Alice Seabright on lessons learned directing short films to 'Sex Education' for Netflix
We are joined by the wonderful writer/director Alice Seabright. Alice has a wealth of work under her belt from her recently released short film End-O to directing episodes of Netflix’s Sex Education Series 2. She is currently writing for Sex Education Series 3 as well as being announced as Screen International ‘Stars of Tomorrow 2019’. I caught up with Alice to dive into her journey so far and what lies ahead.
I'm a big fan of your work, but for others that may not be familiar could you tell us a little bit about yourself.
I'm a writer/director for film and television. I’ve made a number of short films in different genres and lengths and in the last couple of years, I’ve been working in television. Last year, I directed two episodes of the second series of Sex Education and I'm now working on a TV show called Chloe that I'm writing and will hopefully direct next year.
My short films have mostly been comedies, although they tend to be quite naturalistic and dramatic. But the show I'm working on at the moment (Chloe) is quite dark, and although it has some humour in it, it’s more of a mystery thriller.
Your newest short film End-O explores the relationship between two sisters who suffer terribly from Endometriosis. I have a close family member who suffers from this condition, so I am well-versed in this subject which I think you captured beautifully in this short. Can you tell us what inspired you to make this film?
A really good friend of mine, Elaine Gracie, who is the screenwriter, has Endometriosis. I talked about Elaine’s condition with her quite a bit as a friend, and when she wrote the script, she sent it to me to look at. By that point, I'd made a few short films so I really wasn't looking to make another one, but I read it and immediately I thought “this is incredible! I have to direct it!”.
Partly that's a testament to her writing. It felt so raw. It was something that she wrote in anger and frustration at her situation, and I think that comes across in the tone of the script, which is so honest and personal. It really resonated with me.
I was also drawn to the fact that it’s a condition we discuss very little given how common and devastating it is for women. There’s recently been a lot more awareness raised about it, but I’d say that until about four or five years ago, it was something that mostly sufferers and their family and friends had even heard of. Last time I checked, Endometriosis affected 1/10 women and yet only 20% of the population had heard of it.
How did you raise the funds to make this film?
We raised funds through a variety of ways, but one of them was (crowdfunding platform) Kickstarter. We made a stupid video, as you do: Elaine, the producers Alex, and Kate, and myself, embarrassing ourselves completely.
Although the purpose of the campaign was to raise funds, it actually ended up being a really great way of connecting with the Endometriosis community. We teamed up with the charity Endometriosis UK. They really helped us and supported us by reading the script and getting our campaign out there. Suddenly, we were in communication with a lot of people who have Endometriosis, who supported us with small donations in large numbers, and have been a huge audience for the film.
Absolutely. The short gave them a voice.
Yes, that was so fantastic. We’re actually doing an online screening with Endometriosis UK tonight, which will be great.
End-O, was nominated for ‘Best Short’ at the London Short Film Festival. Congratulations!
How are you finding the film festival circuit now and how do you think that's changed with the COVID-19 situation?
We were lucky with End-O as it had already done a lot of its festival circuit. It was going to screen at Underwire, who have had to cancel. That’s so sad as it’s such a wonderful festival. We’re still waiting on a few festivals, then we’re aiming to release it online.
I loved how music is also a character in this film as well. That perfectly, emphasised the humour and dramatics of it.
That was fun to play with. It felt like orchestral music was the best way to honour the tone of the script, which is so comedic, but also emphasise the epic and dramatic nature of living with the condition. It felt like the best way to express both humour and pain.
The tone of the film to me was really important. It felt truthful to talk about the subject with humour because that's how people often deal with difficult things. It's certainly how Elaine and I both deal with things. Elaine will never really talk about her condition without making a joke. In part, that's a deflection, which is something we explore in the film as well. The main character is constantly batting it off as no big deal.
Sophia Di Martino gives a fantastic performance in the film. What was it like working with her?
She's absolutely brilliant. Extraordinary. I love her, she's so talented. She just got it. She's so good at playing what's going on underneath, the subtext of the scene. And she’s also just such a raw performer, which suited the film so perfectly. She gives it her all and it feels so real.
Your work touches on many taboo female topics such as your short Pregnant Pause which explores a young woman’s thoughts on having a child and again with End-O. You find subjects that are quite common, but no one's actually talking about them. I’ve really enjoyed seeing that perspective on screen.
Thank you so much. I don't think that's deliberate. Pregnant Pause is quite a personal film. I talk about experiences I've had, and a lot of my friends have had. I’m coming from a place of “this is the world that I know to be true so that's what I'm going to talk about”.
You've now directed a couple of episodes of Sex Education for Series Two, and you're writing an episode for Series Three. Were you a fan before you joined as a Director?
I loved the show. I was a huge fan of series one, and I think creator Laurie Nunn is a total genius. I absolutely loved working on series two, it was truly the best. It was such a joy getting to tell stories in that world, and about those characters that I love so much.
Going from short films to a big Netflix TV show, did you find any of that intimidating?
Absolutely. It’s definitely intimidating. It was a huge step up for me. But in some ways, the process remains quite similar, it’s just that the scale and the resources are completely different.
Another big difference of course is that it’s already an established show, so you’re coming in to something where a lot of the creative decisions have already been made upstream. So in a way, it’s like you’ve been given a sandpit to play in, and the most extraordinarily talented people to play with. Getting to work with the show’s brilliant cast and crew was one of the most amazing learning opportunities for me.
It’s very different to creating something yourself but even within the sandpit, there’s still a huge amount of creative freedom. As I was making my episodes, I really wasn’t sure how much of me would end up in them, as you’re really taking on the house style. And then I remember watching the whole thing, and even though the whole series is tonally coherent, I think you can tell that the different episodes are made by different people, and that’s the joy of it. Tonally, there are subtle shifts. And I really do see myself in my episodes!
Did they allow for any rehearsal time with the actors?
There was a bit actually, yes. I was really pleased about that. I love rehearsals whenever possible. Not necessarily to do the scene, but more just to get to know the actors and to chat and play around.
I think it can be quite weird and stressful when you're meeting an actor just before, or even sometimes as you're filming. If you haven’t figured out how to communicate, it can be very difficult, because a set is a stressful work-place environment with huge time pressures. Whereas I think in rehearsals, that is the moment where you can get to know someone, and talk about the material, talk about the scene, and understand how each other work.
We did a week of rehearsals, with the two other brilliant directors, Ben Taylor and Sophie Goodhart. There were new cast members and characters as well, so we were trying to establish them. Playing and improvising to just get to know the new characters, and what their dynamics would be.
Jumping from short films into TV - is that how you envisioned your career? Would you like to do a feature?
Yes, I definitely want to do a feature. I'm figuring it out as I go. It's just worked out that way at the moment. I've always loved Film and Television, and I do think that increasingly, there's a blurred boundary between them with filmmakers being on each side.
Tell us about your new TV show Chloe (currently in development with Mam Tor Productions/BBC Drama)
It’s completely different to everything we've just talked about because it's a mystery thriller, although it’s quite a grounded and character-driven one.
It's about a woman called Becky, who’s living a life that she's not really happy with, living with her mom in the seaside town she grew up in, and in a bit of a rut. She’s obsessed with her estranged teenage best friend, and goes through her glamorous online life constantly, partly as a way to make herself feel worse. Then she discovers that her friend has died and is completely shocked by this. She decides to try and understand what happened by infiltrating the group of friends that are left behind. She's complicated, but I really love her as a character.
That sounds brilliant. How many episodes will it be?
It's six episodes. We hopefully shoot early next year or early spring, if the filming situation has gone back to normal by then.
How are you coping with lockdown and how do you see that shaping the future of film production?
I'm actually really lucky that it hasn't affected my work situation too much because I was going to be spending the rest of the year writing. I was just at home doing that anyway.
So many people I know, so many friends have lost huge amounts of work and are in very unstable situations now. A lot of people are talking about lockdown like it’s this great opportunity for productivity, but the truth is for most people it's actually just uncertainty and instability and it's not fun. It's quite stressful.
I can just hunker down and keep on writing. But even though I’ve got more time, it’s quite stressful thinking about what's going to happen. It's a very scary situation for a lot of people and it might continue to be a bad situation for quite a long time, medically, economically, and in terms of the effect that it will have on the filming industry.
Do you have any helpful advice for any young directors trying to get into the industry?
I would say a few things. One is to work with what you've got. When I was first making films, I was at university and I was making them as part of a film society. I would make films with the camera there and when I wasn't able to make stuff, I was writing. Try at every point to move forward with what you can do within your capabilities and resources at that point, rather than worrying too far ahead about where that's going to lead you. I think some of the best things that I've done have been when I've just said, "Okay, let's just go ahead with what’s possible right now."
Then I think the other side of it is that Film is an industry that's based on relationships. You always hear that it’s really important to network, which can be really terrifying and off putting. It certainly was for me. But when I now look back on my last few years, I realise that networking can simply mean making genuine connections and friends. It's about finding those people, your peers, that you want to work with over and over again, and developing alongside them. It's finding a little tribe of people that you click with and that can support you in the long game of it all.
The final thing I’d say is that the film industry is notoriously an industry with a lot of a barriers to entry. Those barriers are real, but don’t be discouraged. The film industry needs people from all walks of life, all backgrounds. If it’s hard to find a way in, try reaching out to people ahead of you on the ladder directly for advice or to meet. And when you get on the ladder, don’t forget to bring other people up with you!
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