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Interview: Zelda and Daniel Barnz on Being the Father-Daughter Team Behind ‘Genera+ion’

One of HBO Max’s best new series is Genera+ion, a teenage dramedy that explores what it’s like to be queer and in high school right now. It boasts a terrific young cast of newcomers, plus a few more well-known actors playing parents and teachers. It’s also the brainchild of nineteen-year-old Zelda Barnz and her father Daniel Barnz.

Awards Radar had the chance to speak to this powerhouse duo about how they came up with this concept, why it’s so great to see its themes explored, and what it’s like having family as coworkers.

Q: Since you’re a father and daughter team and we’re talking today, my first question is, how did you spend Father’s Day?

Zelda Barnz: My dad is across the country in New York right now, so we didn’t do what we usually do. We usually do a family dinner and something celebratory. Father’s Day is obviously a big day in our house since we don’t have Mother’s Day because we have two dads, so this year we didn’t get to celebrate the way we usually do. Usually, we would have gone to dinner or something like that.

Daniel Barnz: Yeah, I was a little annoyed that she didn’t fly three thousand miles to make me breakfast in bed. I don’t know, guess that was hard to do. That was such a dad joke – punish me, please!

Q: How did the concept for the show originate and how did you two decide you’d be working together on it?

Zelda: I came out when I was fifteen for the first time, and I sort of just felt like, as I was realizing I was queer and starting to come out to people, I was realizing that there was this, not lack of representation, but lack of representation of queer joy specifically, in media. I felt like, there are a lot of queer characters on TV, which is great, but a lot of the queer characters I was seeing when I was that age were a lot of stories of queer suffering or queen pain. I wanted to see myself celebrated, not just accepted or represented on screen. I joined my high school’s GSA, which is Gay-Straight Alliance, our version of it was called the Rainbow Alliance. I really just wanted to engage with the queer community. I started telling my parents all these stories about queer culture and what it was like to be queer in high school today. My parents were really intrigued, because it was very different from when they were in high school. We started having all these conversations about how an accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be queer in today’s high school universe would actually make a really interesting story of some kind. We just started spit-balling with each other and coming up with more of these ideas for stories, and it was really a team project from the beginning.

Daniel: Abe, you mentioned that you’re married, I don’t know if you have kids. As a father, you’re always desperate for ways to stay connected to your kids, especially when they become teenagers and start leaving. This felt like an amazing opportunity for so many reasons. Partially because the stories we were telling are so engaging and funny and sometimes really poignant, and then it also just seemed like this amazing way for me, if Zelda was open to it, to teach her what it’s like to even conceptualize or even think about a TV show. And on this other base level, it’s like, oh my god, I get to spend this time with my daughter! And because of the show’s subject matter, get to have all these conversations that typically are very hard for parents and children to talk about, certainly things I was not talking to my parents about at all, we got to do just by virtue of talking about this television show idea.

Q: What was the process of getting it to be a series on HBO Max?

Zelda: It was a long process. We started developing this idea and – how should I start – it wound up with Lena Dunham, she’s an executive producer on the show. We thought it would be an interesting partnership, because what she did with Girls for millennials was what we were hoping to do with Genera+ion for queer teens, and so we were having all these conversations with her, and she was really interested in the idea. It was her idea to actually pitch it and move forward with it, so we did, and they bought it.

Daniel: Just because it’s so hard to get any show made ever, we had very humble aspirations for it. Not because we didn’t think it was a great idea, but because anything ever getting made is so impossible. We kept telling Zelda, this is probably going to be the end. You getting to meet Lena Dunham is probably the most exciting thing that’s going to happen, so just enjoy that stage of it. Each stage kept moving forward a little bit more. It’s a terrible lesson for Zelda in that I don’t think it’s indicative of how our industry works at all, but it’s a great lesson about what happens when you have an idea that you’re so excited and passionate about that means something to you personally, that if you keep moving forward in life with that, maybe some doors will open.

Q: I’m sure that there are some who do not find it to be a wonderful idea and would describe it as more than controversial or risqué, but something that they really do not want to watch. Is there any negative feedback that you’ve received or criticism that you’ve read that’s been so absurd and intolerant that it’s almost more entertaining than annoying?

Zelda: I have gotten homophobic DMs on Instagram, and weirdly a lot of antisemitism. I don’t really know why, because nothing about our show is Jewish. But I’ve had people in my DMs saying horrible things about gay Jews, and I’m just like, what? It’s so absurd. That is so absurd to me. I’m like, why would I care about your opinion if this is the extent of your tolerance and education? But it is interesting to me, because, living in LA, I do know a lot of Jewish kids, I do know a lot of gay kids. I’ve definitely dealt with teenage boys using the F word, the F slur as a joke and stuff like that, but I haven’t really experienced a lot of antisemitism in my life, and it was really strange to suddenly be getting these DMs from people. I don’t know, it was very strange. That was odd.

Daniel: I think, generally, the critics that we care about the most and that are the most meaningful are the ones in that age group that the show is about. And, by the way, they also can be the most honest. But, generally, I think the reviews that we’ve been reading, just on Twitter, really celebrate the show and celebrate the things we want to have celebrated in the show. It feels authentic to them, it feels real, yes, some of the situations are heightened obviously, but there’s something at its core that celebrates teen life in the way that they want to have it celebrated. This whole process was so interesting for me as an adult storyteller, learning from a teen about where shows about teens can go wrong. For example, one of the things that Zelda talked about to me and in our writers’ room is that, so often, shows about teenagers will focus on romance, and the storylines are around who’s crushing on whom, who’s betraying whom, who’s sleeping with whom. There obviously is romance in our show, but what Zelda pointed out is that, for so many teenagers, romance is a small percentage of their life. A huge percentage of their life is doing homework, or being bored, or hanging out with their friends, or driving in cars around with their buddies. She really encouraged and pushed us to think about how to involve those aspects and tell those stories of those aspects of teenage existence. That’s what’s really amazing to read about, people like, oh, yes, that’s what it was like for me. I remember that feeling of driving around in the car. The metaphor of being underwater. Yes, that’s what it felt like.

Q: I think it does have a timeless feel. I’m a little removed from this generation, but it does feel timeless in a way even though everyone’s using modern technology and thinking about things in a more radically accepting way than we’ve ever seen in our history, which is really wonderful. I do love all the very complicated relationships, where in other shows people would just get together, but instead you have all these rocky relationships, like Riley and Greta or Nathan and Chester, where it just goes back and forth. Are there any characters whose journeys you find particular delight in crafting?

Zelda: Greta and Riley were so much fun. In the very initial mini-room that we did for a writers’ room, we were planning on having that be more of an unrequited crush situation than a romance storyline, because that is so true to high school, having a crush on somebody and they never notice. That felt really real to us and we wanted to see that somewhere. The more we got into their relationship, we realized that they were actually right for each other, and it was so much fun to craft this very complicated arc for them, and will-they-won’t-they, but do they love each other? All these conversations we were having. That was a really fun romance to work on.

Daniel: I love writing for all of them. There are aspects of all of them that let you display parts of yourself that maybe you cover up or feel hidden. I love that Riley’s kind of a badass. She’s really fun to write for. Chester has this boldness and fearlessness that he walks through life, and it’s fun to be able to write that. Nathan, he’s a mess, and so, for me, that’s a bit of personal exorcism. I am neurotic, was neurotic as a teenager, and probably left rambling, insane voicemails myself. There’s a personal exorcism that’s a lot of fun with him.

Q: You do have some recognizable faces as part of your adult cast, like Martha Plimpton and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Was it important, either for you or for the network, to have these known faces in the cast?

Daniel: No. The honest answer is no. Usually, that’s true, right? When you’re doing a television show, they want to have a draw. But they understand that the kids were the beating heart of the show. But, what was really exciting for both of those actors, particularly Martha, was to put them in a role that was unlike anything they had done before. Martha is so funny. She’s done so many incredible performances in television, won her Emmy and whatnot. But she’s never done a role that’s had this balance of real poignancy and emotion. That’s a hard role to play. She is tricky. She says hard things and things that people do not like to hear, but she’s able to do it with this layer of nuance and humanity. As a filmmaker, to see an actor reinvent themselves in a totally new role is something extraordinary to watch. I really hope that everyone watches Martha and her performance, episodes one through sixteen, and sees what she does, because she is just beyond.

Q: There are still a few episodes left this season. What’s the word on season two? If it’s not greenlit, what are you already envisioning if it was to happen?

Daniel: We’re waiting until the end of the season airs, and then hopefully they’ll let us know. We’re really hopeful. We’re so in love with these characters and we’re not ready to say goodbye to them. I think that, in the second block, one thing that we do explore is some issues of mental health. We see that playing out with Riley. One of the things that I find very interesting about Zelda, her friends, that generation, is that there is a lot of openness in terms of talking about sexuality and gender that was not the case when I was growing up. There’s also a lot of openness about talking about mental health issues, and again, those are both things that were shrouded in a lot of secrecy and shame when I was growing up, and it’s so refreshing to hear people talking about, oh yes, I was diagnosed with this, I was on this medication but it tanked, or I had to go off this today, and now I’m feeling terrible, and there was just something so refreshing about that. I think we want to continue these explorations of mental health. I think we love the idea that the show gets to explore not just romance but friendships, and they’re complicated ones. The friendship that exists even between Riley and Nathan is very complicated. There’s something really unusual and interesting about this friendship that forms between Greta and Chester that’s unexpected. Also, we’d like the show to delve further into explorations of class, and how that plays out for some of the characters as well. There’s an interesting moment – you may not have seen this episode yet – that comes up between Greta and Riley where it starts to bubble over between them in terms of their different socioeconomic statuses, and I think we’re really interested in continuing to explore that for all of the characters. That sounds kind of boring and homework-y! Season two is going to be amazing! There’s going to be lots of love and I don’t know, everyone’s going to – it’s going to be funny. I’m sorry, that was the worst sales pitch for season two ever.

Q: I have some sense now from talking to both of you, but what it is like working as a father-daughter duo, and is it something that you would recommend to other people?

Zelda: It’s really fun. I would recommend it to other people. It’s interesting, I actually recently reconnected with a classmate who I hadn’t really talked to since elementary school. She also has two dads. She also has gay parents. We were having this conversation about how having gay parents, there’s a lot more openness, and she was telling me that she never feels uncomfortable talking to her parents about sex, and I was like, same. There’s always been this openness and this dialogue in our house where nothing’s too uncomfortable and we should never be ashamed of anything. I definitely feel that, I definitely feel like in my house, I’ve never felt nervous to talk to my parents about anything, about drugs or sex, or anything that’s going on in my life. I think that’s really important, and that’s made it really fun to work on a show like this. There’s no real toxicity when talking about this topic, there’s no judgment. I would definitely recommend it, because I think it’s also created an even more open dialogue. But yeah, I do think that in particular having gay parents has made it easier to be open about some of the topics in our show, and I definitely think that it’s been a really fun partnership because of that.

Daniel: I also think that I’ve loved it because I do feel that in the context of talking about the show we get to talk about things in Zelda’s life and her feelings. You don’t always get that. She’ll tell a story about something that’s happened to a friend or an experience that she had in the context of, would this be interesting to explore in the show? I didn’t anticipate that blessing of being able to work with my daughter. I definitely feel like everybody should do it. So often, as adults, there’s a divide between the work that you do and your family life. So to be able to bring those two together, I felt very lucky. For us to be able to do that during a year that was so crazy in the world, for us to be this family working together, Zelda’s other dad is a producer on it, and Zelda’s younger brother designed Chester’s sneakers, so it was a full family affair. Us being able to work together as a family and then extend our family with the crew and the cast, it just was like getting to show up and be with your family all the time, and not in the stressful holidays way when everybody fights. It was the upside, not the downside part of that. I will say, there are some battles you will never win against your daughter, and I just learned that. There are some things – just let go of it now. Most of those battles, I was actually really happy to lose because she was kind of right in the end.

Q: This show is submitted for the Emmys in the comedy series category, which surprised me a bit when I see it. While it is entertaining, I thought of it more as a drama. Is that how you consider it, and do you have any role in choosing that category?

Zelda: Yeah, it’s funny. We always talked about it as a dramedy, and obviously you can’t submit that as a category. I don’t know. We had a lot of conversations about whether it fell more into drama or comedy. I’m not sure – did we have a say?

Daniel: I think HBO recommended it, and we were like, great, that sounds awesome. It’s the blessing of being able to work in this particular half-hour cable space that does get to have tonal freedom. We feel grateful for it. One of the things about getting to work in the half-hour space is it takes some of the burden off of story. It allows you to be a bit freer and take some of these tangents with the characters. You’re not having to worry so much about the story engines, and a lot of times I think those story engines can come at the cost of letting characters be and be authentic. I think that we’re happy for the show to be celebrated as a comedy, as a drama, but really isn’t it amazing that we live in this narrative space today where those divisions are less clear, and some of the shows that we most revere are the ones that fall into that space? The Fleabags of that world are the ones that are really funny and just tear your heart apart at the same time. That we get to exist and create in those kinds of spaces is a real blessing.

Season one of Genera+ion is now streaming on HBO Max, with new episodes arriving on Thursdays.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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