When Clea DuVall read an early version of High School, Tegan and Sara Quin’s bestselling memoir about their teenage experiences, growing up as musically gifted queer twins in 90s suburban Canada, the actor and filmmaker immediately knew that she wanted to bring their book to the screen. As well as directing several episodes of the resulting television adaptation, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last month and launches on October 14th on free streaming service Amazon Freevee, DuVall also serves as executive producer, co-writer and co-showrunner alongside Laura Kittrell.
DuVall made her directing feature film debut with the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-nominated indie comedy Intervention, which she also wrote, co-produced and starred in alongside Natasha Lyonne and Melanie Lynskey, who won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for her performance. More recently, she directed and co-wrote the hit romantic holiday comedy, Happiest Season, starring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, and Dan Levy. As an actress, she’s probably best known for her roles in the cult classics, Girl, Interrupted and But I’m a Cheerleader, and has appeared in movies like Argo, She’s All That, The Grudge, and Zodiac, while her many television credits include Veep, The Handmaid’s Tale, Broad City, Better Call Saul, and American Horror Story.
In addition to High School, Laura Kittrell is working as a co-writer and executive producer on the limited series The Dolls, in development at HBO and set to star Issa Rae and Laura Dern. Kittrell previously worked with Rae as a writer on all five seasons of the Emmy-nominated, Peabody and NAACP Image Award-winning comedy series Insecure. She’s also written for the shows, Black Monday, Downward Dog, and The Comedians.
Following the world premiere of High School at TIFF, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Clea DuVall and Laura Kittrell about how Tegan and Sara’s story resonated with their own teenage experiences and the queer culture that’s had the biggest impact on them.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What was your relationship with Tegan and Sara and their music before you started working on High School?
Clea DuVall: “Tegan and Sara and I have been friends for such a long time now, about 15 years. I had friends who were friends with them and so I went along to one of their concerts. That was actually my first time hearing their music and my first time meeting them.”
Laura Kittrell: “Our relationship was pretty one-sided. I was obsessed with them, but they didn’t know that I existed! So it’s a little bit different for me. When I first heard their music, it was the first time I’d heard women singing love songs about women—that I explicitly knew were about women—and that was very meaningful to me. I would play the same song forever and ever and ever, and then move on to the next song.”
How did this series come together?
Clea: “They sent me an early copy of the book and I read it in a day and loved it. I called Tegan and I was like, ‘This is so beautiful. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It represents the queer coming-of-age story in a way that I really connected with. So don’t give the rights to anybody, let me adapt it and then you can still be involved and have a say in what’s in it and what’s not in it.'”
At what point did you come on board Laura?
Laura: “Clea had written the first two episodes already and done an outline for the third, so it was deep enough in, but we were still able to break the season together. I had a similar reaction to Clea reading the book, and then reading the scripts that Clea had written. It felt so much like what my own high school experience and I hadn’t seen that depicted on screen before. There were so many queer women on our crew who would pull me aside at different points and be like, ‘That was the exact relationship that I had with my high school best friend’. We all think that we lived this experience on our own, but I think it’s really common actually.”
What particularly chimed with you personally about Tegan and Sara’s high school experiences?
Laura: “I related to the romantic relationships that they’re having with girls and the ambiguity of that. That sense of, I have a friend, and she might be more than a friend, but we’re not articulating that out loud. All of that resonated. When we meet them in the show they’re finding this new group of friends, I definitely related to that. In high school, I had a certain group of friends and as I was realizing that I was different—and part of that was being gay—I started gravitating towards a more alternative group. I think part of that was self-protective. I was thinking that at some point these people are going to find out who the real me is and I would like to be surrounded by people who I think would embrace that. So them finding their friendship group, as well as themselves, was totally my high school experience.”
Clea: “Being a queer teenager and not articulating anything about it really struck me. You’re not saying, ‘I’m gay’, but you’re having these moments with girls where it’s like, ‘I guess we’re being intimate now. But then we’re not talking about it and we’re not defining what it is or what it means.’ That ambiguity as a queer teenager really resonated with me. That sense of, ‘What are we? What does it mean? This girl was straight, but maybe I’m not.’ Those questions that you start asking yourself, or the questions that you don’t even know you’re supposed to be asking, all come up. Tegan and Sara really captured the confusion of that time. The relationship between Sara and Phoebe, I really related to that so much, along with the Maya and Tegan friendship. That feeling of getting super close to your female friends and you’re really obsessed with each other, but you don’t know what that other person is feeling.”
When it came to adapting the book, what was the essence of it that you wanted to capture?
Clea: “One of the things that was really important to me, and I believe to you too Laura, was that sense of innocence in the 90s. I know you’re much younger than me Laura, you never let me forget it!”
Laura: “Of course, I’m a child prodigy!”
Clea: “So often you see shows about teenagers that feel like they’re made for adults. There’s a cynicism there. Obviously I’m not a kid now—I just look like one—but with kids today, there doesn’t seem to be that innocence and that simplicity that existed in the 90s; pre-Internet, pre-cell phones and pre-social media. So even though they’re taking drugs and sneaking out and doing things that they shouldn’t be doing, it somehow still feels less salacious and I really wanted to capture that innocence and have a little bit of that confusion there.”
Laura: “Yes, agreed to all that. I also think giving the experiences that real teens go through the weight and the respect that they deserve was really important to me. With most TV shows, it’s the soapy version. There’s a sense that you have to give them these really heightened, crazy things that they’re going through in oder to take their storylines seriously. But we tried to make it feel like real life. It’s still a TV show obviously, but those experiences are important and we wanted to treat them accordingly.”
How did the cast come together and why did you want Railey and Seazynn Gillilard to portray a young Tegan and Sara?
Laura: “We’d been doing traditional casting and had seen a lot of twins who were great, but then Tegan came across Railey and Seazynn on TikTok. They had this special thing that nobody else had. They’d never acted before, so they took acting classes and music classes. They worked so hard. It was such a special experience at TIFF seeing it on the big screen, and I’m so glad that so many people are going to discover them and will get to see the thing that we saw in them.”
Clea, as a director, what was it like working with two leads who hadn’t acted before?
Clea: “As an actor I’d worked with nonactors, but I’d never worked with nonactors as a director. It was challenging in that the language that you use when you’re talking to actors is so different. They didn’t have that vocabulary so we had to establish our own. Seeing how they could drop into the characters and the things they could access that a trained actor couldn’t was amazing. They weren’t trying to put things on, they were just being in this way that was really exciting to watch every day. I was so blown away by them and they were so open to feedback and so good at taking direction. They got better and better. Every week there were these huge leaps in what they were able to do. By the end of it, they were like, ‘Where’s my mark? Where’s my eyeline? Where’s the light coming from?’ They knew everything, it was so cool.”
“We’d had ups and downs navigating our first week of shooting, but the scene in the pilot of them walking and talking to each other as they leave school for the day, which we shot towards the end of our first week, was so alive and they were so charming and so great together. That was the moment where I was like, ‘This is going to be fine, these girls have got it!’ I didn’t worry for one second after that.”
Why did you decide to keep the book’s structure of moving back and forth between Sara’s perspective and Tegan’s perspectives?
Clea: “That was one of my favourite things about the book. I love the way it deals with memory and perception. Even though they were writing a book together, they still had different takes on what they were writing about. Sitting having conversations with them about things in the book, Tegan and Sara would still disagree on how things happened. We all have our own experiences. Our own realities are so real to us and not necessarily shared with someone else. There’s also this idea that the people who are closest to us are the ones that we sometimes feel the least able to connect with. The structure created an intimacy with the characters and the audience, because the audience is the one who knows the most, while the characters who are supposed to be close know nothing about what’s going on with each other.”
What were your guiding principles for the look of the series?
Clea: “Even though it’s a period show, I didn’t want there to be a wink and a nod to the audience of like, ‘This is the 90s, remember pastels’, or whatever people were wearing. I really wanted it to look and feel timeless. I wanted it to be cinematic and to feel like its own world, to feel like a show that could be happening now or 30 years ago. I thought that would make it relatable. It was more about showing the period through the absence of things rather than, ‘Look, everybody’s drinking Zima!'”
I loved seeing them line up to buy concert tickets on the morning they went on sale and we see a Blockbuster video bag, so those details are in there but they’re not fetishized as they are in some shows.
Clea: “I do like that in other things. I do think it’s fun. I really enjoy those details as an audience member, but I also think it can be a little bit distracting sometimes.I wanted to have the nuances of the time without shining a bright light on them.”
Finally, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ plus culture, or person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
Laura: “As a gay person, and as a person who loves movies, there’s a documentary called The Celluloid Closet that was very important to me. In a time when there wasn’t a lot of queer representation, I had been wondering why I was drawn to the movies that I was drawn to. That documentary that explores all of these movies where characters aren’t necessarily saying that they’re gay, but a gay audience is finding them and they’re all identifying with them in some way, was mind-blowing to me. I was like, ‘Oh, so I’m not the only person that saw Greta Garbo in that movie and was obsessed with one particular scene for whatever reason’. The revelation that there was this unspoken thing that was bringing queer people together, and the that I could be a part of that, was really big for me. Also, Clea DuVall of course.”
Laura: “I’m sorry I didn’t lead with that!”
Clea: “Jodie Foster really changed my life as a young person, because even though she wasn’t out when I was a kid there was something about her that drew me to her. Seeing her in The Silence of the Lambs was the thing that made me want to be in movies. I’m still obsessed with that movie. I watch it all the time still, I just can’t get enough of it. I remember seeing her in that and recognizing a kinship there that I didn’t know myself yet because I was only about 13 when that came out. I’m like, what if Jodie Foster didn’t exist, would I be here? I don’t think so. Maybe, because there was Jo from The Facts of Life. That was different though. I was like, ‘Why do I only watch The Facts of Life for five hours a day and get mad when Jo is not in a scene?!’ She’s not LGBTQ, but that character…come on! When she had boyfriends I would get so mad!”
Laura: “Oh, I know! She would ride in on her motorcycle and say she’d just been on a date with Brad.”
Clea: “Oh, come on!”
Going back to Jodie Foster, I loved that moment on the Golden Globes, when we were all stuck at home, and she won for The Mauritanian and kissed her wife, and their dog was there with them too. What a scene.
Laura: “Both in their pajamas too!”
Clea: “Yeah, I cried. I did meet her eventually a few years ago and I felt so out of my body. It was crazy.”
Laura: “That was like the first time I met you!”
By James Kleinmann
The first four episodes of High School will premiere in the US and UK on Friday, October 14th 2022, with new episodes available every Friday exclusively on free streaming service Amazon Freevee. The series will be available on Prime Video in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand from Friday, October 28th 2022.