MPW Next Gen 2020: Conversation with Michaela Coel and Amy Gravitt
Michaela Coel, Actress, Playwright, Screenwriter, and Poet Amy Gravitt, Executive Vice President, Comedy Programming, HBO Interviewer: Kristen Bellstrom, FORTUNE
it has been called sublimely unsettling delicately poignant and riveting. The HBO drama. I may destroy you. It's about sexual assault, self realization and so much more. It's deep but it will also make you laugh. Michaela Cole is the creator, writer, producer and star of the show. She and HBO's E. V. P. Of comedy programming. Amy Gravitt are going to join Kristen bell sram in just a moment. But first we want to show you the show's trailer and just a heads up before we do the trailer and the series touch on topics that some may find disturbing as you'll see. But our conversation with Michaela and Amy is about the creative process and bringing ideas to life. Here's the video, we're watching our favorite german tv show at the same time. Did you get that? I can't remember five but me again allow me to pick up where I left off. I don't know how did lost my in. I'm jay z on a bad day, Shakespeare by my worst day. Yeah. Flat boats. Yeah, I see him and another doorways. You can do the whole day. My friend is stressed her to make her feel good. If you're gonna talk to my name mm around yourself with people who are you, are you gonna miss me boyfriend and girlfriend? Could you say yes. Put their concession. Okay. Is there a reason why you haven't told him about the salt? He's an italian drug lord joking. I'm going to get much. What do you do when it gets a bit much? Try yoga painting painting handicrafts. I don't even think I know what 100 causes. There's so much injustice and my job is the truth. Thank you for what you dream. I love you too. Your blood pressure. You will need to monitor that back in the room. Sorry. Yeah. Attorney Michaela and Amy. Thank you so much for being here with us. So thanks for having that. Thank you very So as you just clip, I may destroy you. The focus is on the story of Arabella who is a young writer in London. She goes out for a night with some friends. Her drink is like she's sexually assaulted. She wakes up the next morning and I can't remember what happened. And then the show is really sort of the story of her uh, putting the events of that night together and facing him recovering from, from that trauma. Um, and I should note that Michaela has also had an experience with assault and has said before that the Arabella story very closely mirrors her own. So I want to talk about the early days, the beginning of I may destroy you. But first I just would love to hear how the two of you met working together. Okay, well I uh I'll tell my version with smart deciding difference because two different perspectives. I had finished cheering gum uh over a year I was sexually assaulted and quite quickly a kind of, I knew I wanted to write something maybe in a way to process it may be in a way to position myself from it. So my agent at the time had matched to set me a meeting with, hey where comedy. I'm not sure how I actually was allowed into those offices because I haven't really done much a week. But somehow we were begging to meet with you and I wrote that you were coming into town. Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. There was a general thing which he has usually, it was a general meeting. I had no idea that you had an idea brewing. But I, I remember our Converse General meeting. Hey, I got ready. I want to make it was almost like that. It was just like that wasn't it? Like what? Well, and I just given the subject matter, which I said, I thought, oh my gosh, I want to work with her so badly. There's no way this is going to be a, what we call a quotable comedy, what we mean is a half hour series. I thought for sure that it would end up in the drama side of the building. Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that because it is interesting that you two work together under the umbrella of HBO comedy and you know, Michaela, the show tackles a lot of obviously really serious themes, but it's hilarious sometimes and it has a lot of lightness in it as well. And I'm just curious when you were writing how much of that was conscious for you? Were you thinking about incorporating that or was that just sort of naturally part of the story for you? Well, I always knew that it was going to be funny, that I wanted it to be funny. I remember that was one of the things I said when we first met Amy, which is this happened, this happened, this happened, But it's gonna be funny, which I don't think anyone was really convinced by until the actors started to say this, but yeah, Right, and the comedy, this seems to be uh um I'm not trying to make it funny. I think it's it's things are just funny if you look at it from a particular angle, so many things are Right. Well, I I also read that when you were writing you actually went through 191 draft of the show, which as a writer myself that gave me a heart attack, um is that part of it? Okay, so basically it's 190 100 um Of all. So basically, I think that it creates something like, just under like, 10 drafts per episode, so they counted yes and no, of course. Uh it's not it's not so scary now, right? It's not that, but she's a constant revise er in a way that I've never seen before. And I think episodic television is usually, you know, the results of this team of writers, and there's often a tour at the center of it, but you have other writers coming in to help execute an outline of a draft in the quote unquote voice of the show. But I think the seat here is that Michaela wrote every single one of those dresses, every word on the page herself, which is such a massive undertaking. And ultimately, I think what people are responding to in the show is just the singular voice, so specific to her experience, but then broadened out to a group of characters. So it's not just what she Arabella endures, but how all of the characters treat one another and the sense that sort of trauma ricochets around the group in a way. Uh huh. And to that, to that point about it being singular, think that uh by heavily on my team like Amy grab it, Amy Hajj feel at the B B uh val sorry and peers at the BBC because it's quite surprising how misunderstood you end up being and how unclear you are realized. That is so loved not to notice, was constantly realizing where I wasn't quite clear when I thought I was being clear. So I like just, you know, just to keep going to try and be as clear as possible. I think my last rewrite my last amendment was probably the day before the last day of the shoot, so I really didn't keep going. Um so amy, like where do you come in in that process? You know, and when Mchale is going through these drafts and these revisions, how hands on you feel like you like to be or or hands off, how are you sort of working together through that? It depends on where we are in the process, but generally I call how we work at HBO as the franchise pass on draft that Mikhail is talking about and you know, we're in a way, her first audience, so we re dress and as she said, say how we're feeling, how we're interpreting a moment, maybe what we don't understand and give that feedback. And then it's up to Michaela or other showrunners as well to decide what to do with that back. And I think in this show in particular, one thing we discussed was the balance between building out this show, so it became, you know, a more universal commentary on, as I said, how we, how we treat one another, but also making sure we got the whole of Arabella story. Um I also want to ask you guys about what you look for, you know, when you're when you're working with somebody and it's obviously really close relationship, um you know, like Michaela for instance, you sort of, you famously said now to the million dollars from netflix, um because that you were not allowed to retain the rights and that agreement, so, like, what's not non negotiable for you as far as, you know, having having a creative partner to work with for me, what's really important is more than greater control, which I think, you know, many sort of broadcasters and streaming services and networks are offering these days, but I actually like um creative thoughts, I like for my script to be interpreted by my team, to be understood to to give notes to kind of like, added perspective, rather than sort of just give me some free reign, because as I said, you'd be surprised how unclear you maybe, and you you need a sounding board, you need feedback. I really like these things. Um in terms of rights, it's not that deep for me, it's just that, You know, 0.03% of right, it's always nice, you know, when you can't get back and I'm like, that was kind of interesting to me because I'm British and I think it just works slightly differently here. Um so yeah, creative thought is really important and trust, what I really appreciate with this show was that there was a lot of trust given to me, which I'd never had before, so it took a while to get used to um and amy from your perspective, you know what, when you're meeting, you know, a creative person, um like Michaela, or you're looking at a new project, you know, what are you looking for? What sort of, like, your, my maps in that relationship, basically, because I, the word trust comes to mind for me as well, that somebody feels like they can trust me and my team with their story and beyond that, just feeling like we're hearing a story that we haven't heard before from a perspective that we haven't heard before, so that's something that we've always tried to do across, you know, the tradition of HBO and certainly what I continue to try to do with the comedy plate. Um you know, Michaela, you where basically, like literally every hat on the show, you, our producer, you started it, you wrote it, you created, you co directed it. Um but I'm very interested in in the writing part. I know, because I know you went to drama school and I've seen you acting and other things. So when did you first think of yourself as a writer um in your life? Like, was there a moment where you were sort of like, okay, I'm capital w writer now, I don't even know if that is, so no, that doesn't come through. I was a poet. Um So I would perform my poetry around in bars and clubs and uh poetry slams where you could win 50 quid, and it was from that somebody said, I suppose to drama school. Then in my school I realized that all the place we were doing were sort of these sort of period dramas. Uh you know, free, very white, whoa of old that I didn't understand or recognize and at that time I didn't feel like I was able to authentically portray. So I started writing stuff that I felt I could do. Um So that was beginning in my final year drama school over a fake or chewing gum dreams. Mhm. Um you know, we'll certainly reading, writing the role you want to play is definitely one way to attack it. Um I'm so sorry ladies, we are out of time. I love talking to both of you. Thank you so much.