We talked to British director Chloë Thomas who has worked on high-profile shows including Harlots, Victoria and most recently The Deceived.
Where did you grow up and how did you get into directing?
I grew up in Oxford and I got into directing from two things really. I joined a youth theatre when I was 11 that really radical and did a lot of improvisation, and I just got really into acting and devising shows. The other thing was my Mum. When I was growing up she used to act out movies in the kitchen. Not really suitable ones for kids. She would act out Psycho, Alien, Jaws, Close Encounters – that was all right. But she’d do it shot by shot, and now I realise that actually she was directing. She’d go “then you see this, then you go up the stairs…”.
I did loads of drama in school and actually got onto this fantastic drama degree course at Bristol University thinking I might act. Then I got there and I was absolutely rubbish compared to everyone else and thought “no I don’t have that thing, I want to create”. I love writing, I love art, I love drama. And then I entered a competition for a short film and I won. They said “what do you want to do on it?” and I said, “direct”, because I didn’t want anyone else to do it. But I didn’t know what that meant.
After that I just got really into filmmaking and wanted to keep doing it. I still didn’t think I could be a director. I couldn’t think of any female directors apart from Agnès Varda, and Jane Campion was my hero. There is something about visibility.
I had no contacts in the industry, no contacts in theatre or film/TV. I just sort of carried on really. I went to drama school- Bournemouth drama school – and did training at the BBC. Once I discovered there was this thing called filmmaking I thought “oh that’s great”, but I didn’t think I would earn my money doing it because I just didn’t think that was possible.
So did you have a “break”, something that got the ball rolling? Or was it more like a slow process of just building credits?
It’s been a mixture. I’d say that, in a way, getting onto the BBC training scheme was a massive break, but the experience I got there was a lot of documentary stuff. I always wanted to do drama but I couldn’t get into it. Then I started to realise that people did hire relatively new people into comedy, and I love comedy too.
A really big break happened when I was working on this show on E4 that was about dating, which was made by people who did loads of comedy. At first I was thinking “this isn’t me, should I just leave the industry now?”. But the people were fantastic, and it was with the company who went on to make the Inbetweeners. I said to them “look please I want to do some comedy, I’ll do anything, I’ll work for free, I can do a pilot, anything!”. And that was how I met Sharon Horgan who had the sitcom “Angelo’s”. That was really important to me. I started to get into comedy gigs after. I was still trying to get into drama but it was really hard.
I then did Horrible Histories which was one of those things where at first people were like “oh it’s a children’s show, why are you doing that?” and I’m like “because the script is amazing!”. And I knew it was going to be a massive hit.
Then I had my second child. That was quite tricky, because it’s lovely having children but it is quite difficult career-wise. Lots of people thought I’d give up. They would say “are you going to stop now?” and I would say “well I don’t want to do anything else”. That was my real problem. Then I did some documentaries again with Sharon, very funny documentaries. I felt like I was starting again and everyone was like “what have you been doing lately” and I was like “well I was having a child”.
Eventually a period drama came along called Hetty Feather, from the book by Jacqueline Wilson, which I pitched hard for and I got. So then I ended up doing ten episodes of very high quality period drama for kids. I thought that I could use that to get into period drama with adults. Because before that I was getting nowhere.
And it worked. After that it was about two years of not getting the job but getting interviews. At least I was in the room. Then the biggest break happened that transformed my career- I managed to get an interview for Victoria. I basically just shamed the producers into seeing me. I knew the subject, I knew the time, I knew the story, so I was really passionate about it, and I got the gig!
Now finally, this has taken twenty years or so, but I’m being seen for dramas.
The important thing is don’t give up. I’ve had lots of support, a lot of childcare. But every time I think I’m not getting anywhere and I should think of something else to do, I realise there’s really nothing else I want to do.
How did your production company One Glove come about, and what are your goals for that?
It’s early days but it really began in that moment between Hetty Feather and Victoria when I thought, “I have to generate my own work”. Because if I’m serous about being a director, although I’ve always made shorts, I have to actually step it up a bit. Being a jobbing director is fantastic but you have to hold on to your ideas because that’s the currency, that’s what people are buying.
I moved to Cambridge – which was difficult because I was out of London – but I started going to Footlights productions and scouting talent. I went up to a guy after a show who I thought was very funny and I said “I loved that!” and I then went to see his stand-up too. We ended up creating a character, got a script written and shot a pilot at my house. We did it on absolutely no money. Then I found a scriptwriter on twitter who was interested in meeting women comedy directors. I met him and liked him and we started a project together. It’s the basis for a series we are developing that has a little bit of funding from a private investor.
It sounds like the industry has a bit of a stigma around transitioning from comedy to drama. In the future would you be interested in working between both, or would you want to just focus on drama now.
No I’d totally like to work in both. When you’re younger you can be quite naïve and say, “why does it have to be in a genre, why!”. But actually that’s what it needs to sell.
I think comedy writing is really hard; it’s harder than people think. To get that laugh or even a smile they work really damn hard. I like dramas that are funny and I often feel that comedy-dramas are better than dramas. The Sopranos is one of my favourite things of all time- it’s very funny and it’s also very wicked and violent and sad and stupid. Breaking Bad is funny. When you look at Sharon Horgan’s comedy Catastrophe, a lot of that is drama. That’s the area I like. My bottom line is that life is ridiculous. I’m not a real genre person; I like that space in between.
How would you describe your experience in being a female director, compared to what you think the experience is for a male director?
I think it’s different because life is different from being a woman to be to being a man. I think there are some hardwired differences between men and women, probably due to hormones. But mainly it’s the way you’re treated. A lot of it comes down to the boring everyday sexism, which in my case is things like people assuming I’m the unit nurse and not the director, or people just assuming in general that I’m not the director. This happened the other day when I was talking to someone in regards to a pilot I’d made, and they said “oh yeh I was speaking to the director the other day on zoom” and I was like “no you weren’t”, and then they stopped and said “oh no, I’ve done that thing haven’t I?”. They assumed the writer was the director because he was a man. At least they had the guts to say it, and I laughed.
It’s the expectation, it’s the boring little niggles that people say like “oh she’s changed her mind…” and they don’t need to say “because she’s a woman” because you know that’s what they’re thinking. So I always used to say back “oh yeh men never change their mind do they?”. The hardest thing is that men bring with them intrinsic authority. I think there are different ways of doing things. I’m very interested in female models of power.
Most male directors you meet are not assholes; they are extremely hard working, talented and often quite humble, gentle people. There are quite a lot of assholes as well. But there’s a sort of patriarchal structure where men come in with this in-built authority, which I feel that women have to really project. We constantly have to be aware of how we come over, what we look like; it’s such a pain in the neck. I would really like to not wear makeup on set but I feel like I probably have to, but men can turn up looking like Captain Birdseye and it’s still all going to be okay.
It suddenly struck me when I was having run-ins with a couple of DPs that I thought to myself “can this be misogyny?” And I told myself “no that’s lazy thinking Chloe”, and then after a while I realised it was. It just was. They had a problem with being told what to do by a woman. And that’s hard. If you called them on it they’d be shocked but I can see it.
I feel strongly that it shouldn’t matter that I’m a woman director, but it does matter in the same way that it matters in society. I wouldn’t say I’ve been the victim of any massive sexism but it’s defiantly happened.
Most women think about having children in their life, and a lot of women do. It is quite hard when you get to drama directing and you spend time away, you need a lot of support. I do think that the film industry and society should change in terms of childcare, because if they want all these women to go out to work and contribute to the economy, then they need to make childcare affordable and better.
Tell us a little bit about the feature film you have coming up, Making Babies.
It is early days, but what’s exciting about it is working with Deborah Frances-White who came up with the Guilty Feminist. Also that it’s with Redwave Films who made The Full Monty. This is a comedy about fertility; it’s a rom-com definitely. Hopefully I’ll have some exciting news about it soon, but offers are currently going out to cast.
How are you planning to go about making a film in the current climate?
Filmmaking is going forward definitely. There are separate bubbles, at some places the actors don’t go out at night, tests are taken once a day on larger projects and more like twice a week on smaller ones, people wear face masks and they are separating the different components of filming. As far as post-filming work goes, a lot of editing is happening remotely.
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