The 'Alone Together' Directors Talk Charli XCX's Quarantine Album Experiment
Documentary directors Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler talk making the film and the resiliency of The Angels.
Do you remember season one of quarantine? While cooped up inside, and riddled with uncertainty, we were forced to find ways to keep busy. Some of us put our chef hats on and made sourdough starters, while others became baristas, whipping up viral coffee recipes. Many took up new hobbies, or conversely, used the time to relax. Charli XCX, however, turned quarantine into a full-fledged creative experiment.
While under lockdown, the singer decided to create an album in just five weeks.The project was pitched during an Instagram Live that her creative partners Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler attended. After hearing her plan, they were struck with an idea — what if she also filmed the entire process?
The duo discussed the concept with Charli, who agreed to vlog everything. What emerged is the immersive and authentic documentary, Alone Together. The film tracks Charli’s plight to record how i’m feeling now, which was released on May 15th, 2020. Along the way, viewers see Charli battling anxiety exacerbated by the pandemic, and watch her adjust to living with her boyfriend for the first time. As her story unfolds, Alone Together inspects the lives of Charli’s fans (known as the Angels) as well, who are experiencing similar struggles.
Before the film's premiere, Pablo and Bradley spoke with NYLON about creating Alone Together, attending digital nightclubs, and building community in isolation. Read our conversation below.
How does it feel to have completed your first documentary?
Bradley: It feels pretty good. It's just been a really surreal experience, honestly, because obviously the way the project came was so unexpected. It's certainly not how we imagined making our first feature film, and it came together pretty organically. It's been two years since we started making the film now, almost.
It just feels really nice and validating, in a way, [now] that the film's finally getting an audience and it's being premiered, and we've partnered with some good people and distribution. I can't wait to see what a wider audience thinks of it.
How about you, Pablo?
Pablo: I’m just, at this point, excited to see if it finds a place for itself in the public eye. After spending a year with it, making it, and [it] being such an insular process, towards the end, you’re just very much on your own. You don’t really know if it’s good or bad anymore.
How long have you guys been working with Charli?
Pablo: We started working together in, I think, 2015. We worked with her on her Vroom Vroom EP release and everything around that. Press photos, the video, and she also started the record label of the same name at the same time. We sort of helped her develop the visual language for that.
Since then, we've collaborated on various music videos, album artworks, live Halloween installation performances — lots of different stuff, but it's always been these shorter projects. And we've been friends this whole time. But I think [by] doing this project together, our relationship with her reached a whole new depth, obviously, because we got to know her inside out.
Creating an album in five weeks looked like a very taxing process. Does Charli usually take on big challenges like that?
Pablo: As she talks about a bit in the film, she's a self-confessed workaholic. So it's always trying to stay as busy as possible to distract herself from the realities of her life.
Bradley: I think she also gets a lot of pleasure from doing things outside of the mold, and just the sheer innovation of daring to create in a time that was absolutely mental. It really was, literally, the first two weeks when the pandemic was announced, that she decided, "I'm going to make an album during this time.”
On reflection, it was pretty crazy. I think she just gets adrenaline and a kick out of setting hardcore challenges for herself.
Did you all discuss what you wanted the documentary to look like? Or was Charli given free-range to film whatever she wanted?
Bradley: No, we didn't really have any idea what a documentary was going to look like. All we knew was that the aesthetic was going to be rough around the edges, and we really didn't know where the story was going to go. It was really just the case of, “lets just film and see what happens,” and in the edit we’ll find out if we actually have a film or not.
Pablo: I think what attracted us, particularly, to the project, was that she was doing it in a way that was open to the fans. In the weeks leading up to that, we'd attended this one Club Quarantine party. They’re featured in the film. It's like a weird online club-night thing that was hosted on Zoom every night, at the beginning of the pandemic. Every night, for a whole year or something. So we attended this thing as a response to the situation we all found ourselves in. And it felt like a really honest, positive, genuine, thing that people were coming together to do to help each other through this time.
Pablo: I think knowing that she was going to be involving the fans, and that we were going to see this period of time from their perspectives as well, was something that was really exciting, and added this layer that we knew had to be part of the film in some way. It just took a long time to figure out exactly how all the different stories weaved together.
But there's a lot of stuff, like in her personal story. Her boyfriend at the time — they'd been together for seven years — [they] hadn't spent more than two weeks together. Therapy. All these kinds of things were things we found out about in real time as it was going on.
Pablo: Those were these little golden nuggets that we were handed as the process developed.
Watching her fans assist in the creation of how i’m feeling now was really heartwarming. Was their involvement always a part of the plan, or a result of their excitement about the project?
Bradley: It was always a part of her plan. And that was a really important part as to why we were so into the project in the first place. As Pablo was saying, these Club Quarantine parties, they were really cool because they were bringing people together at this time when we were all, obviously, physically isolated. So Charli choosing to do the project in this way that’s super collaborative, and all virtual, just really got our attention.
Pablo: Before the pandemic happened — before she started this project — she had, I think, a pretty much finished album that she was going to release. Then when the pandemic started, she was like, “This doesn’t really make sense anymore,” and just felt like she needed to do some work in reaction to the situation we found ourselves in. A new way of creating with other people made a lot more sense to her as well, so it was very reactive.
Her particular fandom, or, The Angels, were a pre-existing community which had already formed very close bonds with each other and existed largely online. They were almost primed for this situation.
Though Alone Together tracks Charli’s creative process, much of the film is about finding community in isolation. Why do you think she was able to do that?
Pablo: There's a few things, I think, that made her particularly suited to this challenge. I mean, I don't know if anyone else would've been able to do it. But I think her willingness to be super open, super transparent, and very vulnerable with her fans — and the fact that she has done this even before the pandemic — allowed for a project like this to happen.
Aside from that, I know lots of different artists have fandoms or something. But her particular fandom, or, The Angels, were a pre-existing community which had already formed very close bonds with each other and existed largely online. They were almost primed for this situation, so I think those two things helped make it possible.
One other thing. I think, probably, we won't have another situation exactly like that again in our lifetimes where you have everyone's attention in the same way.
Even if there's another pandemic, which there probably will be at some point, of some kind, it won't have the same emotional feeling as this one did because it was so new and crazy. And that first few months, when everyone was inside, that's never happened before. So I think that those circumstances won't be recreated again, which made that project very much of its time.
Bradley: One other thing that I will add — it doesn't speak to why Charli was particularly well-placed to do this, but it does kind of speak to maybe why the project was so necessary and why it was so profound in a way. A big portion of her fans are LGBTQ, and I think that added so much more weight to it. Well, actually, this does kind of relate to why Charli could do it. Charli goes out of the way to make her shows a very safe space. And she’s well aware that a big portion of her audience is from that community.
If you go into one of her shows, it genuinely is an incredible atmosphere. It's just a really upbeat, safe and just fun place to be, basically where she just lets people be whoever they want.
So I think when this project happened, one of the big parts, which we sort of cover in the documentary, is that obviously those safe spaces were kind of lost. Charli was able to, in a way, recreate that space virtually for these kids. That was a big part of how it came together, I think, and why it was so important.
Pablo: I think Charli is very future-facing and she's super innovative. And I think the fact that she managed to figure out a project like this — in that amount of time whilst everyone else was still floundering around, not really knowing what to do, or like, there were other celebrities singing “Imagine” covers, or whatever that was — I think it just speaks to her creativity. I think we did see other attempts of projects from people that kind of just completely fell flat or were very tone deaf.
How did you choose which fans to include in the documentary? Why were their stories compelling to you?
Bradley: We spoke to a lot of fans. I think probably over a period of three or four weeks, we were just [in] back to back Zoom calls with different fans every day. And basically, there are a few factors.
Obviously just by the means of which this documentary was made, it required self-documentation. So that was a very practical thing we had to think about. And one of the obstacles we added was that some of the fans, well, a lot of them actually, had self-esteem issues where they struggled to film themselves, or lacked the confidence to put the camera on themselves. I think that's completely normal. I mean, I would never do that.
I'd hate to film myself at home in the way that we asked them to. It would be awful. So that was a big thing we had to overcome, and just find who was actually willing to do it. And luckily, a lot of them were really willing to do it.
And second, it was finding the fans that we thought spoke best to the story that we saw unfolding. That story was very much — what I started to talk about earlier a little bit — how some of these fans were from the LGBT community. They were isolated in often very rural, or just outside of the big cities. We had a fan, Cole, in Alabama. We had Poison in Oakland. We had Ellen in, actually, Atlanta — so they are kind of big cities, but still.
Pablo: Ronald was in Oaxaca.
Bradley: Yeah, true. We had Ronald in Oaxaca and someone in Pennsylvania. Anyway, they were all over the place, but basically some of them were forced to go back to their parents' house. We had someone that was transitioning. Their parents weren't necessarily supportive of that. So it was really hard for that person to be at home, and essentially be stuck there.
We started to hear these stories, and we kind of chose the ones that we felt best represented the plight of that community during that time. It was really hard to do it as well, because there were loads of amazing stories, loads of amazing people, and people put a lot of work into it.
They were really filming themselves every single day for a period of five weeks. We were just very thankful that people wanted to do it, and it was hard to edit them out in some cases.
What is next for your team? What would you like to do now that this is done?
Pablo: Make massive feature films. Yeah, we're developing some scripts at the moment. We want to try and make a scripted feature film soon. That's one of our main goals. Then aside from that, continue to make music videos, hopefully getting better every time. Hopefully still making some kind of imprint on culture with them.
Bradley: Yeah. I think our big goal is definitely to get into scripted, and this documentary was a surprising gateway into that world. Before we did this documentary, we'd only made music videos. We hadn't made a short, we hadn't made a feature. We hadn't done anything scripted or story-based.
This was a really big stride forward and, in a way, a very educational ABCs of how to tell a story. So that's hopefully helping us propel forward into scripted.
Pablo: It's a big confidence boost as well.
Pablo: The idea of a feature film, just the sheer scale and amount of time, it's quite daunting. So we threw ourselves into it, and I think it didn't really become a reality, or didn't feel like we were making this feature film until a bit into that process.
And by that point you're kind of in it, so you just have to finish it. I think it's just the starting part, that is often quite hard.
Bradley: I'd say not even just the starting part though. It's literally the whole process. It was so unbelievably difficult.
We didn't know what was actually going on with our career in music videos, that was very predominant before that. But you just have to keep plugging away at this documentary, which feels very separate from the real world. And you have to just kind of hold onto the belief that this is worth something, and people are going to be interested, and it could be released.
Holding onto that belief is a really hard thing to do. This kind of circles back nicely to the beginning of the interview, actually. So now to see it on the TV is just an amazing feeling, and it's like, "Okay, yeah, we literally came up with this idea through a text message thread in our living rooms and just did it."
And now here we are talking to you, and it's going to be on TV. So it's really, just, “you can do anything.”
Alone Together is now streaming on Hlulu.