Filmmaker Spotlight: Michaela Coel

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For this installment of Filmmaker Spotlight, we’re featuring the showrunner, writer, co-director and star of HBO’s limited series, I May Destroy You, which recently received nine Emmy nominations. At just 33 years of age, Michaela Coel has seen much success as a creator, vulnerably and transparently pulling from her personal experience to craft impactful work.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Coel was born and raised in London and recalled during her 2018 James MacTaggart Lecture how her mother, “a single, hardworking immigrant to England,” discovered that a nearby theater allowed children from low-income families to be a part of its youth workshops for free. Coel quipped that it was a cheaper option than childcare and noted the Bridewell Youth Theater as the place her “route into TV started” as an eight-year-old. 

Coel was accepted into the prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and as a part of her final year showcase, wrote what was the first iteration of Chewing Gum Dreams. It became a 45-minute, one-woman show that she eventually performed at the National Theatre before executives from a subsidiary of Fremantle Media approached her about adapting it into a series. Coel detailed during her MacTaggart Lecture that she had very little knowledge about writing for television and didn’t even know what a script editor was until after her 29th draft of what would become the Chewing Gum TV series. 

She starred in the series as Tracey, and Coel told Vulture that there were parallels between her own life story and that of the young character. “On one hand, it’s about a Christian girl who wants to lose her virginity,” she noted. “On the other, it’s about a girl who is marginalized from the world and wants to be a part of the world, and so she pursues that right as loudly and as absurdly as she can because it’s part of her humanity.”

The burgeoning creator found success with her first show but also underwent a traumatic experience related to it. While pulling an all-nighter at the company office to finish an episode due early the next morning, Coel took a break to grab a drink with a friend nearby. Her drink was spiked, and she was sexually assaulted. 

In I May Destroy You, the fictional character of Arabella, played by Coel, is assaulted in a similar way. “I realized that many people had some sort of experience that was connected to mine,” Coel told NPR. “There were so many different ways to explore consent and how it affects us today. What better place for a story than one that I felt many people could find an identification in?”

The series has not only created the space to explore important issues of our time, but it’s also accumulated an impressive amount of critical acclaim along the way, including the NAACP Image Award for Coel’s writing on the season finale and two BAFTA wins. Time will tell how the series performs at the Emmys, but its creator is not slowing down in the meantime. Variety reports that her debut book, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto, will release in September. And the BBC announced that she’s working on a new series that may have ties to I May Destroy You. The details are being kept tightly under wraps, but we can’t wait to see what comes next from the rising filmmaker, who has certainly earned her spotlight.

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