Emerald Fennell and Steven Canals are new to the Emmy race. Although Fennell’s show (“Killing Eve”) was eligible last year, she hadn’t joined the team, let alone taken the reins, in that first season. And Canals’ “Pose” premiered just after the eligibility window closed. Both series received critical acclaim and other awards attention first — and both juxtapose a very serious and grounded story with a heightened world. (Season 2 of “Killing Eve” explores the day-to-day behaviors of an assassin recovering from a stab wound and an MI6 agent spiraling with worry over the stabbing she committed, while “Pose” tackles the HIV/AIDs epidemic in late-1980s New York through the ballroom culture created family.) After gushing about what fans they are of each other’s shows, Fennell and Canals sat down to talk about their very different writers’ room processes and how they manage the tone of their large-scope dramas.
Your shows are both so specific in world and in tone. What is most important in how you ensure the latter is consistent, even with rotating directors, and in your case, Emerald, jumping into Season 2 brand new?
Fennell: That is one of the most complicated things, but a lot of it is kind of upfront: It’s in the conversations you have before you even get on the set. When something is very specific, I think you get a sense quite quickly if people get it or they don’t. And “Killing Eve” is that super, super, super dark humor, so you might often find that people want to play that humor up and it becomes quite camp and over-the-top, and so what was really interesting was getting the people that take the world very seriously and to get very grounded, real performances. It’s a really delicate balance, but it’s just communicating.
Canals: Tone starts on the page, so it’s in the dialogue and it’s in the action lines. Having a show like “Pose,” which obviously is set in a really gritty world — it’s New York; it’s the ‘80s; we’re dealing with HIV/AIDS; the crack epidemic looms — you don’t have to lean any further into the darkness. In real life you have sad moments and you also have happy moments — you sometimes cry and sometimes you laugh — so you make up the universality of all of it and it’s all on the page, and then it’s all up to the performers to inhabit that moment and live it honestly. I think for both of us — for “Killing Eve” and for “Pose” — these are shows that have real-world consequences: You have individuals who are dying and that is a real-world experience that the audience is going to inherently understand. I think it’s critically important to us that we’re communicating and that these stories are leaning into the truth. All, really, that we’re asking for from directors or performers is to express that.
In speaking to the universality of the shows, how do you strike the balance between what needs to be grounded in a time and what needs to be able to speak to audiences no matter when they start watching?
Canals: On “Pose” it’s critically important. When Ryan [Murphy, executive producer] and I first met we talked ad nauseam about the fact that this was going to be a community that we’ve never seen centered in this way on mainstream television. And so the only way to bring in the audience, particularly individuals who would look at our show and on the surface say, “That’s not for me,” was to lean into the fact that at our core “Pose” is a family drama. We have all of those elements: We have mothers, we have children, and I think for us it was about, “What is the experience of being in a family? What does that feel like, and what are the conversations that happen, and what is the conflict like?” For me, one of the best compliments is when someone says, “I did not think I was going to have anything in common with a trans woman” or when people say, “I think Blanca’s the best mom” or when they connect to her journey or say she reminds them of their mom. That’s what we were hoping to accomplish: We wanted to show we are so much more alike than we are different.
Fennell: Both of them are unusual worlds. We’re living with characters whose private lives are outside of the everyday, and you’re right, the more grounded that is, the more impactful it feels. One of the things I certainly loved about “Killing Eve” as an audience member, and that I was so interested in as a writer, was “What’s the coffee like in MI6?” We see lots of sexy things whenever we’re looking at CIA thrillers, but what’s the day to day? What if somebody accidentally sends a classified document to a printer? All of that stuff, that’s of interest to me in a way that’s just as interesting as how does Villanelle select her weapons? It’s looking at how women live in these slightly dangerous, masculine worlds.
Canals: The other thing that just occurred to me when it comes to “Pose” specifically, and I think there are elements of this in “Killing Eve” as well, is that we’re juxtaposing two environments. We have the real world that our characters are inhabiting, which is New York City and the streets and being working-class black and brown, queer and trans people, and then we have the ballroom, which is so heightened — it’s this elevated fantasy of a world. There’s a different texture to both, and there are happy moments and sad moments throughout the first season of our show in both of those environments, but I think what it is is just embracing all of it. Similarly on your show, there’s a difference between what’s happening in MI6 and what’s happening for Eve at home with her husband.
Fennell: And that is always the most interesting thing with drama — the tension between what people feel and how they perceive things and what the reality is.
Canals: One of the things I love so much were those quiet moments. I really love the fact that their lives, outside of the work that they’re doing, isn’t an afterthought.
Fennell: The more that I worked on this, the more I was aware of how performative all of our lives are, and particularly I think anyone who deviates from straight, white male. For me, what’s so interesting is how stuff that is thought of as frivolous like clothes and makeup and hair is the most potent, important thing. We all woke up this morning and made very, very specific decisions about how we were going to present, so to make that an afterthought — misogynistic is too strong a word, but there’s something intriguing to me about that thing, “That’s not important.”
Canals: I wouldn’t personally say I’m a fashionista.
Canals: Thank you. But with that said what I know about fashion is what you choose to cover your body with is critically important because it says a lot about who you are as a person. It’s just another form of expression. And our show definitely leans into that, in collaboration with Lou Eyrich, who’s our costume designer and queen — she’s a genius. But yes, those choices say as much about the character as what the character is doing and saying. And I think there’s a way into the worlds through those choices. Villanelle, for example.
Fennell: The Molly Goddard dress.
Canals: Tonally the juxtaposition of who she is and what she’s about with that image, it just says so much. I had seen that image before I watched the first season, and immediately that made me say, “I have to watch this, stat!” You could have put her in leather or tights and had her sitting with a gun, but that wasn’t the choice, and how fascinating and beautiful was that?
Emerald, coming from the British television model, and Steven, coming from the American one, your writing processes must be very different.
Fennell: Phoebe [Waller-Bridge] built what I think of as this beautiful, intricate doll’s house. She put all of the players inside of it, and when it came to me, she just said, “Here it is.” And on occasion I would be, “Uh oh, I’ve thrown someone down the stairs of the doll’s house and their face is broken,” and I’d call her and say, “Oh no Phoebe, I think I really f—ed up your beautiful doll’s house,” and then we’d talk it through. We don’t have a traditional room in the sense that I know you guys do, so a lot of the time the notes will actually be practical, because it’s just a matter of getting it done. We’re on such a tight schedule because we were pushed forward this year, and because it’s a British show, you are working 20 hours a day. But I don’t know what it’s like for you with a room and how you note each other.
Canals: We have a very small room; there’s only five of us. It’s myself, Ryan, Brad Falchuk, Janet Mock and Our Lady J, and we worked on both seasons as a group, so there’s a shorthand to how we communicate. I think what’s most important in many ways is that none of us are precious at all about the material. We all recognize how critical this story is and what it means to the people who have embraced us, and we are all very open to dialoguing with one another and finding the very best version of whatever it is.
Fennell: But also that’s your leadership, too. It’s a top-down situation, I imagine, in a room like that.
Canals: Which I learned from Ryan, to be frank. He’s very collaborative in that way, and there’s no hierarchy in our room; it’s all hands on deck. When you have such a small group it has to be that way. Part of the conceit of our show is that it is grounded in what’s happening socio-politically, and so our first season started in 1987 and we spent a lot of time at the start of our room just talking about what was happening in New York at that time and making sure that we were grounding the narrative in that. I think it’s the element that when you’re working on a period piece makes it challenging at times. So a lot of the beginning in the room is just making sure we are grounded in the period of time.
Fennell: It must be quite tough for the people involved to relive it as well, but also is it cathartic? How does it feel, dealing with that stuff?
Canals: I think it depends on the individual. We, in December, very sadly lost one of our consultants: Hector Xtravaganza passed away. He was in his early 60s and he was diagnosed with HIV in the early 1980s; he managed to live through the crisis. I remember one of our final conversations on the phone, I didn’t know that he was ill, he was crying and he said, “I just want to say that I never thought I would live to see this moment where our story is being told and is being embraced in this way.” So I think about that. The show lives on the shoulders of all of these incredible people who are still alive and those who have passed away, so it’s very emotional.
How emotionally invested do you find yourselves getting with your work these days?
Fennell: I have a huge amount of empathy. I think acting makes you incredibly vulnerable. You’re under a huge amount of pressure and you’re under a lot of scrutiny all of the time. So I think I can bring that empathy and also the understanding. But I like making things, I guess, is the thing.
Canals: You’re a creative.
Fennell: In whatever that means, however I can best express that, that is what I like doing.
Canals: It’s something that I do, but it’s not who I am, so I have to make a very clear distinction for myself because I think I can be Type A — I can be a little neurotic — which I think all quote-unquote artists are, just in some capacity. I love what I do, but I actually don’t even refer to myself as a writer or screenwriter, I prefer to refer to myself as a storyteller. The form that my storytelling has taken in the last couple of years is as a screenwriter, but that could change.
Fennell: That’s a very articulate way of putting it. Whatever tools you need to express something hopefully honest.