Exclusive Interview: Stephen Kijak showrunner of HBO Max’s LGBTQ+ rights docu-series Equal “there was queer history in the image making as well as the actual storytelling”

The Max original LGBTQ+ civil rights docu-series Equal premieres on HBO Max today, Thursday October 22nd. Dynamically and stylishly breathing life and potent emotion into queer history, the series recontextualises the Stonewall riots in the final episode, having set out in the previous three episodes the long, often hidden, fight for equality that came before the events of June 1969 in New York’s Greenwich Village. Along the way archive film footage, photographs and audio, plus actors channeling our LGBTQ+ ancestors, are woven together to uncover the stories of many unsung heroes, some of whom blazed a trail for us just by living as their authentic selves at a time when it was illegal and dangerous to do so. At times the series brings us right up to the present day, incorporating footage from this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and the Brooklyn Liberation rally for Black Trans Lives, making it clear that the fight for equality is far from over. The series boasts a wealth of LGBTQ+ talent in front of the camera, such as Jamie Clayton as Christine Jorgensen, Keiynan Lonsdale as Bayard Rustin, Alexandra Grey as Lucy Hicks Anderson, and Hailie Sahar as Sylvia Rivera, as well as behind the camera, including director Kimberly Reed, cinematographer Ava Benjamin Shorr and series showrunner, and director of episodes one, three and four, Stephen Kijak.

Alexandra Grey as Lucy Hicks Henderson in Equal episode 2 ‘Transgender Pioneers’. Courtesy of HBO Max.

Kijak’s 1996 debut film as writer-director, Never Met Picasso, won that year’s Outfest jury awards for screenwriting and acting for Alexis Arquette. He went on to make Cinemania a fascinating look at New York City’s movie obsessives, followed by a string of acclaimed music documentaries such as Scott Walker – 30 Century Man, Stones in Exile, commissioned by The Rolling Stones, Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of, and last year’s Sid & Judy examining Judy Garland’s relationship with her producer, manager and third husband, Sid Luft. His next project is a narrative fiction feature, Shoplifters of the World, based on the music of The Smiths featuring Boyhood star Ellar Coltrane.

Hallie Sahar as Sylvia Rivera in Equal episode 4 ‘Stonewall: From Rebellion to Liberation’. Courtesy of HBO Max.

Ahead of today’s premiere of Equal on HBO Max, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Stephen Kijak about taking a fresh approach to retelling the story of the Stonewall riots, wanting to include a diverse range of stories throughout the series, working with the cast including Billy Porter as the narrator, and which other documentaries helped paved the way for this series.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on the series, I was already welling up within the first two minutes. I found it very moving, and empowering.

Stephen Kijak: “That’s good to hear because we wanted it to have that emotional impact.”

What for you was the draw of being involved in Equal?

“Well, it’s my first series so it was an exciting opportunity to really take some story and stretch it out over multiple episodes. Also, I’m a gay filmmaker but I’ve been primarily working within music documentaries, that’s been my field, so to get back to doing some work for the LGBTQ community was really empowering and exciting, and something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I think it’s important in this time if you look at what’s going on in our country and around the world, I thought about the gay men in Russia who were getting beaten and arrested just for trying to have a pride parade, all these things we take for granted, but then again there are fights that we’re still fighting here at home. I thought all these characters and stories had a lot of lessons in them to be learned from. It’s not just this mothballed history, this stuff is alive and living in all of us, and it’s up to us to carry this work forward.”

Cheyenne Jackson as Dale Jennings in Equal episode 1 ‘The Birth of a Movement. Courtesy of HBO Max.
Shannon Purser as Del Martin and Heather Matarazzo as Phyllis Lyon in Equal episode 1 ‘The Birth of a Movement. Courtesy of HBO Max.

With it being a series I really liked the way that you build on what you’re telling us and refer back to things. So say in episode one we’re introduced to the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, and then as we go on to subsequent episodes some of those figures and events that were mentioned come back again don’t they?

“Yeah, there’s a lot of interaction because these stories aren’t linear. Even Mattachine and Bilitis as you see in that episode were parallel movements initially operating in complete ignorance of each other. Given the times people had to be wary and there wasn’t a lot of communication or understanding that these different groups even existed. But as time goes on it was nice to be able to pull the different threads through, like Lorraine Hannsberry engaging with the Daughters of Bilitus, even though not signing her full name, she was intellectually engaging with ideas of homosexuality through the medium of this great newsletter The Ladder. Then you hit episode four and you see how Mattachine is still out there and active but we now have a new generation wanting to push beyond the limits of what they set out, but at the same time without organisations like Mattachine having laid down that foundation would we have been able to step up and step off into something new? Frank Kameny pops back up in episode four marching alongside Craig Rodwell, who started out in the Mattachine but eventually was one of the people who led us forward and created what we now know as Pride. So it’s all interconnected.”

Samira Wiley as Lorraine Hansberry in Equal episode 3 ‘Black is Beautiful, Gay is Good!’. Courtesy of HBO Max.
Samira Wiley as Lorraine Hansberry in Equal episode 3 ‘Black is Beautiful, Gay is Good!’. Courtesy of HBO Max.

Can you give us an insight into the decision making process behind selecting what to include? There are only four episodes, so an event of queer resistance like the Sip-In at Julius bar in 1966 isn’t included I don’t think, but of course you only had so much time so couldn’t mention everything.

“Yeah, I really wish that we could have expanded on the Sip-In some more as it’s a really great story. There are so many stories and in episode four we refer back to the various instances of civil disobedience and uprisings that you’ve seen across the series. At one point we had planned to list examples of others, but we thought that it might become confusing for people if we started name dropping four or five other great story points that we weren’t going to be able to elaborate on because of time constraints. The series had been developed and sold to HBO Max before I got involved, so my team and I looked at the chosen subjects, and within the limitations that we had, we felt like we did still have to redevelop and enrich the palate, create a little more diversity and representation and visibility across the series. So we brought in some unknown unsung heroes, like transmasculine rabble-rouser Jack Starr for example, we brought in Lorraine Hansberry whose lesbianism is only really a thing of recent scholarship. Some characters who may not have been seen as obvious figures on the frontlines of the queer rights struggle, but whose lives I think were of great interest and importance, and who just by the very fact that they existed and the way that they did meant that there are lessons to be learned. So it was just trying to create an equitable balance within the framework of these four episodes, and we didn’t want to overstuff them and have them become quick little overviews that you’re just flicking through. Even though they are short, we wanted to at least have the time to settle into an idea and into a subject. Essentially we’re just priming you up if you’re really not that versed in a lot of this history, or if you are maybe there are some parts of it that you didn’t know about. It’s being delivered in a way that hopefully will energise you to learn more and to understand how much more there is to learn about our history.”

Anthony Rapp as Harry Hay in Equal episode 1 ‘The Birth of a Movement. Courtesy of HBO Max.

You mentioned that you’re a gay filmmaker, how important was it for Equal to have LGBTQ+ talent both in front of and behind the camera and what impact do you think that might have had on the finished series?

“Well, in front of the camera it’s an absolutely stunning cast. A range of talent from established icons of the gay movement, trailblazers like Anthony Rapp, down to newcomers like Theo Germaine who is just so awesome as Jack Starr. Everybody just really brought their A game. To have them enter this environment where there was a lot of queer talent behind the camera was amazing. Our DP, who I know you spoke to about series, Ava Benjamin Shorr, shot Disclosure and a lot of the talent that was in that film, like Jamie Clayton, were now in front of our cameras, so there was a lot of camaraderie. I just think we created such a safe, supportive and nurturing environment which meant that everyone instantly felt comfortable and they were able to do their best work for us. It was such a joy to do and there was a lot of goodwill. I think there was the feeling that we were doing something quite special.”

Jamie Clayton as Christine Jorgensen in Equal episode 2 ‘Transgender Pioneers’. Courtesy of HBO Max.
Cheyenne Jackson as Dale Jennings in Equal episode 1 ‘The Birth of a Movement. Courtesy of HBO Max.

Taking of the cast, I love the first person direct-to-camera accounts that the actors portraying these LGBTQ+ figures have. I really like the connection to them that those sequences give us, especially because within the context of the series we hear these people being spoken about a lot, so it’s very powerful to have LGBTQ+ people telling their own stories in this way. Visually I like that recurring motif of each figure looking up at us. What was your thought process in creating those sequences?

“There is a kind of clichéd hero shot that you see in advertising and documentaries, it’s always there, all of a sudden that slow motion turn to look at the camera. It’s just such a freakin’ cliché and I hate it! But with these, it’s kind of what you mentioned, we’re in this historical period where queer people are talked about, they are legislated against, they were written about in all these derogatory ways, with their names published in the papers, their trials and arrests were written about, trans people were misgendered, so it was important to take these stories, and let the characters speak for themselves. We do have this fantastic uber-narrator in Billy Porter, but what we also find is that all through the show these characters are narrating their own selves, and we wanted it to be stylised, and slightly left of centre. These aren’t your average recreations; there is direct-to-camera address, and we wanted that direct connection with the audience because it’s like these actors are channeling these great historical figures. We feel the message is super relevant and important to audiences today so we didn’t want it to be passive, we really wanted to involve you deeply in the stories. We didn’t have the time or budget to create full scale recreations, so we did something a little more theatrical and kind of contained and simple, but the intimacy it created I think is where that connection comes from, and it helps the stories really come alive. That was the tactic. One of my heroes of queer cinema is Derek Jarman, and the way he created his cinematic worlds is very similar. So the conceit of all that is very much inspired by him; these tableaux, rear projections, and stylised historical terrains. So the actual filming of it and the visual language itself had a queer antecedent, so there was queer history in the image making as well as the actual storytelling.”

Billy Porter narrates HBO Max’s LGBTQ+ rights docu-series Equal.
Photograph by Shavonne Wong.

You mentioned Billy Porter as the narrator. I love how passionate he is and he really brings his personality to it as well, like that moment where he says ‘don’t get it twisted’, and ‘hold on a minute, sweetie’. What did you want to get from that element of the series and did you work with Billy as he was recording the voice over?

“Well, the narration was written in a very loose, contemporary kind of in your face way and Billy such a pro, so he was able to take things and occasionally he would rephrase something to give it his own spin. Sometimes it really was just his attitude and delivery, it just took everything up a notch. What was nice about it was that he connected with that sense of urgency and militancy that we were threading through everything, and to him it was a great way to deliver this kind of spirit, this message that we still have the work to do. It was a call to arms, and he was ready to be that champion for that message. He was brilliant, he’d just sit there and give it three or four different reads, and then move on to the next thing and he just absolutely killed it. It was awesome having him involved.”

Hallie Sahar as Sylvia Rivera in Equal episode 4 ‘Stonewall: From Rebellion to Liberation’. Courtesy of HBO Max.
Scott Turner Schofield as Craig Rodwell in Equal episode 4 ‘Stonewall: From Rebellion to Liberation’. Courtesy of HBO Max.

Stonewall is one element that a lot of people coming to the series will likely have at least some familiarity with, so what what was your approach to telling us about what happened in June 1969 and contextualising it as well, giving us the before and after?

“Yes, that’s the key, the context. There’s been so much done about Stonewall and it’s so contentious; who threw the first brick? Who owns the story? It’s a really complicated one to get right and a lot of people have got it very wrong, but what we had the benefit of is three prior episodes that laid the foundation of the times. So we didn’t have to spend time explaining what it was like to be gay in the 1950s because we already have all of that wider context. So what we were able to do is expand that context locally, we were able to really give you a flavour and a feel for Greenwich Village, for New York, for the place and time in which this was about to happen; the cops and the mob, the danger of cruising off Christopher Street, and what was really happening in the city, and the atmosphere. We were able to contain Stonewall within our second act and then go on to talk about what happened on the other side; the militant organising of groups like the Gay Activist Alliance, Gay Liberation Front and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) founded by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. We get to take a look at how organising started to happen after Stonewall. I want to shout out the incredible World of Wonder short Stonewall Out Loud, which is just a beautiful telling of Stonewall. It was so nice to see someone take a very specific stylistic approach and be very intimate with the material. It was out of the mouths of the people that were there. We took a slightly different approach, but not dissimilar in that across the whole series we are basing a lot of these scripts on first-hand accounts, written testimony that was happening in the moment as opposed to retrospective interviews about it to give it an immediacy. Then, as with all the other episodes in the series, we crafted monologues and had actors embody these historical figures and put it together with archive that represented the spirit of the times to try to make something that kind of tried to put you in the feeling and the vibe of the times. The idea was to create something not just informational, but also tactile and sensual. We wanted you to feel the hot summer night, and kind of be put in the moment. Creating a balance and range of voices was important too, even if it was just five characters. We wanted to show Stormé DeLarverie, a butch Black lesbian, and Craig Rodwell who was a cis white man who is played by a trans actor, Scott Turner Schofield; and Sylvia Rivera. Just to covey the collision of characters who collided at Stonewall to create that history.”

Elizabeth Faith Ludlow as Stormé DeLarverie in Equal episode 4 ‘Stonewall: From Rebellion to Liberation’. Courtesy of HBO Max.
Elizabeth Faith Ludlow as Stormé DeLarverie in Equal episode 4 ‘Stonewall: From Rebellion to Liberation’. Courtesy of HBO Max.

I was really taken by moments like the description of the smashed glass on the ground along with that image, which is very visceral.

“Yes. that’s one of our favourite moments actually. Given the pace of the production, we had already crafted the monologues and cast these people and were in the middle of doing it while editorial and research was continuing. So, in the midst of the process we found that great Martin Boyce interview which became a major part of the story. We didn’t have an actor playing Martin Boyce, but we have this eyewitness interview threading you through. People like Martha Shelley and Marsha P. Johnson exist in archive to supplement, and to kind of hold hands with the active characters, so we created this hybrid experience that hopefully puts you right there in the moment.”

Keiynan Lonsdale as Bayard Rustin in Equal episode 3 ‘Black is Beautiful, Gay is Good!’. Courtesy of HBO Max.

Finally, what’s your own favourite LGBTQ+ either film, TV series, play, book, music, artwork, or musical; someone or something that’s made an impact on you and resonated with you over the years, and why?

“Well, tangential to that question, what I want to make people aware of is that in the same way that this series shows you the shoulders on which we all stand, to me this series stands on the shoulders of so many great films and filmmakers who have blazed the trail of this territory before us. Almost everybody in the series, all these characters we cover, you can find full length feature films that dive deeper into their stories. Even as recent as Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, the great documentary about Lorraine Hansberry; there’s Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, which is a great documentary and those filmmakers just made Cured, which tells the story of Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny getting homosexuality struck from the American Psychiatric record as being a mental illness. I definitely want to mention Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives too. It’s a landmark documentary that came out in 1977, which I believe is getting a reissue soon, and we use clips from that film in our series. It’s such a significant films that is made up of interviews with gay people in the 70s talking about their lives. It’s a very different kind of documentary filmmaking than I think we’re used to today, but it’s so interesting and important to watch. Last Call at Maud’s about a lesbian bar in San Francisco is a great film; The Lavender Scare gets deeper into the Frank Kameny story and that period in history which is really important. Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay is another one. I mean there are just so many.”

Jai Rodriguez as José Sarria in Equal episode 3 ‘Black is Beautiful, Gay is Good!’. Courtesy of HBO Max.

Another recent one is Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of José Sarria.

“We actually worked with that filmmaker of that documentary, and some of the material we have is courtesy of that film, which I really hope a lot of people watch because José Sarria is an incredible character. So many of the figures we feature all deserve their own films. Our historical advisor Susan Stryker made a great hour long film called Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, so if you want to know more about the Compton’s Cafeteria riot it’s all there. So that’s what I’d like to throw into the mix, all of the great work that inspired us, and inspired this series. We wouldn’t have a series without this work, and a lot of these filmmakers generously shared pieces of their films or their research with us to help push us forward. So hopefully we can shine a light back on that work and everyone can learn from it and get inspired by it.”

By James Kleinmann

The Max original four-part docu-series Equal premieres today Thursday October 22nd on HBO Max.

Equal | Official Trailer | HBO Max

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