Michaela Coel survived a drugging and sexual assault, then turned it into a hit TV series
Set in London, comedy/drama I May Destroy You follows a successful young writer recovering from assault
Warning: This article contains details of sexual assault that could be upsetting to some readers
Michaela Coel was working an all-nighter at a London production office when she took a break to have a drink with a friend.
Instead of getting a breather, however, the writer, director, actress and musician was drugged and sexually assaulted by two men — an experience that would dramatically alter the trajectory of her life.
She came back to consciousness in the Fremantle Media office where she had been working on the comedy Chewing Gum; her phone was smashed, and in the hours that followed, she slowly pieced together the fragments of what had happened.
WATCH | Michaela Coel's full interview with q host Tom Power:
Going through the aftermath, Coel began to write things down, both as a way to dissociate from the painful event, but also to try to understand it.
"I recall waiting for the detective to get my first witness statement. At that moment where I was half processing that something very bad had happened to me and that the course of my life was about to shift, I looked at my friend who was taking care of me, and he was playing Pokémon Go on his phone," recounts Coel in an interview with q host Tom Power.
"And this was just so absurd that I thought, 'What on earth is going on?'" she says with a laugh. "And I wrote it down in my notes app on my phone. You almost want to bottle this very strange feeling and this sort of absurdity that was happening."
Soon, Coel found herself taking more notes and recording conversations she had with detectives. She would record her feelings and her thoughts on her phone, or write them down, carefully documenting so she wouldn't forget.
Eventually, she began developing those moments into a story — one that would eventually become I May Destroy You, a highly acclaimed 12-episode HBO/BBC series that fictionalizes her sexual assault and its aftermath.
Soon, Coel discovered just how common her experience was.
"Once my friends knew I was writing a show, they began to share their experiences with me. And I began to realize that sexual assault was something so broad and something that so many people could identify with — which in one way is heartbreaking," she says.
"But in another way, what better basis to give a story to the world than one we can all identify with? And this is it."
No to Netflix
I May Destroy You is set in London, and the comedy/drama — which contains many elements from Coel's life — centres around Arabella, a millennial Twitter star and novelist with great friends, a boyfriend in Italy and a burgeoning writing career. When she is drugged and sexually assaulted, she is forced to rebuild every aspect of her life.
Coel created, wrote, directed and stars in the series, and landed a deal with Netflix — she even had a final contract in hand — but ended up walking away.
She says the decision wasn't driven by a sense of her own self-worth, but rather by the show's underlying message, which inspired her to retain the rights.
"I came that close to signing it, so I didn't quite know my worth with this project for a long time. I also think that sometimes there is no need to keep your rights," she says.
"But for me, this show was about somebody being exploited, somebody being disempowered, how deception can occur. So it seemed at complete odds with the show I was making that I was asked to direct, write, star and create, yet would have no rights."
"Writing a show about exploitation, it didn't seem to gel, these two things together."
Hope for the industry
When she was writing the scripts for the show, Coel also drew from the experiences of friends who were sexual assault survivors.
Coel says she felt that telling their stories was a big responsibility, and she allowed the friends to read the scripts as she went, while at the same time crafting scripts that would also appeal to the larger world.
"This story is something that I want the audience to resonate with as much as the individuals who gave me their stories," she says.
"They were brought on as consultants and credited and paid where they wanted to be. But it was a real challenge. These things aren't easy."
The show was also shot on Coel's terms, and the production included intimacy co-ordinators, on-set therapists and a diverse cast and crew.
So did the series give Coel a vision of what the industry could potentially look like?
"Could potentially look like, and in a way already does, because it happened on my show," says Coel. She credits her co-executive producers for giving her what she needed to achieve complete creative control.
"So this allows me to know that it can happen because it has happened," she says. "It can happen."
Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Matthew Amha.