Fri. Aug 7th, 2020

Interview: Steven Canals on his directorial debut, “Vogue” and giving ball culture its due

Last week I released my video interview with Pose co-creator and Emmy nominee Steven Canals (check it out here) but I also wanted to release a written version to assist deaf and hearing impaired readers to enjoy this fantastic conversation and I hope to offer both versions in upcoming interviews as much as possible.

When it came time to put the second season together, Canals and his team of just four other writers (co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, with Janet Mock and Our Lady J) took us forward a few years and in doing so to took some huge swings that resulted in an elevated season of drama, intensity, sadness and levity, sometimes all in the same episode. The explosion of HIV/AIDS in the Black and brown queer communities, the crack and cocaine epidemic and the murder of Black trans women all became a part of the show’s fabric while still giving us great romances, hopes turning into dreams turning into realities and a legendary moment of Elektra (Dominique Jackson) reading a Karen the house down.

I had the great pleasure of talking with Steven about all of these things plus our love of awards shows, Madonna and “Vogue,” incorporating ball culture legends, vibrant Black gay sex and more in this 40+ minute kiki that includes a little bit of tea for season 3.

We get into some spoiler territory (but I’ll warn you first) so if you haven’t seen season two, you might want to skip that part. Or, do what’s right and watch season two first! Now! It’s on Netflix!

EA: Hi there Steven and welcome. Thanks so much for chatting with me today.

SC: Of course. Thank you for having me.

I want to go back and give you proper accolades on almost a year ago now when Pose was nominated for best drama series and you along with it, and the history that comes with that. I know you’ve probably answered this because, but how did it feel?

That nomination, well it felt like a dream to be honest and one that I’m still living. One that I’m still sort of working through. I love awards shows, I’m just going to be honest. I’m that kind of queer. I mean, I grew up on award shows because my father who is a lover of film and television, which has always been our shared universal language, we always watched all the award shows together. So the Emmys is one of the biggest awards. It’s the highest honor that you can receive in television. So this show that I’ve been watching for so long to suddenly be there, to have a seat at this incredible show, and I also reflect on the journey of Pose, which is this show that I wrote in 2014, didn’t sell until the very end of 2016, and was told hundreds of times that this is a show that doesn’t have any value. There isn’t an audience for it. The industry didn’t know where a show like Pose would live it was too black, it was too queer, it was too trans. It was just much too much of everything. So to reflect on the journey and to see it be nominated amongst the other incredible nominees, many of which were shows that I loved and watched was amazing. It was incredible.

I love that you’re an award show queen, because obviously I am too.

Hello.

I did the same I watched everything with my mom since I was five years old. Now I get to talk about them and be a microcosm of it and I love that. I remember when the announcement of the casting propose came out, before anyone was cast and that Ryan Murphy was very specifically going to be casting black and brown and trans actors for the roles, and how that alone was revolutionary. The show is revolutionary in its existence and this was just another level of that. It’s incredible still.

I will say, the question around castings was one of those gotcha questions. So prior to meeting Ryan anytime I stepped foot into any room and I talked about this show and the importance of it and why I was so passionate about telling this story, one of the top five questions that I was asked 100% of the time, was some version of who is supposed to play these characters. Who in your mind is going to populate this world as a performer? My response was always very defiantly, “I don’t know because I haven’t met them yet.” As you can imagine, that never went over very well. Excuse me.

Well, and now everybody has met them. Now everybody knows them.

Absolutely, and I think Ryan is the very first person I met who when casting came up, and I talked about wanting to cast authentically, he didn’t balk. His response was sort of a quizzical, obviously. He was really truly the first person who was like, “Right, we’re going to go out and hire untapped talent. This is going to be similar to Glee really.” I remember that was our conversation was, “Yeah, I’ve been at this rodeo before. We’re going to out and find people who are incredible talents that you haven’t had a shot. Just haven’t had an opportunity.”

And at that point, he had the cache to do that.

Truly.

That’s really good allyship, him doing that. Speaking of authenticity, something that’s always been on the top of my mind with the show is where you and Janet Mock and Ryan Murphy and everybody involved, where you came to presenting balls and houses, where the line was between people that don’t really know anything about them. How much were you teaching the children and how much were you giving proper service to the people that live them every day?

Yeah, that’s a great question. So I spent 10 years working, or just about 10 years, working in higher education between my experience as a paraprofessional and then as a professional. I went to grad school for student affairs before ever moving to L.A. to pursue screenwriting. So I spent pretty much most of my 20s and the early part of my 30s as a college administrator. Such an important part of my responsibilities as a college administrator was to identify on any college campus that I worked at, identify where there were gaps in programs and resources and policies that support students. Then I was using my knowledge, my privilege, my platform to fill in those gaps. So I obviously bring that into my practice as a storyteller.

For me, television, film, really truly the best film and television lives in that pocket, in that intersection of both entertainment and education. So for me, Pose was all about shinning a very bright light on this incredible sub culture and this community that really have been erased from the narrative, because the reality is if we talk about queer history, we really gloss over the contributions of the ballroom community. So most people when they think about voguing, immediately they go to Madonna’s song Vogue. They don’t talk about the rich history of ballroom and the importance of music and fashion and dance and how it has influenced popular culture for the past 30 years.

Beyond that, ballroom, and you see this in Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking and landmark documentary Paris Is Burning, that there was a very clear gap that ballroom was filling for young black and Latinx queer and trans people in the 70s and 80s. So in the midst of the HIV aids epidemic, in the midst of the crack epidemic, you had all these young people who were being rejected from their family and from the government. In New York City, in ballroom, they found chosen family and so ballroom in essence became a safety net. It became a salvation for a lot of these young people. So that really and truly was the core of telling the story. It’s why Pose is constructed as a family drama and why what is happening in their lives outside of the ballroom is as important and in many ways on our show, more important than what’s happening in the ballroom.

Absolutely. And family drama is definitely a lot that happens this second season. I want to go deep into your episode revelations in a bit because there’s a great component of that in there. You mentioned Madonna and “Vogue,” which is a really great transition into season two making the time jump to get to that point and the impact that it had. But also sort of to my last question, she brought a subculture to the mainstream, but I think what you guys managed to do was balance, that she didn’t invent voguing. And she never pretended to either, but the song and its impact actually lasts quite a bit for the first half of the season. Can you tell me a little bit about specifically, I mean, not specifically choosing that song, because it makes a lot of sense, but again, how you found the balance between the responsibility of the song and the impact that it had?

I think for us it was a large part of that came out of talking to the consultants on our show and all of the ballroom elders. So our conversation, and this goes back to the first season, so our first season if you watch season one up on the ballroom, our panel of judges, we have individuals who were part of a ballroom in the 80s and who are also highlighted in Paris Is Burning. So we have Freddie Pendavis and we have Dr. Sol Pendavis and we had the late grandfather Hector Xtravaganza and Jose Xtravaganza, who actually danced for Madonna during her blond ambition tour and is in Truth or Dare. So talking to them about that period of time, you see that in Blanca’s arc right at the start of season two, which is I think everyone’s assumptions.

Really the other thing I should add, it was really a one two punch. It was Madonna’s Vogue and the release of Paris Is Burning. But I think for everyone who was part of ballroom, they felt like, “Oh, this is our moment. We are now going to hit the mainstream and as a result all these incredible opportunities are going to open.” And that did happen for some folks. Jose as I mentioned got to dance with Madonna for quite bit. You also had Willi Ninja who eventually made his way to Paris. Then as a result of all of this notoriety, you then saw ballroom go from being in urban centers to suddenly becoming global. So you have houses all over the world now.

But I think what was important for us was to note that it’s so much bigger than just Vogue and Madonna. That it really has to do with this rich history of erasure that has happened when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community and specifically the contributions of black and Latinx people within the LBGTQ community. So the reality is that we’re coming off of June which is pride month and that while the jury is out on exactly who was responsible for starting that uprising, the reality is that all the names that we hear, whether it’s Sylvia Rivera or Marsha P Johnson or Storme DeLarveie, that these were all clear and trans black and brown women. So we cannot ignore the fact that they have been at the center of our fight for liberation.

So what was so important for us when it came to talk about vogue and where vogue comes from and specifically ballroom, is just to remind people. Ballroom started because Crystal LaBeija was being discriminated against at all of these pageants that were happening in the 60s, because all of the white drag queens, they were the ones who were being centered and Crystal had had enough. So on the heels of having enough she said, “I’m just going to create my own forum, my own version of a pageant.” And so from that came ballroom and the construction of houses and then the ballroom community that we all know and love today. So I think in this conversation about voguing and Madonna, I think what we wanted to do is, we were just using that as a way in to tell a much larger narrative, which is just the importance of not erasing this community and all of their contributions.

Season Two spoiler territory….

I think that’s exactly what it does and even Candy gets to dress up in the cone bra and it’s pretty fantastic. Speaking of, Candy has a pretty incredible arc in season two and anybody watching or listening or reading, there’s going to be some spoiler territory, so fast forward or whatever you need to do if you haven’t watched it yet, but it’s on Netflix now, so watch it now. Candy’s demise I think probably to viewers was a shock, but it also was speaking so directly to what is still happening to black trans women now. So it was timely in a way that is obviously incredibly upsetting, but what was the timeline for Candy’s arc? Did that begin really in season one or was this something being held for two?

So we as a writer’s room, we’d had conversations, plural, about violence towards the trans community and specifically black and brown trans women, and as a group, felt really strongly that that wasn’t the story that we were telling in season one and that, that would in some way would betray our audience if we leaned into telling that narrative. Season one was all about Blanca coming into her own as a mother. It was about watching her journey going from leaving a house to creating her own house and then becoming mother of the year. So we wanted to honor that journey and that narrative. Season two, knowing that we had the audience, that we had found an audience and that the audience trusted us, we felt like we could take bigger swings. So I think where our first season, we don’t shy away from any heavy topics, we obviously in season two took much bigger swings. I think the politics of the show, which have always been embedded in our narrative, in season two we just put them up front and center in a way that we didn’t during the first season.

So all of that to say that we came into the second season talking about violence and that was something that we were wrestling with once again. As we were working on that first episode on Act Up, which is focused on Pray Tell joining ACT UP and protesting the Catholic Church, we were still sort of mapping out what we wanted season two to be. On the heels of having all these really heavy conversations in the room, three black trans women were murdered all in the span of less than a week. It just, the stark reality of that just brought the conversation full focus for all of us. It felt like we just couldn’t ignore the reality of what is happening to black trans women today.

We knew that the audience would be hurt and there were going to be people that were going to be upset and that some folks might feel betrayed by us because our show at it’s core has always been aspirational and hopeful and it’s family drama, but has also had moments of levity and love, that they were probably going to be really upset. But it just felt so critically important to all of us to not construct a narrative that felt false. It’s like how can we ignore this part of the journey? So for us it was let’s just find a way to tell this narrative in a nuanced way with love and with respect and with perspective, so that’s what we did.

Absolutely, and I think making the editorial decision to not show it was, I mean, at least in my opinion, it was exactly the right decision, because it can be an exploitative moment and what it then gets to be is about the houses coming together in a moment. And an incredible performance from Angelica Ross.

An incredible performance. I mean, if I could just say, I really wish that the women on our show were in the conversation for awards. I know that awards aren’t always the barometer or quality or success frankly, but it’s just been two seasons now and I don’t know how everyone keeps ignoring the beautiful work that is coming from all of these women.

End spoiler territory…

I know, I’m trying!

I appreciate it.

I do wish I had more control about how the rules work sometimes with the Emmys and guests versus supporting, because I think Angelica would make an incredible guest acting nominee, but the rules are as they are.

I mean, she was a series regular, so I mean, but let’s put her in supporting. Let’s do it.

Exactly. Exactly. And M.J., I mean, just get them in there. Get them in there. One of the other topics that you really get into this season is HIV and aids and having extremely frank and real conversations about it and I think we can dive right into your episode with this and that’s episode eight, “Revelations,” which opens right there with that very frank discussion of here’s the pills you need to take and there’s why you need to do it. It also takes on the idea of status shaming and outing of statuses. Sometimes I always want to know too from a writer how much of themselves they put into a episode of television or of film. You wrote and directed this, which is just an amazing episode. So I really want to know how much of you is in this.

That’s a great question. A lot. I mean, I think a lot of all of us in the writer’s room is in every episode. The opening that you just mentioned, wouldn’t have been as poignant and as pointed if we didn’t have Our Lady J in the writer’s room who is a trans woman who is living with HIV. So having her as a support and someone to turn to, to ask questions and to clarify and to make sure that we are all approaching the narrative with love and sensitivity has been critically important. In the same way that having Our Lady J and Janet Mock both in the room has aided in our telling, for me as a cis man telling stories about trans women has also been really helpful and critically important to the success of the story and the show.

So, in terms of the episode that I wrote specifically though, I mean, there’s a lot of my personal story that I put into this episode. When I was in my mid 20s, briefly, but I was in a relationship with someone who was 14 years my senior. So I know what that feels like to be in a queer relationship and have that relationship have a generational divide. So I think those were conversations that we obviously were having in our writer’s room. I always tell folks this, if you ever want to know what we’re talking about in the closed room, just watch the show, because everything we talk about winds up on the show in some way. But that was a conversation that we’d had a lot about.

We had also had quite a few conversations around the stigma obviously around being HIV positive and for us we just really wanted to explore love between two HIV positive men. Not just to put out a positive message that folks living with HIV are as deserving of love as everybody else, but also what are the complications and nuances of that. Obviously for me the dynamic between Ricky and Pray Tell was wildly fascinating and that the conversation, one of my favorite scenes to write was the conversation between the emcee council in the diner, when they’re all talking about being men of a particular age dating younger men, because now as someone who, I will be 40 pretty soon, I’m right around the age that that gentleman that I was dating when I was in my early 20s was. I remember us having a slew of conversations around the differences in our age and our perspectives. At the time it was like, “I don’t know why this is such a big deal for you.” As the younger person I was like, “It’s not a big deal. Can we not have this conversation every day?” Now, stepping foot into my 40s I get it. I have a different understanding and perspective on it now. So it was really interesting for me to sort of wrestle with these questions from both perspectives and then to embed that into the work.

And I am of the age I guess let’s see that I would be, I guess probably Ricky’s age right at that time. So that scene and so much of it spoke very … I knew those conversations really, really well. But yeah, the diner moment and that kiki is one of the best moments of the episode. It’s great levity, but there’s great honesty in it too. Right after that opening scene is a scene of black, gay love that I don’t think that I have seen on television since maybe Noah’s Ark. It feels like it’s been that long.

Yeah, I think it was that long.

Yeah. And what a fantastic way to follow up the conversation that they had just had with that. It just, I mean, I have to keep giving props to how intelligent and thoughtful this episode is, because-

Oh, thanks.

… that’s just like the first 10 minutes and the rest is you could fill an entire season with everything that happens in this episode. It’s the big family fight in the house is something again very honest feeling and very true. But I sometimes look at these characters sort of like the LGBTQ avengers. They are a team and a group and strongest together, but they do have these moments where they separate and just fight for Kate. And I think that fight was such a great example of that. It’s not even a question I guess, it’s just a comment.

That fight I will tell you, it’s fascinating. I wrote that scene on a plane flying back from New York to L.A. We had to get the scripts out. The network was sort of like, “Hey, we need these scripts.” We were already in production by that point, so there just you get to a point once you’re in production, particularly in the back half of the season, where you just sort of go on autopilot. I think between, I knew I was going to be directing, so prepping to direct, producing the show in New York and then still being active in the writer’s room, it’s just you’re wearing a lot of hats all at the same time and you just don’t know if you’re coming or going. So I didn’t personally feel like on the page that that was my best work, if I’m being honest. There was initially, I was like, “I don’t know, I think there’s something missing.” Fortunately you have people who you trust and Ryan in particular, Ryan Murphy was like, “You’re good. It’s fine. You’re great.”

So we went into direct it and I was so nervous about that scene because it was our longest scene. So up until that point, the longest scene that we’d ever written on the show was the diner scene and then suddenly it’s like, “And now we’re going to eclipse that with an even longer scene in the same episode.” We have these two massive scenes. I think the fight scene is like eight pages, so we split it between two days and then we have nearly every single cast member in the scene. If you ever have a chance to come to our set in New York, that House of Evangelista set is small. It’s an exact replica of the real apartment that we used in the first two episodes of season one. So, it’s just it’s not a very big space to have every cast me in that small little space and then to have your crew with cameras, it was a lot.

I went into it really nervous and Ryan was on set the day that I filmed that scene and he just popped in really quickly just to lend support and just to say, “Look, I’m here for you if you have any questions, let me know.” So I went through my rehearsal and I did all that, Ryan comes in and he gave me my space and then he comes in and he’s like, “Okay, let me see what you’ve blocked out and let me see how you’ve mapped it out.” The cast were, to their credit, so flawless. No one dropped a line. Everyone came so prepared and I’m grateful for that. I think that they all had the love. We have a lot of love for each other and so obviously they were respectful of me and my process and also knew that this was going to be a lot and so everyone came in ready. We went through a rehearsal of the scene and Ryan was like, “You got this. You’re good.”

Then we just, we filmed it. Everyone just really came with their A game. I think again, I think I still on the page, I would have like to have gone back and maybe I would have overwritten it to be honest, because sometimes I’m one to do that. But the cast for me, I think what’s when I see that scene, the reason it works is because the cast came so just ready to work and so open and so honest. So whether it’s Ryan Jamaal Swain who play Damon, who really was on his A game, really that entire episode. Then Billy Porter and Dominique who is like a comedy queen and I don’t think she gets enough credit for her humor, but really I think just brings that lightness. On the page it’s written sort of very flatly, then the cast brings their own energy to it. So her, that moment of like, “Ooh.”

I know.

It’s classic. It’s so good. That was just her being herself or tapping into what she thought Elektra would be like in that moment.

It was a perfectly gifable moment because I’ve seen it many times since then and yeah, it’s ideal. Also too like you were saying with the small space and so many people and then also having to frame Dominique Jackson, how is like seven and a half feet tall, that’s a lot of work. How did you decide upon this episode thought to be your directorial debut with the show?

A lot of it has to do with once we’ve mapped out the season, trying to be really intentional. So also paring directors with episodes where they can bring a part of themselves to it or a director who is going to help elevate the material. I think the conversations that Ryan and I had, and Janet as well, because she had already had experience directing several episodes of the show, was this is an episode that really is going to require someone that has an immense amount of trust with the cast, because we knew the first five minutes of the episode was going to have this sex scene between Dyllon Burnside who plays Ricky and then Billy Porter who plays Pray Tell. We knew there was going to be these two really long scenes. We have this seven page diner scene, this eight page family fight and it was going to be a really emotional scene. You have the really big fight that’s beautiful between Pray Tell and Blanca in the middle of a ball. You also have Ricky disclosing that he’s HIV positive to Damon, which is a really emotional scene.

Dyllon is another one who gave beautiful, beautiful work, really all season, but in this episode in particular. I was so completely moved by him, especially in that scene when he discloses his positive status to Damon. So the conversation was they’re just really big emotional beats in this episode, so you want someone who understands the tone of the show and is going to be able to hold the hands of the cast and help modulate their performances. I think anytime you have any big emotional scene, it can go one way or the other. It can sort of get to the place of melodrama. It can derail very quickly. So as opposed to bringing in a guest director and then having to work them through what it is you’re looking for as a producer of the show, it was like, “Just put somebody in who already knows, who understands what we’re looking for from the cast.” Since I was already writing the episode anyway, it just made sense.

Yeah, that does. It makes perfect sense. It was really fun re-watching the episode this week and clocking Dashaun Wesley who is on Legendary now. That was really fun and then of course Dominique is a guest judge on Legendary this season as well.

And Leiomy, who is a regular judge.

Yeah, so the expansion of the visibility of balls of houses, of this community has really blown up. The success of Pose is such a huge part of that. You guys had record ratings for your second season and the third season as a result. That’s amazing.

Yeah, it’s incredible, our third season was renewed after the season two premier, which is incredible. We didn’t have to wait an entire season. I remember receiving the call from John Landgraf, who runs FX, and he was like, “We’re so proud of the show and we’re so excited to share that we’re renewing your for the third season.” It was incredible. We were like, “Oh my goodness.” I was actually on set. Was I directing that day? Or was I … I believe the day that I received the call that we were renewed for season three, I think I was in prep for the episode. So I was prepping to direct. So I was location scouting. I was going and looking to identify the locations that I was going to use within my episode. The episode that I directed and it was amazing. It was amazing to get that call. It was just this beautiful moment of so many really wonderful things happening. We had just had our premier and folks were talking about the show again. I was getting ready to embark on directing my first episode and then all of a sudden we get this call, it’s like, “You’re coming back.” It was great. Very special.

What is, I mean, I guess I’ll ask if there’s any tee you can give for the third season, but what is the writing room look like in this current COVID era for you guys?

I mean, we as a room have always been, because our room is really small. There are only five of us, so it is myself Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Janet Mock and Our Lady J, and it’s been the same group. We’ve been the same house if you will for the past three seasons. So we have a shorthand of communication with each other, but we also, we have a text thread, then we have an email chain, so we’re in constant communication about stories that we want to explore and narrative we think will be really interesting for upcoming episodes or season arcs. So this period of quarantine hasn’t really impacted the process all that much, other than we just can’t be around each other. We just can’t share space. So we were filming the third season premier. Janet was directing that episode and I was prepping episode two, because I was probably going to be directing episode two of season three and I directed about three scenes from the second episode. So we were just at the beginning of production and at the tail end of writing the season when everything was shut down.

So we didn’t have as much to do. I mean, really we’re at a point where we’re just sort of waiting for the industry, specifically in New York, because that’s where we film the show to restart, so that we can all dive back in and get the third season out. But we’re so excited about the narrative and I think what I can share about season three is that obviously season, specifically the end of season two, we see the dissolution of the House of Evangelista and then in the finale, written by Ryan and Brad and I and beautifully directed by Janet, you see the beginnings of the possibility of a new home. So what you see in season three, I think the best way to articulate what season three is about as a whole is when the crap hits the fan, who shows up for you. Who are your write or die people? Who are the folks that you are going to call in a crisis? That’s really to me, really and truly what season three is all about. It’s about what it really truly means to be a family and to show up for one another.

Something else we’re also going to explore, which I’m really excited about in terms of good tee, is we got to explore love for Blanca, so she’ll have a love interest this season, which is really exciting. One of her arcs that we’ll be exploring, which is something that we’ve been talking about in the room since season two, and so we’re really excited to finally explore that this third season, is what are the pressures for her as a partner and as a mom. Because for the past two seasons Blanca really has been very selfless and she has been all about her kids and all about her house and all about her family. So for the first time we get to explore what does it look like if Blanca is selfish and thinking about herself and thinking about her future and her love live and how does that then impact the relationship with the people around her.

Well that sounds incredible. I think that will be enough to feed the children until that comes through. Yeah, thank you so much Steven. Thank you so much for talking with me. I think I could just keep going for the next five hours. But yes, I wish you and the show the very best with the Emmys this year.

Thank you. All fingers crossed.

Very fingers crossed. I think it will be a bump from last year. That’s often how things go and you have Billy Porter’s win, which again another piece of history right there.

I know, it’s crazy.

Oh my God, that moment, yeah.

So good. So good.

It’s amazing. Thank you so much Steven.

Thank you. Thank you for your time. It was so lovely to chat with you.

Steven is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for Pose, which is currently available on demand, on FX networks and Netflix.

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