Nfld. & Labrador

How a planned Queer as Folk reboot is bringing a St. John's writer full circle

Stephen Dunn candidly admits that when Queer as Folk originally aired more than 20 years ago, he watched the show in secret.

Stephen Dunn will lead the show’s revival more than 20 years after it originally aired

Writer-director Stephen Dunn says the Queer as Folk reboot will focus on a diverse set of friends and be set in New Orleans. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Stephen Dunn candidly admits that when Queer as Folk originally aired more than 20 years ago, he watched the show in secret. 

Alone, with the volume low, Dunn, now 32, was captivated by the critically acclaimed drama, which followed the lives of three British men living in Manchester's gay village in the 1990s.

"I had never seen a queer kid growing up in St. John's. I didn't actually know anyone who was also queer," said Dunn. 

"It kind of revolutionized the way I saw myself."

That show changed Dunn's life. He not only grew up to become a director, but is now the key creative behind a planed reboot of Queer as Folk for NBC's U.S. streaming service, Peacock. 

Queer as Folk — created by Russell T. Davies — debuted on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in 1999. The show was rebooted for a North American audience in 2000, and ran for five seasons in Canada on the cable channel Showcase. 

Dunn poses on the red carpet at the premiere of his first feature, Closet Monster, at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016. (CBC Arts)

Earlier this year, the St. John's-based Dunn finalized the paperwork to bring the show to life again.

"I finally saw my community reflected in a way that empowered me to be able to be comfortable exploring my sexuality [and] finding myself, and ultimately was one of the things that led me to become a filmmaker," Dunn said in an interview. 

Dunn, whose credits include the indie coming-out, coming-of-age movie Closet Monster, caught the attention of producer Lee Eisenberg at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. Wanting to develop a show together led them to look into whether the rights for Queer as Folk were available. 

Director Stephen Dunn, seen here on the set of Apple TV Plus's Little America, has been keeping in contact with Hollywood from his mother's kitchen table in St. John's. (Apple TV Plus)

Dunn, 32, found himself in England not long after and decided to make a personal pitch to series creator Davies. Dunn said he was one of many who has tried to get the go-ahead from Davies, whose more recent work includes the series It's a Sin, A Very British Scandal and Years and Years

Dunn said he and Davies talked about how — two decades later — there were still things about queer representation they were not seeing on the screen. Dunn left the meeting with Davies's blessing and the rights to Queer as Folk, but it took about year to sort things out, and then another year to sell it. 

"We brought it to every major network in Hollywood and had multiple offers," he said.

"It was pretty competitive."

In the end the show landed at Peacock, the streaming service that NBCUniversal launched last summer. Peacock is not currently offered in Canada. 

At the tail end of that process, COVID-19 happened. Projects everywhere ground to a halt, and the Queer as Folk reboot was no exception. Dunn, who had once been ready to shoot, thought for a time the series would not happen. 

"I really thought it was over and I started working on another project at Amazon and then another project at ABC," he said. "I had moved on." 

Dunn, who had relocated from Toronto to Los Angeles, came back to St. John's in August for his mother's birthday. He hasn't left, and runs Zoom meetings from her kitchen table. 

In 2016 Dunn stopped by CBC to chat about his award-winning film Closet Monster, with star Sofia Banzhaf. (Maggie Gillis/CBC)

A few months ago, a new ray of light emerged for Queer as Folk. Susan Rovner took the reins as NBCUniversal's new head of television and streaming services and, according to Dunn, loved the project. The series has been given the green light for eight episodes. 

"To be able to work on such an iconic property and re-envision it with my community in mind, it's surreal," said Dunn, who admitted it also comes with a lot of pressure.

"I just feel very grateful because it's been five years I've been working on this."

Dunn doesn't have to look far for inspiration for possible storylines.

A few ago, his uncle Paddy Healey, then 60, came out. The two have become close, and Dunn let him in on the secret of the Queer as Folk reboot. 

It turns out his uncle watched the show the same way Dunn had: alone in the basement with the volume on low, fearful Healey's mother might catch him. 

"That is exactly how I watched that show. I couldn't let anyone know that I was watching, because if you were to be seen watching that show it would have revealed something about you that you weren't comfortable letting the world know," Dunn said.

Healey has cerebral palsy, something you don't often see depicted on TV about the queer community. 

"I know that Paddy has never seen himself reflected on television or in movies before," said Dunn. "One of the inspirations behind my reimagining for the show is to impartially make it a little bit for him too."

Stephen Dunn and his uncle Paddy Healey both marched for the first time in the 2017 St. John's Pride parade. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Dunn can't discuss the details of the show and won't divulge when filming will begin or a possible release date, but he can say it will be set in New Orleans. (The American reboot was set in Pittsburgh, but was filmed in and around Toronto).

Dunn said he doesn't want anyone else to ever have to hide away to watch his show. 

"My hope is that queer people can now watch Queer as Folk, surrounded by their friends and family with the volume all the way to the max, instead of having to feel like this is something that no one else can know about them," he said. 

Dunn's personal life is a driving factor in his creative projects. Following the success of Closet Monster in 2016, Dunn said, he was told not to make another queer film, on grounds he might be seen as a queer filmmaker. That is advice he is willing to ignore. 

"Not all of the stories I want to tell necessarily need to be centred in queer storytelling but there's always going to be a queer perspective in the stuff that I work on, and I'm proud of that."

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Jeremy Eaton is a reporter and videojournalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.