The sixth episode of Ryan Murphy’s Pose, the FX series whose focus is on the ballroom culture of the 1980s, featured some of the show’s most emotional scenes yet as Billy Porter’s Pray Tell put on a cabaret for his partner, Costas, who was dying of AIDS. “Love Is the Message” was helmed by co-writer (with Murphy) and first-time director Janet Mock, who, along with Murphy, discussed the episode at a screening on the Fox Lot filled with members of Los Angeles-area gay rights groups.
Below are 10 of the biggest revelations from their conversation.
Mock only directed “Love Is the Message” at Murphy’s urging.
“Directing was never on my list of things I wanted to pursue,” she said, but she helmed the episode at Murphy’s insistence — and after shadowing Gwyneth Horder-Payton on episode four (“The Fever,” which she also wrote). Because it was the sixth episode of the season, the rookie cast was more comfortable on camera. Plus, “because I knew the words and I had written the words they trusted me,” Mock said. She became the first black trans woman to direct an episode of television.
Her most difficult scenes came first.
It was trial by fire, because the first scenes Mock had to shoot were the episode’s big ball scenes — a tough task for even the most experienced directors. One of the most difficult scenes from the episode, though, was the first scene between Angel (Indya Moore) and Patty (Kate Mara) in the diner. Anytime everything would go right in the scene, a modern bus or a taxi with a Pose billboard would drive by. (Thankfully, the anachronisms were removed in postproduction.)
Murphy has purposefully taken a backseat on the series.
“That has been a shift in my career, because usually I’m the showrunner,” he said. “I come in with the idea; I do all the casting; I have a vision of it all; and in this one I was interested in saying, ‘What do you think? What do you need to do?'”
“Love Is the Message” reflects a very personal experience for him.
The year this episode is set was the year Murphy moved to New York. In the episode, Pray Tell gives a speech about how the younger generation of gay men would never know what it was like to not live in fear of AIDS — but to know what it was like to have freedom and then take it away, what was worse?
“That was me. I remember feeling that,” Murphy said. “I would drive myself to the emergency room in college every 10 days, even when I was celibate, and get a blood test and I would wait for two weeks and lose 15 pounds and throw up in the middle of the night in fear because I thought I was going to die. I thought that loving someone meant death, and I think a large group of young people don’t have that experience. That was my experience, so I was able to, with the HIV/AIDS story, really lean into my pain.”
The ball judges are all famous figures from the ballroom scene.
Explained Murphy: “The first thing that I did is met with three of the survivors of Paris Is Burning, who are judges in every episode of Pose. They’re always there. I just wanted to meet them and let them know that I wanted to not take their story but make them a part of the show and pay them for their time and their energies, and they were very moved by that.”
They gave him some of the show’s best details.
The stories they told the series’ creator were often stranger than fiction. For example: “The museum heist that opens the pilot, that’s a true story,” Murphy said. “And from that true story I was like, ‘This is incredible.'”
Murphy watches Twitter reactions to the series for one very important reason.
He realizes that a lot of the younger generation doesn’t realize how devastating AIDS was to their community, and he’s trying to educate them about it. “We have very little history. All of the men who would probably be our mentors were taken away at the prime of their life. … What I’m trying to do with a lot of my work is leave a living history and educate people,” Murphy said.
He recognizes his blind spots as a writer and a director.
Originally, a female director was supposed to helm The People v. O.J. Simpson’s most critically lauded episode, the Marcia Clark-centric hour “Marcia Marcia Marcia,” but she dropped out at the last minute due to a scheduling issue and Murphy replaced her. He is proud of the work that he did, but thinks it could have been better.
“I don’t think it was as good as it would have been if a woman had directed it,” he said, which led to the creation of his Half Initiative to champion women and people of color directing.
Pose is “without question the highlight of my career.”
Murphy’s first thought when the show was picked up was how he wanted to give back to the LGBT community, so he decided to donate all of his profits to LGBT charities. “I’m not showrunner here,” he said. “I’m an advocate for this community and my job is to take care of them and provide for them and to give them access into a mainstream world that they have been denied for so long. That’s what I wanted to do, and I immediately decided to donate all my profits back to the community.”
Pose is a lighter show than his others on purpose.
After tackling darker subject matter for several years, Pose is purposefully lighter for a Ryan Murphy show — with beautifully lit close-ups of its stars. “People right at the end of these episodes are breathing a sigh of relief because no one was killed. No one was beaten. No one was slashed,” explained Murphy. “What I’ve been trying do is show this community in the way that I see them: beauty and glamour and lights and music. That’s how we as gay people and trans people have gotten through our pain.”
Pose airs Sundays on FX.