TV TATTLE

Michaela Coel used mood boards to help BBC envision I May Destroy You

  • The BBC gave Coel full creative control months after she turned down Netflix's $1 million offer, but the British public broadcaster didn't have "a clue" what she was planning because she had yet to write a script for I May Destroy You. So Coel collected images from the internet, put them onto PDFs and sent them to BBC head of programming Piers Wenger. “I was trying to help him imagine what it might be,” Coel tells The New York Times, laughing, “but it’s only in hindsight I realize that I was just sending pictures.” The PDFs included photos of gay Black couples with similar builds as inspiration for the character Kwame’s story line, links to yoga retreats for women of color and images of industrial chic interiors. Coel also detailed other influences, including two of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s films (Leviathan and Loveless), Calvin Klein's Euphoria ad from 2015 and the book The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons by Vanderbilt law school professor Colin Dayan. As The Times notes, Dayan's book "looks at how the past haunts the law, imprisoning and enslaving specific groups of people and — legally — depriving them of their personhood. Coel found parallels between these ideas and the way Arabella and her classmates group themselves by race." Coel adds: "There’s something about school at that time, in very neglected boroughs in the U.K., that felt like a prison system." She also took inspiration from the sparse concrete and repeated block shapes of many London schools. “It almost felt like, how could you not have a school that ended up the way they did when you put them in a building so brutal,” she says.

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    • How did Michaela Coel keep herself safe while you reliving her trauma during filming?: "Two things: I made sure I got at least seven hours of sleep every day," she says. "There was so much that I was doing that in order to do these things properly I felt like the first thing I had to do was sleep. Also I didn’t take a car to work — I cycled to work. So it would allow me to get endorphins going and clear my mind and have a moment of solitude. And we also had a dramatherapist on standby the whole time, Lou Platt. She was very helpful, quite grounding. When occasionally things do get quite tough, you do remember this is your real life, and so I would meet with Lou. Lou was available to anybody, because the content was triggering for everybody. And, of course, not only did I have Lou, I had my own therapist. I like talking."
    • Paapa Essiedu went to drama school with Coel, but she didn't think of him for the Kwame role: "She’s changed, and she hasn’t changed," he tells The A.V. Club. "I think she’s grown into herself in a way that you always hope for someone who’s gone from 20 to 30, or whatever it is. To me, she’s always been a very special charismatic, intelligent, insightful, challenging, brave woman, so it’s great for that she’s been platformed and seen by the masses, because I think she’s incredibly special human being. And yet she did make me audition for the part. She didn’t even think about me for the auditions, you know. We were chatting about the project in a way that friends chat about what they’re doing. It never even came her mind that I would be right. Sometimes I think that it still doesn’t, even though I’m an actor, because we don’t talk about that kind of stuff, as friends. It was the casting director, Julie Harkin. She suggested me to Michaela and she was 'really?' and the casting director was like, 'yeah, please.' And so, I actually auditioned a couple of times. Such was the journey to see me in the role. Michaela and I have got kinship mentally, psychologically and emotionally, so we’ve always had really productive conversations creatively. So it worked out in the end."
    • How much of what we see onscreen is actually Coel?: "The lucky thing is that I created a fictional character, so I didn’t have to play myself. It would have been really weird to play myself," she says. "That would have really tripped me out. I’m bending the rules of reality and fiction enough as it is, it would have been weird. Though we merged so much, there are little rules in place that remind me of what’s separate."
    • Coel says she's taking some time before moving on to her next show: "It is in the back of my mind," Coel said about her next project. "And I keep telling this idea to wait because we’ve got to finish giving birth to I May Destroy You before I start thinking about having other children!"
    • I May Destroy You benefits from weekly viewing, not binging: "I love consuming it this way," says Matthew Gilbert, who has access to the entire season as a TV critic. "For one thing, it’s an intense show, with themes of sexual abuse. Yes, there are funny moments in the life of a woman — Coel’s Arabella — and her friends in the city, partying and dating. But it’s all fueled by what happens to each of them regarding sexual misconduct involving boundaries and consent, and it’s not always an easy watch. So I like having time between episodes to recover. I also like having time between episodes to think about the various sexual situations presented, what happens during them, what has or has not been disclosed up front by the participants, etc. I May Destroy You is, among other things, a look at the many ways things can go wrong, and I appreciate reconsidering what I’ve seen before moving on to the next chapter. Each episode is beautifully crafted, too, and I enjoy being able to fully appreciate that. And then watching the HBO series incrementally gives me something to look forward to."
    • Inside the making of I May Destroy You's stunning soundtrack: "Before the lockdowns, we’d all get together for what we call music spots, where we’d sit down with Michaela, the producers, and the editors and go over each episode cue by cue," says music supervisor Ciara Elwis. "Later, we did it all by Google Hangout, which was a bit weird but we made it work. If we came across a cue that needed music, or where the music wasn’t working, I would pull five or six options for Michaela to make a final decision. A lot of the conversation would be about what the character might be thinking in the scene, or what they might be listening to. With Arabella, she’s really upbeat and bubbly and full of life — regardless of these horrible things that seem to happen to her — so Michaela wanted a lot of female hip-hop and gospel and things like that for her character. With Kwame we used some L.G.B.T. artists that he might have an affinity for. It’s not meant to be reductive, but it was really important for all the characters to have songs representing them, including in the lyrics, and for that add to your understanding of who they are."
    • Paapa Essiedu and Weruche Opia's characters help form the foundation for I May Destroy You: "Their characters’ journeys underline the show’s focus on the intricacies of consent, even as their lived-in rapport can make it a surprisingly easy watch, considering the subject at hand," says Alison Herman. "Critics talk all the time about the concept of romantic chemistry—whether we believe two actors are as attracted to each other as their characters. Less discussed, but equally vital, is the concept of platonic chemistry. Would these people actually hang out with each other, let alone be vulnerable or intimate? Coel, Essiedu, and Opia sell their trio’s soul-deep connection, which in turn gives credence to the complicated scenarios their characters are forced to navigate."
    • I May Destroy You is proof that broadcasters should trust the artist: "I May Destroy You demonstrates that great art is made when a creator is trusted and backed. It should be the rule, not the exception," says The Guardian, which adds: "It stands out from the usual machine-tooled TV drama in all kinds of ways, but particularly in its sheer formal boldness. It is simply not interested in received wisdoms about narrative shaping – principles that, when lazily applied, can smooth and polish TV drama into well-made, anodyne homogeneity. I May Destroy You has very obviously not been through an endless editing process of notes from layer upon layer of television executives."

    TOPICS: I May Destroy You, BBC, HBO, Ciara Elwis, Michaela Coel, Paapa Essiedu, Weruche Opia, Music and TV




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