Multihyphenate Desiree Akhavan, who wrote The Bisexual with Cecilia Frugiuele, talks to World Screen about the genesis of the project and the difference between working in film and television.
Valued advice for many authors, playwrights and screenwriters is to “write what you know.” It has yielded countless tales of love, forgiveness, overcoming adversity, redemption and, in the case of Akhavan, a piercingly honest unpacking of bisexuality. Akhavan, who had already explored themes of sexuality in her movies, delves into the difficulties of coming out as bisexual in the six-part dramedy The Bisexual, made for Channel 4 and Hulu.
WS: Where did the idea for The Bisexual come from?
AKHAVAN: I was doing press for my first movie, Appropriate Behavior. The film is about a bisexual character, and it was very personal. Whenever I was doing press, I found myself being introduced as the bisexual filmmaker, or as the bisexual Lena Dunham—that’s another one I got a lot! I didn’t mind that they were calling out my sexuality, but the word bisexual made my skin crawl and made me really uncomfortable. If they had said lesbian, I would have been comfortable. If they had said gay, I would have been fine. But for some reason, it was the word bisexual. I kept thinking, this is true; I have outed myself, I am bisexual, why does that word make me so uncomfortable? That became the thesis statement. I’ve never seen a show about a bisexual. I’ve never really been able to point my finger to any famous bisexuals except Anne Heche, who was notoriously the Benedict Arnold of the community after she dumped Ellen [DeGeneres]. That was the idea: what if there was a show about a bisexual? I thought the idea of her being a lesbian and then coming out—a reverse coming-out story—was the best way to do it and build on that.
WS: How did you get it to the screen?
AKHAVAN: First I went to the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Labs and I developed it there. It was a fantastic experience. I met a bunch of showrunners and felt like, This is my story and I’m telling it. I felt really focused. I pitched it in Los Angeles and it was rejected everywhere. A lot of the objection was, Oh, we [already] have a show with a female protagonist. Or, we have a gay show. Every network had its gay show, its female show. I understand now why people feel so competitive in their niches, because you are told that’s your competition and it’s you or them. And that is such bullshit. I remember a lot of advisors I had said to just write a new script; this idea isn’t going to go—it’s not the time for it. But I felt in my gut that it was.
I moved to London because Cecilia [Frugiuele] and I were writing The Miseducation of Cameron Post. We were co-writing for the first time and I was living on her couch. It was her husband who said, Why don’t you pitch that [TV] script in London and see if you are able to sell it here. I pitched and had interest from a bunch of different production companies. And it was clear to me that Naomi [De Pear, producer at Sister Pictures] was the person who I wanted to make this with. Once we sold [the project] I felt I wouldn’t want to make this without Cecilia; we write really well together and I don’t want to write without her. That’s how Cecilia became involved. This happened four years ago, and London was so new to me; suddenly it became an outsider’s point of view of London. We brought Katie [Carpenter, producer at Sister Pictures] on board. For the past four years, it’s been the four of us sharing our stories about sex, about love, about London.
Once I was in the U.K., it was a very simple trajectory to selling it. It was interesting to me that everyone I was close to in the States had said just to write something else. I think it’s another approach to work. I don’t want to look at what the marketplace wants; I want to look at what I want. If my teeth are sunk in it, why would I take them out?
WS: I thought most networks and outlets want to let creators follow their visions.
AKHAVAN: But it’s a business, and American [networks] are very afraid of alienating their audience. Their budgets are larger and they have a lot further to fall. Whereas in the U.K., it was [about taking] a risk. Make it a Channel 4 show was a note [we got]. Go as far as you can. Everybody wants to be creatively driven. But in the States, you are watching the bottom line so much more closely and so afraid of not pleasing your four quadrants.
WS: You got your start in film. What was the attraction of episodic television?
AKHAVAN: Specifically, it was the confines of film. There were so many stories [in The Bisexual]; I didn’t want a 90-minute arc. I started writing this not long after editing Appropriate Behavior, which was an eye-opening experience for me. When you are writing, the world is your oyster. When you are editing, you are clamping it down, down, down, down for better or for worse. It was that restriction that made me think, Ah, I want to tell an episodic story to keep it going. One episode of The Bisexual takes place in the past and you get to see the origin of these characters meeting each other. That is something I would have never been able to do in film.
WS: Did you shoot episode by episode or by location?
AKHAVAN: Locations. It was all in London, all on location, no soundstage, so it was just trying to manage the locations. Shooting in London is tough. The city is large and when you change locations up to three times a day, and you’re shooting seven pages of dialogue, it’s go, go, go.
WS: How do you feel about producing television now?
AKHAVAN: The editing process is very different. It is much easier to edit a show than a movie. They are very different media—surprise, surprise! I thought it would be much more similar. In TV, your story is hammered out far more beforehand, and when you are in postproduction, you are pretty much editing the script as is. You’re finding what works and tossing out what doesn’t work. It’s mostly letting the gold rise and getting rid of the dirt. In film, you have this raw material and it’s much more artistic. I understand why one is a writer’s medium and the other is a director’s medium.
WS: And there are so many more notes in television!
AKHAVAN: In film, it’s me, Cecilia, our editor and that’s it. No one gets in our way. There are so many voices when you are making television, and so many different entities that need to approve what you are doing that every step of the way, you’re having to check yourself and ask yourself a million questions. That’s not bad. It’s a really different process, but those questions are questions you need to ask yourself. I think it’s your job as a creator to curate the right collaborators you trust and whose opinions matter to you.