"Everyone's a human coming from a place of yearning for things and wanting certain things, and also justifying why what they're doing is okay."
Doomscrolling, gaslighting, and unhealthy obsessions are the foundation for Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller, Chloe. Created, written, and directed by Seabright, who is one of the directors and writers of Netflix's Sex Education, the series presents an unsettling look at social media and the false realities it can create—a feeling that is eerily familiar to all of us.
The six-episode series focuses on Becky Green (Erin Doherty), a seemingly unassuming woman who is addicted to stalking her childhood friend Chloe’s (Poppy Gilbert) perfectly curated social media presence. When Chloe suddenly dies, Becky assumes a new identity and infiltrates the enviable lives of Chloe’s closest friends to find out what happened to her.
No Film School spoke with Seabright to talk about her Hitchcockian inspirations, the effects of doomscrolling, and the themes surrounding intense female obsessions that are present throughout Chloe.
Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: What is the inspiration behind Chloe?
Alice Seabright: There were lots of ideas running around in my head for a while, things that I wanted to write and talk about. I was really interested in a character that uses lying as a way to cover up insecurities, but also as a way to access certain experiences that she just doesn't have in her real life as a sort of escapism, and a way to kind of keep people at a distance so she's never really showing her true self.
I think the character and the psychology of the character was the first place that I started, and then I was also really interested at the same time in the themes of obsession, in particular quite intense female obsession and very intense female friendships, teenage friendships, and so all those different things were things I was interested in anyway and thinking about. They sort of came together in the idea of Chloe, and I was able to use this story to talk about a lot of those things I was wanting to explore.
NFS: Becky is this dangerous character, but you can't help but have sympathy for her. How do you approach a character like that, who's very complex and very deceitful, while keeping in mind the audience's limits of sympathy?
Seabright: I think I am always interested in why people do what they do and empathizing and relating to their behavior, not as a way of explaining it away or justifying it, very much not, but as a way of in fact using it as a way to investigate the things we all do or the parts of us that are complicated and flawed. So, even though Becky does some things that I wouldn't do, and hopefully most of the audience wouldn't do, even though she's crossing a lot of ethical boundaries and she's very much challenging the audience of sympathies, I think that what's at the core of her is something that I think a lot of people should be able to relate to.
I think part of writing Becky was getting to know her, filling out who this person is because my belief is that no one goes around being like, "Well, I'm a bad person, villain." They might have toxic beliefs about themselves, but everyone's a human coming from a place of just yearning for things and wanting certain things, and also justifying why what they're doing is okay. I think that's the side, really getting under someone's skin and understanding them is what I'm interested in anyway. I love Becky. I have so much love and empathy for her despite all the terrible, terrible, terrible choices she makes.
When I first chatted to Erin [Doherty], it was clear that she could understand Becky, even though, again, [Becky] does wholly unjustifiable things. That was important in working with Erin and I think everyone who worked on the show shared that point of view. We were always trying to understand her rather than put her over here and turn her into a freak. It's like, why are we like Becky rather than why are we different [from] Becky, even though that's not to say that anything she does is okay.
NFS: You flesh out that idea of misunderstanding or doing unethical things through all of the characters, and return to this idea that people are kind of broken inside, they feel fragmented and are trying to constantly discover who they are. How do you balance that hopelessness of doomscrolling with the suspense?
Seabright: The themes that I was interested in exploring in the show are hugely all-around identity and sense of self, and how that relates to the things in the world that help you or hinder the grounding of your sense of self. Obviously, when we meet Becky, she has... it's interesting you say fragmented, that's a word I've used a lot when talking about Becky. Her sense of self and her sense of identity is fragmented, and that's for I think a couple of huge, big reasons.
One is because of her past experiences, in particular [her] friendship with Chloe, I think there's a theme around how you can find yourself in friendship, you are seen by your friends and that helps define who you are. She's had this experience of a friendship that falls apart, and it's incredibly threatening, I think, to your sense of self, because you go, "Well, okay, there's something about who I am as a person that's worthy of rejection."
I think she's going into the world like that, and so she's constantly putting on these different personas as a way to protect, or as a way not to show who she is. She's got this very fragmented sense of self. And then the other reason I think is to do with her mom and the fact that the one person who does know her, and who knows her deeply, and who knows the real person under everything, she's disappearing in the mind of that person. In a sense, her only tethering to reality in terms of who she is is drifting away into nothing, so it's this very precarious point in her life, I think.
It's really interesting that you relate that to the doomscrolling because I think that's very true, although I hadn't even expressed it like that in my mind. I think it's the doomscrolling, it does take you out of yourself. Suddenly, you're just a voyeur into some other people's lives and you lose any sense of your own agency because in every other form of social interaction it's two-way, whereas here you are just really taking in people and getting nothing back, so you could be anyone, you could be anything. She, I think, is particularly susceptible to that because of where she's at. I think the answer to all of that is I think the theme of friendship, and I think the importance of friendship is grounding you.
Also, the counterpoint to the friendship with Chloe, it's like, despite the fact that it's built on these lines, it ends up having these grains of true connection, which are an antidote or can have some healing property on Becky, I think. And then the other one is Josh. I think Josh sees her in a way that is slightly healing to the place that we meet her in the beginning because essentially sees someone who just will not allow herself to be seen, and that's hopefully the small journey that she goes on across the series is to start to see that maybe it's possible to be seen and for that not to lead to disaster.
NFS: A lot of directors have a hard time engaging the audience with scenes that revolve around a phone. Can you break down your approach to filming these phone-heavy scenes?
Seabright: It was very difficult and I also shared that aversion. I've always been kind of like, "Oh, I hate phone shots. I hate phones in things," but somehow, with this story, it was just inevitable. You couldn't get out of it because it's a huge part of the story. After all, I think it relates to what our interactions are now, aside from the fact that it's just set in the contemporary world and that's how if you compare it to... Because I talked a lot about older touchstone references, Ripley, Rebecca, and even old Hitchcock movies, and in those, of course, all of the clues, all of the things that the characters are trying to work out, you get these large closeups often on letters, on documents, on objects.
We talked about that a lot, the concept that if you come in on clues on the phone, treat them like the intense close-ups like you'd have on a document or a letter or whatever in a more old-fashioned movie that's a clue. Because that's it, she's getting so much of her information from these devices. And then there's the social media aspect and the images that she's consuming, and I think with that the idea was always to try and bring it to life, which in one sense we did literally, but also just to give the feeling of it rather than the literal. If you see an image of someone just doing [on their phone], it doesn't look like what it actually feels like to be doomscrolling, and so this sense of like the opening of episode one, or there are these other occasions, where the images come to life and you get the sense of it.
It was trying to express what the experience of consuming those images is rather than the literal sense of it. Then the other thing that was really fun to play with on that note was the changes in the images as they come to life.
There's one in particular, I think it's one of the images with Richard [Jack Farthing]... there's a group of friends, and Chloe's there and Richard's there, and we see [this image] a few times. It comes to life a few times, but it subtly changes each time. There's one where it goes down and Becky sees Richard and Chloe playing footsie under the table because she's got this idea that they're having an affair, and then there's another one where she sees Richard sort of walking towards Chloe with a sense of like yearning and unrequited love because that's what she's thinking at that point.
It was very fun to go, okay, she's got this image on the social media, but what is she viewing with that image? How is she interpreting it? What is she putting into the moment? That changes as she has a different understanding. Again, one of the themes is how you narrativize something or how you interpret a situation.
Another thing that we talked about when we were making, it was this theme of... I'd call it the duck-rabbit illusion. How have you ever seen that visual illusion where it looks like a duck or it looks like a rabbit depending on how are you—?
Seabright: You look at it like this and it looks like a duck, and then you look at it like that and it looks like a rabbit. We would talk about that as same with the images. With Chloe, it's like, is this a woman who's got an amazing life? Or is it suddenly you flip, and you go, "Oh shit, no, it's a woman who's running." Even the final moment on the cliffs, there are several ways to look at it. It's like, is that someone saving his wife, or is that someone running after her? Which is it?
You look at it like that, and you look at it like that, and it's your brain interpreting it. There's another bit I think in episode three where she talks about... She says, "Oh, my friend Alex, in one sense you could see her as this crazy party girl, but look at it the other way and you realize that she's someone in desperate need of help."
That's a paraphrase, but that sense of an image that looks like one thing, and then suddenly you look at it the other way and it gives you a completely different meaning.
NFS: I also think that's one of the themes of unhealthy obsession kind of goes into that idea of perspective, because even Becky has a hard time gauging how people see her and how she's being presented. What other techniques do you use as a director to translate those themes to the screen?
Seabright: There were several things that we did. We'd often mirror certain things, like the moment at the end of episode one she comes back to Chloe and Elliott's house, and she's there looking in at Elliott who's on the inside, and so she's on the outside literally, and we're here close with her looking into the small figure of Elliot walking around the house. And then, we sort of mirrored that image at the end of episode three where she's now in the house, and we kind of pull out and we leave her. We are outside now looking in at her, and we've kind of flipped the script on her.
Amanda Boyle, who's the director who did the last three episodes, and I talked a lot about how to shoot the house in a shifting way. It sort of starts as this place of it's so beautiful, it's so inviting, it's so warm and full of connection, even in that first scene in episode one where [Becky] looks at the house, she kind of imagines the group of friends having this wonderful warm time, and then as she spends time there it becomes this very different place that becomes this quite cold, eventually prison. So, mirroring and shifting the kind of camera language was a big one.
That fragmented sense of identity thing we were just talking about, we did have a very specific way of expressing that, which was that early on in the first few episodes we really split the camera language. When she was "Becky at home" and in a non-presentational environment, the camera language was really handheld and quite intuitive and quite free. Not free, but let's say not too square and cut off. Then, when she is coming in as "Sasha" or even at work when she's presenting as Sasha and she's arriving, the camera language suddenly becomes much more controlled. It's all on sticks or a dolly or a Steadicam, and then as the show develops those rules started to blur a bit more. We'd then use a handheld cam.
In episode six, the first time she comes down and Richard's down in the kitchen and she sees Elliot [Billy Howle] now for what he is, and the camera's handheld, and it's one of the first times in that environment that it's been uncontrolled in that way. Similarly in episode three, there's a scene where she's apologizing for having lied to Livia [Pippa Bennett-Warner] about the relationship with Elliot, and it's shot as we would shoot most of those scenes when she's Sasha, it's all locked off and controlled, and then she gets a call from the carer saying that her mom is lost and suddenly it goes handheld, and when she comes back in it's this quite chaotic scene.
So, we'd often try and kind of use the camera language to reflect her state of mind, but also how she's presenting to the world. Is she in this very presentational or controlled way, or is she slightly more out of control or letting her real self show?
NFS: I love that, and it really does translate it. It adds to the suspense throughout the show. For me, I was fearing every moment. I was like, "Oh my gosh, are they going to find out?" I was panicking for her.
Seabright: I've always found people trying to keep up lies one of the most tense experiences. I was hoping that would translate for the audience because it's not a kind of action, she's never being chased, but for me, the tension that comes from getting called out is almost the highest you can get.
NFS: What your favorite shot or favorite sequence is from the series?
Seabright: Oh, that's hard. I love the scenes with [Becky's] mom [Lisa Palfrey] a lot of the time. In episode three, the sequence when she finds her on the beach and then the scene in the bathroom where they finally connect but her mom's kind of lost the sense of who she is, and then her mom kind of turns on her and the memories of what happened to her sister sort of coming back to her.
I think that's probably—in a sense, it's not the most flashy from a filmmaking point, as in from a cinematography point of view, although it's beautifully shot by Catherine [Goldschmidt] who is the cinematographer, but I think just the rawness of the performances and the tenderness of the moments between them and the complexity of all of that, I think that's the sort of stuff that the stuff I love.
NFS: Do you have any advice that you would like to give to aspiring filmmakers?
Seabright: Yeah, I think probably I'd have two pieces of advice. I think one is to just always do what is available to you. Obviously, filmmaking is a really hard thing to get into, it's full of hurdles and sometimes it seems impossible to get to the place where you want to go, but I think that looking at what you can do now is the way. I have a friend who says, "Go where the green lights are." It's like if you don't have any funding to make something, make something for no money with your friends. If you can write a script at home, do that. Do what you can do, and that will lead to something, to the next thing, rather than worrying about the things that you can't do right now.
I think the second one is probably to say that to hone in on your gut instinct and who you are as a filmmaker, and your sense of taste and your interests, even if at the beginning it feels fragile and uncertain because if you're trying to be like someone else or you're trying to do what you think other people will like, it's back to the broken mirror in the Chloe letter. I've tried to do that in the past and—it's just hard, if not impossible. You are never going to do that properly, whereas being the closest you can be to being the most you can in what you're making is what you're going to do best, and it's what will end up working the best I think. Yeah, that would be what I'd say.