Just look at what this Canadian director went through to get us a ‘Queer as Folk’ reboot

Stephen Dunn even wrote a role for friend and “Drag Race” legend Chi Chi DeVayne before she died

Originally from St. John’s, Newfoundland, Stephen Dunn moved to Los Angeles full-time in January 2020 to try to make it as a film writer-director. Though his 2015 debut feature, the horror-inflected coming-of-age film Closet Monster, had snagged plenty of awards and critical praise, he still wasn’t making any money. He had a lot of ideas, was having meetings, working some. He directed an episode of Apple’s Little America. But he didn’t even own a car, a serious challenge in California. “Then COVID-19 hit,” says Dunn. It seemed like nothing would ever get off the ground.

Flash forward to this spring. The streaming service Peacock announced that Dunn would be leading the reinvention of Queer as Folk. Not the filmed-in-Toronto U.S. version that ran from 2000 to 2005. No, specifically the groundbreaking 1999 U.K. series created by Russell T. Davies, who went on to make shows like Cucumber and the recent breakout hit It’s a Sin. Now Dunn, a 32-year-old from Canada’s East Coast with a relatively short resumé, is reinventing a landmark series that cleared the way for the likes of The L Word and the new Tales of the City—any show, really, where shocking-to-the-mainstream queer sexual moments occur in closely observed detail.

“It’s just so funny to me that I moved all the way to fucking L.A. to get work, and then the busiest I’ve ever been is at home with my family in Newfoundland.”

Meanwhile, Amazon Studios has given Dunn the job of bringing to the screen a buzzy and creepy upcoming novel, Yes, Daddy, by Los Angeles-based novelist Jonathan Parks-Ramage, as a limited series. That’s two big queer projects at once.

And these career turning points came together not when Dunn was hunched in a Hollywood writers’ room, but while he’s been staying with his family in Newfoundland. He’s been stuck there since last August due to visa red tape, working on his projects solely over the internet and phone. “It’s just so funny to me that I moved all the way to fucking L.A. to get work, and then the busiest I’ve ever been is at home with my family in Newfoundland,” he says. “I was honestly having probably one of the worst years of my life. Now I feel so rejuvenated. And being in Newfoundland was the best thing I think I could have ever done for myself.” He even found his current partner in Newfoundland; they’ll move together to L.A. whenever they’re able.

 

So how did Dunn manage all this? And more importantly, what are Dunn’s plans for Queer as Folk, a cultural property beloved by a generation of gay men?


First, before the release of Closet Monster, Dunn made a series of three clever short videos that used handcrafted pop-up books to tell real-life tales of sexual misadventure. Pop-up Porno, which screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, garnered Dunn a fan in the form of Lee Eisenberg, a producer best known for the U.S. version of The Office. Eisenberg went on to hire Dunn to direct a queer-themed episode of the Apple TV series Little America. Dunn talked to Eisenberg about wanting to make a TV show about modern queer life that pushed boundaries—not a Disney-fied version of gay life like some other shows (Dunn refused to name names), but something more complex. “When I think of statements you hear on shows, like, ‘I’m just like you.’ But I’m not just like you. And my friends are not just like each other. Queer people are all different, like fucking snowflakes,” he says. “When you talk about the intersection of race and age and disabilities and gender identities in relation to queerness, those are stories I’ve never seen.”

“New Orleans is historically a city built of misfits. The intersection of queerness and culture there is unlike any other American city.”

Dunn thought about making a show that would have the impact of the original Queer as Folk—which, in its first 10 minutes, depicted a 20-something rimming a 15-year-old he had met on the street. And then he found out that the rights to Queer as Folk had become available. So why not try to get them? While he was in the U.K. working on another project, he bought himself a ticket to Manchester where Russell T. Davies lives. “It was so lovely and we just really bonded over my vision for the show,” says Dunn.

It still took almost a year to secure the rights. Dunn pitched “every network” and got multiple bids for his reinvention of the iconic show. Eventually, NBCUniversal picked it up, deciding to release it on its Peacock streaming platform.

And… the vision? What is it? Dunn is the model of Hollywood discretion on what the new series will be like. It’s set in the present day, in New Orleans, after a tragedy. So, a tragedy?

“I would love to… I’m just trying to think of a way to say this without spoiling anything. Just give me one second,” Dunn says. (Forty seconds pass.) “Um, I’m not sure if I can answer this without giving anything away.”

He picked New Orleans—rather than the Manchester of the original, or the Pittsburgh of the U.S. version—because he had spent time there, had dated someone from there and still has friends there. “New Orleans is historically a city built of misfits. The intersection of queerness and culture there is unlike any other American city. It has a lot of intersection, as well as segregation.”

Louisiana is, for Dunn, also intimately connected to his friendship with Chi Chi DeVayne , a drag queen from Shreveport, who appeared on the eighth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race and on the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars. The two worked together on Little America, and Dunn wrote one of the lead roles in Queer as Folk for her before she died in August 2020 of pneumonia after being hospitalized for scleroderma-related kidney failure. Dunn gets choked up talking about it. “It’s going to be really hard to cast that part,” he says. “It breaks my heart. She fought so hard to be able to do it, and I never thought that I would ever be making this show without her in it. Obviously there’s no one who can replace her. It’s just going to be a different role.”

“I’m very far away from Stuart but sometimes I wish I could be Stuart. When I was young I was Nathan. Now I think I’m Vince.”

Dunn has few concerns over finding a cast that’s as ethnically diverse as the city it’s set in. But he’s less sure about following Davies’ approach to casting It’s a Sin, where every gay character was played by an openly gay actor. Dunn wants to be more subtle, and has his reasons for doing so: The star of Dunn’s Closet Monster, Connor Jessup, was not out when he was cast in the film. (He came out as gay four years later.)

“I don’t believe anyone needs to declare they’re non-binary or pan or whatever to play a role. But I know there’s going to be an amazing pool of openly queer actors to pick from,” he says. “I think we’re in a transitional period. Ask any fucking queer actor who works in this horrible industry, actors who were coerced into hiding their queerness. I know stories of famous actors who were told that they had to change their voice to sound less feminine, that they have to present more masc, otherwise they would never have a career. The echo of that trauma persists throughout the industry even now.”

(Though Dunn says he intends to cast actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities, trans actors to play trans characters and non-binary actors to play non-binary characters. “There’s a plethora of actors, emerging and established, who can perform these roles. This is a no-brainer for me.”)

So it seems we won’t be catching up with the original gay, white British characters—stud Stuart, romantic Vince and naïf Nathan—in the new series. Nor will the new series bear any relationship to the Toronto-made U.S. version. “The show that I saw growing up was the American version. That’s what came on my TV scrambled in Newfoundland,” Dunn says. “Then ironically, when I moved to Toronto for film school and became ingrained in the queer scene there, I found that it was not at all like the show.”

Dunn is certainly perseverent. Last summer, when he thought COVID-19 restrictions might delay things long enough that his deal with NBCUniversal would fall apart, he made a teaser video in his apartment to encourage the company to stick with the show. The video included a montage of faces of people with signs saying “Queer as.” “I got all my friends in Toronto, in L.A., New York, Newfoundland, Vancouver, Montreal, I got celebrities like Gus Kenworthy, Eureka, Monique Hart, Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang. Even Chi Chi DeVayne [before she died] held up a sign. It was a last-ditch effort to show the demand for this series and the demand for queer storytelling done authentically from our community.”

I saved the toughest question for last: Which of the original Queer as Folk characters does Dunn most relate to? The hypersexual Stuart, the just-coming-out teen Nathan or the guy-next-door Vince?

“I’m very far away from Stuart but sometimes I wish I could be Stuart. When I was young I was Nathan. Now I think I’m Vince.”

Paul Gallant

Paul Gallant is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has appeared in The WalrusThe Globe and Mail, the Toronto StarTHIS magazine, CBC.ca, Readersdigest.ca and many other publications. His debut novel, Still More Stubborn Stars, was published by Acorn Press. He is the editor of Pink Ticket Travel and a former managing editor of Xtra. Photo by Tishan Baldeo.

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