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“Where Harshness Meets Fabulosity” Steven Canals Talks ‘Pose’

“Where Harshness Meets Fabulosity” Steven Canals Talks ‘Pose’
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Steven Canals grew up in New York City in the 1980s. “This was obviously a really bleak time for the city. We were contending with both the HIV-AIDS and crack epidemics, and I and I grew up in housing projects. The streets weren’t safe. My parents were very protective – maybe overprotective – so film became an escape.”

The screenwriter described television – and eventually screenwriting – as an outlet to harness his voice as a writer. “In many ways, film and television became a second language for me. I think my parents were relieved because it meant that I was indoors. I didn’t consider it as a career path until I was a sophomore in high school and I worked on a documentary short about turf violence.”

Gangs had reemerged in the Bronx and Canals joined a few classmates to bring awareness to the issue. Shockingly, one of the classmates he worked with on the film was actually shot and killed while making the documentary. “It was the experience of having a classmate killed… that was really the first time it clicked that it was more than entertainment, that it could also be educational. That’s the moment I knew I wanted to devote my life to being a storyteller.

Outside of this personal experience, Canals was also influenced by shows and movies like The Terminator, Transformers, Flashdance, The Cosby Show, The Jeffersons, Cheers, and The Color Purple. “You obviously see the nods to Flashdance in Pose. I was so moved by Alex’s journey of having a dream and wanting to live a life greater than the one she was already living, which I think was similar to the one I was having growing up in the Bronx.”

Canals felt a certain authenticity in the TV shows and films that spoke to him. “There were emotions attached to both narratives that an audience, regardless of who you are and where you come from, and I think what’s so important when it comes to film and television is that you feel seen and that you feel heard. It’s the reason why we are currently in this place where we’re seeing this proliferation of content that is centering historically marginalized communities.”

Creative Screenwriting Magaizine

Steven Canals

Feeling Seen & Heard

It’s the reason why we’re seeing so many films and TV shows that are centering black people, why we’re seeing so many TV shows and films that are centering the way women share their experiences. It’s because that’s who inhabits the world we live in. Finally, film and television are reflecting that. We have women, people of color, and LGBT people who are responsible for telling those stories. It’s critically important that we are responsible for telling our own narratives.”

After more than 150 introductions to agents and producers, Canals met Sherry Marsh (Vikings), who believed his script for Pose could be more than a sample and that it belonged on the air. “I always felt in my heart of hearts that Pose was a show that would be made, but I didn’t think that it would happen so early in my career. I assumed I would have to work really hard on other shows that were more mainstream before getting an opportunity to produce. I was shocked when Ryan Murphy (Glee, Eat, Pray Love) was interested in hearing this pitch and reading this pilot.

The original draft, which was written in 2014, was written as a TV pilot, but Canals received a lot of feedback that recommended developing the story into a movie. The pilot, in particular, could have been crafted into a two-hour movie, but Canals felt like the characters were speaking to him in a TV series. “I just felt like there was so much more. Outside of fact that I always thought of it being an ensemble story, it felt like these characters were asking for the full scope of their lives to be told. It would be impossible to tell that in two hours.”

But a two-hour pilot turned into a film would have been too similar to the plot of FlashdanceIf you continue to the remainder of our season and look at some of the other narratives, like Pray Tell (Billy Porter) being diagnosed with HIV, or Blanca’s (M.J. Rodriguez) narrative when her mom passes away, you don’t have the real estate in a movie to tell that story. I knew there was a lot of stories to tell. It didn’t feel like I would be servicing the character in the right way by turning this into a movie.”

The Niche Audience

Canals described his initial approach to the business as idealistic. That said, when he was told the series was too black or too trans or too gay, it was a mixed message as to what screenwriters are taught, which is how and why to write to a specific, niche audience. During his education at UCLA, Canals was told the industry was waiting for him to tell his stories, but after graduation, it was a different story.

I think part of the complication with a show like Pose is that it isn’t just centering Black and Latin people. These are Black and Brown people who happen to also be queer and trans. When I was pitching this story, I was having to explain what it means to also be queer and trans, and what it also means to be part of the ballroom community. There was  a very long journey that many of these execs had to go on, to wrap their brain around this story in this world.

The screenwriter and show creator felt like he needed a “disruptor” to take on the story, which is what he found in Ryan Murphy. “I think he’s someone who’s really great at being able to discern what an audience wants before an audience even thought it, so I think it’s not by chance that this show landed with him.

The environment of the story – amongst various epidemics of the 1980s – was something Canals felt had to be authentic. “There’s no way that you can tell a story about that reality and not have that story be really authentic. We certainly talked about it early on, to make sure that the show felt raw and gritty, but [authenticity] wasn’t a conversation that we had ad nauseum.”

I think the thing that we both were attracted to about this world, and this narrative, is that there’s this beautiful juxtaposition between the reality the harshness of the street, and then the levity and the fabulosity of the ballroom. The show is representative of that experience, for the people who were on the front lines, dealing with those realities We don’t shy away from the reality of either.”

In addition to the right introductions that led to Pose being produced, Canals also had the good fortune of working with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar) early on in his career. Black taught Canals the value of patience, but also the importance of believing in the material. “This is an industry that requires you to really believe in your material and not give up on it, for the success of your career. I knew Pose would one day get made because it wasn’t a story I was willing to give up on.

Canals concluded, “I’m just immensely proud of the show. I’m glad that we found an audience and I’m so grateful to all of the critics who rallied around us early on and said this is a show that special and we hope people tune in to watch it. I’m just immensely proud of it and humbled I get to be one of the people responsible for telling the story.”

This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version HERE.

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