I May Destroy You

A daring and intensely personal drama dealing with the trauma of sexual assault punched through British culture on debut in early 2020 with critics wowed by the series’ convention-defying structure as much as the honesty of its insight. Created, written, co-directed, executive produced and starring Michaela Coel,

I May Destroy You is the recipient of multiple BAFTA® awards including for best miniseries, actress (Coel) and editing. Coel reportedly turned down a $1 million offer from Netflix in favor of retaining creative control at the BBC and HBO. The 12-part drama is set in London and centers on the issues of sexual consent among a generation hooking up on dating apps.

Coel stars as Arabella, a writer and blogger who seeks to rebuild her life after being raped. Editor Christian Sandino-Taylor had been approached to work on Coel’s previous series Chewing Gum (season 2) but was unavailable. Consequently, the first time he met her was when he was invited to discuss the script over coffee with co-director Sam Miller. “I’d seen Chewing Gum and really liked it but I didn’t know much else about Michaela,” he says. “They sent me 12 scripts and I’d only had time to read the first two before the meeting. I knew it had semi-autobiographical material and I thought I knew where it was going to go – that it was using the whodunnit element to track down Arabella’s rapist.

“At that meeting Michaela said, ‘Oh no, it’s not going where you think it’s going.’ She told me that what she was really interested in was the fallout among a group of friends and on consent as an idea. As soon as she said that I was in.” He adds, “I was incredibly excited to work with her because she is smart and a genuinely original thinker. Sam was a gentle, guiding presence. They were both very open minded, not dictatorial and you could tell we were all there to help Michaela tell her story her way.” Sandino-Taylor was also keen because he’d not cut a drama before. His career until now has been on comedy or comedy drama like Lovesick and Sally4Ever.

It’s very difficult for anyone in our industry to jump genre, so I was definitely going to do this. That said, I never thought we’d be here two years later talking about a phenomenon.” The first two episodes follow a fairly linear storyline. “I also knew we had an extraordinary finale but I wasn’t sure if we could pull off the rest of the material. It sounds ludicrous when you have themes of sexual assault and graphic sex but it’s about the morality of human relationships. That is so nuanced and subtle and really hard to find in the edit.”

The key rape incident is set up in episode 1 (“Eyes Eyes Eyes Eyes”) which was cut by Sandino-Taylor. It’s a 90-second sequence that defined the show’s disorienting narrative style. “So much of our approach was working out the point of view in a scene,” Sandino-Taylor says.

“We are with the group of friends having fun in a club and as the evening progresses we warp quickly from this objective reality into the very subjective experience of Arabella. We are in her first person experience of falling over, dancing. There’s a sense of time beginning to fracture.”

Sandino-Taylor has studied how Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, ACE, subtly move perspective in a scene. He says, “You might be very clearly looking from someone’s subjective POV and then subtly you move out of it and are looking at them ironically or from a distance. This scene is the other way around. You start from objective reality and then go inside her head.” The cut that shows Arabella exiting the nightclub then back at her desk writing is an intentionally sharp one.

“The script here was confusing,” he explains. “You’re in a nightclub and then Arabella is on the floor reaching up to the door handle and you had to read the transition in the script 20 times to understand what was going on until you realize it is describing complete disorientation.” Sandino-Taylor explains that his initial cut at this point was a little smoother.

He cut to Arabella’s back in the office to give some context. “Michaela said, ‘No, we need to go straight into her face as she types,’ which is far more powerful because it doesn’t give the viewer time to orientate themselves. You’ve just experienced what the character experienced.”

The editor decided to research post-traumatic stress and found that one of the things the brain does to protect from trauma is that it starts to fracture time – to create blanks in one’s memory. This informed his assembly of the preceding scene in the office with Arabella as she is writing her story. “She has a shower and we start to show this, but out of chronology.

For the rest of the episode we track her panic attack. You have sound effects telling you there is a building sense of paranoia which begins to morph into something impressionistic.” Yet the final moments of the episode pull back from the obvious dramatic ending. “Arabella arrives home. The audience knows she has been assaulted but she is still in shock, experiencing flashbacks but apparently unaware of what really happened.

On my first cut I played to the tragedy of it. We can picture her on the bed, a melancholic soundtrack, cut to black. It’s the clear way you would cut it from the footage but Michaela was adamant it was wrong.” Episode 1 instead ends with Arabella shrugging off the flashbacks of the night before as some sort of an extreme hangover.

“This was a great learning curve,” Sandino-Taylor says. “Michaela said she didn’t want to use emotion as a manipulative tool. Emotions can be so powerful that we stop thinking. Filmmakers use it all the time of course and we do it in this show as well, but in this instance Michaela wants the audience to decide what has happened to this character.” Editor Lindsey Woodward drew on these conversations in putting together episode 2.

Here, Arabella finds herself, still visibly traumatized and confused, in a police station being told she’s been sexually assaulted, then swabbed, tagged and labeled as a victim of sex assault. “But she can’t remember it. For her the experience is surreal.”

The show’s six editors – including Guy Bensley, John Dwelly, Amy Hounsell and Mike Phillips – found themselves assembling scenes and sharing them with each other. “It was such a tricky show we often went into each other’s suites just to have a conversation among ourselves about our scenes,” says Sandino-Taylor, who cut three of the episodes, and helped on one other. “All of us had the issue of thinking it was about one thing from the page, but not being sure of the tone from the footage. We trusted that Michaela was on top of it all with the execs and Sam.

By the time we wrapped, Michaela was darting between six edit suites. It was clear she knew what she wanted.” He cut episode 11 which includes a key scene of Arabella and her housemate in the back yard which is repeated multiple times in different scenarios in the finale. “John (who cut episode 12) and I very specifically had to talk about that. Are we just going to lift the same scene each time or are we slightly recutting it? We were sharing each other’s bins.”

The intervening episodes were arguably the hardest to puzzle out. In them, Arabella’s story takes left turns and sometimes a back seat to those of other characters. The clues to editorial lay in understanding Coel’s philosophical viewpoint. In prep she had referenced Leviathan, the 2014 Oscar® nominee directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. “That film’s world view is of dramatic irony, of stories unfolding not as childish fantasy but as difficult reality,” Sandino Taylor says.

Translating that to Coel’s script meant understanding she wasn’t interested in the wish fulfillment of a standard revenge thriller. She is writing about the human condition. “Every character had their truth. What I did was cut every character as if they were the lead – even when a so-called minor character comes in.”

A case in point happens in episode 11 when Kwame, who is gay, decides that after being assaulted by a man he should try a relationship with a woman – except that he doesn’t tell her he is gay. “In a normal dramatic structure, the girl would be a device designed to make the lead character grow on his journey. The scene would be about him and what he learns. While Michaela understands that convention, her view is that the girl in this scene is as important as Kwame. She doesn’t want to tell the audience who is right or wrong. She wants to have a conversation. To get the audience to think for themselves. With any of the subjects of consent in the show the idea is to present both sides equally.

“So, you are cutting these scenes with both characters’ absolute reality in mind which is why it is disconcerting to watch. We think we know how it plays out, that all the other characters are designed to help the lead characters on their journeys, but it’s a shock to your system when that doesn’t happen.”

The governing force of I May Destroy You tackles the impact of unresolved trauma. Sandino-Taylor says, “You can see the show as the author’s act to deal with trauma and Arabella’s journey mirrors that. She never finds out who did it, she is never given closure, but the act of creating closure through art and fantasy is a profound journey for Michaela and Arabella to go on.”

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