlight again. Also, to hear Moffat give the Doctor the same sort of quirkiness we developed for him back in the ‘90s was lovely.
Right now I feel a bit vindicated, I’ve been surfing and found that already there are new reviews for the TV Movie praising it for the very things reviewers hated it for on its release. Today, a massive group petitioning for the eighth Doctor to have his own series has approached me. But then that’s what the show is about… resurrection! Except it’s not just the second coming or a third. I guess as long as the ratings stay high this sci-fi messiah is on a loop… Does that sound really cheap? Who cares; I like it!
Why do you think so much science fiction and religion revolve around resurrection and reincarnation Zack? Is it all about ratings?
SB4MC: It’s certainly one way to keep a character from stagnating!
Speaking of new blood, you have unique experience introducing this character to new audiences. What would you say are the essential elements a newbie needs to understand to get the Doctor? What do you think makes this character so resilient?
Matthew: That’s a really good question Zack! I think the thing about the Doctor that’s unique is not simply that you can’t kill him, it’s that he’s kind of all-knowing and he’s also an innocent in a strange way.
He has a childlike wisdom to him. I had him say “I love humans, they see patterns in everything” and many other lines that only a child might voice as he or she wakes up to the world. You see, the first half of the TV movie is all about the Doctor defining himself as he recovers from the amnesia brought on by his screwed up resurrection.
I also made him half human on his mother’s side, something that really pissed the fans off — and I think still does. But I don’t care. It makes sense to me. He has two sides to him: the flawed darkness of an inter-dimensional unhinged alien Time Lord and the romantic passion of a man who can fall in love and care for whomever he meets along the way. That’s what makes him so resilient in my mind.
There’s a bit of a Jewish thing in there, too, with the matrilineal thing — something we also go into in my new film Your Good Friend. Also and this is for the geeks, when we put the year up on the Tardis control — and this was Phil Segal’s idea not mine — the year is the Jewish year for 1996. There’s quite a lot of linking tissue with Doctor Who and Your Good Friend actually when I think about it.
SB4MC: What do you remember of your visit to the set of the season 3 episode The Gunfighters, which featured your father in the role of Doc Holliday? Were you a fan of the show before then? Are you a fan of the show now?
Matthew: Of course I was a fan! This was a big birthday treat for me.
I think I was 10 years old. “The Gunfighters” was directed by Rex Tucker. He came down and talked to me. Then they put me behind the bar-room set, next to a camera that would occasionally poke through a sliding mirror behind the bar to shoot what was going on from a reverse angle. It was a multi-camera shoot and recorded all in one run, like a stage play. They gave me a monitor to look at and a pair of headphones so I could hear the director calling the shots in the gallery. I was mesmerized! And I think that was kind of when I fell in love with making movies. I was in the heart of a dream and there was my Dad, with my other hero, Doctor Who — who could ask for more!
I’m still a fan now, but I’m a bit jaded and, to be honest, until Paul surfaced a few days ago I’ve watched the show from a respectful distance, occasionally catching a few stories, but not really getting hooked. I think the struggle of making the Doctor Who movie in the ‘90s left me with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth.
When the show came back in 2005 I was definitely not invited to the ball, which didn’t surprise me in the least, but it still felt a little strange.
SB4MC: Like all the actors who’ve played the Doctor thus far, you grew up in the United Kingdom. Do you think there’s something essentially British about Doctor Who? Do you think the character would work as well written for a French, or female, or black actor?
Matthew: Maybe he’s not half human at all… maybe he’s half British! That would account for everything. If he’s from anywhere, he’s from the swinging ‘60s in Britain. What other era would launch a show about a grey-haired old alien who looks like your grandfather and who goes on adventures with a schoolgirl? And the Daleks? Lets not even go there.
SB4MC: Before we switch tacks, I got our most fanatical Whovian reader to submit a question for you. Melissa Stern knows you’ve described the Eighth Doctor as all about his love of humans, a concept that motivates the new series as well. Because viewers didn’t get enough time to really explore your take on the Doctor, she’s curious about what other traits you would have brought out had the special turned into a series. Did you have ideas you can share?
Matthew: Another great question! However with American TV, particularly in the ‘90s, you would try to define all the traits in the lead character in the pilot — and our movie was what they call a ‘backdoor pilot,’ meaning we wanted it to lead to a series. Writing a pilot is like taking a horrible exam where you have to cram everything into 80 minutes so the suits can say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
But I think Davis and Moffat have both imbued the Doctor with new traits that are great and if you look carefully they allowed the romantic flamboyance of our Doctor to develop through all their doctors.
What did I personally want to do that hasn’t been done? I would have had him develop some physical or magical skill that no one’s ever seen before to really make him stand out from other science fiction heroes; but those ideas I now want to use on other projects, and the Doctor is not really about having superpowers, I suspect. Unless you count raising the dead by going back in time — which was kind of the theme of my TV movie, and helped actually get the thing greenlit.
Fox TV and Universal TV have never really been known for their subtlety. Maybe they wanted “Jesus Who?”
SB4MC: At this point in your career you’ve written for two of the modern world’s most iconic characters, Doctor Who and Indiana Jones. You even scripted a Star Wars game — Star Wars: Starfighter. What’s it like to take responsibility for creating in such well-loved universes?
Matthew: Immense fun, but you’re normally working in a very crowded kitchen where everyone wants a say. Only with Lucas and the stuff I did for Jim Henson it was much easier because there was only one voice to listen to. With Doctor Who, Lassie, and The Emperor’s New Groove everyone was fighting for power. Especially with Doctor Who where I had to contend with BBC, Fox, Phil Segal, Universal. That was scary!
SB4MC: The story for Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove came from your head, you co-wrote the recent animated film Justin and the Knights of Valour, and the eerie kids’ film Paperhouse was one of your first gigs with director Bernard Rose. Can you give us a quick tour of your experiences on those projects? How does a man move from Ninja Missions to acting in adaptations of Tolstoy?
Matthew: I have constantly jumped between acting, writing, directing, and producing. I was initially an actor and director trained in theatre, then got my MFA at film school, then I slipped almost unintentionally into writing to pay the bills. That’s why my first credits are grindhouse movies. I was ashamed of them at the time, but now when I teach, they are the films my students seem to admire the most!
At the end of the day I’ve been lucky enough to be able to find myself in the company of incredibly talented people like Bernard Rose, with whom I’ve collaborated many times and who totally has faith in me both as a writer and as an actor and even as a director.
Also Roger Allers — who directed The Lion King — and I both came up with the story and original scripts for Groove together and that project took many incarnations before it became what it is today.* Animation is a lot of very hard work.
Justin and The Knights Of Valour was a film I was called in to collaborate on very late in the day in 2011. It got released in September in Europe and is doing very well at the box office. I haven’t seen the finished film yet. Not having seen it but having a big credit on it is a very strange feeling indeed. Like going to school naked in a dream.
But through all these jobs the one thing that really kept me sane is that every few years I got to direct a movie.
SB4MC: After acting in Bernard Rose’s micro-budget films alongside Danny Huston — The Kreutzer Sonata and Boxing Day — you directed two more films of your own, Your Good Friend and Bar America. Your Good Friend just premiered at the Boston Jewish Film Festival. Can you give our readers an introduction to the film? When can they hope to see it?
Matthew: Your Good Friend was born out of my friendship with your Dad. We initially wanted to make a story about the café where we both wrote every day. One night a week Larry and I would get together like a couple of teenagers talking about forming a band. Then as the discussions went on we realized there was a rich tale to be told about the friendships that happen between people who are vastly different from each other.
In Your Good Friend, the odd couple is a faded pornographer called Jules, played by me, and a recently widowed Rabbi, played by your Dad.
Inspired by how Bernard Rose shot Boxing Day with Danny Huston and I up in the wilds of Colorado with only a crew of four, I decided why not do the same here in San Francisco? Also, imbued with the confidence of playing a leading role opposite Huston combined with the reduced logistics of a tiny crew, I decided that I might be able to do both jobs at the same time. It was incredibly ambitious. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.
SB4MC: On the scale of exhilarating to daunting, what’s it like to create your own feature film from conception? How about trying to get your work in front of audiences in this age of video on demand?
Matthew: There’s a lot to talk about here and I suggest the readers go to our websites, especially the Indiegogo site. But the long and the short of it is it’s totally exhausting to create any film, but having the opportunity to make a film where the filmmakers have artistic control is so rare it makes the exhaustion worthwhile. Your father’s genius and inspiration is the foundation of this film for me. He gave me the faith that has kept it going through the long journey one has to make to get a film out there.
Now the movie is finished and playing festivals but we’re deliberately not going to distributors. This film is the first time I’ve done this. We’re going straight to iTunes and other VOD sites after gathering reviews from press screenings. But that costs money. That’s where Indiegogo comes in. Go check it out and you can preview the movie now and help pay for its commercial release next year.
Last year Boxing Day played in competition at the Venice Film Festival and was released theatrically in the UK and hopefully comes out here in 2014. That film was shot for $42,000 on a Cannon 7D and cost another chunk to finish. It took years to make it into the cinemas. All these films take forever. But if Boxing Day can do it, I have high hopes for Your Good Friend.
SB4MC: Last question. Bar America. Seems like you’re making the jump from writing to directing. How do the two disciplines compare for you? What can we expect to see during Matthew Jacob’s next incarnation?
Matthew: For me, directing and writing are the same. To explain why would take a book. What I am doing differently these days is acting and directing at the same time.
Bar America is in the finishing stages of being mixed. It’s a very different film in some ways. It’s with a very young ensemble of actors including Chris Candy (John Candy’s son) and Michele Boyd, Dustin Ingram, Morgan Walsh, and myself as the old fart. Yet again it is a film about friendship and community. Fingers crossed it’ll be good. All I do know is that everyone who’s worked on it did a great job; if it sucks it’ll be my fault!
Next… nothing I’m ready to talk about yet. Except I’ve just acted in a small Roger Corman movie, Art School Of Horrors, where I play a bad guy. Who knows what will happen to that?
SB4MC: Thank you so much for your time, Matthew.
Matthew: Thank you Zack!!
* For more on the strange transformations of The Emperor’s New Groove, track down the never-released film about its production, called The Sweatbox. It’s out there on the internets and definitely worth watching if you’re curious about how animation gets made.