Michaela Coel on powerful drama I May Destroy You: How I Made It

The TV trailblazer and creator of Chewing Gum talks to us about her bold and arresting new TV series I May Destroy You, which covers consent, race, sex, exploitation and much more.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 23 June 2020 - 12.05pm
BBC

“I just write. That’s just what comes out. There was no effort to avoid being half-hearted. It’s just the way it always was, from the very first drafts.”

Michaela Coel is being incredibly modest when it comes to her talents as a writer, because her new BBC series I May Destroy You is the most powerful and distinctive piece of TV writing in 2020 so far.

Complicated and conflicted in tone, single-minded and raw when it comes to telling its story, I May Destroy You looks set to be one of the most-talked about TV shows of the year – even if it is currently tucked away in the late night schedule. 

The first two episodes are already on iPlayer and Coel’s story of care-free Londoner and ‘voice of her generation’ writer Arabella will reward you with a story filled with pain, laughter and drama that will live with you long after the credits finish rolling.

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You BBC

The series starts as one story, a distracted and pressured Arabella battling self-destruction, before becoming something quite astonishing and different when she is sexually assaulted in a night club.

“This show is about how trauma changes you,” explains Coels. “How it contorts you, oppresses you, reduces you. That’s what it’s all about.”

BT TV spoke with Coel and cast members Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu about the making of this dark and timley series.

I May Destroy You could be the show of 2020

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You with Weruche Opia BBC

“It’s on the nose in terms of timing,” points out Opia, who plays Arabella’s best friend and aspiring actor Terry.

“A lot of the themes and experiences that happen in the show are happening right now. Things that haven’t been seen on TV yet, or haven’t been discussed as openly, are being brought to the forefront - I think it’s incredibly honest and open and I believe it will have an effect on people.

“It’s wonderfully written and hopefully will help people be brave and address things that they may relate to on screen, in their own lives. I hope people learn something from it.”

Essiedu, who plays Kwame, a friend and dancer with self-esteem issues, admits he found the series “really difficult” when he first got the scripts.

“My first instinct was that it’s so confrontational,” he confesses.

“It’s so direct and so true. So honest and frank. It’s difficult to manufacture that effect on a story, unless you really know what you’re doing. That very singular quality about Michaela’s writing, makes it so, so authentic and direct. It’s not something that you come across all the time.”

Opia adds: “I’ve not read anything like this before. It’s so honest and raw and needed. It’s the conversations you have with your friends, up on the TV screen.

“It’s incredible honest and raw and that’s testament to Michaela’s script. To be a part of making that come alive is incredible.”

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You BBC

Coel spoke at the Edinburgh TV Festival in 2018 about a case of sexual assault and incidents of racism she had suffered during her career.

But viewers shouldn’t take that knowledge as any sort of guidance that this is a memoir or a story based on true events.

“It’s definitely a fictional show,” Coel said.

“It’s not a fictional documentary or biopic of any kind. I did speak to people. But sometimes it would be as simple as hearing a conversation on a bus and I would create a plotline from it. It’s a combination of various different things.

“I also spoke to my step-mum, who works at a sexual assault referral unit. I spoke to the Welcome Trust. I spoke to psychologists about PTSD, drug-facilitated sexual assault and also about drugs can affect memory. But I must always preface everything that it is a fictional show.

Taking sex seriously

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You with Weruche Opia BBC

For a series that zooms in on the issue of consent, Coel was fastidious about delivering an atmosphere and environment on set that matched up to her own values

The series doesn’t hold any punches with its look at the partying, drugs and app-loving sex lives of modern Britain and renowned intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien (Netflix’s Sex Education) was brought in to help ensure the safety of the cast and crew.

“Ita’s the top of the game in creating an atmosphere where actors can perform,” said Essiedu.

“Some of those scenes are fun, some of them are less fun and warm. But to go there, you have to know what the playing field is. Where everything goes, when and how. What you feel comfortable touching and where you feel comfortable being touched.

“The alternative to that is just approximating and hoping for the best. Which is just wild. You would never do that if you were doing a fight scene, so why would you do that with a sex scene.”

Opia used a body double for her sex scenes in the show and credits everyone involved in the production for making her feel comfortable enough to voice her discomfort.

“It was a very respectful space and I would never need to take things to one side,” she explained. “I’ve never experienced anything like that before and I really appreciate that.

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You with Weruche Opia, filming in Italy BBC

Coel also helped loosen up any tensions on set by trying out lots of the most awkward scenes with her co-director Sam Miller, so she could have the same experiences at the cast.

“That takes away the line of directors watching actors do things,” she said. “Get stuck in and try things too. That set up a very nice, safe environment.

Talking about the significance of working with intimacy coordinator Ita, Coel said: “I think you have to be willing now more than ever as filmmakers to change things the moment you sense discomfort with actors.

“You have to keep trying and seeing if someone seems a little bit uncomfortable. I don’t know if you’ll always get it right, but you have to relentlessly make sure. By the time it comes on TV, you want the actors to feel proud rather than cringing at a memory of when they had to do something they weren’t comfortable with. That ruins it for them.”

Alongside Ita, a therapist was on standby for anyone who felt overwhelmed by the events of the series.

“It can trigger memories for anyone. Even people in the crew,” said the writer. “Everyone had access to them.”

London is a key player in this story

Paapa Essiedu in I May Destroy You BBC

“It was always going to be London. Always,” says Cole.

“London does not inform how I tell the story, London is both the teller of the story, and the essence of the story itself. A melting pot, with different cultures, ideas, huge economic disparity, all squished together in a city starving of trees.

“Without this setting being at both the core of my writing and my life, this story does not exist as it is.”

Aml Ameen, who plays party boy and bad influence Simon, added:Michaela is a very dynamic writer, and so to me she’s accurately captured life in your late 20s, growing up in the city. The show explores sex, love, responsibility, friendship, the nuances of what are conventionally perceived as taboos.

“It’s also the first time I’ve seen Black British characters so widely painted, capturing the variety of our experiences. I really admire that.

“What’s refreshing about a series like this, by virtue of being a London-born-and-raised man, the vibration of the show feels so familiar. The characters are people I’ve met in my real life to varying degrees.”

Adele is singing the show's praises

If you were looking for some good PR for a TV show, getting Britain's biggest music star to write about you to her millions of Instagram followers must rank pretty highly.

Adele is a big fan of the show. A very big fan.

"I May Destroy You is the best thing I’ve seen on British TV for yeaaaarssss!!" wrote the Hello singer.

"Go watch it on iplayer right now. It’s wholesome, uncomfortable, hilarious but terribly sad and then awkward...and then it makes you cough a bit for no reason and also makes you go put the kettle on, for no reason.

"You might pretend you need a pee and then you get a bit itchy, then it makes you ask your girls things you haven’t before. And then makes you want to run out in the street and laugh so hard like mad til you cry for absolute hours! I’ve never felt so many emotions at once! Absolutely fantastic. Michaela Coel bloody SMASHED it."

Coel admits she was stunned by the comments from Adele.

Speaking to Stylist, she said:  "Somebody sent me a screenshot of the Instagram. I thought ‘wow’. What else can you say.

My other friend emailed and said: ‘Isn’t this just all your dreams coming true?’ Yes! What happens now?"

What next for Coel?

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Already one of the hottest properties in TV, I May Destroy You looks destined to shuttle Coel further into the stratosphere and mark her up alongside Phoebe Waller-Bridge as one of the voices of her generation.

She turned down a streaming giant, who wouldn’t give her complete control over the rights to I May Destroy You, but found a home for it on the BBC and HBO in the America.

The writer and actress says that she “really doesn’t know” whether there is potential for a second series, but the characters and universe she’s built definitely feels rich enough for it to be continued if she wishes.

And who is inspiring Coel in the world of TV right now?

Before lockdown, Coel had bumped into writer Jesse Armstrong, one of the co-creators of Peep Show and the mastermind behind the critically acclaimed and award-winning HBO comedy Succession.

“I’m a big fan of Succession. I asked Jesse if I could shadow in his writing room. Just to see how he does that,” she revealed.

“I’ve never been in a writers' room or worked with another writer. But I’m so blown away by Succession and Peep Show that I want to see how you do it. He said I could, but obviously things have changed.

“Hopefully when this is over I’ll get to peep over his shoulder and see how it’s done.”

I May Destroy You airs at 10.45pm on Monday and Tuesdays.

Catch up on episodes you miss with BT TV via the BBC iPlayer app.