Carlos Portugal and Hulu’s East Los High
Writers take notice: Different, edgy voices are embraced by new media
by L.A. Gonzalez
East Los Angeles is an area long associated with criminal activity and Latino gang-related shootings, or at least, that’s how it’s been portrayed most often in movies and TV police procedurals. It seems a rather unlikely setting for a television show about a group of teenagers. But East Los High is not your average teen drama series. Directed by Carlos Portugal, who was also the head writer, East Los High is an original Hulu series that follows the lives of Latino students at a Los Angeles high school. The story centers around Mexican-American cousins, Jessie and Maya, who fall for school jock, Jacob, and both wind up vying for his affection shortly after he breaks up with the homecoming queen upon discovering she’s sleeping around.
The edgy series, which features an all-Latino cast of fresh, young faces, isn’t afraid to delve beyond these teen soap storylines and tackle hot-button issues like teen pregnancy and abortion as the sexually-active teens confront real-life consquences with a frank honesty rarely seen on a network show. Working closely with sexual health organizations, Portugal, who was a staff writer on Tyler Perry’s House of Pain and Meet the Browns and wrote and directed the Lifetime movie, Pop Star, wrote the series with the goal mainly to educate teens about sex. But he also hopes the popular Hulu show helps shatter stereotypes not just about East L.A. but the diverse Latinos who populate it.
L.A. GONZALEZ: What inspired the two main Latina characters and the love triangle at the center of East Los High?
CARLOS PORTUGAL: I think we’ve all been in a situation where we’ve been in love with a person who is in love with someone else. It’s such a universal story. All the stories in the show are universal. And also, we get to explore two very different types of Latinas—one that is very sexually promiscuous and one that’s never had sex; the pure and innocent one, you think will be okay. But I’ll tell you, a lot of times the girls that make the biggest mistakes are the ones that have no experience. Like my sister, the first time she had sex with a guy, she completely freaked out. So I just wanted to explore that. I wanted to show a girl that would be worse, because she was sheltered, who completely falls apart because nobody educated her about sex.
GONZALEZ: Apart from the all-Latino cast, the series felt like other teen dramas with the same archetypal characters except for some distinct telenovela aspects.
PORTUGAL: The reveals, like the priest character and Mia’s mom who shows up and she’s a hooker/stripper. That’s pretty telenovela. I love all that stuff [laughs]. It’s so juicy.
GONZALEZ: Priests are a telenovela staple!
PORTUGAL: What’s funny though is in telenovelas priests are so revered. I mean, everytime you turn around there’s another priest abusing little boys. They’re human beings. And they’re flawed. I thought, you know what? Let’s push the envelope. [spoiler alert] I’m going to create a priest who has sex with a fourteen-year-old girl. So it was like a telenovela, yes. But it’s not like any telenovela you’ve ever seen.
GONZALEZ: Tell us about the initial pitch and how the series came together.
PORTUGAL: Well, it came from an amazing organization called Population Media Center (PMC). They found from research that young Latinas didn’t have the same level of sex education as, you know, Anglo girls in the United States. So they hired me to create a show that would educate young girls about sex, and about options they’d have if they were engaging in sex. That was how the show came about.
GONZALEZ: So they gave you the basic premise, and you essentially ran with it?
PORTUGAL: Pretty much. Well, the one thing I realized right away is that this show is mainly about women. So I reached out to my friend Kathleen Bedoya (co-producer), because I needed a Latina writer who could help me with the voice of these girls. We started bouncing ideas back and forth. And I remember, I was driving into the Tyler Perry Studios, and we were on the phone. She was in NY, and I was in Atlanta. And we said, “Okay, why don’t we make it about two cousins who fall in love with the same guy. And one is a nice girl, lives with her mother and she’s a virgin. The other girl is a runaway who goes around and has unprotected sex, takes drugs and doesn’t give a shit about anything but herself. And they wind up falling for the same guy.” Everything else came from that.
GONZALEZ: How did you go about writing the script?
PORTUGAL: We were hired originally to write the show bible, where we pretty much laid the story out from beginning to end. Then I got together with a group of writers in Los Angeles turning the bible into outlines for all the episodes. I’m really good at that. I’m very good at structure—coming up with plot points and finding drama. I spent a whole summer doing that with a group of six other writers, like three years ago. Then PMC got more funding and I hired another group of incredible writers, all Latino by the way, with one exception. And we spent the next few months writing and rewriting the scripts. We did so much work on the scripts. We actually had kids from East LA come to the writer’s room. Give us words and phrases. Just one more thing we did. It was a six-hundred-page document by the time we were done.
GONZALEZ: Given there aren’t any set parameters or rules for an online series, why did you decide to structure it like a traditional TV series?
PORTUGAL: I wrote them as half hour shows, meaning it’s a 21-minute show with four act breaks and commercials. Because I always felt the quality would be good enough to air on a network. This was really a dream project. We decided we were going to do the show we wanted to do without any network interference, because we felt it was going to be a really good show and networks would want to buy it.
GONZALEZ: How long did it take to shoot the series?
PORTUGAL: It took 67 days. So we were shooting an average of 8-10 script pages a day, which I do not recommend. [laughs] Because we’re low-budget—even though we got funding and the show looks really good, it was done for very little money.
GONZALEZ: How did Hulu become involved?
PORTUGAL: The executive producer, Katie Elmore, she was going to deal with the distribution of the show. So I edited the first three episodes, and they started reaching out to all these different networks and companies. We had networks that were interested, but it was decided Hulu was the best one, just because they’re so cutting edge. They weren’t interested in censoring anything. There was never anything about, “Oh, you have to tone this down.” Or it’s too raw. I mean the characters cuss a lot. They embraced that. And there was so much passion and dedication from their team that it just became the perfect marriage.
GONZALEZ: How does East Los High compare with a teen drama on say, MTV or the WB?
PORTUGAL: I don’t think they push the envelope enough. I’ll give you an example. One of the things we deal with in our show is abortion. There’s not a single teen drama that goes there. You know, even an HBO show like Girls. Have you seen that show?
GONZALEZ: Yes, I’ve watched it.
PORTUGAL: That’s supposed to be so hip and edgy. I was watching the show. And one of the girls goes to the clinic to have an abortion. And I’m like, okay great, finally. Here’s an HBO show and they’re going to deal with abortion. And then, she starts bleeding and it was a false pregnancy. So they didn’t have to deal with the fact that this girl was pregnant and was going to have an abortion. They chickened out. People are so scared of portraying that. We did it. And I showed the girl having an abortion. You wouldn’t see that in a CW show. You wouldn’t even see that on HBO. So we push the envelope in a lot of the stories.
GONZALEZ: There are so many opportunities for writers now online to tell different kinds of stories, offer something edgy and different. Do you agree?
PORTUGAL: Absolutely. Because it allows a more specific voice where before it was like, if I’m going to write for a network show, I’d better start writing white 18-year-old girls, so I can write Gossip Girl. All these different networks like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and Yahoo, they’re becoming very strong. I think a lot more writers coming up now, hopefully, will be able to get on one of these networks and present their ideas. There’s room for a lot of different voices.
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