executive producers and creators Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman
speak frankly about what’s PC, what’s masculine, and who responds
best to the show.
The Advocate: If there has been one overriding
theme to the show, what has it been, in your view?
Ron Cowen: As we said at the beginning of
this venture, it really is the story of boys becoming men. You
don’t turn into a man overnight. It’s a process that occurs
over several years, and that is the trajectory of the show.
Daniel Lipman: I will say that just because
someone is in a relationship doesn’t mean it’s going to last
long. Sometimes a two-month relationship is a long-term relationship.
Also, I don’t believe that with boys becoming men, being in
a relationship is necessarily an evolution. You can become a
man and be single. The relationships on the show will always
change because that’s the nature of the characters.
Are you finding it satisfying, artistically,
to take it in this direction?
Ron Cowen: A lot of series establish their characters,
and their characters don’t change much over the years, but I
think for Dan and me it keeps it more interesting and keeps
us more involved if we develop our characters and have them
Daniel Lipman: the characters tell us where
to go. For instance, having a relationship may seem right for
one character and not right for another. One character might
fall in love; the other one never will. The minute we try to
force something on a character, it doesn’t seem real.
Have the characters seemed as real to you
since the beginning as they do now? Or have you found that,
living with them for three seasons, they’re going off in directions
that are surprising you?
Daniel Lipman: Some characters. We were very blessed
that the main characters spoke to us when we sat down and wrote
them. Also, we’ve been very lucky with this cast. I remember,
I was on the set of the second day of shooting the pilot, and
it was a real world. These characters were absolutely real.
Physically, the actors becoming the manifestation of the characters
was very real.
Ron Cowen: It’s a hard question to answer. In
the same way that you live with family members, when you live
with characters, over time you always discover new things about
them and new things about yourself. It’s always evolving.
Queer as Folkwis showcasing the first HIV-negative–HIV-positive
relationship on a television series. Do you feel any sense of
responsibility for how that is portrayed?
Ron Cowen: I feel a conflict, because I feel
two responsibilities. One responsibility is to the characters
and the story we’re telling, and one responsibility to the community.
Having said that, I cannot creatively be led by the community.
I feel my primary responsibility is to the story we’re telling,
and hopefully the community can find some truth in the story
Daniel Lipman: I think that’s well put. This relationship
is something you’ve never seen on television—the problems that
negative and positive men have when they get into a relationship.
As to “responsibility,” I have to agree with Ron. When we say
we’re “politically incorrect,” we don’t mean that we’re out
to offend anyone; we’re out to tell the truth. Sometimes the
truth is not pretty—sometimes people behave in flawed ways.
But it’s human, and we have to go with “human” over political
correctness. Brian [Gale Harold] has a very specific view of
what it is to be queer. It may not be everyone’s view, that
gay people don’t have to live a sanitized life, but it’s his.
And all the characters have their views. You put them together
and you make a rich, textured community of characters.
Ron Cowen: Sometimes we have to block out all
the voices around us and just listen to the characters.
Daniel Lipman: People can be very possessive of
the show in that they want it to reflect their lives.
Ron Cowen: As do we all. It’s been an interesting
learning experience for Dan and me, but I’m starting to feel
more and more that there is less and less of “a community,”
in the sense that all gay people are not the same, like all
straight people aren’t. There are gay people who want to assimilate
and move into the straight world, and there are others who want
to stay within the gay community. Those people all have different
attitudes and expectations of the show, and it’s hard to satisfy
Ron Cowen: It is impossible, which is why, after
a point, we need to stop listening to the criticism and listen
only to the characters. When we were doing the positive-negative
story, we knew that certain characters would not be happy with
Michael’s decision to stay with Ben. And they expressed their
concerns—even Michael’s mother. It was a very hard thing to
write, because although Debbie may express her liberal points
of view very loudly...when it’s her own son who is putting himself
in a situation that is dangerous to his health, she suddenly
began to sound very conservative.
Daniel Lipman: It wasn’t just that she was concerned
about his health; she had a brother she nursed through it. She
knew firsthand the devastation. She didn’t want to wish that
on her son. I felt it was coming from a protective and loving
place rather than a conservative place. I felt she was coming
from the place any mother would have, and yet there were so
many in the gay community who were absolutely furious at that
choice. By the end of the season, though, it was Debbie who
was sitting by Ben’s bedside, bringing him chicken soup. She
went on a long emotional journey of acceptance. If we hurt and
offended people who were positive, that was never our intention.
We just wanted to be true to Debbie’s character.
Is it difficult to be a gay writer, trying
to listen to tell your own stories, while the community is trying
to make you its spokesman?
Ron Cowen: We’ve had a lot of pressure put on
us, and I know why the pressure is there. Specifically, it’s
because we gay people have seen so little of our lives represented
in anything that comes out of Hollywood, and we’re the only
Daniel Lipman: On the other hand, Queer as Folk
is not a service organization—it’s a creative venture, as much
as an artist’s canvas, a symphony, or a play. It’s not there
to answer people’s questions and provide information. It’s not
an Army training film. There are two kinds of shows: one that
reaches out to the audience and another that forces the audience
to come to it. And I think Queer as Folk is the latter type.
You have to look at it. Although we live in a very judgmental
society, we do a show without judgment.
Ron Cowen: The show is many things—it’s drama,
it’s comedy, it’s political. We try to tell as many stories
from within the community as we can, but we can’t be guided
by the community.
Daniel Lipman: It was never intended to represent
all gay people. Not only are all gay people different, they’re
different at different ages. A 22-year-old gay man is very different
from a 60-year-old gay man.
Ron Cowen: Absolutely. And I believe that the
response to our show differs generationally. It’s a generalization,
but I think that younger gay men in their 20s have a lot more
fun with the show than gay men in their 40s who have been through
more. We’ve had more losses and dealt with more prejudices,
and we’ve had a lot of shame issues.
Daniel Lipman: Straight audiences come to it with
a lot less baggage.
Ron Cowen: One of the writers on our show came
up with an expression that I can’t get out of my head: “We eat
our own.” That’s a very distressing concept to me.
Daniel Lipman: That can be crippling when you’re
creative, and it’s one of the reasons you must block out the
world when you create.
Is that one of the reasons the writing is
primarily done by you in Los Angeles, rather than in Toronto,
Ron Cowen: I think that in this case, isolation
serves us well.
I would think that the voices, both pro and
con, praise and damnation, would be equally deafening after
Daniel Lipman: It’s like the actors in the theater
we know— they won’t read reviews till after the run is over.
You can’t have those reviews haunting you in any way. It just
interferes with your work, until you can get to a place where
you can take in the praise and the criticism and absorb it.
In our case, we’re doing a complex series every day. It’s not
like a movie, with two intense scenes out of a hundred. We do
this every day.
Bobby and Peter play two opposite extremes
of masculinity and femininity, something that the younger generation
has less trouble absorbing than the older one traditionally
Daniel Lipman: That’s the generational thing we
were talking about before. If you ask the same question of someone
20, 30, 40, 50, and 60, you’ll get five very different responses.
Ron Cowen: I know guys in their 20s who are very
different than we were. They don’t even define their sexuality
as rigidly as we do. They may say, “I’m straight, but if I found
a guy I was attracted to, I’d sleep with him.” People aren’t
defining themselves so strictly, and I think that’s a good thing.
Emmett, for instance, is flamboyant, but he is particularly,
for me, a character who is so courageous. When he was with George
and was “teaching” George how to “be gay,” he had that expression:
“Fuck ‘em all.” He was known as “Fuck-’em-all Honeycutt.” His
courage transcended his style, speech, and mannerisms, all of
which are superficial judgments to begin with. That has nothing
to do with being a man, in my mind. I think that being brave
and honest, the way Emmett can be, is far more exemplary of
his manhood. I respect Emmett and consider him a real man.
And Ben, as played by Robert Gant, is the
opposite end of the “butch-fem” spectrum but multidimensional
within that framework. What is it about those two characters
that has so captured the imagination of the viewers?
Daniel Lipman: When we were casting that role, Bobby
wrote us a letter. We’d never received a letter like that before.
He said that the show was very special and it was very important
to him on so many levels, and how he wanted us to know that.
We were in Toronto, casting from L.A. We’re very blessed with
all our cast and their passion. Bobby’s letter made a big impression,
and we told him, “You’d better pack a bag [when you come for
the audition].” But I think there is a climate, and maybe Queer
as Folk has contributed to it. We do get lots of letters from
people who say things like, “I never knew what a gay person
was, and I never really liked them, but watching the show has
taught me something.” I think if you follow the truth of your
characters, the specific is the universal. And I think that’s
what people respond to.