How John Hughes Inspired Sex Education’s High School Rom-Com

Photo: Jon Hall/Netflix

Eagle-eyed fans of Catastrophe and Sex Education will recognize the name Ben Taylor, the British director behind the first three seasons of the former and the first four episodes of the latter. Although he’s played a key role in several acclaimed TV series, Taylor’s kept a low profile compared with Catastrophe stars and creators Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, or even Sex Education creator Laurie Nunn.

Taylor’s passion for romantic comedies and his talent for capturing moments of intimacy and connection are plainly visible on both shows. Just days after Netflix renewed Sex Education for season two, the director hopped on the phone with Vulture during a break from shooting the upcoming series Year of the Rabbit in East London to discuss John Hughes teen comedies, comfortable environments for inexperienced actors, and the unusual position romantic-comedy directors occupy. He also explained why he’s no longer directing the long-gestating adaptation of The Rosie Project, which once had Jennifer Lawrence attached to star.

Congratulations on Sex Education, both the response to the first season and the announcement of the second season. What’s all that been like?
It has been phenomenal. It’s my first show proper on Netflix. It’s the first time I experienced what it’s like for a button being pressed and all of a sudden what you made is available in 190 countries. The immediate response was so warm and so lovely. It’s spoiled me a bit.

How did you get involved with the show?
In 2017, I had finished a season of Catastrophe and I’d carved out some time for a movie in the States which ended up not happening. I’d gotten a script from my agent, so I went in for a meeting with Laurie and the production company. I loved it when I read it. It’s, weirdly, very much the needle in the haystack I’d been looking for as a British director. I’ve always wanted to do a high-school rom-com, a Hughesian-style high-school experience. That is not something that really exists in the U.K. — writing and rendering of the British school experience is not traditionally joyful. It’s always a bit grayer and flatter and ironic, whereas this had a lot of heart and optimism.

Why do you think the British portrayal of school is a little darker than in America?
It’s just a thing that we do. We don’t celebrate our school years as much. The attitude tends to be, Fuck this shit, I graduated and I’m out of here. I’m not going to look back on any of this. It’s all about the next stage, the graduation, getting the job. I don’t know why it is, it just tends to be something that you guys have always done as a genre in itself.

Did you grow up watching American teen movies and thinking, Why don’t we have something like this?
I very much grew up watching and studying in the VHS era. [My brother Sam and I] would watch a film several times over a weekend. There tended to be a lot of Hughes stuff. We just loved the world that it took us to. We didn’t know anything about America. I’d never been to Chicago, Illinois. To us, it was just this other world. I’ve always been a film fan, but that was definitely a huge genre for me.

My dad was my headmaster. I went to a private school [Lisvane in Wales]. It was quite a posh school, not quite Hogwarts-level, a bit odd and rambling. That was the surroundings where we were introduced to John Hughes.

Did your dad ever do the Risky Business dance in the hallway?
No, he didn’t. But he’s delighted that I’m making a show about a headmaster.

A lot of the young actors in Sex Education hadn’t done TV before. How do you cultivate an environment on set that makes people feel comfortable with the vulnerability you’re asking of them?
The set and the environment and the stakes have to feel feel fun and supportive and experimental. You should never feel that what you do now is your first and last chance to get something right. You have to relax young actors to an extent where they don’t feel precious. Being on a set, it’s very technical, so you relax them, you get them dancing and you can drill down on stuff.

The big secret for us, in the middle of what was largely a first-time class, was Asa Butterfield, who’s been doing it longer than I have. He looks and sounds like he’s got ten-plus years of experience and he’s the most generous collaborator.

When you’re trying to open up these young actors who are new to this world, is there a moment when you see the switch flip? Or does it happen more gradually?
Probably a bit of both. You don’t want to come in with the hardest thing. You’ve got to give a bit of warm-up time. Emma [Mackey] and I especially talked about the character of Maeve. Everybody knows a Maeve from their life or from film. It’s not enough to wear a leather jacket and smoke and look cool. It’s a tricky and really well-developed character to find. Emma did some amazing work piecing it together, which was gradual.

Dramatically, her moment came in episode three — the abortion episode — about six weeks into the schedule. We talked a lot about it quite a lot, but we didn’t rehearse it or overthink it. She did some stuff that was just quietly mind-blowing. We did very few takes, very little coverage, just because she was exactly where it needed to be. We were just trying to balance a story line that dramatic with a character who’s so pragmatic, working out how much of herself she was willing to give away.

Our secret weapon was an actress Lu Corfield, who was so good [as Sarah, an older patient who connects with Maeve]. She and Emma bonded immediately. This might make me sound like a lazy director, but the best days on set are when, from your first rehearsal, you realize you and the actors are on exactly the same page, nothing needs fixing or finding. [Corfield] nailed it and helped Emma and I find the way too.

You’ve directed shows that American audiences love, but there’s not a lot about you online. You don’t even have a Wikipedia page. How did you end up directing TV?
I graduated from film school in the U.K. in ’99. I very much knew I wanted to be a director, I moved to London, and I spent about four years subsisting on videos and commercials. When I got my chance to direct commercials, I felt like a bit of a phony when I was playing it straight. I learned a lot about image quality and composition from them, but I became increasingly aware that when I got to direct my own stuff it needed to be comedy-led. I couldn’t take myself as seriously as everyone else seemed to. I had friends in the comedy festival world. Whenever they wanted sketches filmed, I would do that for them, in the hope that if they ever got a TV break they’d take me with them.

Eventually the group [Cardinal Burns] got a break and got a pilot for their sketch show. That was interesting stuff, but it was very silly and very heightened. [After several more sitcoms] Catastrophe came and changed everything for me. Rob and Sharon are such amazing writers comically that the dramatic content gave me a chance to try and prove myself in a more dramatic world. What Catastrophe taught me is that the comedy is funny when you believe the characters doing it are real, and the drama’s more moving when you’ve approached it with a realistic sense of humor.

The fourth season of Catastrophe has aired in the U.K. but not yet in the United States. Did you work on it?
No, sadly. The schedule kept getting delayed. When they finally locked it was in direct conflict with the Sex Ed dates, and even though it broke my heart not to be able direct Catastrophe for the fourth and final season, I felt like it was the right time for me to move on. The opportunity to lead a Netflix original comedy drama of hour-long episodes felt like too much of an exciting opportunity to pass on.

You mentioned a movie that fell through — I’m assuming that was The Rosie Project. A lot of directors and actors have been attached. What was your experience like, and why didn’t it work out?
It was a bit of a frustrating experience because I didn’t get it up and running. There were only two things standing in my way, but they were two pretty big things: casting and script. We were trying to get a script that people are happy with, and to cast the three leads. It’s difficult. One of the reasons I was hired for that [was] because, with Catastrophe, we were examining rom-com stuff from a slightly new perspective, a new angle that felt funny and grounded and modern. That’s what I was hoping to do with it. I think they’re still hoping to get it made.

A lot of the press coverage of Sex Education and Catastrophe is focused on the great writing and acting. Do you sense a lack of awareness of the director’s contribution to the success of the romantic comedy?
In the U.K., nobody is interested in directors. You do a good job, you deliver it, but you also know that you’re not going to be interviewed. It’s not my specialty. The old adage is TV’s a writer’s medium, film is a director’s medium. I don’t really crave attention.

When you try to render something cinematically, it is a bit more noticeable. On Sex Education, the design is all intentional, the tone is intentional. I wanted to make sure we were telling it in the right way and setting it in the right place. As well as dialogue and character, you want to spend time in the world. I think it’s the thing I enjoy most about what TV’s got to offer directors. It’s all part of what I wanted to do with the show that has made you feel a certain way. There’s a fable quality to it. I never wanted it to feel like it was America, but I just wanted it to feel like I felt when I watched these films when I grew up. Some people asked me afterwards, Why doesn’t this feel real? It’s fiction and it’s heightened and it’s fun.

Are you working on season two? What else do you have coming up?
I’ve got this show coming called Year of the Rabbit [a co-production of IFC and Channel 4 in the U.K.], sort of like Peaky Blinders meets a violent action comedy. I’ve got two more weeks on that. And then the hope is I’ll come straight off this and back to Wales to direct Sex Education — four of the episodes. We don’t know which four yet. [Editor’s note: A Netflix rep told Vulture after the interview that Taylor hasn’t been confirmed to return for season two.] Everyone’s extremely excited to get the opportunity to go back and do more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How John Hughes Inspired Sex Education’s High School Rom-Com