The most surprising thing about Alyssa McClelland is her ability to mix the lightly heinous with the humorous; to nail those barbed jokes that make you laugh when you know that you shouldn’t. Across her work on Netflix Series ‘Everything Now’ and ‘Sex Education’, and her commercials for clients like Google and Air New Zealand, she excels at tar-black humour, arranging the guts of the world to spell out a punchline. The second most surprising thing about Alyssa McClelland is that she is a revhead.
Alyssa McClelland And The Bittersweet Laughs
The FINCH Director Talks Her Journey As Set-up Director Of Everything Now
It was the poet James Tate who said, “I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best.” It’s a sentiment shared by Alyssa McClelland, the acclaimed commercials and television director, who makes work that is both moving and funny in equal measure. In fact, that mix of pathos and humour is what drew her to Everything Now, the new Netflix series on which she worked as set-up director, helming the first two episodes.
The premise of Everything Now is simple – Mia (Sophie Wilde) has emerged after seven months in a hospital, the culmination of her battle with anorexia. Aware that time has passed her by, Mia seeks to catch up with her peers, who’ve been out there socialising while she’s been hospitalised. Alyssa dived deep into the world of Mia and her friends, tapping into the creative vein of teen social life, painting an authentic contemporary London from the point of view of the 17-year-old characters.
When McClelland got the script, which was written by creator Ripley Parker when she was only 19, her reaction was purely visceral. “It just immediately grabbed me,” McClelland says, “It has this blend of heart and soul. It’s a deep story, but it’s told with such a beautiful, funny, dry and heartwarming perspective. I was drawn to that blend of the darkness and the light. It’s a story about mental health, but it dealt with it using a dark comedic angle.”
It was that darkness which gave McClelland a responsibility to tell the story authentically, and with sensitivity. She worked with consultants during the preparation for the shoot, and also on set, endeavouring to tell the story of Mia’s journey in a way that was truthful and respectful to the very real struggles that so many people diagnosed with anorexia go through.
“It was delicate territory,” she says, “So what we decided to do was focus on the mental health element. We got really close to Mia – she’s a very complex character. It was about not shying away from her struggles.”
Because the series is so tightly told through Mia’s perspective – she provides a voiceover, and we see everything through the filter of her journey of healing, and her connection with her friends – McClelland wanted to make sure the visual style was a representation of the internal life and light of the character.
“I immediately saw this super colourful, vivacious, vibrant world,” McClelland says, “And so you can see why Mia works so hard to get back into it. She’s seventeen – her and her friends are at one of the peaks of their social life. And, man, her close friend group is a rad bunch of humans.”
As set-up director, it fell to McClelland to shape the series’ style and tone. Early on in her preparation, she hit on the idea of dialling into the vibrancy and energy of Mia’s world, using lighting and setting to communicate the surprising warmth and support that Mia finds herself surrounded by. “London is such an exciting place, and such an exciting place to be in your teens,” she said, “I had this super clear visual language from the outset. I made a very dense image bible of how I wanted the world to look. And from that starting point, it was about finding a team that could help bring that to life.”
That style gives Everything Now a fresh, surprising approach – almost expressionistic. McClelland worked to use “different hues and colour palettes” to correspond to different parts of Mia’s journey, as the young woman leaves her safety net behind, and tries to rebuild herself after so much time away.
Indeed, that’s one of the things that sets Everything Now apart – it’s rare for a show about mental illness to really dial into the difficulties of the healing journey. It’s a nuanced look at the complexities of trying to get yourself back out there, and McClelland describes the show as defined by the arc of someone who gradually comes to realise that they have thrown themselves into the world too soon — they’ve been moving too fast. They weren’t ready.
Key to nailing that arc was the performances. Sophie Wilde, known for her work in the A24 horror film Talk To Me, was the first actor that came to McClelland’s mind for the role of Mia, and her sensitive, subtle performance guides the series. Wilde and McClelland had attended the same performing arts high school, and McClelland had been watching the development of her craft as an actor over the years. McClelland was equally impressed by the work of Stephen Fry, who plays a key role in the series as Dr. Nell – noting that he has long been an advocate for mental health, she says that it was the show’s honest portrayal of struggle that drew him to the project in the first place.
“For me, it was about the tone we were creating,” McClelland says, “The tone was everything. One of my biggest missions as lead director was to get the tone right on screen of course, that is all. But I also wanted to ensure there was a nurturing, safe and comfortable tone offscreen with the cast and crew – that everyone had that support on set. So many of our crew had connections to people affected by eating disorders, there were a lot of emotions. We also had a therapist who was attached to the production, and if anything was triggering, the cast and crew would be able to see them.”
This sensitivity to both the light and darkness of human endeavours also guides McClelland’s celebrated commercial work, for such clients as Google Pixel, Air New Zealand and Apple. Indeed, McClelland loves both modes of storytelling – commercials and long-form. “I love them for slightly different reasons,” she says, “I get to dwell longer in world building and characters through my long-form projects; it’s so immersive. With commercials, I am still very focused on characters and world-building, but the pace overall is faster. It is so fun.”
Across both mediums, McClelland is interested, above all else, in exploring the foibles of humanity. “Being able to smile through tears is what I love,” she says, “You are struck by the humanity of the thing, but you’re smiling, whether that smiling comes from it being relatable, or being absurd.”
At the end of the day, for McClelland, it’s simple. “I love being involved in telling stories,” she says, “It’s a way of being involved in humanity, shining a light on what it means to be human, with all our fragilities, and the ways we are unique and funny… without even trying to be.”