Living for the ‘Gram
In psychological thriller Chloe, a young woman infiltrates the life of a social media star to find out how she died. Creator Alice Seabright, executive producer Tally Garner and the cast speak to DQ about making the series.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s 1962 novel Mother Night, the American author writes: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” For writer and director Alice Seabright, it’s a quote that has come to epitomise the themes behind her six-part psychological thriller series Chloe.
“It’s this idea that, in pretence, reality emerges. I’ve always been really interested in the idea of truth and lies, identity and this sense that it’s much more blurred than sometimes we think,” she explains. “For example, Becky does a lot of lying but sometimes in her lies she’s able to be more truthful than in her real life. It’s more complicated than she’s lying or she’s not.”
Becky is the protagonist of the aforementioned thriller, a young woman working in unfulfilling temp jobs while looking after her mother, who suffers from early onset dementia. Her one escape is social media and her obsession with the picture-perfect life of Chloe Fairbourne. But when Chloe dies suddenly, Becky assumes a new identity as Sasha and infiltrates the enviable lives of Chloe’s closest friends to find out what happened to her.
Creator Seabright (Sex Education) first pitched Chloe to executive producer Tally Garner in 2017, presenting it as a series built around a character who uses lying to avoid revealing her true self. A pilot script was written in 2018 and taken to the BBC, which then gave it the green light. Produced by Mam Tor Productions, the show is now set to launch on BBC One and BBC iPlayer this Sunday, while it will also air on Prime Video in the US and around the world. Banijay Rights is the international distributor.
Through writing the pilot, Seabright was able to figure out the world of the show and who Becky is – a character who uses lying as a defence mechanism to display confidence and hide the isolation and social anxiety she really carries in her life. Then in January 2020, Seabright led a writers room with Kayleigh Llewellyn, Poppy Cogan and Bolu Babalola to flesh out the rest of the series.
“When you first see her, there’s almost a confidence to her. And actually, as you pull that back, you realise that’s not the case,” Seabright says. “On the other side, the idea of obsession, how that relates to identity and her own sense of self was something I was also noodling around with quite a lot.”
Garner had loved Seabright’s short films and enjoyed learning about Becky as the pair shared coffees together. “Everybody lies, we all tell lies; it’s something weird about human beings,” the producer says. “But seeing that treated with real empathy and wanting to understand what lies behind that is what really attracted me to this idea of how we look at Becky. It was also happening at a time when public and private lives were merging with social media, with people presenting themselves as one thing – what does that mean for who they are?”
Becky, at least in the beginning, isn’t a particularly sympathetic character as she immediately rolls out a succession of lies and half-truths to worm her way into Chloe’s grieving social circle. Seabright expects Becky will challenge viewers as her behaviour and decisions stride across ethical and moral boundaries.
“I don’t think anyone watching the show will or should go, ‘Oh, you know, thumbs-up, Becky. These are some lovely decisions.’ But I hope the show allows us to empathise with her and to relate to her, even when she does things we can’t condone and shouldn’t condone,” she says. But in comparing Becky’s heightened behaviour to that of Chloe’s friends, “she’s also a mirror to the other characters in the show. On the one hand, she’s the imposter, she’s the liar but, on the other hand, they’re all kind of lying.”
That theme is best exemplified during a dinner party scene in episode one, when ‘Sasha’ meets some of Chloe’s friends for the first time, including her widower Elliot and grief-stricken Richard, and it becomes clear not everyone is presenting an honest version of themselves. Richard, in particular, seems to be the only one willing to be honest about the loss they are all feeling.
The subversive, secretive nature of the characters is enhanced by Seabright’s direction, which follows events from Becky’s perspective to give viewers an insight into her thoughts and feelings as she becomes increasingly intertwined with her alter ego Sasha.
“Everything is about getting into her head,” she says. “We have these flashes where you jump into her head and see the intrusive thoughts she’s got going on. That’s very specific to Chloe and speaks to the language it felt like it needed. There’s other stuff that’s relevant to the themes around fractured identity, and there’s a different look to who she is when she’s Becky and when she’s Sasha, and then there’s the polluting of those. The boundary starts to be less neat as the story starts to be less neat. It was a dream show to engage with visually. The themes and the story tell you how it wants to be told.”
“It felt like Alice and Katie Goldschmidt, the DOP, really worked well together to understand the different visual languages Becky and Sasha would exist in in their two separate worlds and then start to blend and merge them,” Garner notes. “You could see it on set and you could see it in the prep documents they both did to get inside both characters.”
All six episodes were written before Seabright began work directing the first block of episodes – Amanda Boyle helms the second block – but she found her dual roles overlapping as she began to prep for shooting. Her writing was also informed by her role as lead director, and she found freedom in being able to change lines on set if she found they didn’t work on set.
Filming took place in Bristol, in the west of England, where the story is set. Scenes inside Becky’s flat and a sequence in an art gallery were shot on built sets at The Bottle Yard Studios, while everything else was shot on location.
The city offered Seabright and Garner the settings they needed to portray the opposing worlds in which Becky and Sasha mix. They also liked the fact that in a show about lying, Bristol wasn’t standing in for London or anywhere else.
“It was really nice shooting in the place where it’s set, so you can be inspired and you’re not location-hunting to match something abstract,” says Seabright, who lived in Bristol during prep and would often find shooting locations on her frequent walks through the city. Music is also an important part of the show, with an original score composed by Bristol native Will Gregory and featuring Goldfrapp bandmate Alison Goldfrapp and Portishead’s Adrian Utley.
“The Bristol music scene is one I’ve always loved. Working with Will, an amazing fixture of the scene, it felt like the specificity of it can be one of the show’s strengths,” Seabright continues.
“Bristol’s an amazing-looking city as well,” Garner adds. “The locations Dee Gregson, our location supervisor, found included a graffiti-covered nightclub Becky goes to that has to coolest look and feel to it and the members club, which has this beautiful stately home vibe. It just gave us so much.”
The cast is led by Erin Doherty, who most recently played the young Princess Anne in seasons three and four of Netflix drama The Crown. Becky, says the actor, is at a point in her life where nothing much is going for her and is in “a bit of a crisis.” So when she learns of Chloe’s death, she propels herself into this other woman’s world both as an escape from her own life and in an attempt to figure out what happened.
Doherty had to take a deep dive into the world of social media for the role, getting into the headspace of someone who spends endless hours scrolling through photos and posts of lives that couldn’t be more different from their own.
“I’m not big on Instagram, so I had to spend a lot of time on it,” she says. “I had to shift my perspective of that behaviour, in the sense of waking up in the morning and the first thing you do when you open your eyes is grab your phone. That took a massive toll on my mental health. It is quite depressing. It informed a lot of Becky for me, just being stuck to my phone in that way and, in a sense, living through other people.”
Doherty had never been on set so much, having come from a supporting role on The Crown where she would not be on set for weeks at a time to then being number one on the call sheet and filming every day. Echoing Seabright’s comments about how viewers may perceive Becky, the actor says that was the very reason she was excited to play the role.
“I’ve never seen anyone like that portrayed before. I don’t know how people are going to respond,” she says. “It will be bloody amazing if there is just a sliver of compassion for her. That’s all I really hope for. There is a catalyst for this behaviour and I hope people can go, ‘Maybe I wouldn’t act that way, maybe I would.’ When I read it, I thought someone could behave that way. It’s so plausible to me, so hopefully there are people out there who are like, ‘I see her.'”
Similarly, Pippa Bennett-Warner (Gangs of London), who plays Chloe’s best friend Livia, the “Queen Bee of Bristol” who forges a complicated friendship with Sasha, thew herself into social media in preparation for playing someone who shares their life online.
“That was one of my biggest challenges, actually, because it’s not a natural fit for me,” she says. “I deep dived on the ‘Gram and then tried to piece together who I thought Livia was. Alice’s scripts are so brilliant, everything’s in there. It’s so brilliant and rich. She does all the work for you. She’s amazing.”
Billy Howle (The Serpent) and Jack Farthing (Poldark), who play Elliot and Richard respectively, were both drawn to the show’s take on contemporary themes such as mental health and suicide, as well as the relatable nature of being in a close-knit group of friends and how a traumatic event can alter its dynamics.
“Elliot is an incredibly complex character,” Howle says. “It was the dark and shade I was interested in, this idea there’s a softness and vulnerability in him seeking things like approval from his group of friends but, at the same time, being quite strong willed and ruthless and using a situation to his advantage in terms of his professional life. It’s all about networking; it’s all about getting to know people and using that to your advantage. That was definitely interesting to me.”
Farthing adds: “This story feels very rich, the characters all feel incredibly rich and full, and also it just felt really contemporary. It really felt like it could be happening somewhere. I wanted to be part of that world and to find out more about it.”
The actors all chatted with Seabright over Zoom during the casting process. Bennett-Warner describes her as an “actor’s director,” while they all valued her openness to collaboration and listening to ideas about how they might present characters and scenes.
“Sometimes reading scripts can be a lot of work, especially if you’re getting sent six episodes of something. It’s a lot of material to read,” Bennett-Warner says. “With Alice’s stuff, she creates this world that’s addictive. I inhaled them all within a day, which is quite rare for me. You get to the end of episode one and you immediately want to know what happens next because of the way everything is set up. Working with her was wonderful. She’s also just really funny, quite cheeky and naughty.”
“It was just like she wanted and needed all our opinions, which was so refreshing. It was a dream,” Doherty says. “Every day, you were just longing to get in and discuss the scenes. It was genuinely not like anything I’ve ever experienced in terms of a collaborative creative bond. And she’s all for improvisation, she loves that stuff. She’s like a clown, she’s crazy. Her sense of humour is always lurking and trying to find its way into any scene. That really infects the vibe on the set.”
Howle spoke to Seabright at length about Elliot, “a very problematic character, a very complex dude,” whose political ambitions mean he is arguably more aware than most of the importance of presenting a particular appearance, both online and in real life. They also talked about his relationship with Chloe (Poppy Gilbert), who has a ghost-like presence through the series, not least because she appears in numerous haunting flashbacks.
“She informs quite a lot of what he does still,” the actor says. “That was really interesting to me. I love playing with time or being allowed to use that as something on my palette when it comes to characterisation or storytelling. I love the idea of ghosts, not in a sort of supernatural sense or strictly so, but the idea that there is always that shadow, that figment that’s hanging around that does still inform our behaviour.”
“I really felt Alice wanted to share these people and this story with us, which makes the process so much more invigorating,” says Farthing. “I find I commit to something so much more profoundly when I feel like I have had a part in the creation of it, rather than just showing up and serving what someone wants. The initial conversations were really lovely, like deep psychological investigations into these people.”
Now they have filmed the series, the cast are all eager to see how the audience responds to the drip-feed of information and revelations scattered through the six episodes as Becky’s life and lies – and those of Chloe’s friends – spiral out of control.
Bennett-Warner concludes: “You’re in for a ride.”