Last July, Steven Moffat was a guest of honor at Comic Con’ France, giving two conferences.
Today we’re sharing with you footage from the first conference, a “masterclass” dedicated to his whole career, from Press Gang to The Adventures of Tintin and of course Sherlock and Doctor Who (the 2nd conference, to be posted later this week, was entirely dedicated to the latter).
As per Comic Con’ rules we can only share 10 minutes of each conference on video but you’re not gonna miss anything as we also have a full transcript of the Q&A thanks to Muri!
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Transcript by Muri
If you take quotes from this transcript to post there elsewhere, please link to this post as the source. Do not repost in its entirety.
Question: What’s a typical work day for you?
- I work from home obviously, because I always work from home. And upstairs I work during the day all the time that the nanny has got the kids, until the nanny goes and then I’m out.
Q: How do you divide your time between running the show and writing for it?
- It depends what’s happening at the time. I mean, some days I’m gonna look at rushes, I’ve got to auditions, gotta go to meetings, some days I’ve got to get script writing done. And the critical thing is to get that writing done, because if I don’t do that, nobody else does it. While meetings, all that stuff, I have to go to all of that as well.
Q: We’re gonna talk about your career in chronological order. The first show you wrote was Press Gang, which is relatively unknown in France. What can you tell us about it?
- While I’m deeply upset to hear that Press Gang wasn’t a huge hit in France, and it’s not too late. It was about young children running a newspaper for themselves. I say young, but they were teenagers, it was like a teen series full of romance and heroism and all that nonsense. You’d love it, it’s not too late.
Q: What was special about this show is that, like Coupling or Jekyll, you wrote all the episodes. Is it a way for you to keep control on the story and the characters? In short, are you a control freak?
- Yes! I suppose is the summary to that, but back in the day, a few years ago I felt really concerned about writing all of it. Now, yeah, you can be a control freak in other ways. Also, Doctor Who is too big a series to write by yourself, and it’s the kind of show that benefits from different voices coming in and telling me what to do as opposed to me telling what everybody else wanted it.
Q: In retrospect, do you regret not having other writers working on these other shows?
- Get out! Coupling was quite an individual piece, it was quite me, and it was quite my life. So it didn’t feel [like] something that I wanted to give to other writers, or that would work with other writers and that’s true of some shows. Some shows are more author than others, Coupling felt very much me and my preoccupations and delusions. So, whereas you wouldn’t want that to be Doctor Who every week, you would want it to be Coupling every week. (sarcasm) So in summary, no, Coupling was much better, because it was just me.
Q: Speaking of Coupling being based on your life, you’re named Steven and your wife is named Sue, and the characters were named Steve and Susan. Is it true that back then no one put two and two together?
- Well obviously, yes, there’s the link. Guess what? It is true that people used to ask Sue and I all the time, ‘are there any characters in Coupling based on you two?’, and we would marvel at the perspicacity of the press, because they never got it.
Q: For Coupling, and now on Doctor Who, you define narrative arcs for the season but then seem to be writing the episodes not in chronological order. Is that something you like to do?
- Not especially. It’s actually better to write the show in the right order. Anyone who knows my work just fell over at the sheer mendacity of that statement, but it is better to write it in the right order. It is often production reasons that you have to do it in the wrong order because you’ve got an actor you want to use, or a location that will be unavailable later, but generally I would prefer to write it in the right order and then maybe tell it in the wrong order. Ha!
Q: Do you stick to the masterplan when writing a season of a show, or do you often have to change it?
- The first casualty of war is always the plan. Actually the first casualty of war is probably a bunch of soldiers, but they never get counted. The, yes, it always changes. It changes to the last minute. We moved Neil Gaiman’s episode from one series to the next, quite recently. There are many considerations and it can be, you start with a really good plan and you end up hopefully with an equally good plan that is very different. It has to be that way, always.
Q: Coupling was such a success in the UK that the Americans tried to remake it and it failed. The US version of The Office was on the contrary a success. What do you think makes a remake a success or a failure?
- I suppose the ultimate reason is the American version of The Office was really good and the American version of Coupling wasn’t. – As to why that happens, there was a lot of network interference in Coupling and they were really hurting because I remember seeing the original cuts of the shows, and they were excellent. By the time the network had recut them, they were a mess. So, there’s some of that, but who can say? Most shows fail, is the terrifying reality you deal with in television. Whether they are adapted from an original or not.
Q: Speaking of remakes, there’s a new show called Episodes that relates the story of British writers going to America to work on the US version of their show. Have you seen it and if so, did it feel familiar?
- I did see Episodes and I have to say I liked it very much. If that’s meant to be Sue and I… goodness, I was a lot better looking on television, didn’t I? It did remind me, I suspect it was a little bit based on the fact that a married couple was gonna- there before I have to say the story, I’m relieved to report is very very different. I didn’t actually go out most of the time, I assume, though. So now that I think of it, what the hell was she up to? Good show, though. And yes, it rang a few bells.
Q: I heard there’s been a Greek version of Coupling. Have you seen it? We haven’t.
- I can’t remember if I saw it. Sue and I just got on the basis that if somebody wants to make a version of Coupling, we’ll sell it to them for a decent price if we get a free trip out of it. So, we did. We did pop off to Greece and spent a fun few days. Did I see the show? I think I did! I think it was alright. I mean, I think it was quite fun. I can’t remember if anyone watched it or not, but I think it was quite good.
Q: On Coupling you seemed to already play a lot with time on that show. There were flashbacks, flashforwards, parallel narrative… you didn’t wait to be working on Doctor Who to use these. Is Time just a narrative device you favor?
- I think you know the answer to that. Who says what order a story should be told in? When you experience a real event, in real life, you experience it in the wrong order. You experience your bit, and you hear about everybody else’s. When people go home from this, they’ll have their story of the convention and then they’ll get what was really going on from their friends, who were laughing at them behind their backs. So, if you add to that tendency of mind, a main character who travels in time, then you’re just in a lot of trouble. I love time travel, and I don’t think Doctor Who should be ashamed of the fact he’s got a time machine in the [inaudible].
Q: In 2005 you created Jekyll, a show that gave a modern setting to Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. You modernized another British icon more recently with Sherlock. Is that something you like to do, take an icon and doing something new with them?
- It must look like that. It must look like I’m just raking through Victorian literature and updating it all. Changing the dates. Actually, it’s kind of a coincidence. The idea for Jekyll was a man called Jeffrey Taylor, the idea for Sherlock was me and Mark Gatiss. It’s a coincidence, I probably would never do it again but yes…two shows in a row I have updated a Victorian icon. Queen Victoria next: ‘Queen Victoria Investigates’.
Q: In Jekyll, you set the show in a world where the original novel exists while in Sherlock it doesn’t. Is there a reason behind this decision?
- I can’t honestly remember, ‘cause the very first time I wrote Jekyll, the first draft of it, Jekyll wasn’t a well known name. But then it just seemed so daft, he’d walk in and he’d say, “I’m Dr. Jekyll” and nobody said, “and where’s Mr. Hyde?” At the same time we just ignored that on Sherlock. To be honest, I think the Sherlock solution is the right one. Just ignore it and pretend it doesn’t happen. The fact is he walks around with the most famous name in history, and no one pays any attention to the fact. It works fine. If I was doing Jekyll again, I think I would have eliminated that idea.
Q: Do you feel less free when writing on Doctor Who as it has a lot of history and writers and is a real franchise as compared to the shows that you created and produces and wrote all the episodes of?
-No, to be honest it doesn’t feel a lot different. I thought it would feel different. I thought when you were writing something that essentially belongs to somebody else, that is not your creation, and as you say ‘you will hand on some day’… I thought you’d be more tentative. I quite quickly learned, you can’t write Doctor Who that way, or Sherlock Holmes that way. You have to take command. You have to treat it like you own it. And it’s the first thing I say to every writer that comes on to Who. I say, write it like it’s yours. Write it like it’s your fault.
Q: In 2010 you created Sherlock, which airs in France on France 4. (Audience cheers) It takes place in the 21st century. Was that your idea? The BBC’s?
-Oh it was Mark Gatiss and I. My friend Mark Gatiss, who is the co-creator of Sherlock. We sat on trains a lot actually working on Doctor Who, and we talked about how much we love Sherlock Holmes and how we’d like to do a version of Sherlock Holmes. And we tentatively admitted, the version of, the film version of Sherlock Holmes we liked best. The old Basil Rathbone ones that were set in the modern day. We thought he was a bit cheekier and more fun. We kept saying, ‘someone’s gonna do that again and we’ll be really upset ‘cause it should have been us’. And then, I eventually met- I mentioned to my wife how upset we’d been all because somebody else had our idea. And she suggested that we could do it, and she produced it and we made it, and it was as you know, a huge hit. So, hurray for the wife.
Q: Before it became a success there was a lot of work. At first it was thought of as a one-hour episode format but then you decided to switch to a 90-minute format. What’s the difference between the two formats as a writer?
-The pilot worked well at an hour, it’s available in the British version, the DVD if you wanna see it. But, buy it he meant. The one thing we didn’t think worked very well was that the actual mystery story such as it was in that first adventure got a bit crowded out by the necessary character detail of John and Sherlock and we realized that the strength of that show is John and Sherlock. That’s what people love. So we didn’t wanna crowd it out, so the more relaxed working environment of 90 minutes just suited it. And it does, it feels more right at 90 than it does at 60 for lots of reasons. It wasn’t a difficult shift, it felt right.
Q: Sherlock is an amazing show, we’re all in agreement here, except that the 1st season is only 3 episodes long. Are you going to make more episodes for season 2?
-Guy Ritchie only did one! Look, three 90 minute Sherlock’s a year and 14 episodes of Doctor Who, please nobody say yes when I say, do you want to kill me? We like doing three 90’s of Sherlock, it makes sense to that kind of show. It’s a big, prestige brand. It’s special. It’s event television, and I don’t want to spend it, the rest of the year in a box.
Q: Is there something you can tell us about the 3 upcoming episodes?
-No. Oh, ok. What you get are the titles, and the titles will tell you what you need to know if you go and do your research. A Scandal in Belgravia, The Hounds of Baskerville, and The Reichenbach Fall.
Q: We talked about television a lot, now we’re going to talk about movies, and more specifically The Adventures of Tintin which is being released later this year. Did you grow up reading the comic books or did you have to do some research on the characters?
-Well I knew enough that when I came here and got interviewed yesterday I had to correct a number of interviewers: Belgian not French. I’m Scottish, we get the same trouble from the English. Yes, I grew up reading those wonderful books. Loved them. Never knew that they weren’t British, I’m afraid, until I was much older. So, it was an absolutely joy to go and to work on it and see it so beautifully brought to life by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have done. I think some amazing work in that. I think it will be thrilling. It will be interesting to know what Belgians think of it, as L.A beats Brussels in an extraordinary conflict.
Q: Before writing, did you reread the comic books or do some research?
-Oh, I reread all the books, ‘cause we had to choose where to start. How to begin it, and which elements of the stories we were going to use. Whether we were going to, you know, mix and match a bit, and that was a joy in itself. And Peter Jackson and I went to visit- went to Brussels to visit the place where Hergé actually sat and made up those stories. So, yeah, we did our research. Peter Jackson is a huge Tintin fan, he knows everything.
Q: How does it feel to be working with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson?
-In fact I did, to spoil the glamour, most of my work in my attic in West London. I had a little camera, a little webcam I talked to Steven and Peter on. Steven in L.A, Peter in New Zealand. So, there wasn’t a lot face to face, but when you’re talking to Steven Spielberg you are in the room not with one legend, but about twenty. You know, Indiana Jones, and Close Encounters, and the amazing Schindler’s List. So it’s a bit gobsmacking, or course it is. And he’s a very, very nice man, which is unusual, in L.A.
Q: You had to leave the production of Tintin to go work on Doctor Who. The 2 writers who replaced you are also British. Were they chosen partly because Tintin needed to keep its European identity?
-They were very concerned about getting, what they would think of as a European humor and sensibility into it. It is very easy to imagine the Hollywood blockbuster version of Tintin and you’re cringing a bit as he has seven girlfriends and gadgets or something. So they really wanted, they were very concerned about that. At the same time, it will be a Hollywood blockbuster but I think it will be a Hollywood blockbuster with all that European feel to it. That will be preserved. So yes, that’s why they were going for British writers.
Q: Have you seen any footage from the movie or were you too busy working on Doctor Who and Sherlock?
-Two major shows is enough. I haven’t, we occasionally exchange e-mails and I have sort of lost touch with him, I’m afraid. You know, once you’ve gone, you kind of have to go, really. But, as I say, such nice people, they always keep me up to date and send me stuff. So, I am vaguely up to date, but I think by the time I see it, I won’t even know which bits I wrote if I’m very honest.
Q: You had a comedy project called Adam and Eve. What happened to it? Can you tell us a bit about it?
-Uh, yes. Is the wife still here? No, that was a project that I wrote, sold, it was green lit, it was going to be made and then I was facing a year when I knew that Sherlock was gonna go. I knew I was taking off for Doctor Who and we were trying to work it out, join all the dots and make it all fit and it wouldn’t. So, Adam and Eve had to go on the back-burner. I love that script, I’d love to return to it some day in some form. But I had, I did back out of a green lit project, two of them in order to do these shows.
Q: Can you tell us more about the plot of the show or is it confidential?
-It was a man and a woman who never get together but are always in love. Actually, it was that. It was two people who sort of by accident don’t ever meet at the right moment. They always do but they don’t, and they end up knowing each other and being in love with other people. I was gonna chart their lives as boy meets girl and never get it together. It was that sort of, that long checkmate of a relationship that never happens. That’s a difficult pitch, that definitely guaranteed no happy ending.
Q: Is working on Doctor Who an achievement in itself for you? Is it a living dream as a fan?
-Oh, yes. Yes, it’s massive. Doctor Who is so huge in Britain and it’s that amazing thing of having a show that is winning awards, loved by everybody, getting great reviews is everything. It’s a massive step forward for me. It’s quite nice to have two of those I’ve got to admit. No, it’s, I mean, a total step-up. I thought when I first got involved, am I just being a fanboy? Well, yes! But it became a huge step-up for me, for all of us, for Russell, for David, for Matt, for all of us.
Q: How did you become a writer? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do?
-I always, I can’t remember wanting to be anything other than a writer or to be honestly being good at anything else. Oddly enough, I think watching Doctor Who as a child was a big excitement for me. I realize by glancing in the mirror, I was probably not going to be The Doctor, so I could be the guy that wrote the stories. That worked out, that was a long shot, but there you go.
Q: Hello. I was thinking about Sherlock. How did you choose your cast, especially for Jim Moriarty who is really young, for Moriarty, how did you choose them, all of them?
-Benedict we saw, Sue and I saw in a film called Atonement, and we were looking for a Sherlock Holmes and there was a tall, thin, handsome Englishman with a big nose and a frosty attitude. What else do you need? He was the only person we ever auditioned for the part. We sent him the script, he said yes, and that was it. We saw an awful lot of Dr Watson’s, tons of them. -We saw an awful lot of Dr Watson’s , Martin Freeman was just the one who worked so brilliantly with Benedict. The moment they strew together in the room you had a hit, it just fit it. Oddly enough we also saw Matt Smith for Dr. Watson, so that would have been a very surreal experience. And then with Jim Moriarty, he wasn’t originally in The Great Game, he just appeared in the background but we needed to find one. So I wrote an addition scene, which would have just stuff about him being a bit mad and talking about how he was gonna burn Sherlock Holmes. He did it so brilliantly, we cast him and put the scene in the show.
Q: I’d like to know how you work with the other writers on Doctor Who for instance. Do you impose the general story arc elements or are they free to do what they want?
-It varies every time. Sometimes they come in with an idea, which I like and ask- hand them off to do. Or, I give them an idea that they like and they go off to do, and I help how, as best I can. Sometimes that means I plotted it. Sometimes it means I do a bit of re-writing. Sometimes if it’s going brilliantly, I’m very very happy, I just let them get on with it, which is my best days, frankly.
- (Pointing to members of the audience) Can I just ask, is the lady ‘Matt Smith’ with the man ‘David Tennant’? (audience cheers and laughs) Now those are the evenings that’s only happened in the Doctor’s dreams.
Q: How did you manage to become a writer? Is it about studies, networking…?
-It happens differently for everybody in my stories, as most stories are quite long and involved. So I’ll give you the simple version of how everybody becomes a writer. You become a writer by writing every single day until you’re good at it, and it will take forever. And the first fifty things you write will be rubbish and you’ll think they’re great, but they won’t be. Then the next fifty things they’ll be rubbish too, but you’ll think they’re slightly better, you’re wrong. You keep going, it’s not about networks, it’s not about who you know, it’s not about getting a leg up. It’s about writing a brilliant script and sending it in. Then you’re fine.
Q: Hello. What’s your main concern when developing your characters?
-I suppose how do you get people to care about what happens to them. I mean they’re just made up, they’re not real. So how do you make them real to the audience. How do you get an audience to invest in them? There are lots of different theories. A lot of people, wrongly, think it’s about making them nice. Who gives a damn about nice. It’s about interesting. It’s about, about making you invest in them and seeing yourself in them. I suppose, as best an answer I can give. But making people, how to make people care about them, how to make them want to follow them, that’s the main thing about a character.
Q: We’re now going to show you the 1st episodes of season 6 of Doctor Who. Steven, what can you tell us about the beginning of the season?
-How many of you haven’t seen it? (Jokingly to those who haven’t) Ha, ha, ha, the rest of you out! We are incredible proud and pleased of these episodes, our first real proper American filming. I hope you enjoy them again-apart from you two.
END OF TRANSCRIPT.