As the second season of Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram’s Emmy-nominated We’re Here continues its road trip to small towns across the USA with drag icons Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela, and Eureka preparing local residents to put on a drag show the town will never forget, the latest episode sees the queens arrive in Selma, Alabama. Ahead of the episode airing on Monday November 1st at 9pm ET/PT on HBO, available to stream on HBO Max, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with showrunner, director, and executive producer Peter LoGreco about overcoming his initial reservations about the concept, bringing his documentary making experience to series, how the relationship between the queens has evolved, and why the Selma episode felt particularly significant.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: going back to season one, what it was that convinced you to get on board as showrunner?
Peter LoGreco: “I certainly didn’t come from a drag background and to be honest, I went into that initial meeting somewhat skeptical. I was worried that it would be a gimmick or a one-line joke about drag queens prancing around in a small town and looking like fish out of water. So I went in thinking the way to make this interesting would be to use it as a vehicle to tell stories of small town America through this very unconventional lens. I wasn’t even sure what that would yield, but I was very interested in the opportunity, especially given the political and cultural circumstances that the US currently finds itself in and even more intensely so a couple of years ago.”
“When I met with the creators and executive producers, Johnnie Ingram and Stephen Warren, that was the sort of vibe that clicked for all of us. Then as we started to develop the show, there was a continued meeting of the minds over the filmmaking approach being one that was more experiential and authentic rather than trying to make it very precious and intentionally beautiful, which can separate the audience from what’s happening rather than really immersing them in it. So that was the approach that evolved over time.”
“In some ways, the chaos of making the pilot yielded a lot of happy accidents that then informed the process of making the show. There were two different cultures coming together—the drag world and my crew from the documentary world—who were figuring each other out, but really willing to make it work no matter what. So much came out of that experience, not only the way that we plan the show, the way it’s shot, the way it’s edited, the tone, the music, and all of that kind of thing, but the way that we talk to the queens and how involved they are in what we’re doing with each of the drag children.”
The way that the queens work with their drag kids is that they don’t just impose ideas on them, they talk to them and find out what they want to say about themselves. Similarly, do you feel like you’re guided in how you put an episode together both by where you are and by the stories that you’re focusing on?
“Absolutely, I firmly believe that we should be informed primarily by what’s really there and what’s true and sincere for a person and their story, as well as what’s true and sincere for the character of a town. That’s what is going to be most compelling and easiest to feel emotionally connected to, and therefore hopefully be the most interesting to watch. So we’re always really interested in finding out what makes someone tick when we’re doing outreach in the preproduction stage. It’s not like anyone needs to fit a specific profile, which is one of the wonderful things about the show. We have allies who are cis straight people, we have trans people, we have queer people of all stripes who are all part of this show because there isn’t a specific type of story that we’re looking to tell. It’s more a case of asking, ‘how does this person relate to the community that they’re a part of and how does their story elicit the character of that community?'”
“We also look at what they can potentially gain from the experience, and in some cases we’ve had the opportunity to ask, ‘what could the queen also gain from this experience?’ I think the queens being open to that has been a wonderful part of how that process works. We try to give them enough information so that they feel grounded and they can start creatively thinking and collaborating with us on the drag portion of things, but at the same time we also want them to be curious and—sometimes to their chagrin—I will purposely withhold information about the drag daughters because I want them to learn it in real time on camera on the ground.”
How conscious a decision was it to allow us to see the three queens together more this season along with more interaction between the different drag daughters and their family members?
“I think all of those things, but particularly the latter, were very conscious. We realized in the process of making the first season, in some ways by accident, that the moments when a queen and their drag kid come across one of the other queens and their drag kid would often yield wonderful connections that you didn’t know were there or they would just have an energy to them that was different and brought the story forward, or brought the emotion forward in a different way. So that was something that we wanted to continue and further enhance.”
“One of the wonderful surprises about making the first season was the degree to which we did seem to have an effect just by our presence. No one was planning to do this, and no one is patting themselves on the back about this, but I think it just happened. Our presence and putting on this drag show seems to bring the community, or at least a certain facet of the community, closer together. It connects people. So that was a really cool and unexpected aspect to what we were doing which extended beyond the night of that drag show. Realizing that made it more evident to me, and I think all of us, that there was an opportunity for us to try to further promote a connection between each of the drag kids, because maybe their shared experience could help each of them grow that much more. Also, from the standpoint of the audience, it would give a much deeper picture of the town and the LGBTQ experience in that individual community. So it was very conscious to try to create more integration, to do outreach, and find people who we thought could actually gain something from getting to know one another. Obviously that happens to a greater or lesser degree depending on the episode, but it has been a very gratifying thing which I do think works well.”
“In terms of the queens themselves, I would say that’s as much a consequence of them being that much closer, of them having had the opportunity to be part of the first season together, and not only getting to know each other in that process but also getting to know the show. For all of us, but especially for them being on camera and putting themselves out there in such extreme ways, until they saw that season and absorbed the impact of the edited episodes, there was probably a little bit more reticence. Once they understood in a bigger picture way what we were capable of accomplishing with the show they were that much more committed to one another and to the idea of letting it all hang out that much more because they trusted the process and really believed in what we were doing. I think they trusted each other and what they were able to each do for their drag kids too. So it was just an organic thing. It was just a growth that happened.”
Which might have felt a bit forced if you’d had too many scenes of the three of them together last season I guess?
“Right, and I’m not saying that we didn’t shoot them and then maybe didn’t use them last season.”
I’ve seen the first five episodes so far and one of the most powerful is the Selma, Alabama episode. Why did you decide to go there and could you give me an insight into putting that episode together?
“For me personally that was one of the most significant episodes to do. I won’t say that I went into the season going, ‘Okay, well, one thing we have to do is an episode in Selma’, but we did want to work with this idea of intersectionality and the fact that the LGBTQ aspect of someone’s identity is not the only facet of their identity. There are other facets to people’s identities that really inform who they are, not only in terms of them as people, but in terms of how they fit into our culture. We saw that in the Farmington episode with the Native American participants, Nate and Lady Shug, in the first season and I wanted to continue to expand upon that in as many ways as possible. So it was really important to me that we did an episode in a majority African American town and it wasn’t very long into the outreach process before Selma came onto our radar. Once it did, there was a whole other layer of significance to putting an episode together in this town because of its historical significance in the civil rights movement.”
“We got down there in person as soon as we possibly could and once we did it felt like we absolutely had to do something there. Some small towns can be very milquetoast and you don’t get much of a sense of the place by walking through it, it just doesn’t feel like anything, whereas Selma has such a palpable physical presence, just walking down those streets is a bit of a time capsule going back to the 1960s when it was very significant in our country’s history. Selma speaks to so many different facets, both positive and negative, of the African American experience.”
“Once we’d decided to shoot there it became a process that was more like what would go into making a one off documentary and with the time that we spent with the Bloody Sunday foot soldiers we could probably have put together be an hour long film about it. When people in Selma saw that we were willing to be there on the ground and that we wanted to spend time with them and that we wanted to hear their stories, they started swinging their doors wide open for us and there were so many rich stories to tell. I felt so lucky that we got those four women who had been part of the protests in 1965 to be part of the show and to be able to make that connection between ongoing different human rights and civil rights struggles was really powerful.”
“Putting that episode together was a long process. I took my first trip there in September 2020 and then we didn’t shoot until May 2021. We worked hard to cultivate the trust necessary to get those relationships to a place where people were willing to let us shoot, but then again I must give a tremendous amount of credit to the queens themselves, with each of them bringing their own individual experience in very appropriate ways to the time that they spent there. We’ve had a lot of people talk to us about how the town gets exploited for its identity and its place in the civil rights movement, but that no one takes the time to understand who and where they are now. I’m gratified by the fact that, so far anyway, the people whom we worked with there seem to feel that we did give them the time and consideration to understand more about who they are and what this place is, not only from 50 years ago, but today.”
By James Kleinmann
Season 2, Episode 4 of We’re Here in Selma, Alabama airs on Monday November 1st 2021 on HBO, and will be available to stream on HBO Max.