Back when Steven Canals was working on the first season of “Pose,” he and Misha Green had a conversation at a bar about the importance of using their voices as storytellers to make material for their communities.
“Pose,” now wrapping up its third and final season, is an example of that, as Canals centered LGBTQIA+ characters of color in a narrative about the complexities of living amid the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1990s New York City. And Green proved she takes her own advice with the genre-blending first season “Lovecraft Country,” which followed Black characters fighting against supernatural entities and American racism.
Variety brought Canals and Green together to discuss their approach to these shows, including writing what they know and love, telling tales of love and family amid trauma, and why directing is additive to their industry experiences.
Family is a central theme in both of your shows, but through blended and chosen families, which are still not widely talked about in some communities, let alone on TV. Why was that important for you to explore?
Misha Green: With “Lovecraft Country,” at the end of the day, it’s a genre show, but we say it’s a family show. That’s what we’re sitting in the writers’ room talking about — all of the crazy, fucked up things of generational trauma and what that means. That’s what we’re really looking to explore with the metaphor because I think that’s why we watch TV: We watch TV to see characters go on journeys that are more than two hours, so we start at family and what family means, especially for Season 1.
Steven Canals: Yeah, I cosign what Misha says because she’s brilliant. Similar to what Misha just said, “Pose” is a family show, but it’s rooted in trauma. The reality is that, specifically on our show, we’re investigating the HIV/AIDS epidemic through these queer and trans Black and brown people. And so, we’ve taken the lens — which is always firmly planted on white people, quite frankly — and we just shifted it. We shifted the lens about 15-degrees and said, “Hey, there was a whole other group of people who were being deeply impacted by this epidemic in this country because of our government and their lack of a response.” We’d never thought to highlight what the experience was like for them and the ways that all these additional intersecting identities, like class and gender, impact the ways that this epidemic affected the community.
Green: What was that like for you when you were pitching this story — to shift this lens away from centering on white maleness?
Canals: On the page it was easy; pitching it was tough for a couple of reasons. Just before I met Ryan Murphy, who said, “I’m going to take you into FX and we’re going to get the money that you need to make it,” I pitched it at a studio that shall remain nameless and there was a gentleman in the room who was maybe early 50s but clearly had lived through the beginnings of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the ’80s. And so, I get through the pitch and the first thing that he says to me is, “I don’t understand why you’re telling the story.” The way that he phrased it, which I thought was really fucking rude at the time, was like, “Why should we trust you to tell this story?” And so, suddenly it became this thing where I was having to defend what my lived experience was and how, even if I was a young really young person, the HIV/AIDS epidemic impacted my life and my upbringing and the people around me and my community growing up in housing projects in the South Bronx. It was tough to get people to invest in the story, as much as it was tough to get folks to invest in me as the storyteller, which I wonder if you also felt like you had some of those same barriers because you weren’t alive at the time period that you’re capturing on the show.
Green: Not really because [my previous show] “Underground” was [about] slavery, so they’re like, “Of course you’re born in slavery.” I think that most of the issues I came up against with “Lovecraft Country,” [were] fighting for the story, being like, “We’re decentralizing white men” and people are like, “Wait, we don’t get it. Wait, we don’t understand the story told about women.” Outside of that, I think it was the budget size of it, being like, “No, guys, I can, it’s really OK.” When you have a lot of money, you have all these tools [and] I feel like that was a big part where it was a lot like, “Oh, but this is VFX and CGI, and can you handle that?” And you’re like, “It’s not that complicated, there’s a whole department specialized to do it, guys.” And so, I think it’s that hesitation: new stories plus new people, where they’re like, “We are used to white men looking like the bosses, so this makes us feel shaky.”
Canals: One of the things I love so much about your first season is the ways that, in spite of it being a period piece, it still feels so modern. I think it’s a credit to your writing and to the room, but there’s one specific choice that you make throughout the series that I think definitely brings it to the modern era, and it’s something that I think our shows overlap in as well, which is your music choices. And so, I wonder was that just a creative choice that you made to have music of this era, or was that done in a way to assuage whatever fears folks had about it being a period piece?
Green: I did the same on “Underground” and for me, music is timeless, I feel like I can hear something from 1802 would be like, “That is a hit, wow.” For me, it’s a way to bridge time. A Cardi B song can apply to this just as anything from that period and I think that that was really what was fun about this one — using period-specific music, using contemporary music and then also using found audio and jumbling it all up to see if it can work. I love things that are complicated and are like 200 things going on at once.
You both touched on the trauma your characters are experiencing, which is rooted in the realism of their experiences. But without the balance of the love stories in your shows or the more stylized elements, like balls in “Pose” and monsters in “Lovecraft Country,” could sit too heavily for some. How do you approach these conversations while you are making your art?
Green: It’s a hard question to answer because horror is my favorite genre, and horror is about that — it’s about excavating the monster and then beating the monster. And so that’s why, when it’s this conversation of trauma porn, it’s hard for me to engage in it because I’m moving in a genre that moves in trauma. And so, to do a horror movie without trauma, those don’t exist. I would never dare tell the audience how to interact with anything they’re watching: You have to decide what is too much trauma for you and what is not. I also love gore. When I say I love the horror genre, I love all of it. I can sit the goriest things, and I’ll sit there and be like, “Wow, they just stepped on that guy’s head and the whole thing crunched and how did they even do that?” I’m that person. So I want to contend with the real world. You can be an artist who lives in a fantasy or you can be an artist that lives in the real world, and you can switch back and forth when you want to, but I love, even in the fantasticalness of it all, it as a metaphor for something real. I have to look at people emoting. That’s why I don’t write comedy.
Canals: I think it’s also a question of authenticity and being hyper-aware of the audience. In the case of “Pose,” there was never a question of me positioning my characters as poor or working class; that was my experience. I grew up for a period of time in a single-parent household in housing projects in the South Bronx. If I would have positioned these characters in any other place it wouldn’t be authentic to my experience, and I think the audience would suss that out very quickly as well. And so, there was just no question around where these characters should be [or] what their lot in life is, so to speak.
Looking at some of the other thematic elements, like the love stories, are these story areas for which you write from your own experience? How do you approach the authenticity there?
Green: I’m not writing from experience! That’s the fantasy part of it. [Laughs.] I honestly don’t think too much about the love stories because I do feel like it’s kind of old hat: every movie you watch is a love story. That’s the storytelling mechanism that’s so ingrained. We all are out here looking for connection, for love, and where does that happen? A friendship story is a love story, everything is a love story, so that’s why it feels very organic and easy for me.
Canals: Yeah, I think to Misha’s point, I don’t know that it’s up front and center. I think there are the obvious love stories within “Pose,” like Ricky and Pray Tell’s relationship, which we obviously lean into in the final season, and then there are these untraditional love stories which we have been telling since the very beginning but I don’t know if anyone would ever consider it that unless you really sat down and investigated it deeply. The relationship between Blanca and Pray Tell is absolutely a love story.
Green: And that’s what I mean by the friendship story is a love story. And it [is] rarely told. You watch things and you’re like, “Is anybody friends? Do they have friends? Do they have support systems around them? No, they’re all just these lone wolves doing things.” That’s not how my life looks, so why do we keep telling these stories about these individual strong men and women who can do it no matter what? I feel like that’s one of the things I love the most about “Pose” — that relationship between them, because it is it’s a friendship but it’s also a love story.
Canals: It’s funny, too, because specifically thinking about our shows is that regardless of the dynamic between the characters, they both have love stories in them, and those love stories are also rooted in Blackness, which I think is something that historically we haven’t seen a lot of in television. I know from feedback from our audience and definitely paying attention to the ways that folks were tweeting about “Lovecraft Country” when it was airing on HBO that that’s something that they have been craving for a really long time, that’s necessary.
And in each of these great love stories, there is a sacrifice made, with Atticus giving up his life at the end of “Lovecraft Country” and Pray Tell giving Ricky his meds, which ultimately means he passes away before he otherwise would have, in “Pose.”
Green: I was very interested in telling a story about a person who was trying really hard not to die and then chose to do it for a bigger cause. I just was fascinated by this idea that we’re all walking towards an altar to sacrifice ourselves and we can drag our feet and we could say it’s not happening, or we can choose what we’re sacrificing ourselves for and say it’s worth it. And that, to me, was really interesting for Atticus’ journey because he’s a person who’s running. He ran from Chicago, he went into war — he was making a choice to run — and this time he made a choice not to run. And that was also heartbreaking. One of the reasons that I was obsessed with telling this story, which is not what happens in the book at all, [was] the idea that it’s hard — real change is hard. It takes sacrifice; it takes everything you have. And I feel like I watch these movies [with] these heroes and you’re just like, “Was this hard for you? You all have superpowers.” It just seems real easy to make change [but] no it’s not — that’s not my experience. And I think it’s a very specific thing to being Black in America: you’re working towards something that you might not achieve for yourself, but you’re building on something for the next generation. In exploring generational trauma and that side of it with this family, it felt like a natural place to go to, though I knew it would not be popular.
Canals: One of the lessons that I learned when I was working on my MFA in screenwriting was that your protagonist can’t have a victory without there being some sacrifice along the way. [But] when we were breaking our series finale and the immense loss that our characters go through, and specifically the death, which is a sacrifice in our finale, I wasn’t thinking about it in that very writerly way. To me, it came solely out of the truth of the story we’ve been telling. And the reality is that for queer and trans people and for non-binary folks, the only people who are ever going to show up for us, is us. To me, the death in our finale was an act of defiance to remind the audience that the only people who you can rely on is your own community. That’s it. And that was the truth of that moment. In the ’80s and ’90s when trans people were being eviscerated by this epidemic, the only people who were showing up — the only people who were ever on the front line — was us, period. There was no money, there was no support, there were no drugs. We were the only ones who are showing up for each other. And so, to me, that’s what that death reflects; that’s what that death symbolizes. It was a reminder to the audience, especially right now with us being in the midst of a global pandemic, which feels all the more important. And as a side note to this, I just want to give Misha her flowers to say, I don’t know that I would have ever made as bold a choice, or as defiant a choice, had Misha and I not had a conversation during the first season of “Pose.” There were a couple things that you said to me during that talk and I carry a lot of what you said to me that night and I reflect on that conversation often and [on] the ways in which, using our voices and the work that we do, it’s for ourselves and it’s for our community and for nobody else.
While you end your seasons on big sacrifices from male characters, your female heroes are standing even stronger as survivors and leaders.
Green: Nina Shaw, my lawyer, said to me, “You’re telling a female story and that’s really hard for people to digest sometimes.” And I just went, “Oh.” Because I don’t even think about it — I’m Black and a woman and I want to tell a story about being Black and a woman. I want to empower all of the women. I wake up that way. So it’s always weird when you’re working on something and then people start to react to it and you’re like, “Oh wow, this is not the norm for you.” It’s the norm for me. I feel like the same way when people were like, “Oh my god you just never see a Black cast doing all this,” and I’m like, “In my head I do. ‘Indiana Jones’ is Black in my head.” When I look around, I see a lot of women doing amazing things, I see men doing amazing things, I see people making sacrifices. It just feels like our storytelling apparatus has gotten so myopic sometimes that it’s like, “Oh this is fresh and new but it shouldn’t be.”
Canals: I grew up around strong Black and Puerto Rican women. And so, there was never a question for me around who to center in my work; I’m always leaning into my own experiences and my truths, and that is a part of my truth. And I’m going to harken back to our pilot when the character of Blanca, after she finds out that she’s HIV-positive specifically says, “I want to leave a legacy behind.” I was aware we were making a subversive choice in saying HIV/AIDS on our show isn’t going to be a death sentence. But, I think similarly to what what Misha was saying earlier, I don’t think I spent as much time as people would assume making some of those choices because for me it feels real, it feels natural; it feels familiar.
Where does directing fall in? What does it give you that leading the series as a showrunner cannot?
Canals: Wait, Misha, before you answer that question, you directed the eighth episode of the season, but did you choose that episode intentionally?
Green: I was not allowed to direct the pilot and I chose Episode 8 because it’s the one I wanted to shoot. They asked me a lot not to direct Episode 8 as well because, “You’re running the show, you’re doing such a big show and all this; do the finale.” But I wanted to do Episode 8 and I chose it because it’s the one that could go the most wrong with the balance of Emmett Till, with the horror, with it being a young girl. I was like, “If we don’t get this one right, we will have lost so much of the audience.” And also, it fascinates me, kids on screen. Even though you should try to limit them because child actors are not treated the best and all that, but there’s something fascinating about their journey and what they’re going through.
Going back to what you said Misha about respect, can you elaborate on that?
Green: There’s a level of respect that comes from directing because we still see directors as the visionaries — the solo visionaries. It parallels: we tell these stories about these solo lone wolf heroes who do it all by themselves, and then we talk about directors and how they do it all by themselves. I think my agent referred to [directing as] the last piece of a puzzle: “Now they can’t tell you you can’t do a thing because now you’ve directed.” That is not true and hello, Black woman, still going to be told that I can’t do a lot of things. But I’ve definitely noticed that there’s still very much that mystique around [directing] and I’m now demystifying that, especially at such a high budget. Storyboards, previz, everybody in every department is at the top of their game. So many people are making it, it’s just one person, at the end of the day, going, “We’re using that red, not the five other reds you’re showing me.” All the stuff I’m doing as a showrunner is the job of a director — the person that’s holding it all together to say, “Let’s keep it at this.”
Canals: [Laughs] You have a lot of choreography on your show, but you have the previz part of it. With our ball scenes, for example, whoever’s walking a category, that’s obviously been choreographed beforehand, but so much of it is leaving room for the actors to just do their thing. We have a lot of moments that weren’t scripted but in the moment the actors just took the story to a particular place and it worked, and so I think we were always trying to keep things loose in that way. But I will say I love directing and I will say that it was the dream before ever becoming a writer. And to tell on myself, it turns me on in a way that the page doesn’t. And I think part of it is that it’s so immediate — it just activates all of my senses. You have to be present; you have to be in completely in line with your cast, which I think is the part that is my absolute favorite around directing. I know you know this, Misha: you live with these characters in your head, you put them down on the page, but there’s a whole other thing when an actor picks up that script, reads it and make their own choices. And then this character who you’ve always felt maybe a little piece of ownership over, you have to share with someone else, and the process of directing for me is going to that really scary place — going inside of that cave that is us — and just holding space for the actor. The reality is I wouldn’t be able to do what they do: they’re getting completely emotionally naked on camera and they’re not even at the monitor to even know if it’s working and they have to completely put all of their trust in you. I’m too neurotic and Type A for that. I’m hyper-aware of that place that they have to go and so I’m always just wanting to hold space for them.
UPDATED: This story has been updated to include Canals and Green’s comments about their respective finales now that both have aired.