10:30am PT by Lesley Goldberg
'Generation': Meet the Teenager (and Her Dad) Who Created HBO Max's YA Dramedy
HBO Max's Generation is a true family affair.
The high school-set dramedy started a few years ago after Zelda Barnz, now 19, came out as queer to her fathers, Ben and Daniel Barnz. With their son, Dashiell, having come out in seventh grade, the now fully queer family's dinner conversations quickly evolved and the first seeds of Generation were born.
"There is a lot of wish fulfillment getting to work on this and getting to see what Zelda and Gen Z looks like and their embrace of queerness and otherness and their ability to walk through the world being so many things and not defined by any one of those things," Daniel tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Daniel (a writer-director whose credits include Cake and Beastly), envisioned the idea as a way that he and Ben (who detailed the emotionally fraught process behind Zelda's adoption in a 2018 memoir) could teach their young daughter about TV development. What followed was an unexpected course that would see Zelda work as an intern and live with Girls creator Lena Dunham as she directed and exec produced HBO's Industry in Wales.
The result of the unlikely and years-long process is Generation, which has its roots in Zelda's experiences and the honesty and authenticity you'd expect from a show that counts Dunham as an exec producer. Launching March 11 with its first three of 16 episodes, Generation follows a group of high school students whose exploration of modern sexuality (devices and all) tests deeply entrenched beliefs about life, love and the nature of family in their conservative community. The cast includes Justice Smith, Chloe East, Lukita Maxwell, Haley Sanchez and Martha Plimpton.
In their first joint interview, co-creators Daniel and Zelda Barnz open up about how their queer family influenced Generation, how working together on a boundary-pushing dramedy has impacted their relationship and yes, how Generation compares to HBO's similarly themed Euphoria.
How did Generation come together?
Zelda Barnz: The first little seed was I came out when I was 15. I was actually at summer camp and, while I was there, I realized that it had been around a year since the time I had initially realized I was queer and thought I should probably tell my parents that I’m queer. So I came out in a letter home from camp —
Daniel Barnz: Can you please just say how the letter was written? Because it’s pretty funny.
Zelda Barnz: In the letter, I told them about camp but at the very end I was like, "Oh, by the way, I’m bisexual." They wrote back and they were very supportive but they did make a lot of jokes. (Laughs.)
Daniel Barnz: We are an irreverent family. My husband Ben and I adopted both Zelda and her brother Dashiell when they were babies and from different biological families. We ended up being this fully queer household because our son also came out when he was in seventh grade. It kicked off these really funny and irreverent dinner table conversations. Ben and I went from feeling like we were this super cool same-sex couple to feeling so old and so not cool when we realized what it looked like to be queer for Zelda and Dashiell versus what it looked like for us. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of mortification on our part.
Zelda, you started writing what became Generation at 17. Having had the first inklings of this at such a young age, how did the conversation shift that you wanted to turn it into a TV series that you wanted to write?
Zelda Barnz: Initially I planned to write this story as a book, with the angle of it later being developed into a TV series. When I started talking to my dad [Daniel] about this idea, his attitude was, "Well, if you want it to be a show at some point, just write the show." I thought I couldn’t do that because I didn’t know how to write a script yet. And he was like, "I’ll teach you." It became this project that we started working on together.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?
Zelda Barnz: Yes. When I was really little, I used to tell stories for fun and my parents got this huge book where they would transcribe them. I always loved storytelling. I've known I wanted to be a writer since I was around 10.
Daniel Barnz: Zelda was also telling us these hilarious stories about her Rainbow Alliance at her school, which is their sexuality-gender alliance. As we were listening to them, she was telling us about people who would show up just because they wanted to find somebody to date and a lot of the hilarious politicking that would happen in the meetings. We were talking about this world and it became, "That could be a really interesting world for a TV show."
Ben and I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to teach her how you go about conceiving of a TV show. We in no way thought it was actually going to become a TV show; we just thought it was an amazing teachable moment — "This is how you come up with the idea of a pitch" — and then this process started snowballing. As more people were becoming involved — we ended up connecting with Lena Dunham — we thought this will be fun not only to teach Zelda how to create a TV show but also what happens when people say no. She’ll learn about resilience and that you go into meetings with people and they smile and nod and tell you it’s a great idea and then they turn around and say no. It didn’t quite exactly pan out that way.
How has co-writing this together shifted your family dynamics?
Zelda Barnz: Co-writing it was always the plan. As soon as I brought the central story ideas, we just started working together and giving each other more inspiration. It snowballed into a project that we were both putting so much of ourselves into.
Daniel Barnz: We both understood that the authorship of the show had to rest in an equal divide. Because part of what was driving this for Zelda was that she didn’t see people like her or the people that she knew on TV. She wanted to tell a story that felt authentic to who she was and not filtered through the lens of adults. I was always listening carefully to what Zelda wanted this show to be and how she wanted these characters to be living out in the world. And sometimes that meant going against normal television conventions.
Zelda Barnz: The noticeable difference is I am way too comfortable swearing in front of my parents now. (Laughs.) The kids on our show talk like teenagers talk so there are swear words. We both are much more comfortable swearing in front of each other.
Daniel Barnz: Zelda understood that for the show to succeed, it had to feel really honest and therefore she was going to have to be honest about stuff in her life and with her friends. That began changing our dynamic not just as creative partners but as father/daughter because she could say things within the context of talking about the show that would also reveal things about her life or what she was feeling. It ended up opening up a lot of pathways of communication. For somebody that came from a family that was not at all like that, it was liberating. I will admit that a lot of times I also find myself blushing. Working on the show has made us more open as people and as a family.
Generation is a very frank look at the lives of teenagers today, including gender identity, sex, teen pregnancy and school shootings. Daniel, as a parent, what was your first thought when you heard some of this content? Especially considering a lot of it is pulled from Zelda's life.
Daniel Barnz: As a parent, I feel like I live in terror of my kids turning away from me and not being open with me. There have definitely been moments where we have been sitting around and talking about stuff in the show where I could feel my whole body tense up. I feel lucky because it means that I know more of what’s going on in Zelda’s mind and in her life and in her world. That more than makes up for any squeamishness that I might have about talking about any of these things. Zelda is this incredible north star for me and for all of our writers. She is constantly drawing us back to, "Does this feel real? Is this authentic?" We’ve seen portrayals of adolescent sexuality on TV, but so often in real life that sexuality is confusing or you have sexual encounters that are awkward and funny and take place in rooms that are too bright and are over too fast. That was what we always wanted to tap into with this show: what feels real. That’s where Zelda is incredible because we always keep coming back to her with questions. And she’ll tell us.
The school shooting episode was interesting to write and goes to show how much Zelda has shaped this show. As adults, we think about lockdown or lockdown drills and how traumatic and awful they are. Then Zelda would say, "Yes and they are also really boring and you get really hungry and annoyed with each other." It was just one of those things that was really interesting to explore in that episode how all those things could coexist. It was also an interesting episode to work on in the context of what was going on in the world with COVID. Even though that’s not part of that episode, it was interesting to think about how this generation thinks about mortality differently than we might have.
Euphoria is a breakout hit for HBO, and Generation will stream alongside it on HBO Max. How does Generation compare to Euphoria?
Zelda Barnz: Tonally speaking, they’re very different. I’ve watched two episodes and it’s a beautiful show that's a good example of a teen show.
Daniel Barnz: On paper, there are definitely similarities. I do think that our show is quite different because it’s a show that really also leans into the humor of what it is to be a teenager and also the awkwardness of it. We wanted to make them feel like kids that are out there in the real world.
Zelda Barnz: We wanted to make sure with casting that our kids looked young and looked like real high schoolers. Watching a lot of teen shows, it can make a lot of teenagers self-conscious because the casting does tend to be people in their late 20s playing teenagers. We wanted to make sure that we were casting people who felt like authentic kids and not so much older adults.
Right! Gabrielle Carteris was 29 when she was cast as Andrea on Beverly Hills, 90210 …
Daniel Barnz: (Laughing.) That’s crazy! What I hadn’t really thought about until I had two kids was that [there are] subliminal messages that you get from watching actors who are older play your age group, because you can’t help but compare yourself and your body and that informs the way that they walk through life as an adult. It was important when we were casting to bring in people who genuinely looked like they could be in high school and whose body types were as diverse as we wanted the show to be racially and ethnically as well.
How did Lena Dunham get involved?
Daniel Barnz: I directed this movie called Cake and she was a fan of it. She wanted to talk to Ben [who also produced Cake] and I about other kinds of projects. We were batting around ideas. This was at the same point that Zelda had come to us and was talking about this idea that would be focused on queer youth. It came up in a conversation. Lena had put out this show [HBO's Girls] that really advanced the conversation about female sexuality in an incredible way. It made so much sense that we would talk to her about this other idea that was also talking about sexuality and identity, albeit for people a little bit younger than in her TV show. She sparked the idea. We thought Zelda getting to sit down and have a creative conversation with Lena would be the highlight of the whole experience. Lena really takes this idea of mentoring young women storytellers very seriously. She took Zelda under her wing and a couple of summers ago invited her to go to England.
Zelda Barnz: Lena was shooting [HBO's Industry] in the U.K. for a bit two summers ago and she had me come for two or three weeks and, as an intern, follow and shadow her on set. We lived in this beautiful house together for a couple weeks and painted together. Living in a house of all men is a lot sometimes so it was nice to get to live with women.
After all the experiences that you've had with Dunham, from shadowing her and watching her direct and living with her and now everything on Generation, what lessons have you learned from her? She was only a few years older than you when she wrote Tiny Furniture.
Zelda Barnz: Honesty and authenticity are things that she incorporates so brilliantly into her work. She has been an incredible role model for me in that sense, learning how to be so open and honest about concepts like sexuality and identity and owning who you are and how to bring that into your storytelling. She is somebody who, as cheesy as it is, lives her truth. Getting to see that from an older woman who is also in the same creative sphere? It was incredible to learn from her.
Zelda, in addition to co-creating and co-writing, you're also an exec producer on this. Which part of the process have you enjoyed most?
Zelda Barnz: The writers room has been my favorite part of the process. Getting to exist in creative spaces with a group of such incredibly smart and brilliant creative people has been so incredibly enriching.
Daniel Barnz: She's also able to chime in and say things like, "No, that story feels old," and, "No, that’s an old-person thing to say." The show also embraces social media as part of the language of teenagers. That was important for Zelda because she feels there is a bias against social media in that all adults think that it corrupts young kids. She wanted to point out that sometimes it can be a distraction and but it also can be liberating, particularly for queer youth, in that that there are avenues of support through social media.
Generation was picked up with a 10-episode order but grew to 16. Is that a complete story or do you envision this as a show that could live beyond that?
Zelda Barnz: I hope that it gets renewed for more seasons.
Daniel Barnz: It's been quite tense making this in a COVID world. But one of the unintended benefits of it was that we were originally supposed to start shooting last summer and then when we had to delay our production HBO Max increased the order from 10 to 16. It was a real gift for us because we really love these characters.
How have the events of the past year further influenced Generation?
Daniel Barnz: We have thought a lot about and also took the events of last year to think more about representing a world that feels more like the world that is out there. We’re blessed in this show to be exploring how so many people identify across the gender and sexuality spectrums. We have also been blessed with people who are characters of color. We wanted to make sure that we were living with the same kind of diversity that’s in the world.
Zelda, as Generation is poised to make its debut in March, how are you envisioning your future in Hollywood beyond the show?
Zelda Barnz: (Laughing.) Well, first I’m going to go to college! I’m not sure specifically how I envision moving forward but I definitely want to continue being a writer and I really loved writing scripts specifically. So hopefully I get to do a lot more of that.
Interview edited for length and clarity. Generation premieres Thursday, March 11, with three episodes. Two more episodes will debut March 18 and March 25 before the first part of season one wraps with one episode April 1. The remaining eight episodes will bow at a date to be determined later this year.