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‘Love, Victor’ Showrunner Says Moving Queer Show to Disney+ Is ‘Especially Meaningful’ — Q&A

"It becomes sort of a radical act just to exist," head writer and executive producer Brian Tanen tells IndieWire about the high school rom-com now on Disney+.

Medium/close shot of a Latinx teenager in a suit and tie, smiling; still from "Love, Victor."

“Love, Victor”

HULU

From its very first episode, Hulu’s “Love, Victor” feels like a hug.

Created by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, who adapted “Love, Simon” for the big screen, the series expands upon the film with a young, closeted student at Creekwood High School: Victor Salazar (Michael Cimino).

As with “Love, Simon,” “Love, Victor” is heartfelt and humorous — an extension of Becky Albertalli’s original novel and an opportunity for Aptaker and Berger to tell more queer stories with the help of executive producer Brian Tanen.

“We love our teen drama and we wanted to have lots of exciting things happening to these kids,” says Tanen, who executive produced “Atypical” and cut his teeth writing and story editing credits on “Ugly Betty,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Desperate Housewives.” “Sometimes that meant sad things and real emotional problems that real teenagers grapple with, but we always wanted to balance that with wish fulfillment, with joy, with optimism.”

“For myself and a lot of the other queer writers in the room, so many stories — at least when I was growing up — so many stories were based in trauma,” he says. “It was important to be able to see films like ‘Love, Simon,’ where it’s really just a romantic comedy at the end of the day, that these stories exist for gay teenagers as well. So it was always really intentional that we would try and balance any of this drama with things that felt hopeful and filled with joy.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

IndieWire: I’d love to talk about where Victor’s at now going into Season 3 versus where he was at in Season 1 or even Season 2.

Brian Tanen: There’s two parts to that answer. The first part is the immediate question on everybody’s mind: Which door did he show up at? We answer that question really quickly in this season. I don’t think we could stand to torture our fans for one extra second. So that’s the immediate place where his head is at is just making a choice and being decisive.

I think the bigger answer is you look back at that character in Season 1 and he really doesn’t know who he is. He is a nice person, and he has great intentions. But he’s really a character who’s very much figuring out who he is in the world. That entry point of writing to Simon really shows you like, “Hey, I need someone to help me figure this out.” In Season 3, we make a concerted difference where he’s not reaching out to Simon anymore. He’s kind of his own man, and in fact the student becomes the master a little bit. He finds himself in situations where he’s now giving advice, sometimes to varying degrees of success, but the journey from Season 1 to Season 3 is a kid who’s really come into his own. I think especially by the end of Season 3 he really knows who he is and what he wants — not just who he’s going to end up with, but who he wants to be in the world.

Tell me about that as it relates to ending the show with Season 3 as well.

We were really fortunate to know heading into the season that this was going to be the last one. It allowed us to go all out and tell all the stories that we wanted to tell and hold nothing back. That’s not something that every show gets to do, and for once we’re not ending on a giant cliffhanger. We really wanted our audience to be rewarded with this feeling of “These kids are going to be alright.” They know who they are, they’ve been through a lot, but now they have the tools to get through anything. While we didn’t want everything to feel totally wrapped up in a bow, we did want all of our endings to feel fulfilling and hopeful.

Something that has struck so many people over the years about the show is how warm and touching it is. I’d love to hear more about getting that tone right and telling serious queer stories but in this “Love, Victor” bubble.

It was hard! It’s a great question. It was hard sometimes because we love our teen drama and we wanted to have lots of exciting things happening to these kids. Sometimes that meant sad things and real emotional problems that real teenagers grapple with, but we always wanted to balance that with wish fulfillment, with joy, with optimism, because ultimately I think for myself and a lot of the other queer writers in the room, so many stories — at least when I was growing up — so many stories were based in trauma. It was important to be able to see films like “Love, Simon,” where it’s really just a romantic comedy at the end of the day, that these stories exist for gay teenagers as well. So it was always really intentional that we would try and balance any of this drama with things that felt hopeful and filled with joy.

What has the experience been like as a writer?

Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger are the writers of the film “Love, Simon,” and when I came into this project, I was just a fan of the movie. I was not involved in it in any way. I was a TV professional and they came to me to see if I’d be interested in running it with them. I was curious because I didn’t know how you turn that movie into a TV show, but they told me that we’re sort of separate — in the same world, introducing a new character’s journey. The genesis of the story came out of some criticisms from the film; while it was well-received, there were some really valid thoughts about [how] this is just one experience and not everyone has such an easy go of it, such supportive parents, that there are just different types of families.

So to be able to tell a new story with a character whose journey was going to be different — the Salazars are Latinx, they are religious, he’s got a sibling with her own problems — it just felt exciting to me. When they pitched me this idea that they were going to start this show with “Dear Simon, screw you,” for having this perfect, movie-kind of experience, I thought that was really brilliant and I knew I wanted to participate.

So many shows and movies these days are like, “Oh, we had a really good book that was made into one season or one film and now we have to keep going,” and we see a lot of creators kind of run out of steam.

Especially in this space, the queer space, there’s just such a hunger for people to see themselves represented. Like, early in the show there would be feedback from people who really liked the show, but Victor should have been this or that or he should’ve been bi because he really liked Mia. My response to that is just great, yes. You’re right. There aren’t enough of those stories, create them, please! That response is coming out of such a hunger for these things because there’s just so few of them — actually, I feel like there WAS so few of them, and now it’s starting to be more of that. We’re part of this generation of new queer content that is hopeful and exciting and just to be part of that is really exciting. Write the thing that you want to see, and give the give your characters hope. Tell the stories that you have never seen before.

It is the final season, it’s releasing during Pride, and it’s also releasing on Disney+, which is huge.

We’re excited to be on Disney+. It expands our audience in a really exciting way. Disney+ is a huge platform. I also think it’s especially meaningful in the current political climate, where state governments especially are enacting these really terrible and draconian laws, where they’re trying to suggest that gay topics are not appropriate for children. This “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida is what I’m specifically referencing, but there’s so many laws also targeting trans people and trans youth, and behind it all is this feeling of wanting to have these things be in the shadows instead of seen. So shows like “Love, Victor” — it becomes sort of a radical act just to exist, to be seen, to tell people like, “Yeah, you could have a love story between gay kids and it’s great, and also it’s going to be on Disney+ for this huge audience on a network that is totally affiliated with families.” It’s especially meaningful to our audiences, it’s very meaningful to me.

Talk more about the response to the show over the years and the audience you’ve built.

Fan response has been one of the most exciting parts of the show. All of us, Isaac, Elizabeth and myself, the executive producers and showrunners we’ve all been inundated with messages via Twitter, Instagram, social media, [of] people talking about not only what they want to see happen on the show, but more importantly how the show has affected their lives; people talking about how it helped them come out to family members, to roommates, how they showed it to someone in their life who they thought might be struggling with these issues and then that prompted a super important conversation. It’s incredibly rare in the television field to work on a show that you actually feel is connecting with people in a way that is changing lives, so that’s been really sweet and really meaningful to me. I’ve worked in TV for close to 15 years — I don’t think I’ve ever worked a show with a gay protagonist at the center of the story, so it is a big deal to tell these kind of stories and you can see that reflected by the audience response.

A group of teens gather in a hallway, two groups of four facing each other; still from "Love, Victor."

“Love, Victor”

Kelsey McNeal/Hulu

The end of Season 2 saw some major shakeups with all the central relationships. How was the process of breaking that?

We did a lot of cliffhangers at the end of Season 2, and audiences felt strongly about who they want characters to be with. In Season 3, we really wanted to hit the ground running. We’re shorter season this year, we’re eight episodes, so we wanted to not waste a drop of our time and really tell these stories. And we shake up relationships this year. Characters like Lake and Felix who were a seminal relationship in the show, they’re each with different people this year, and [we’ll] see how the audience responds to that.

But anytime we do that, we also try to honor the relationship that came before. A central tenant on this show was nobody’s bad. Everybody is doing the best that they can. People are deeply flawed, but they ultimately want the same things, which is to love and be loved. Like Lake and Felix, if they’re not together this season, they’re still gonna have scenes together, they’re still gonna have a deep well of love and friendship there. That warm feeling that we applied to the series in general is what we wanted to leave our audience with at the end of the season: This feeling that everyone’s going to be okay, even the ones who aren’t necessarily together anymore. You want to leave people with a feeling of warmth and joy.

Touch upon Lake’s journey as well and her exploring her sexuality this season.

Lake has a queer relationship this season! She’s in a relationship with Lucy, it is a queer love story between two young women which we’ve not done on the show before, and also excitingly it’s a different kind of queer story than Victor’s. They don’t seem to struggle with “Are we going to be a secret at school?” It doesn’t feel quite so identity-based the way for Victor it was about like “Who am I” and “I had to say the words” and “I have to come to this realization about myself” and a big coming out journey. This is a different kind of story, and that was important to us. I think that’s true of how it is, especially with the current generation. For some kids it’s a big deal, for some kids it’s not. Some people really fought for and deserve and want that label; [for] some young people, labels are something they’re not so interested in and they just want to be open to different experiences. This was just a different story we wanted to tell. Those two actors are so great, they have such awesome chemistry together. It was just really fun to see Lake with a different energy and the character of Lucy, to see what that would bring. It brings a new story between Lake and her mom, who’s always been sort of a pain in previous seasons, to explore what her reaction might be to this. It was a great avenue for us to get to tell a different kind of story and [we] really, really enjoyed it.

One conflict between Victor and Benji was Victor’s experience being a young, queer person of color, something he bonded over with Rahim. It sounds like you had that in mind going into the series even before Season 1.

You’ve nailed it on my head. That was one of the big differences between his relationship with Benji and his flirtation-ship with Rahim is that Rahim seemed to understand this part of his life in a different way, and Benji hadn’t really grappled with his privilege. But we go deeper this season and we get to see what Benji’s coming out experience looked like. We delve much deeper into the character of Benji — in Season 1 and 2, we always kind of looked at Benji through Victor’s lens. He’s been this fantasy boyfriend and in Season 3 we really get into what his life has looked like and what his demons are. George Sear is absolutely amazing this season.

And Rahim, you get this preview in Season 2 where he talks about coming out to his parents. They kind of already knew and it went easier than he expected, which was this lovely and unexpected thing. But in Season 3, he gets the storyline of it being complicated culturally for him, that while the parents had this initial good reaction, it’s not 100 percent cut-and-dry like this is going to be simple, this is going to be easy. There’s a complication that comes up for him. We really wanted to honor the reality of these situations, which is everybody’s on these different journeys specific to their lives, their families, their cultures. That was a cool thing to be able to explore.

You often put the kids in difficult situations, but they’re still very much kids. How do you handle things like Felix and his mom or Benji and his alcoholism, but still treat the characters as teenagers?

It’s interesting because I think teen audiences now are a lot more mature and savvy than I remember myself being at that age. We never wanted to talk down to our young audience, so we let the teens be mature and talk intelligently and have emotional intelligence and support each other and be good friends and not do that thing of constant fighting. But at the end of the day, as you’re saying: Yes, they are still kids. And we kept coming back to that idea that they have stuff to learn. They have to move through difficult situations to learn how to grow and grow up.

I think that speaks to where they land at the end of this season. If you think about where each one of these characters began, someone like Andrew, who was kind of a bully; someone like Lake who seemed like a superficial, popular girl; Mia, who seemed kind of sad and broken from some of the family stuff that she’d been through and seeking Victor, who didn’t know who he was. Then when you look at where all these people end up: Supported, in relationships, not caring so much about what other people think, each one of them went on this personal journey that allowed them to have great character development. It’s also a testament to the young actors. I’ve never been so lucky to work with such a talented, amazing cast of young people who happened to also be incredibly nice. It was just overall a really wonderful experience.

“Love, Victor” is now streaming on Hulu and Disney+.

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