As the second season of hit series Heartstopper based on Alice Oseman’s bestselling graphic novels launches globally on Netflix this week, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann speaks exclusively with its BAFTA-winning director Euros Lyn. In the opening episode, we’re reunited with new boyfriends in the midst of first love, Charlie (Joe Locke) and Nick (Kit Connor), the morning after Nick has come out as bisexual to his accepting mother Sarah (Oliva Colman). As Lyn explains, behind the bliss there is some deep pain for Charlie which this season explores, while ultimately remaining an optimistic, uplifting and beautifully told narrative focused on a group of LGBTQ+ friends navigating their teenage years.
The veteran Welsh director has previously helmed episodes of acclaimed and award-winning series such as Doctor Who and its spin-off Torchwood, Sherlock, Black Mirror, Broadchurch, Happy Valley, Daredevil, His Dark Materials, Last Tango in Halifax, and Russell T Davies’ Cucumber. Lyn’s feature films include the Welsh Language thriller The Library Suicides and Dream Horse starring Toni Collette which world premiered at Sundance in 2020.
Here, Lyn talks with The Queer Review about his approach to Heartstopper season two following the massive international success of the first, his collaboration with creator-writer Alice Oseman, his admiration for lead actors Joe Locke and Kit Connor, incorporating animated elements into the show, and his favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: what was it like to set about working on this second season with your cast and crew, knowing how incredibly well received the first season had been?
Euros Lyn: “It was kind of terrifying because the response to season one was so phenomenal. People really took it to their hearts and felt such a great sense of ownership over the show. Knowing that there was that degree of expectation was a huge weight for Alice and a weight for all of us working on the show. But one of the things that made it a lot easier was knowing that we wanted to do something different with season two. We weren’t just repeating what had worked before, we wanted to take the audience on a journey with Nick and Charlie and discover the complexities and the nuances and maybe some of the darkness that lies beneath the surface. That made it feel like a very different journey to the first season.”
Heartstopper isn’t set in a fantasy world where nothing bad ever happens, but it’s the real world seen through an optimistic lens that focuses on love and hope. That’s an important distinction, isn’t it?
“When we started season one, we made lots of decisions about wanting to set it in the real world. The school we chose, for instance, was a very ordinary British school built in the 1960s. It wasn’t the most aesthetically exciting or pretty school, but we wanted it to feel grounded. I wanted the audience to feel like this was a world they recognized, that these were homes that people they knew lived in, and for the relationships to feel real and tangible too. That sense of realism was always important, but at the same time it’s a show about falling in love for the first time and that optimism and that hope and that joy of losing yourself in somebody else. We wanted to represent that visually through the colour palette that we chose, how the composed music works, and with the costumes and the cinematography. There’s a degree of magic that we use through the craft of TV drama with which to tell that story.”
Generally, television shows have multiple directors and multiple writers, but with Heartstopper it’s you and Alice Oseman working on every episode. Could you give me an insight into your collaboration with her?
“When I first joined the show, Alice had already written the first and second episodes and I knew from the moment I read them that she was a natural writer of drama. She’s got such a fantastic instinct for how to pitch a conflict, how to dramatise falling in love, and how to structure a story so that an episode will end on a climax. Heartstopper isn’t a melodrama, nobody gets murdered, it’s a story about falling in love, which I suppose is one of the most dramatic things that ever happens to us.”
“Trusting that Alice knows what she’s doing and that the scripts that she writes are blisteringly brilliant was something that I felt from from the word go. So when we work together I never tell her how to write because she doesn’t need me to tell her that, she’s supremely talented. Her lack of experience in making television made her incredibly trusting and open. She appreciated that you need a team of people around you who all have their own huge talents. You need a production designer to make sure that he interior sets are built correctly. You need the costume designer to make sure that the costumes are bought and that the actors are wearing the right thing in the right scenes. You need actors. You need a producer. You need a composer. All these different things mean that making TV is a group activity that’s very different to writing a novel, or even writing a graphic novel, which is quite solipsistic and you’re by yourself. Bringing that team together and knowing how to inspire and harness those talents to realise this beautiful thing that Alice had written was my job.”
What’s your approach to incorporating some of the visual language of the graphic novels into this screen adaptation, with the transitions and the animated leaves and hearts for instance? It’s done sparingly, but really expressively.
“With season one, when the show’s executive producer Patrick Walters was developing the script, he said to us, ‘When we pitch this to the streamer we should add some of the animation into the margins so that they get a sense of the magic that was in the graphic novel’. So that’s what Alice did. At that point, we all realized that actually this wasn’t just a doodle in the margin to seduce the commissioner, but this was something that we could use to tell the story on screen.”
“We made a choice very early on that we wanted the animation not just to be an homage to the graphic novel or to be a USP that makes this show different to any others, but we wanted it to speak emotionally about a scene or a moment. We wanted it to do something that the drama itself couldn’t do alone. The animation would do something extra. That’s a rule that we’ve kept throughout season two. Every time the animation appears, it’s doing something that the scene by itself wouldn’t do. Working emotionally on an audience is one of the things that has made it work because it touches people.”
I love the look of the series, what were some of your guiding principles for the cinematography, as well as the production and costume design?
“Season one was the journey from winter to spring and as Charlie and Nick’s relationship blossomed the trees came into leaf and flowers appeared. We scheduled the season so that we’d be shooting across the change of seasons and that was something we wanted to get on screen. With Diana Olifirova—who was the director of photography on the first season—we worked quite hard so that the show goes from these blues and greens and a colder colour palette into something warmer by the end of the season where Nick and Charlie are at the beach and the sun’s come out and these oranges and burnt yellows come into play. It was something that we took through our production design and the costume design so that all the departments were working together.”
“When it came to season two, the period of story time that we span is early summer—May, June, July—and into the middle of the summer. That speaks of this growing freedom, because the kids aren’t in school anymore and they go off on this journey to another city. The warmth and that sense of a never-ending summer that happens when you’re on the school holidays is something that we wanted to bring into our cinematography. Simona Susnea, the DoP on season two, very eloquently and artistically thought about how we could use the sunlight and the warmth of a glorious summer holiday to speak to that. Again, we brought that into all our other disciplines.”
One of my favourite sequences this season is the beautiful montage in the first episode before the title card, that tells the story of Charlie and Nick’s early history as boyfriends, with lots of kissing, which is wonderful to see. What tone did you want to set with that?
“We wanted to get a snapshot of what it’s like when you first fall in love with somebody. You can’t keep your hands off them and you can’t stop kissing them because kissing is such a rewarding and exciting thing to do. We really wanted to capture that about Nick and Charlie and that physical attraction that they have. We also wanted to speak of their relationship as really great friends which underpins their romantic relationship. A sense of playfulness and mischief was something that we were after.”
“There’s a scene where they’re playing Mario Kart and Charlie’s losing, so he ruffles Nick’s hair. We improvise lots of these things with the actors and when we decided to do that I whispered it to Joe and we didn’t tell Kit it was going to happen. So that reaction that you see on screen is completely genuine. Kit’s going, ‘What the hell?! You’re doing this to me when I’m on television?!’ That sense of fun was was really important and really key for that sequence.”
What’s it like on set when you’re just working with Joe and with Kit? They give such delicate nuanced performances.
“They’re both super clever actors and they’re both really well prepared. They do their homework and come to set knowing everything about the story leading up to that moment. There’s a huge amount of depth that they bring with them because they’ve thought about things like, ‘What is my character thinking? What has my character just experienced? What does my character want in this scene?’ All these these things that we call subtext are things that they bring with them as actors. The other thing is that in real life they’re really good friends and there’s a real sense of trust and a bond between them as mates and I think that comes across on screen. Even from the beginning of season one, when they didn’t know each other that well, when we were shooting you got a sense that these are two spirits who are aligned and that brings a depth to their relationship.”
“One of my favourite scenes is the final scene of season two, where Charlie reveals some things about his life, the emotional scars that he bears from the bullying that he endured when he was first outed at school. You get a glimpse of the darkness of his soul, which Charlie has always hidden from Nick. He hides it from the world, he just wants everything to be perfect. Nick desperately wants to fix him because Nick loves him so much and he can’t bear to see the person he loves in pain, but there’s this thing that is just beyond reach. Nick probes and probes to try to get Charlie to open up and the two of them play it so beautifully with so much truth, which I can only imagine they found in their own lives some way, because they seem to know what that feeling is like and they can act it and represent it on screen with such veracity. It really took my breath away.”
At the end of each year The Queer Review asks culture makers and other members of the community for their LGBTQ+ highlight of that year, and in 2022 a lot of people mentioned Heartstopper, including Matthew López and Wilson Cruz. More broadly, I’d like to ask you for your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture from any time or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“There’s a piece of New Queer Cinema called Poison by Todd Haynes, which I found incredibly potent. It feels like it’s diametrically opposite to Heartstopper because it’s about transgression and breaking the rules and living illicitly. At the time I saw it that felt so exciting and seductive, the idea that we as queer people were saying, ‘We want to break the rules and live like this and behave badly and we’re not ashamed of it’. In retrospect, thinking about that in the context of Heartstopper, it’s equally joyous and something that I’m incredibly proud to be able to say, ‘Here’s this piece of art, which is equally valid, which is about joy and purity and something very wholesome’. One of the wonderful things about queer culture is that it’s a place of multiple identities, people with very different views on life and a sense that everybody’s viewpoint is welcomed.”
By James Kleinmann
Heartstopper seasons one and two are now streaming on Netflix.