On Sunday at 10:30 PM, HBO premieres Looking, a new comedy from creator Michael Lannan and executive producer and director Andrew Haigh, about the lives of three gay men in San Francisco and their extended circle of friends and lovers. They are Patrick (Jonathan Groff), an anxious and socially awkward video game developer who begins dating Richie (Raúl Castillo), a bouncer and hair stylist, Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), an aspiring artist who’s just moved in with his boyfriend Frank (O.T. Fagbenle) and isn’t sure how he feels about their new domesticity, and Dom (Murray Bartlett), who begins to feel anxious about his career and romantic prospects as he nears forty.
The comparisons to Girls are inevitable, but Looking is a different show, and not just because it’s about men, and gay men at that. The characters on Looking are older than those on Girls, and less financially and emotionally intertwined with their families. They have more life experience, too, which means that setbacks aren’t necessarily disastrous. And where Girls can be like eating a bag of Sour Patch Kids with all the sugar scraped off, Looking is fundamentally gentle to its characters. The tonal difference has seemed like a disappointment to some reviewers, but emotions don’t have to be less interesting or less deeply felt for being less dramatically expressed, and Looking’s hopeful, curious vibe is one of its strengths.
It’s also a gorgeous show, shot on location in San Francisco and bathed in golden-hour light, even as it avoids cliche shots of the Golden Gate bridge. I talked to Andrew Haigh, who’s directed many of the first season’s episodes, as well as serving as the executive producer and a writer on the show, about the cultural legacy of San Francisco for gay men even as far away as Britain, what gay relationships have to offer straight ones, and how he likes to shoot sex scenes in a cable market that’s decided explicitness is the same thing as bravery. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
I was hoping to start out by talking about the first scene in the show; the cruising scene, which is really funny. And it struck me that it sort of gets at one of the show’s big questions, which is, in a world where gay couples have all the sort of legal and sort of emotional options as straight couples, what gay sexual and social institutions are going to survive into the new era?
I think it’s a really interesting one and I think it was important to us that, I mean, A) it was just quite a bold opening for a show to start on those things and kind of subvert ideas ofwhat the show is going to be. But also I think on a bigger level it’s about, you know, now that we can get married and all those kind of things as you say, and we can lead kind of mainstream lives, I think it’s interesting that we don’t forget that there’s other ways to live, and there’s other things that you can do with your life, and there’s other ways that you can exist…I wanted the show to be that we’re not like condemning anything so people can still go cruising in the woods if they want to and that’s still part of life as well as it is to, you know, get married and have children and so I think it was quite an interesting way to start.
And I see that question of pressure as really interesting — I mean watching the first four episodes I felt like I was reading sort of a more vibrant Dan Savage column because the show sort of raises this question: it’s great to have legal rights and legal responsibilities too, but can gay couples, I think in particular, show us sort of new and better ways to live our relationships?
Yeah I think it’s really important as well that as we kind of rush towards the mainstream, that we don’t forget that there are other ways to you know have relationships and other ways that, relationships can work, and that they’re just as valid. My kind of fear is almost that the kind of mainstream society will accept gay people as long as we kind of fit into it…and we commit and we have children and we are faithful. And so it’s important I think to raise the question there are other ways to have relationships, and there’s problems with those, you know, and there’s difficulties with them, but they are valid.
“It’s really important as well that as we kind of rush towards the mainstream, that we don’t forget that there are other ways to you know have relationships and other ways that, relationships can work.”
I know it’s really irritating to be compared to other shows but I was wondering if in putting together Looking, you guys had taken any particular lessons from the reception of Girls, because Looking to me seems to be much more racially diverse, the class politics are very complex…I was curious if you followed that at all, if it played any role in your decisions about what kind of world you wanted to present.
I don’t think it necessarily played into it. I think for me and for Michael [Lannan] when we were thinking about the show, it always made sense that it would be diverse in terms of ethnicity and in terms of class. It’s how I feel like my life is, and my friendships, and my friends, and it was the same for him, so it wasn’t like we wanted it to be diverse for the sake of it being diverse I just felt like that reflected society, and that reflected this group of friends, and that reflected San Francisco I suppose. And I think in terms of that, class is certainly something that interests me a lot. And maybe that’s because I’m from England, where class is sort of embedded into society, but it’s always really interesting the questions of class and race and how they relate to each other, and so it was always something we wanted to bring into the show and discuss within the show in kind of like a subtle way.
I wanted to ask you about making a San Francisco show because I grew up on Tales of the City and it’s a very specific city to make a show about gay life in. It’s also a very specific city ofcourse to make a show about people in the tech industry or the food industry and I was curious how you approached this city.
Because Michael had lived there for a couple of years and I’ve been there a fair amount, so I knew the city relatively well but not incredibly well. But it just seemed like a really good backdrop to have the show, it just made complete sense. And, initially I know there were feelings, you know, was it a cliché setting in San Francisco? Tales of the City was there. But to me it’s so interesting to have it set there. Tales of the City was there, God, was it twenty years ago they must’ve made that TV show? And obviously it was set in a different time period.
But it’s really interesting to me to show, it really shows how the gay community has changed, and how life has changed for gay people, and how in many respects gay life has become more intertwined in straight life, and, you know, it’s more part of a larger community rather than just being in like a ghetto. So it felt like an interesting place to set it. It’s just a great city as well.
You’re British so I don’t know if San Francisco had any sort of significance for you or if you had a cultural image of it growing up but it must’ve been interesting to get to know the city if you had some prior sense of it.
Yeah, I mean, it’s destiny. Even though I’ve kind of been there, I’ve been there quiet a lot, it’s still, I mean, growing up, it was always like “it’s San Francisco!” It’s the place you want to go to, and it’s the place you think you should go to as a gay person, and it’s like the promised land. It’s always been known as that as far as I can remember in my life. And I think the west coast of America in general has a real pull for people in England like, you know, it’s California and it’s Oregon and Washington State. They just have such a thing for us in England. It’s like going West. Finding ourselves.
“It’s the place you want to go to, and it’s the place you think you should go to as a gay person, and it’s like the promised land.”
I was really struck by what you said about the way that gay life and straight life is more intertwined in San Francisco now. And I thought that in the scene where Patrick is getting to know his new boss, the idea that there would be a gay gaming executive is presented as sort of surprising. I was wondering if Patrick thought of himself as singular?
Sometimes it’s very easy to think everybody is gay in the world now, and everything’s fine, and it’s great. And it’s still, I always find it interesting when you go to a new job and you do still assume as a gay person that everybody is straight. The majority of the population is straight but gay people [are certainly working in more] parts of that world now than ever have been before and can be more open about it.
Looking is a show about being gay but, it’s also a show about working in the tech industry or the tech industry broadly defined. And I was curious how you go about getting research for that part of the show. Especially since in Patrick’s relationship with Richie you have sort of the big divide in the Bay Area right now, with him working in the tech company, and somebody working at the service industry who isn’t necessarily benefitting directly from this theoretical boom. I thought that was really an interesting microcosm of what’s happening in the area economically right now, not just sexually.
I mean, it’s the same everywhere now, that kind of gap between those people who have a lot of money and the service industry and the people that don’t is just quite gigantic really, and it’s interesting, as a relationship, to see how that develops between those two, and if that can work, basically.
Well, especially because Patrick seems so much more tense and self-conscious than Richie is, you know, and totally unsure how to talk to him, culturally. He’s sort of resistant to him at first because they’re obviously different classes when they meet on the train. It’s sort of an interesting look at white liberal anxiety.
Yeah, exactly, that’s how I definitely said it, it’s white liberal anxiety. And it’s interesting, ’cause it is very much — even though it could perceived as being a racial thing between the two — but it’s not, it’s a class difference.
And I also do think that in gay friendships and gay communities, how I feel is that when I see kind of groups of gay friends, they often are brought together by the fact that they have the same sexual preference, and they often do come from different kind of parts of society and different social backgrounds and different ethnicities. It’s not like they would’ve just met at college and then they’ve from similar backgrounds, and they’ve got similar education and similar jobs.
It’s also just interesting to think that that gay people can be just as bigoted as anybody else. And I mean bigoted in terms of like just have ideas of what people are like in terms of their jobs, and their class level, and all that kind of thing. People always have expectations and they’re often wrong expectations. And I think all of the Richie and Patrick’w relationship is Patrick realizing he’d had expectations of who Richie is, when Richie’s not really that person, and as their relationship develops that becomes clearer.
“Gay people can be just as bigoted as anybody else.”
It’s seems like if he’d treated Richie just as a person, rather than someone he needed to be either exceptionally careful about, or intellectually educated about, rather than getting to know him as a person that they would’ve gotten off on a better foot.
Exactly. I think that’s what frustrating for Richie is he just wants to be seen as an actual normal person, just be seen for him rather than the fact that he cuts hair and he’s Latin and he doesn’t have as much money as Patrick does. But in that moment in episode two Patrick just can’tquite think about that.
And it comes from a good place, that’s the thing, it’s not that it comes from a place of bigotry or racism, it just comes from a place of not wanting to offend in some strange way, but in doing so, it ends up causing more complications than it needs to…If people would just have more open conversations about those kinds of things it would help. But people are very nervous about having conversations about race and class…I think Richie is a character that understands himself better, and Patrick doesn’t fully understand himself.
My sense is that gay generations are shorter so, Dom’s experience is different than Patrick’s experience, even though they’re ten years apart.
I think the difference between both Patrick and Dom, they come from a different kind of generation of gay people. There’s a big difference between being a teenager in the eighties and being very knowledgeable of the AIDS crisis, and then being, like, late twenties, early thirties: you weren’t a teenager or you weren’t young when it was the peak of that awfulness.
It’s amazing to me when I think that kids are coming out at school now. It’s incredible to me when I think of the notion of doing that when I was at school. It was just something that I would never have done. There nobody who was openly gay at my school out of a thousand people when I was a teenager. It’s so great to me that kid actually feel that they can come out. It’s still a hard thing to do. I mean, maybe it’s not, but I still feel like coming can be a traumatic event. Telling your parents that you’re gay can be a very stressful thing. And the weird thing about coming out is that you have to keep doing it all of your life. It’s not as if you do it once and then that’s it, you keep doing it every time you start a new job, every time you meet someone new.
One thing I wanted to ask you about particularly as a director was the sex scenes on the show, which are often very funny. I imagine one of the challenges in filming sex scenes these days is that you have two very invested audiences: you have gay men and you have straight women. I think there’s been this boom in straight women objectifying gay men. I was curious how you thought about those scenes. You have a lot of license on cable, and especially on HBO, to show whatever you want. How do you choreograph those different scenes?
It was really important to me because for me I’m not so interested in being explicit for the sake of being explicit, [it] doesn’t really interest me so much. We’ve seen gay sex on screen. It’s not as if it’s never really been on screen before. But for me it was about showing a couple of different things. It was A) showing intimacy and showing gay intimacy, and showing intimacy between two men even if that just means, like, sitting on the sofa kissing each other, or just being in bed and having a kiss. In many ways that’s something that is not seen on screen, whereas two people having anal sex has been on screen. So partly I wanted the sex scenes to be more about showing intimacy, and different levels of intimacy, but also just debunking ideas of what gay sex is. And I think throughout the season we kind of see that, gay sex isn’t as simple as two men having anal sex, do you know what I mean? It’s a lot more wide-ranging than that and it was just trying to show that a little bit and just kind of showing the differences of intimacy and sex.
I thought the excitement and nervousness of the threesome scene, where you have that great set because you have that art instillation piece that lets you see them through the instillation, emphasizes the sense that you’re getting just a peek at something very private and very sort of intimate and scary, I thought that was just physically a great set-up.
I like to shoot all my sex scenes pretty close. I don’t like to have big wide shots of sex scenes because I feel like they feel a bit exploitative to me. I just like to be a gentle observer on the outside of the frame, just kind of watching, and just seeing. When I shoot sex scenes, I don’t usually edit within them, so they’re usually just long fluid takes. And I think for me it’s really interesting watching sex scenes like that, because you feel very intimately engaged with what you’re seeing on screen but it doesn’t feel too voyeuristic. I mean, it is voyeuristic, but it’s with a kind of tenderness.
When you talk about wider shots being exploitative, is that a reflective feeling about capturing people’s bodies and turning them into objects? If you could just flesh that out for me.
I just think that when you have sex as a person, when you’re having sex with someone, there’s a feeling of closeness…You’re not watching the sex from a distant standpoint, you’re there in it and you’re having sex. So it’s almost just trying to create the feeling of what it’s like to have sex with that feeling of intimacy and I think getting close, it just makes more sense to me, and it feels more realistic, and I don’t like I’m on an outside looking in. And I think a lot of sex scenes, they do often shoot them wide because they think that’s the braver choice. But for me it kind of works better just getting in close and just feeling it.