Alice Seabright is a writer and director based in London who was named as a 2019 Screen International Star of Tomorrow. Alice is currently show running her original series Chloe for the BBC – she will write four out of six episodes, direct the 1st block, and serve as executive producer.
She recently directed episodes 4 and 5 of Sex Education Series 2, which dropped on Netflix earlier this year, as well as writing episode 3 for Sex Education Series 3. Prior to life as a writer/director, Alice has worked in Development at Heyday Films and Brilliant Films.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
For some reason, around the age of 14, I started thinking that I might want to become a film director. I honestly am not totally sure where I got the idea from. I spent much of my childhood roping my two brothers into being in “shows” that we would write and perform for our parents (the shows were very long and very bad, sometimes had musical numbers, and our parents walked out of most of them, which somehow didn’t put us off). As crazy as it sounds, I think that’s where I first discovered the love of telling stories. Then in my early teens, I realised that the films I loved watching were actually made by people, and I wondered if I could do that. Around the age of 16, we got a very basic home video camera, and I started filming stuff. Some more silly shows with my brothers, weird footage of my friends hanging out, and one incredibly bad short film about two women (played by my friends) strangling each other for no discernible reason (the whole film was silent).
By the time I was eighteen, I was a committed aspiring filmmaker. But I wasn’t totally sure how to go about actually becoming one. I ended up going to study psychology at UCL in London, partly encouraged by my family to study something that would leave me with other options, and partly out of my own interest in people and how they tick. I’m to this day incredibly grateful that I studied something that has no relation to filmmaking, even though in some ways it was the long way around. The university I studied at had no film or drama courses – which turned out to be a blessing, because it meant that all the film nerds and all the drama obsessives came together in the Societies. I ran the Film Society for a bit, and I directed a play with the Drama Society.
I still have such fond memories of the Film Society at UCL. Our HQ was a weird basement which still housed old 16mm cameras (that didn’t work), on which Chris Nolan, our most famous alumni, had supposedly learnt the ropes. We would screen classic films on a Thursday. We had access to DSLR cameras and computers with Final Cut. I made weird films with my friends, and also earned good money filming and editing lectures for the business School. It was amazing.
But somehow the process of going through university and approaching the final cliff of third year made me more and more nervous about the prospect of actually trying to become a filmmaker. What did that even mean? How could I go about it? I slowly and imperceptibly started to get cold feet. I considered every single possible career under the sun and eventually applied for a Masters in Psychology, hoping to put off having to make any sort of decision. It was that summer, with a month or so to go before the masters started, that I emailed and asked for a deferral. I’d give myself a year to try and make some sort of inroads into film.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
When I left university, the one tangible skill I had that might be relevant to the world of film was editing. I knew how to cut something together, and I had a basic understanding of deliverables. So I got a job as an assistant in a digital media company in the editing department. I edited promos, sizzle reels, internal videos, and generally just did whatever needed doing. I love editing even when the work isn’t that exciting, it’s just so much fun. I learnt much more about codecs than I did about filmmaking, but it was a job and I was being paid. After just under a year though, I got a bit demoralised and didn’t know how on earth to progress or what to do, and I got into a bit of a rut (that is a euphemism for being completely depressed!).
I ended up getting out of my rut by getting out of the UK. On a whim, I wrote to a documentary filmmaker and journalist in India and asked if he needed an assistant. He said yes, and off I went to Delhi for four months where I did research for his articles and made a really strange promotional video for the Bombay Chamber of Commerce. After that, I took the small amount of money I had saved up over the last year and a bit since graduating and, with my partner who is also a filmmaker (we met at university, being the only overlapping members of the Psychology course and the Film Society), we travelled around South East Asia for two months. I say travelled, but in actual fact we found a series of places to hole ourselves up and write, because even including flights, we could live there for two months on the amount of money we would have spent in three weeks in London. I’d been writing for a number of years now but never seriously, and had never written anything longer than about 20 pages. This was the first time that I really tried to be a writer, to treat it like a day job, and to see what would come from it. This was a dream time, but of course it had to end and soon I was back in London, deep into my overdraft and with some scripts that were too expensive to make.
Back in London, I tried once again to get a job in the film industry and really struggled. I’m lucky that one of my grandmothers lives in London and she agreed to let me stay with her for nearly a year, which meant I was able to get through a couple of months of earning very little money – looking for jobs, doing some freelance work here and there, making a few more little shorts, each for a budget of about £20. I applied to film school and didn’t get in. I reached out to producers and production companies to try and get any kind of entry-level job. Eventually, just as I was totally running out of money, I got a one-month internship and this is where I got incredibly lucky (you’ll see there’s a LOT of luck in this story, as well as perseverance). One week into that internship, the person I was working with told me she was leaving her job and they didn’t have a replacement. So I learnt everything from her and when she left, they hired me by default. I was an assistant at that company, which was in the process of imploding, for about a year. The job was a lot of diary management, making coffees, organising and filing paperwork, photocopying etc. But it was within the offices of a talent agency, and through this proximity, I learnt a huge amount. I got to know the work of everyone they represented, having access to all of their scripts and links. I read all the scripts coming in for consideration for their cast. I would sit in on the weekly company meeting in which projects and jobs would get discussed. This was how I got an understanding of the industry.
It was also how I heard about the next job I ended up getting, which was as a development assistant for a really brilliant production company. I probably learnt more from this job than any other. Again, the job involved a lot of admin. But I was also reading all the submissions to the company, keeping track of emerging directors and writers, going to see National Film and Television School graduation shows (which inspired me so much), reading drafts of company projects by incredible writers. I also really concentrated on writing during this time. I would get into the office an hour and a half early most mornings and write. I was lucky that my colleagues knew this was what I wanted to do, which meant that I was able to share drafts with them. I cringe now at how inexperienced I was and how kind and generous they were to read me, but their encouragement was a huge part of making me think I should keep going.
After nearly three years at that company, I hit another serious rut and realised I had to leave. I was getting to meet lots of great people who worked in the industry I wanted to be in, but I was seen as a development person not a filmmaker, and every time I met a filmmaker for the company, I just felt I was on the wrong side of the table. If I wanted to be taken seriously, I needed to show the world I was serious.
So I decided to quit. Just before leaving, I managed to get an agent for my writing work, again thanks to the support of my colleagues, which was a necessary psychological boost for me. But I just sat on that agent’s list and didn’t even really get any meetings. I was still not earning a penny from filmmaking, although I had managed to save a bit over the last three years by sharing a small room in a very large house (my rent was £275 a month!), and being very frugal. I moved out of London and lived with family for about eighteen months, then eventually moved back to London. During that whole time I worked mostly as a temp receptionist and PA, as well as in a restaurant and as an occasional support worker in a homeless shelter. It was an exhausting few years and I was constantly either working for money, or working on my film work, but I actually found it easier having day jobs that were nothing to do with film, which I didn’t have to take home with me, and which were flexible.
I wrote lots during this time, and got my first short film funded by Film London. I started to develop work with production companies, changed agents, and interviewed for many directing jobs (none of which I got). I felt committed to this career, but I wasn’t getting anywhere, and was still earning money entirely from other work.
At this point, I applied to a scheme run the National Film and Television School (NFTS). It was a free course designed to support female and diverse filmmakers, and in which I got to develop and make a short film. This was a bumpy road – it was the first year they’d run the course and the parameters were shifting, so the script I developed over months was not able to be made and at the last minute I had to write something more contained and more achievable on budget. But the experience of making the film was amazing, and it led to one of my luckiest breaks of all. I’d got to know the people at the NFTS and a few months after making the film with them I got a call from the new head of the school telling me that one of their directors on the Directing Fiction MA had dropped out and they needed someone to replace them. This came along with a scholarship.
The following year was incredibly hard and incredibly worthwhile. I was 29 and living in Walthamstow, which meant almost a two hour commute each way to get to Beaconsfield where the school is. Although the fees were paid for by the scholarship, I still needed to covered my living expenses. I borrowed money and was also continuing to do occasional temping, plus I had a few writing commissions which were a godsend financially but nearly broke me in terms of managing the workload.
I went into the school thinking I knew a lot and quickly saw sense. The teachers there are amazing and really pushed me. I came in with no preparation and immediately had to make a first short film, followed by my graduation film. No time to think, I just had to write and jump into making them. I also applied for the school’s kickstarter scheme and ended up making a third short film straight after my grad film. I made more mistakes that year than in the rest of my filmmaking combined, and in some ways I found the process very painful. At multiple points that year, I spent an evening in the foetal position thinking I was a bad filmmaker. I should JUST. GIVE. UP. But now I look back on it as a year of risk-taking and discovery. What I learned from the things I got wrong were lessons that I still carry with me.
After that, the combination of having spent a number of years building up contacts in the industry, developing material, and going up for jobs, with my recent graduation from the NFTS, meant that things then happened quite fast for me. I got my first TV job directing on Sex Education shortly after, and the pilot script I’d been working on with the BBC during and after my time at the NFTS got the go ahead. Thirteen years after I left secondary school, ten years after first deciding to build a career in film, I’ve now been earning money from writing and directing for just over a year, and the future looks bright, although I know there will be many more obstacles ahead.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
A lot of this is covered above, but I would say absolutely everyone in the film industry faces many obstacles and setbacks, although some much more than others. I think I’ve been lucky and privileged in most ways, but the truth is that wherever you’re coming from, it is a career that requires a dollop of naivety and some seriously dogged persistence.
It’s hard to juggle earning money with developing as a filmmaker. It involves a dedication to late nights and early mornings, and no weekends over a long period. But most importantly, it involves the ability to keep going after a setback. Not included in the above long-winded story is every funding application I made that was rejected, every application to a screenwriting competition which went nowhere, every rejection from a festival, every interview that wasn’t followed up with a job offer – in number, they vastly outweigh the positive responses. I found that truly really psychologically difficult at the beginning, and very often found myself losing absolutely all self-belief. At one point though, I remember a switch clicking for me and realising that I should stop concentrating on the no’s and what they meant. All you need is one yes and that is the truth. Every time I made an application I started to assume it would be a no, but the more I made, and the more I tried, the higher my chances were of getting a yes. My successful interview to direct Series 2 of Sex Education came after an unsuccessful interview to direct Series 1, and many other unsuccessful interviews to direct far less exciting work. I am now getting more yeses than I used to, but still – the no’s haven’t gone away, they’re just coming from bigger fish.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Definitely making stuff. I started making stuff for zero pounds. Filming, editing, even sometimes acting. I learnt so, so much from being involved in each part of the process. It was so much fun and I was learning about the craft. I then learned an unbelievable amount from the first funded shorts I made, which came from public funding. These were the first times I was stepping onto a proper film set, with HoDs and proper cast. I was totally terrified but the “fake it till you make it” attitude helped me through, and I would say that working with people more experienced than you is always the best way to learn, and learn quickly.
The more I have made stuff, the closer I have come to trusting my instincts and knowing what my strengths are, and where my tastes lie. I genuinely feel I have a command of my voice now, but when I first heard that word I found it totally intimidating and a bit confusing. What is a voice? How do you get it? The answer for me, was: don’t think about it too much, just do it. I think your voice is the sum total of your instincts and your taste. If you develop those on the micro level, then the rest will follow.
Reading and watching lots, and widely. Being curious about everything and anything. Living a life that isn’t confined to film. Everything I know about and care about gets poured into filmmaking, and the wider and more interesting that original soup is, the better. Every job along the way, every friendship, every book, every trip, etc. They all feed into it.
Finally, feedback. For the most part, that has been from peers in the same situation as me. Over the course of trying to become a filmmaker, I made many important friendships with other writers and directors in the same position. They helped me get better as a filmmaker, inspired me with their own work, and were there for me to grumble to when things were tough. And having a little peer group family of trusted readers of scripts and fresh eyes on cuts has been the most invaluable thing. Feedback from producers has also been crucial. For me, learning how to use feedback has been a process. First of all, I had to learn to get a thick skin. When I first shared stuff, any critique felt like a punch in the face. Now, I see it all as valuable. However, I’ve also had to learn how and when to take feedback. Ultimately, you’re not trying to make a film that everyone will like – that’s not even possible. You’re trying to make something that some people will love. I find feedback incredibly useful because I tend to become blind to what I’m doing, so it allows me to understand the effect my work is having on its intended audience. But often the feedback or suggestions you get are clues rather than things you should take literally. I once heard an analogy that has always stuck with me: you’re like a doctor trying to diagnose a patient – the symptoms will help you reach a diagnosis and therefore a plan of action, but just because someone says their leg is hurting, that doesn’t mean you should chop off their leg. Equally, if someone tells you they didn’t like the ending of your film, the problem may well be (and often is) at the beginning. Or, they may not like the ending for the exact same reasons you love it. In which case, agree to disagree.
How did you get your first break?
I think I could place my first break any number of different places – my first job in film, the first time I got funding, getting offered a place at the NFTS, or my first TV job. It’s hard to know in advance what will get you your first break. I think of it as planting seeds. You have to plant many more than will actually grow into anything and you never know which one it will be.
TV Credits: Sex Education (2020)
Photograph: Jonathan Birch