OWhen Alice Seabright first watched her new BBC One drama Chloe, she had a “vulnerability hangover”. It’s, explains the filmmaker, the feeling you get when you’ve said too much on a drunken night out. “The next day, you say to yourself: why did I tell them all these things about myself? I felt like that: too exposed, uncomfortable and a bit gross.
For one thing, that kind of reaction is seemingly normal when it comes to making movies and TV. “It is a known thing that when you watch an assembly [first cut] you want to puke,” Seabright tells me on Zoom from the plush Bristol apartment she stayed in during production of Chloe. Still, the show left the 32-year-old feeling more unsettled than usual. It was different to rewatch the Netflix smash Sex Education episodes she directed, or even her catalog of quirky and moving shorts.
For starters, the responsibility was far greater than anything she had known before. Seabright is the showrunner for Chloe: the term imported from the United States that refers to the person who oversees the writing, directing, overall creative vision, and just about every other detail of a television series. “If it’s shit, it’s your fault,” is how Seabright succinctly sums up the job.
There’s another reason why Chloe might feel like an act of flight from her maker. The plot isn’t exactly autobiographical: the meandering, multi-layered drama revolves around disaffected twenty-something Becky, who navigates her way through a chic and artsy social circle in order to make sense of the death of the main character, an ambitious young woman she compulsively followed on Instagram. Still, Chloe often feels like a more abstract kind of confessional.
Addressing the themes of low self-esteem, anxiety, success (or lack thereof), status, obsession with social media and addiction, the show tackles something strange and disreputable about being a woman today. You feel it in Becky’s punitive and indulgent use of Instagram, solemnly and eagerly scrolling through seemingly perfect existences. It’s in his constant fabrications about his supposedly glamorous life, which mirror the desperate maintenance of appearances that abounds online. It’s also there in her paranoid imaginations of people laughing at her and finding out who she really is. “I feel like everyone working on the show relates to Becky,” Seabright says. “Even though none of us have ever infiltrated the life of our deceased ex-best friend.”
There are downsides to doing such viscerally contemporary drama: namely, the fact that you have to work extensively with phones. Forget children and animals, screens are the bane of the 21st century filmmaker. “I feel like I never want to see a phone again – it was a fucking nightmare,” says Seabright, referring to the finicky venture of incorporating a smartphone screen into a shot. Integrating phones into the plot was another challenge. “It’s really, really hard to figure out how to tell a story through screens,” she says. “But a lot of our drama is literally playing out on our phones. I couldn’t do without it.”
Seabright came up with two nifty solutions. The first was to treat Becky’s phone as a meaningful object. “In crime novels and detective novels, close-ups of clues are really important, so the phone is a clue most of the time, or the computer footage it goes through. It’s the same as in an old movie where they take a letter and you tap on it. The second was a technique she calls “stilt moves,” in which Instagram photos come to life on screen — often to reflect what Becky knows about the context of the image at any given moment.
In a sense, Seabright’s success has been a long time coming; in another, everything seems to have happened incredibly quickly. She started making movies for fun as a teenager living in Toulouse; having grown up near Saffron Walden, she returned to her French mother’s native country when she was 10 years old. At 18, she returned to the UK to study psychology at UCL, joined the film society, met her partner (also now a filmmaker), and learned how to use cameras and edit. Jobs in the film industry – editing, administrative roles – followed. In his spare time, Seabright has managed to make a handful of shorts with impressive castings that won significant acclaim (2016’s Pregnant Pause, starring Alexandra Roach and Sally Phillips, was nominated for a Bafta).
Yet it wasn’t until 2018, when Seabright began studying at the National School of Film and Television, that directing began to appear as a real career possibility. Then things moved quickly: within a year, she was named Screen International Star of Tomorrow, was hired as a director on Sex Education (she also co-wrote a season three episode with the show’s creator, Laurie Nunn), and started working on Chloe.
If you had to identify a common thread in Seabright’s work, you might settle for empathy. Many of her films are nuanced takes on women struggling with complicated feelings: the biting End-O (2019) stars Sophia Di Martino as a woman with endometriosis; Strange Days (2018) is about a woman obsessed with a friend who disappeared when they were teenagers (Seabright says the latter planted the seed for Chloe). Empathy is, she acknowledges, one of her principles of animation as a filmmaker – and as a person. “I am like that, sometimes to my detriment. I always have this tendency to leave: let me put myself in that person’s shoes, and sometimes it’s like, “He’s a murderer, Alice, don’t do that. I find it quite easy to relate to people, even though I’m quite socially awkward.
Now, Seabright is waiting for Chloe to air in prime time – also with some awkwardness. “I’m not going to lie, I’m a little worried,” she said. One concern is the show’s distinctly millennial subject matter and tone. “When we first developed it, I thought, well, it could be something like BBC Three, 10:35 p.m. The closer I get to the transmission, the more I say to myself: wait a minute, lots of people are going to see it…”
It seems fitting that the creator of a show that vibrates with imposture and self-doubt is so candid about hers. Let’s just hope the vulnerability hangover isn’t too punitive.
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Chloe is on 6 and February 7 9 p.m. on BBC One and iPlayer; it is also available on Amazon Prime.