How Netflix's 'Tales Of The City' Used An All-LGBTQ Writers Room To Bring Change To Hollywood
There are many stories about San Francisco, but hardly any as well known as those from Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. What started in the early 1970s as serialized fiction in Pacific Sun and the San Francisco Chronicle became a series of nine novels, a musical, a radio play, and a 1993 PBS miniseries starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis. And now, in 2019, this iconic story of LGTBQ chosen family is becoming a Netflix sequel series.
Bringing a beloved property to a new generation calls for new blood, so Netflix brought in Lauren Morelli, who previously wrote on Orange is the New Black, to be the showrunner (the original miniseries was penned by Maupin with playwright and TV producer Richard Kramer, two openly gay men). After coming out herself and eventually rising up the ranks to become a co-executive producer on the popular and inclusive women's prison show, Morelli seemed like the right fit for Tales, and to inform new characters like Ellen Page's Shawna, a young queer bartender at the local queer feminist burlesque co-op Body Politic.
Morelli decided early on to fully staff the Tales writers room with a diverse group of LGBTQ writers. It's a particularly important move, given that Hollywood is still struggling make writers rooms properly inclusive. In April, the Writers Guild of America West released a report detailing the diversity in television writers rooms, which had disappointing but not necessarily surprising results: Women, people of color, disabled, and LGBTQ+ writers were not just underrepresented but also concentrated at much lower levels than straight white men holding positions of power. LGBTQ writers specifically told the WGAW that they are frequently not counted as diverse based on their sexuality or gender identity, something the organization disagreed with in its report.
Even as series with LGBTQ characters and themes have started to populate television, writers rooms are still stacked with those who have more experience because they traditionally have had the most opportunity. Marginalized people struggle to find and get hired for those jobs, and if they do, they are often the only one or one of very few in the room, which is why the misrepresentation of minorities is still concerning.
As a result, Morelli made sure her diverse group of writers came from all levels of experience, backgrounds, and generations. She worked with original and returning Tales producer Alan Poul to create the room made up of lesbian writer Patricia Resnick, who wrote the legendary Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin comedy 9 to 5; award-winning Black gay playwright Marcus Gardley; Whitting Award-winning queer Korean playwright Hansol Jung; transgender journalist Thomas Page McBee; author and playwright Jen Silverman; and gay TV writer Andy Parker.
Bustle spoke with Morelli, Resnick, Gardley, and McBee about the continued magic of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, and how an all LGBTQ writers room was integral to keeping it alive.
Honoring An Iconic Story
Tales has taken many forms since Maupin's first story was published in 1978, and as such, it's meant many things to many people, including Morelli and her writers. Properly capturing the original stories' spirit while adding more authentic characters for a new generation was key to creating the sequel series.
Lauren Morelli: The show had been in development for a couple of years before I got involved, so the bones were Mary Ann is returning for Anna's 90th birthday party after 25 years away — and that gave us a pretty solid starting point. I think I also came into the room knowing where we were heading. I knew what we wanted the finale to be. But everything else was pretty loose.
Patricia Resnick: We certainly knew a lot of the major characters from the book. And then Lauren created a new younger generation.
Morelli: Yeah, because most of the characters are from the books. But one of the reasons I had been brought in originally was to consult on Shawna, Ellen Page's character. So I think a lot of that work for us was just making sure that the characters we were taking from the books felt authentically queer to our experience. But then it was so fun getting everyone into the room. [The conceit that] Shawna doesn't know she's adopted is wholly original and was Marcus's idea. And that was the moment I think that the season sort of broke open for us. So it was really exciting to have these brains in the room.
Marcus Gardley: I consider [Tales] to probably be the most profound show on TV for me. I grew up in the Bay Area, and my father's a pastor. I grew up in an environment where being gay was not only not cool, it was a sin and you are going to hell, unfortunately. So I snuck away and saw it. And the only reason why I knew it existed is because I was born and raised in Oakland, which was across the bridge [from San Francisco] and people were talking about it. It was on PBS, so it was actually free. Not only were there characters who were like me, but they were happy. That was the revolutionary act. If they were happy and they were free in their sexuality, and there are people of color — I thought, “I just need to get across the bridge. This is doable.” So for me, it was life changing and it holds a special place in my heart.
Resnick: I was in my twenties, I think, when the first book came out. I think I told this story in the room, but I had just gotten on a Robert Altman film as a co-writer. It was my first co-writing job. We were shooting in the Midwest, and then my first girlfriend and I were going to drive from the Midwest to my parents' home in Florida. And I believe the first book had come out and on the way we took turns reading to one another from the book. And it was such a revelation to see gay characters with humor, with lightness. Nobody was killing themselves. It kind of stayed close to my heart ever since then.
Thomas McBee: I had two relationships with Tales of the City. When I was younger, I was growing up in Pittsburgh when my mom realized I was queer, and it was one of the books she gave me that was a book she'd read. The first book certainly resonated with her in a sort of bohemian way, but I think she saw me reflected in the book and so [she] gave it to me. We had this sort of special connection around Tales of the City from that place. And then when I moved to San Francisco for grad school when I was about 24. I don't think there's a person who's gone to school in San Francisco or a literary person there who hasn't read Tales of the City. It's like a bedrock of the literary community there. So I re-read it from the place of being in San Francisco.
Morelli: I had never heard of Tales of the City [laughs]. And it's been really interesting actually coming in — at first I think I felt a lot of gay shame about never having heard of it, and I felt so strange that I didn't have this rich history with the books. But in retrospect now, it was pretty amazing to read them at this age and realize how revolutionary they still are. I couldn't believe that it was so striking to me to read these books and be like, “Oh, I still don't see queer people reflected the way that Armistead writes them. I still don't see queer people who are living lives and receiving love and joy as partially a result of their identities instead of suffering and hatred." It was really profound to experience them at this age, but also really great to kind of come in fresh because such a big part of our job, I think, was satisfying two audiences — satisfying an audience coming in with a pre-existing knowledge and coming in with a giant fandom, while also hopefully making it a show for people who might never have heard about it and can still feel really welcomed into the world.
Building The Writers Room
Telling diverse stories requires diversity among those crafting them. For Morelli, an all-LGBTQ writers room was "non-negotiable." She decided she wanted at least seven different perspectives on queerness in order to make the stories specific and authentic, and to ensure that a wide range of LGBTQ issues wouldn't be presented as a monolith.
Morelli: I knew that if we were going to tell these stories, I have one very specific way of understanding my own queerness and that is very different from someone who might identify the same way that I do, but is in a very different generation or might be coming in from a different race or a different class or a different gender identity. So I think so often we get really critical. We're never given queer shows, right? And then when we're given them, we're ultra critical of them because we're so desperate to see ourselves and when we don't, it feels like such an affront.
"I really underestimated the power of being in a room where you're not othered, where there's not a single person representing something that can other you."
I will say it for sure required more "work," but it didn't feel like work. It just meant that when I asked, frankly, agencies for writers, I still got handed a lot of white gay men. And so to get outside of that, it meant asking friends, “Who do you love? Who do you know?” Jenji Kohan really taught me the value of having people in a room who haven't been in a room before. I think there's something really special that comes out of having a beginner's mind. So someone like Thomas I grew up with and had been a fan of his writing for a long time and had every faith in the world that his brilliance would translate to writing scripts even though he hadn't yet. And then there were people like Jen Silverman and Hansol Jung who had never been in a room before but are brilliant playwrights, and all of those people were sort of referred. I think only Andy Parker came to me through an agent. I think everybody else came through someone being like, “No, this person you have to have.”
Resnick: And the other side of the looking glass, I don't know about everybody else, but the second I heard about Tales, immediately, I was like, "Okay, who do I know? Who has any connection? Who I can get to?" My thing is always like, I just want my script in the pile because then it's going to be right or not. They'll respond or they won't. But getting the script in the pile can be quite the feat. And so I realized that one of my oldest friends was producing and I think in 30 years of being friends, I have never once asked him to try to speak up for me. And this was my ask, because it was really important to me.
Gardley: Like Patricia, I really wanted to be [involved] the minute I heard about it because of my personal relationship to the series, which, again, was a lifeline for me, so I really was excited about doing it. And then when I met with Lauren, I immediately fell in love with Lauren. She's just a bright light in the world and her passion for the story, but also the pilot was so beautifully written. So that was all exciting. But the biggest gift, I would have to say, was just being in a room where everybody was queer; queer writers in a room. I tell everybody it was just such a delight. It didn't feel like work. It felt like, “Oh, this is a chosen family.” It's like you were meant to be here.
So there were so many things, so many conversations I just wanted to have about my sexuality that I could not have with my friends, some of whom are gay, but just because we were all there and we were talking about it because of the material. It was just a really, really profound and what I would call spiritual experience for myself. It's been very profound and very moving.
McBee: I think it was really clear to everyone that Lauren really wanted this room to be a rich and safe and meaningful place. She put that energy into finding us all and making sure that we spoke in a more diverse way to our community. And I think that that intention hopefully paid off in the end. A lot of people don't want to invest the time in [making a diverse writers room]. But it's really made all the difference, at least to me and I'm sure everyone else, too.
Resnick: I also wanted to say, I've never been in a room before where every single person cried on the last day — unless they were fried because they were so relieved to be done. That's a different thing. We had a very hard time leaving each other. That was really hard for us. And we went around the room and each person talked about what being in this room had meant to us personally and how we each had grown because, you know, we had gay men, we had men of color, we had women of color, one of the writers is Korean. I have been in a room with other gay writers, but I'm always the only lesbian. Not once has that ever happened [that there are more than one of us]. And then to have Thomas who's trans, we all, I think, exposed so much of ourselves and learned so much that everybody cried, and I can't imagine that happening in other rooms, even good rooms.
Morelli: I've been thinking about this a lot since we left. I really underestimated the power of being in a room where you're not othered, where there's not a single person representing something that can other you. It felt really profound and it felt really healing on a number of levels. And I think that was part of why it felt really — there was this depression that came afterward, when you had to sort of re-enter the "real world." It'd be like, all right, now I'm back in a situation where I'm constantly having to explain myself or I'm constantly having to come out or I'm constantly having to overcompensate. It was the most profound experience of my life, certainly.
Finding Tales' Slightly Magical Tone
The original Tales miniseries feels a little bit like an escape from reality. There's no tragedy, which was (and still is) a rarity in a story centering on queer characters. Grounding a queer fantasy while maintaining a sense of magic was one of Morelli and the team's biggest challenges.
Morelli: I think the trickiest thing about Tales is tone. I think within the writers room 8,000 times a day we say Tales is two feet off the ground. It's a little warmer than the real world. I think holding onto that became really important for us finding the middle ground. And then as it relates to San Francisco, we talked so much in the room about how everyone always talks about how San Francisco's another character on the show, which is correct. But when San Francisco has become so unlivable specifically for marginalized populations, how do you have those conversations while also allowing it to exist under the umbrella of the Tales tone? So obviously our solution to that is what happens when Anna Madrigal says she's selling this magical place where everyone can suddenly afford to live, right? But also, it was you guys telling stories like someone had Michael going to rent the bathtub.
Resnick: It was a friend of mine's daughter. A friend of mine had told me that her daughter who's in her twenties was up in San Francisco and she was in a house with like 15 roommates, you know, four double bunks in each room. And then they were renting out the bathtub. And then of course we would be like, “How do people go to the bathroom?”
Morelli: It's also one of the things that feels like it's so real that it feels fake. Everyone's like, "There's no way that's real." We were talking about the gentrification and tech and money while still allowing it to be light and humorous and within our world.
Bringing Tales' Legacy To The Present
During Pride month, and particularly given the Stonewall 50th anniversary, honoring queer elders has been top of mind. It's a poignant time to revisit Tales and update these stories, and the timing of the series' Netflix release isn't lost on Morelli.
Morelli: What we talked about in the room constantly and became my north star was when I read the book, I said to Armistead that I can't believe how poignant these [stories] still are and how relevant they still are and that you are depicting queer people just living their lives. And he said, right, it's the ordinariness that makes it revolutionary. And I think about that so much with Tales specifically. I don't see a lot of queer stories still. I think we still get queer stories as long as people are suffering because of their identity or it's very dramatic. Like, we get Carol, where they're [looking] intensely into each other's eyes while they're having sex. Like God forbid they would laugh.
Resnick: I like Carol [laughs].
Morelli: I get excited thinking about the fact that now we're at the point of representation where we can have these stories and it feels like a warm, fun family soap with queer people centered in it. That feels like progress to me.
Resnick: I also hope not only queer people will watch this show, and it's interesting how much we self-censor. Because when you work on a show, if you have friends and family not in the business or [who] live in other states, it's up to me to tell them because then they get mad sometimes: "You didn't say that thing you worked on was on!" It was interesting because I started to think about, "Oh, I should send my family like a group email and tell them about Tales." And then I thought, "Oh, I don't know. Is it too — are they gonna like it? Is it going to be too much for them?" And I spent my entire life watching heterosexual sex. It hasn't scarred me. I'm OK. And I thought, "Why am I like self-censoring this?" They can watch it and if they like it, they like it. I've worked on other things that some of my family loved, some of my family didn't. So I really hope that we don't niche ourselves.
McBee: So much of queer culture and cultural production has been about “Who is this for?” and “Which part of the community?” [Tales] is, I hope, something that transcends that conversation. It's really about giving people, like Lauren often says, a safe entertaining escape. But the idea, in this moment, where I think we're just experiencing like literally a cultural trauma on a national scale, especially those who are marginalized — I think having a place where we can feel safe even if it's on television in art, I think that's critical right now.
Gardley: The series does ask you: What are you doing for your community? You know, without saying it blatantly. The pilot is so moving. After I saw it at the premiere, I really started thinking about, "Am I doing enough work in my community?" And I think when you're doing those two things, when it's both deeply entertaining, funny, beautiful to watch, gorgeous writing, the acting is off the chain, all of that and still you leave with sort of a message and a charge, that's when you know all the planets have aligned.
This interview has been edited and condensed.