I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with trailblazer Marja-Lewis Ryan, the showrunner, writer, and director behind The L Word: Generation Q. We discuss her journey to becoming a showrunner, directing episodes for season two, and staying true to her storytelling while navigating the pandemic.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: There's this raw authenticity with these characters and their lives and how they function, and to a certain degree can be relatable. How did you pivot between what's going on in reality, like with this pandemic and everything in between and also keep your show so grounded with the characters, and not being heavily influenced by the chaos that is going on in the world?
Marja-Lewis Ryan: Great question. I grew up watching the original and I was 18 when the show first came out. I sort of like came out to the original, and it changed my life in a lot of ways. It was like beyond like seeing myself on television, it was like knowing that Ilene Chaiken made a show about her friends and something really clicked for me. I felt like I was given permission to write what I actually know, and it was going to be OK. And then I wouldn't be like a poor, independent filmmaker my whole life, there's a space for me in this commercial world. Which wasn't the case before, you know? It's crazy to think that but it's true. I'm always careful to say that I never thought that I would have Ilene’s literal job, but the idea that I would have her job in a different space like that, that did help. And then, you know, after her there was Soloway and there is a commercial viability space for these stories, everyone kind of kept proving that for me. And when I took over the show, I was very aware that I was bringing it into the year 2021. I was trying to update it. What is the difference between eight years ago and now? The truth is so much is different. I mean, you couldn't even get married, so much has changed. There are queer people in sports now, it's different. So, I was really trying to figure out what the need is now. If Pose exists, what sort of niche am I filling? And I think that I was still asking myself that question in season one and in season two, I felt like I actually now I know what I'm supposed to be doing here, which is just telling real stories about love. I want people to feel that feeling the whole season. To me, it was based off of this one feeling I was chasing which is like that feeling before you fall in love, you like inhale - I was just chasing that feeling. It's such a good soapy feeling to feel, it's really empathic, but sort of with a wink that like this is never going to happen to you. [laughs] It's never going to be this fun, it's never going to be like this dramatic. There's that piece of it that I'm so happy to hold on to actually, because that's what makes the show feel like a fantasy.
When we're coming into this season, and the network was like, “Are you going to do COVID?” I was like, “I can't do that. That's not what this show is like.” I just thought that like the existence of this deadly disease in this world, it sucks bro, I was like, “No, these people don't have a deadly disease, they can't have it. Nobody wants to see Jennifer Beals in a face mask.” [laughs] You know what I mean? Nobody is trying to see that. Our audience needs to hold these people in this place that's like a little bit of a fantasy. The ways in which it changed the show, though, is that like, well, we couldn't really have like, guest stars coming in and out in the same way. We really had to stay in our lane trying to protect everybody. And what it did for the story was it actually helped bring the cast together because I couldn't really look out for conflict, I had to be in here. So, in that way, it helps. And then also the fact that you think the show is grounded is very funny to me because you don't know how not grounded it has been in the past. [laughs] This is the most grounded version. And that was all I wanted to do is just keep clicking it into reality while maintaining this same old piece of fantasy where the soapiness is the fantasy. It gives you that feeling of like that rom-com feeling, but you’re living in this little fantasy [laughs] this protection of like love and high drama. It's so fun to write.
Sadie: And the characters are so great. Do you ever go to the original cast asking for character development tips?
Marja: All the time. Even though the new cast. The three original cast members are also executive producers, so I have access to them, a different way than I have access to the cast. I don't really have access to the rest of the cast until we're shooting. Although honestly, if I call them and was like, “What do you think of this?” they'll answer my phone call. I also just like getting to know them. Getting to know people is the best way for me to write for them. Because then I can kind of get it a little closer, just trying to dial them in together like character and person. What’s been really fun about working on a TV show is getting to know someone more and more and more and being able to use that to find some deeper stories and deeper narratives. Jacqueline Toboni, this is our third project together - I cast her in a play, I cast her in a movie - so I've known her for years. I feel like I'm my best self when I'm writing for her, but I think it’s also partially just because I just know her.
Sadie: That's a nice creative resource. Taking a step back, what was your journey before becoming a showrunner? You've worn many creative hats and have had many creative endeavors but was showrunning always something that you were like, ‘that's what I'm going to do’?
Marja: No is the answer to the last question. I didn't know that I was putting together a showrunners resume as I was moving through the hierarchy of the business. I've seen three paths to this job. And this one, this path that I'm on is the path where like you just make your own work. Like you can't make it. That's when you get showrunners like Abbi Jacobson or showrunners like Issa Rae. They were making the thing on the side and then someone was like, “Can you make it over here?” [laughs] What I was doing before I had the job of a showrunner was show running. David Mamet called me a regional theater. He was like, “Have you met her? She's a regional theater.” And I'm like, “No, I'm not, I'm not a regional theater.” [laughs] I think what he means is I can write the content, I can then budget that content, I can then hire people to fulfill the dream, I can have the dream, and then I know how to wrap out. I do actually know how to do all of that, because I came up on this in the independent film theater space. I know how to run a lightboard. I know how to stage manage, like I stage managed all throughout college. There was this really beautiful girl who was doing a lot of theater and she asked me if I would stage manage and I was like, “Yes.” And she was like, “Do you know how?” And I was like, “Of course I do.” And I did not know. [laughs] Everything good came out of me being gay and saying yes to people and really learning a lot of things. I'm like a master of none jack of all trades. That's really what this job is. The job really is about knowing enough to communicate the dream, and being able to walk away and let somebody else come in and do the thing. And that's really the extent of my skill set. I can kind of play the piano. I can kind of do things that ended up being really useful in this job.
Sadie: The next thing we know, you’re going to be scoring big action films.
Marja: [laughs] I've worked with the same composer for years and she obviously makes the music and then it goes in the movie. And then I play it over and over again learn how to play it. And then I play it back to her, and she's like, “Good job. You did it!” [laughs] I can play my own scores. How cool is that? Pretty fucking cool.
I didn't always know I wanted to be a showrunner. I remember getting signed at UTA and my agent asked, “What's your goal?” And I said, “I want to run my own show in five years.” And she's like, “OK.” [laughs] But that made sense to me. It didn't make sense to me to staff for somebody else, like, just the way that I learned and the way that my brain kind of works – this job makes a lot of sense to me.
Sadie: Going from that, and with this the second season, I know that you directed one episode from last season, now you're coming in wearing a new hat on top of everything else you do, on top of learning your songs. How do you pivot? Do you put aside your producers and your writer's hat to focus on visuals and performance or are you always on because that's your world?
Marja: It's such a great question, I don't even know the answer. Really, it's just so much a part of me. It's like all I've ever done. I loved having other directors come on season one because it was like a running joke on set, but I was like a showrunner slash shadow. [laughs] Sometimes I'd be standing over Allison Liddi-Brown’s shoulder and she'd be like, “Are you OK, boss?” And I'm like, “Oh, sorry. I was looking, sorry. No, yeah, I'm good.” [laughs] Because I just could learn from them. Like some of these really fucking cool gay women in their 60s and have been doing this forever. They know everything and they've directed everything that you love, you know, all those Friday Night Lights that you're still watching, that's her. And I love being able to learn from them. But I do think that there was like a gap between my vision and the execution, and I wanted to close the gap a little bit or see if I could even close the gap. And I think I did.
I think that COVID helped in this really weird way where I could go to the network and say, “We have to work 10-hour days, so we have to go handheld, we have to go lamp lit, things are going to look a little different, it's going look like this, not this” and they were like, “Yeah, OK.” And that was a huge lesson too though. I think all creatives, like continuously learn. And they want me and I know you they me but you want like the shiny show, right? And they're like saying yes, of course they want the shiny show, but they don't - they actually want me, they just don't even know how to ask for it. Because it's like, they want me, they want my vision for the show. That's the whole reason I got the job, right? The fact that I would give them like half of a vision is not what they wanted. They do want it to be lamp-lit and handheld. They want it to be mine, whatever that means.
That’s the fun of the job is I feel like I get paid to get good. And I really value the practice. I don't know what the big game is yet, but it does feel like I'm in a place in my career where I can really take the time to get good now. I don't have to be chasing the next job in such a crazy way. I kind of know how to do that part now.
Sadie: Speaking of that, what was it like working through the constraints of COVID? Did you find any obstacles or creative opportunities working remotely with your writer’s room to even your editing team and beyond?
Marja: The writer's room sucked. That sucked. I have a great writer's room. I really like those people. They're so smart. And they're just good hangs, you know, and like it just doesn't work. [laughs]. It just doesn't work. It's like you're missing, like, humanity. I know that sounds so dramatic. That thing that happens with humans in a room. But one thing I do like is I do think it proved a point - I think feminism got a couple of points - because it definitely proved if someone needs to stay home because their kid is sick or they're on maternity leave, they actually want to extend the maternity leave to six months and not six weeks because they're human and they have needs. I think it did prove you can be on Zoom and still contribute and still be valuable and still keep your job and have a life. There's a lot of moms on my staff and two of my EPs had babies during COVID, and it was awesome. They got to be home with their kids and it just proves the point that can kind of do a hybrid if that's what you want to do. There is this third option that no one's ever floated before. And now I think the answer is yes to whatever hybrid model you need.
I think that there was a lot of benefit in having fewer people on set. I think there was a lot of benefit in having shorter hours. I think nothing good happens at hour sixteen. So, 10-hours is better, fewer people is better. Didn’t mind editing. My non-writing producer spearheads the editing side of our machine, especially when I'm directing. She's always an episode behind, I'm usually two episodes ahead writing and my other producers are on set. That's kind of the division of labor unless I'm on set and my producers are two episodes ahead. That's kind of how we rotate through and she didn't mind it. But the shooting part, the other reason why I directed those three episodes was because of COVID. I did not feel comfortable sending somebody into the line of fire, without knowing if you’re safe. And when you have to make hard decisions, you make them. And one of those decisions is like I shut the show down for a day or I stopped a scene because there were backgrounds that only had been tested once and not twice. And our protocol really had been working and I was like I don't know if it matters but like I'm gonna say it does and so I was like we can't shoot this and then you get a cast and crew that fucking rallies and say like, “We're here now, we don't want to shoot with any background, what can we shoot?” The people get to figure it out and they did and that's hard. But yeah, I mean, it sucked, dude.
Sadie: Yeah. Well, you can't tell so good job and thanks for that. [laughs]
Marja: Exactly and you're welcome. [laughs]
Sadie: The beauty of movie magic. Knowing your show so very representative of all walks of life, in front of and behind the camera, what are some initiatives you'd like to see at the forefront in the industry where networks, streaming services, basically, the whole entertainment industry can provide actionable opportunities for BIPOC and the LGBTQ writers and creatives?
Marja: I think the two things that I have done that really work are, you have to have paid shadowing programs, you cannot ask people to come for free, because then even if you're getting a queer person, we're all the same. We're all the same, because like my dad would pay my rent ‘til I was 30, like, that can't be the deciding factor. It just can't be. I think that's how you get that staleness in queer spaces sometimes. That really makes a big difference in paying your shadows and hiring them. The whole idea is like we had a shadow season one. She didn't even make it all the way through season one because Lena Waithe hired her to go direct Boomerang. She got her DGA card, the world shut down. She came back and then she shot a couple of episodes of The Chi and then she came in and she directed episode six this season, and it's the best episode of the season because of course it is – I trained her! [laughs] She's just like me, only better, because she went to film school, it's not a charity program. It’s a way to actually form relationships with other directors and with other creatives so that you have coworkers. [laughs]
I feel like we treat it as a three-legged dog race or something. And she’s huge now - she's directing A League of Their Own right now. She did it on her own - I can take credit for her because it makes me look good. [laughs] But the truth is that she was always good, that's why she was the shadow to begin with was because she had a vision. So, yeah, those two things work - pay your shadows and hire them.
Sadie: Well, Marja, thank you so much. The start of the second season is great and I hope whatever it is you're doing in 20 years it’s just as exciting for you. And thanks for that advice, let’s make sure shadows get paid and hired!
Marja: The money, it’s there! Thank you for doing this.
The second season of The L Word: Generation Q, streams August 6 on SHOWTIME.