BAFTA and RTS nominated Chloë Thomas most recently directed all episodes of the psychological thriller The Deceived, created by Lisa McGee (Derry Girls) and Tobias Beer. This stars Emily Reid, Declan Rodgers, Catherine Walker, Emmett J Scanlan and Paul Mescal and aired on Channel 5 in 2020. Just before that Chloë directed three episodes of Harlots and Victoria working with actors such as Samantha Morton, Lesley Manville, Jenna Coleman, John Lynch, Laurence Fox and Alex Jennings.
Chloë is attached to direct the feature film Making Babies – a rom-fertility-com by Deborah Frances-White (The Guilty Feminist), with Redwave Films (The Full Monty).
Previously, Chloë was known for comedy directing; Sharon Horgan’s early sitcom Angelo’s, produced by Damon Beesley (The Inbetweeners) starring Miranda Hart, followed by being BAFTA nominated for directing the first ever series of Horrible Histories.
Chloë also develops her own pilots through her company One Glove Films. Her current project is a Civil War reenactment sitcom Roundheads and Cavaliers starring Cariad Lloyd, Alex Carter, David Schaal, and Perry Fitzpatrick.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
Earning a living doing something creative has always been my dream in life. It’s very rare. And directing is literally bringing dreams to life on a screen. My dream life has always been as much an influence to me than movies. Dreams are my personal secret movies.
I didn’t even know you could be ‘a director’, it would have seemed like a magical thing, a job description from outer space. But I did know that you could act, and I spent all my time at school in plays, and making up plays. There were two big influences in my childhood that probably planted the idea of directing. One was being a member of the youth theatre at Oxford’s radical Pegasus Theatre at the same time as the legendary experimental clown performers Théâtre de Complicité. The other was my mum acting out scenes of her favourite films: Psycho, Close Encounters, Alien, for me in the kitchen.
I loved writing and also art, and I discovered that drama that was the perfect expression of the two, but I was told that a drama degree wouldn’t equip me for anything in life. However, my dad (who was a self-taught working-class academic) always said study what you love, don’t worry about whether it leads to a job. I got accepted onto the drama degree course in Bristol University. I started off wanting to act but soon realised I was terrible and should stop. I discovered filmmaking, by working as a runner on the Postgraduate Film Diploma shoots. I won a student short film script competition and I was asked what role I wanted on it. On impulse I said “Director” and then I had to work out how the hell to do it. I had learnt a bit from being on set watching the postgrads directing, and I storyboarded the whole short. I loved the experience. I could see that it was the most creative and exciting thing I could imagine doing; art and story together, honing characters, and working with real live actors. I loved that it was really difficult to do, it took a lot of effort, but created an amazing sense of satisfaction when things worked: a shot, a sequence, a cue. And I experienced for the first time that the process of filmmaking could be a laugh, that there is a shared sense of achievement with a great bunch of people.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
After that first short film, I ditched theatre and made films and videos. I applied to film schools, was mainly turned down, but got into Bournemouth Film School run by a maverick and quixotic DP called Nick Wright, who took a strong dislike to me. He overheard me saying that I was going to make a film ‘no matter what’, decided I was arrogant and then told a student that he was going to ‘teach her (me) a lesson’. What I actually said was that “even if I had to shoot it on VHS with no budget”, I’d make my film. He locked up the camera equipment on the first day of my shoot. After begging, we got it all out and shot the film. That short film – a comedy about undertakers who fear they are supernaturally killing people – got into the London Film Festival which was a massive thrill. But after leaving Bournemouth, reality hit. I had big student debts and I was unemployed. There was nothing I was qualified for. I should have worked as a runner, but I was too shy, had no idea how to do that and no contacts in the film or TV industry. I was rejected by every short film scheme I applied for. I started temping and ended up being a grumpy secretary in BBC Documentaries. Then I got a big break – I applied and got on to the highly competitive Production Trainee scheme at the BBC. It was great and I learnt a lot, although looking back, it probably sidetracked me into factual television for too long.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
What I’ve found hardest, is actually keeping the faith – in myself. I still measure myself against the best, the most stratospheric directors and forget what I have achieved. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am actually a director and I managed to have two children and I am (still!) married. I have had the “your CV is very eclectic” comment – which I now know is often said to women directors coming up in the last decade. I thought it was just me, but it isn’t. I wasn’t a supernova straight out of film school success, and I didn’t do the learn-your-craft move on up through serial TV drama, as I couldn’t get in. A varied CV (mine ranges from arts documentaries, science films, comedy and period drama) is not seen as a strength. But it’s due to me trying to find cracks in the industry, to keep on directing and discover some sort of path through to where I wanted to go. It’s not signposted, because it’s not expected. No one was asking for women to become drama directors. I analysed the theory of ‘male gaze’ as a student but no one wanted the ‘female gaze’ (or any sort of gaze really!) from a real female director. There have been loads of other setbacks, the usual low-level sexist crap (male gaffer assuming I’m the unit nurse not the director), some deep misogyny from a couple of DoPs, clashes of personalities, the rank jobs that I will never admit to, the series called “amoral” by one reviewer. (Actually, that’s a lie, I put that on my CV, it makes me laugh.)
Recently I had 2 years when I knew my agent was putting me up for jobs but I was never asked for interview for any of them. I moved out of London for family reasons and no longer had any filmmakers to bump into, so I dropped off the radar. I seriously thought of what else I could do for a living, but decided I didn’t want to do anything else. So I made a science video art film, and a self-funded comedy pilot and I got the most significant break in my career.
Childcare is a big part of my life as a female director. A star can bring their kids along to set, with nannies and tutors in their trailers. I can’t do that as a director, I’m always on set. Like many working mothers, at some points you throw money at childcare and it swallows all the money you earn. The time away from the family is getting longer as my drama jobs get bigger; on the last job I didn’t get home for six weeks. But I don’t get the worst of that – directing is all-consuming and I love being in my own work bubble – it’s the family back home that feels the effects of being one parent down, and particularly my husband.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
My path has been winding to get to drama directing but I see that everything I’ve done feeds into what I do now and expresses something about my take on the world. When I couldn’t get a break in drama I tried to choose factual jobs that were either fascinating subject wise – concrete Brutalist architecture or the supernatural – or meant I could try a new technique – massive crane, helicopter, filming in harnesses.
I have written and directed short films along the way, mainly funded through savings and favours. I find finishing them the hardest – sweet talking editors! They always lead to good things, but not always what, (or in the way) you expect.
How did you get your first break?
I’ve had a few breaks. And the biggest ones both came after low points.
There was a point where I was doing pretty well in arts documentaries and could have carried on, but I never really wanted to do that kind of filmmaking, I would rather fail making something original than succeed making a film about someone else’s art, even though I love watching arts films. So I made a conscious decision to turn down documentaries to break into comedy, where more women seemed to be hired to direct than in drama, and anyway, I love laughing. I did some comedy/factual crossovers, where a comedian plays a fictional character in real situations, deceiving members of the public, but I hated the lying involved. The worst one of these led to my best comedy break. I was series producing an E4 dating format which made me feel dirty, but the production company was making comedy pilots. I threw myself at them, saying I’d work for free at weekends to direct comedy. I met Sharon Horgan and we made a mockumentary style pilot of her early sitcom Angelo’s. Then a year later, producer Damon Beesley (pre-Inbetweeners) hired me (post-baby) to direct all six episodes of it, which was a massive break. I used this as leverage to get meetings with agents. (And before that I’d asked producers I knew, which agents they would go to first when they were looking to hire a director.)
After that break, I did get seen for more comedy directing gigs. The highlight was directing the first ever episode of Horrible Histories on CBBC. But then, I was labelled as a director “in Children’s”, which is a pigeon hole. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Children’s TV hires more diversely across all roles and is actually a fantastic genre to get fiction directing experience. This is commonly explained because the budgets are lower and so the perceived ‘risk’ of hiring a non-white and/or non-male director is mitigated. Post Horrible Histories I was offered more children’s, less comedy, and I was still way outside the adult TV drama world. This was my rationale for pitching hard for Hetty Feather, a high-budget Victorian era children’s BBC drama based on Jacqueline Wilson’s book. I figured that this would get me intensive costume drama experience (ten x 30-minute episodes) and might eventually get me to a point where I would be considered for adult period drama.
My biggest drama break happened recently – my break into high end drama, when I was hired to direct Victoria for ITV. The writer and creator is Daisy Goodwin who I’d worked for as a totally inexperienced trainee on her BBC book magazine show and later on a high street fashion series. I bumped into her and gave her a hard time, and told her she should get me in to interview for Victoria. Making 2 series of Hetty Feather had led to interviews for adult dramas at last, but no job offers, on them – or anything at all! – for 18 months. It was great to realise during my Victoria interview prep that finally my eclectic CV was actually helping me – I’d directed Horrible Histories, I knew the story of Cholera in 1840s London and my hero Dr John Snow, and could reference art inspiration like Gustave Doré’s work. My episodes of Victoria were a huge step up in terms of scale, vision, profile of the cast, size of crew, and the budget. They went really well and this has transformed my career, I’m now being seen and pitching for high-end drama jobs.
It shouldn’t matter that I am a woman director, but it does, and for the first time ever in my career, it’s an advantage. Producers are actively seeking out female creators. The Me Too movement has shamed television executives into realising that they don’t hire enough female talent, and in a similar way to Black Lives Matters has made producers start to own up to the whiteness of the industry. I’m interested in models of power. Directing is not just about vision and being an artist, it’s about leading and shaping the work of the talent around you. We don’t all have to be the same. Female models of power may still be less prevalent but they are there and we don’t have to follow a set leadership style. We don’t have to bully and shout to command authority. I have often been asked outright if I could ‘cope’ with a large crew (code for “can you tell men what to do?”) and tricky cast, in a way that I don’t hear reported from many male directors.
On a drama set recently I had a real run in with a male actor. Crew members whispered to me: “He wants to direct and thinks he can”. I replied, “I’m sure he can direct. Most people can. But he isn’t right now. I am”.
That Samuel Beckett quote has been turned into a cliche now, a bedroom instagram poster, but really there is nothing more true to me than “Fail Again. Fail Better.”
The challenge in being a director at any level is finding good material to work with. I’m now developing my own writing work and seeking out writers to make original projects.
TV Credits: Mysteries with Carol Vorderman (1997), Daisy, Daisy (2001), So You Want To Be On TV? (2001), Whitey Blighty (2003), The Art Show (2002-2004), Inky Fingers: The NME Story (2005), The Britpop Story; It Really, Really, Really, Could Happen (2005), Angelo’s (2007), Dance Britannia (2007), Queens of British Pop (2009), Horrible Histories (2009), How To Be A Good Mother with Sharon Hogan (2012), Sadie J (2012), Hetty Feather (2015-2016), Victoria (2019), Harlots (2019), The Deceived (2020).
Film Credits: Closed Circuit (2002), Gyppo (2004), ShopGirl Blog (2012), Dish Life (2016), Keyed Alike (2017), Roundheads and Cavaliers (2019).