Stephen Dunn recalls how Queer As Folk was a life raft to him as a closeted gay kid in the far reaches of Eastern Canada and why his mission for the Peacock reboot is to give voice to the voiceless.
I don’t want to see any more perfect, polished [LGBTQ+] characters because I don’t know those people. I know real people who are flawed and lived-in, and that’s really important to see.
Writer-director Stephen Dunn found out he was not alone in the basement of his childhood home in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada around the turn of the aughts. In the easternmost reaches of that province—an ancient Viking enclave called St. John’s that hangs over the North Atlantic—cable television brought him a view into a world he couldn’t have even dreamt existed. It was the revolutionary show Queer As Folk (Developed for TV by Ron Cowen & Daniel Lipman, Based on the British Series Created by Russell T. Davies), which first aired in 2000 on Showtime. While he knew he was gay, he was painfully closeted, so secretly watching the show provided what he describes as a life raft—hope that he was not bound to remain as alone as he felt.
Dunn, who won early acclaim with his debut feature film Closet Monster, which won Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, was motivated by this experience to take on a reboot of the show, which bowed on Peacock on June 9. The new series is set in New Orleans, rather than Pittsburg, and features an incredibly diverse group of new young actors as well as veteran stars like Kim Cattrall, Ed Begley Jr., and Juliette Lewis. Dunn spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the new show, how it is a direct reflection of the unique community that became his family back home, and why it’s so important to him to bring messy, imperfect characters from the LGBTQ+ community to television.
Tell me a little bit about the first time you saw this show and what it meant to you.
Yeah. I’m in St. John, Newfoundland right now. I just premiered the show last night to my community here, which is a community in which I never saw any visibility of queerness growing up. I watched the show in secret. It was my first exposure to a queer community. It was my first sign of hope. It was a life raft, in all honesty, that maybe I could find a community out there like me. And now 20 years later, after having watched the show in secret in my mom’s basement, I got to share the show with her and my entire family and my community and friends in a way that just makes me so proud. I wish I had been able to know when I was young that there would be a time when this might be possible. I would’ve felt a lot more safe back then had I known that’s what the future held.
Talk about the decision to start the series with a shooting reminiscent of the Pulse shooting in Orlando.
It was really important for me. Queer As Folk has always been a show that has authentically portrayed the realities of queerness and the queer experience…So in a way, it felt like this was an opportunity to continue that story that we never really get to hear. This is unfortunately such a common reality in America, but it feels like once we hear about these stories, we just move on until we hear the next one without anything really being done.
It was really important for me not to just tell it authentically, but to be respectful, too. And obviously there are a lot of communities that have experienced this kind of violence, but I specifically went to Orlando to speak with the Pulse survivors very early in the development process through the Orlando United Assistance Center, which is a network that supports the survivors of this event. They connected me with people who felt like this was an important story to tell and wanted to be a part of this process. So anyone who wanted to volunteer to talk very early on in the development process got together. I wanted to [know] what was this experience like? What was the aftermath like? And what were the long-term impacts of this event? How did they get through it? How did they get to where they are today?
I wanted to know what to avoid, what to not show. That was one of the reasons why I decided to not include any violence, not to show the shooter, not to see any of those aspects of the story, because that is not our story. Our story is about a community rebuilding, which is something that was so specific and important to Orlando’s community, how that night changed the city, how people rose up to become community leaders, how people found empowerment through resilience. Because ultimately, this is a story about hope and strength and community. And so that’s what I really centered the season on.
I believe that your writers’ room is entirely LGBTQ+?
This is dumbest question on earth, but I have to ask, because I want it in your words—why is that important to you, and how do you think that's affected the actual writing here?
It’s so important to have to have a queer writers’ room if you’re telling queer stories. It is the only way to further that story, and it makes for better storylines because you can enter into realms where you are unapologetic. You don’t need to tread lightly when you’re in a room filled with your peers. You don’t need to be polished. You allow your characters to be messy because you’re writing the stories out of love and a desire to increase visibility and complexity of characters that often can seem one-dimensional if not told from the voice of a writer with that kind of lived experience. So our writers’ room is a direct reflection of our stories that we’re telling on screen in a really exciting way.
This is my first time running a room and having this kind of experience and being able to assemble an iconic room of writers. We have Jaclyn Moore, Roxane Gay, Brontez Purnell, Ryan O’Connell…Des Moran, Azam Mahmood. It was like banger after banger… This is the first work environment that I’ve ever been in that has been entirely queer. I didn’t know how much I needed that experience, and a lot of us really felt the same way. It felt so safe.
This iteration of the show is incredibly diverse in its casting. Was that more a deliberate decision at the writing stage, or just kind of the consequence of telling a queer story set in New Orleans?
Yeah, it’s a consequence of telling queer stories in New Orleans, exactly. But the characters are a direct reflection of my community, of my friend group. A lot of the character’s names are paying homage to my friend group in Toronto and this queer basketball league that are my family really. I’m not Sporty Spice or anything, but this is a nonjudgmental, noncompetitive, non-score-keeping queer basketball league, called Squish.
I know it maybe sounds trivial, but it was a reclamation of a sport we played in high school and in elementary schools around Toronto, and it almost was reclaiming a space that as a queer person I felt very unsafe in, like gym class, you know what I mean? So a lot of the characters really come from my community. There’s no bingo card checklist of queerness that we wanted. It really came from a place of, this is my community. This is a community that also does not get enough visibility. These stories never get told. They never get greenlit. There are writers out there trying to tell these stories, but those stories are not making it up to the greenlight stage, unfortunately. And this is an opportunity to start to expand the landscape of television, just like what Queer As Folk did 20 years ago.
It’s interesting because the LGBTQ+ community and the show is part of a much larger group of marginalized people in America—people of color, differently abled folks—but under that giant umbrella, there are fiefdoms and factions and conflict. Tell me about how you wanted to approach that?
Well, that’s the thing. TV is all conflict. You don’t have a story unless you have conflict. The reality is that this is an opportunity to not just give visibility to underrepresented communities, but it’s also to add complexity and to paint a picture with all the shades. The shades of the show are bright and colorful, and they’re dark. The reality of these communities, especially the queer community, is that there’s tons of conflict and these characters are all flawed. But you can be flawed and lovable. There has been a grand injustice done to queer storytelling in the past in so many ways. Hollywood has traveled from villainizing queer people through our iconic Disney villains—I'm grateful for Ursula, but she’s also kind of a complicated, negative queer symbol… and then they have been turned into martyrs. Then what we’ve seen has been sort of a very polished...We’ve had our gay best friends and whatever who don’t get to have any sort of sex life or whatever. And now we’re starting to enter this really exciting territory where queer characters are allowed to be nuanced. We’re starting to have our queer Don Drapers, or Heisenbergs, or Tony Sopranos—flawed anti-heroes who are still inherently lovable. That is so important because I don’t want to see any more perfect, polished characters because I don’t know those people. I know real people who are flawed and lived-in, and that’s really important to see.
As a writer, to what extent do you feel these either overly sanctified or vilified renditions have arrested the power and appeal of these stories? Because when you’re not embracing the LGBTQ+ life in all its human complexity, it makes for worse television, right?
It does…Those stories are great because sometimes they often employ queer people in those roles and give opportunities for people. On a base level, it’s great to see more visibility, but to not have those characters be fully fleshed out or nuanced or have any flaws, it paints a picture and creates a standard that people just can’t live up to...It’s not relatable to me to see that kind of representation. It does our beautiful, vibrant community a disservice to celebrate our incredible, vibrant culture but not include the complexity and the resilience of what we go through in order to achieve those high highs. Balance is super important.
When you’re outside the writers’ room and writing, when, where, and how do you do it? What is your writing ritual? And do you have any kind of weird quirks or centricity as to how you write?
I used to go to libraries that were really loud, not like the quiet Hogwarts ones, but places where there were a lot of people. I would walk the exact same path, I would get the exact same smoothie. I’m a creature of habit, I’m a Capricorn, so I need a ritual. I try to also get rid of any sort of Wi-Fi or anything that gets me connected to anyone else and I just hunker down and force myself to get a page count, whatever that goal is for that day, and I don’t get up until I finish it.
So you hold yourself to a number?
Exactly, a number or an act break. I give myself a goal. I’m very goal-oriented. If I don't do that, it’s hard. They might not be the best 10 pages, but I can edit them afterwards. It’s really important for me to get the page dirty so that I’m not looking at a stark, white screen.
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