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Talkin' Celluloid With Alan Poul


Alan Poul is one of the most successful, and well-liked, gay producers working in Hollywood today. He's helped bring to life unforgettable shows like Six Feet Under, My So-Called Life, and the Tales of the City movies, and now his work is being honored by Outfest, the organization that puts on the Los Angeles gay and lesbian film festival. Poul will be awarded with the annual Legacy Award at Wednesday's Outfest Legacy Awards, an event that serves as a fund-raiser for the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation, a program that preserves LGBT images in film. Months before the January release of his theatrical directorial debut -- The Back-Up Plan, starring Jennifer Lopez -- Poul spoke to about the movies that molded him, and the legendary projects he's brought to fruition. How did you get involved with the Legacy Project?
Alan Poul: I have a long-standing involvement with Outfest. I was on the [Outfest] board for five years and have been a major donor ever since. When the previous executive director Stephen Gutwillig founded the Legacy Project as another way to serve the community other than the annual film festival, I thought it was a great idea. And the Legacy Award is given for overall support of Outfest and the community, as well as achievements in the field.

What was the first gay movie you saw that really resonated?
There were a lot of films from my youth that certainly affected me on a homoerotic level whether or not it was intended -- especially, the beach party movies and anything with Troy Donahue or Tab Hunter.

But the first real representation of same-sex sexual interaction was Sunday, Bloody Sunday. I was still quite young and I remember it was emblazoned on my eyeballs.

At that time, were you hunting for gay characters or themes in film?
Certainly as an adolescent I was searching for any signs that there were other people like me, as well as searching for images that would stimulate me sexually. Those images were hard to find at that time; it really wasn't until the '70s that they began to surface. Before Sunday, Bloody Sunday, I remember seeing the Bob Balaban [gay] scene in Midnight Cowboy, and that doesn't end well.

I grew up very hungry for any kind of images that would have reflected how I felt at the time. Another early film that left a huge impact on me was a film called If..., directed by Lindsay Anderson. I think it won the New York Film Critics Award; it was a look at life at a British boarding school and starts off very realistic and gradually veers into the fantastical and ends with an armed revolt with all the boys rising up and shooting all their teachers. It was a film of the '60s and a metaphor for rebellion, but among the various pairings that goes on among the kids is a same-sex pairing between an upperclassman and underclassman that is treated very gently. That completely knocked me out.

There also was a film by Frank Perry called Last Summer. It's very young Richard Thomas and Bruce Davison, with Barbara Hershey, and an actress named Catherine Burns. It was about this foursome of teenagers in the summer and two boys who share Barbara Hershey between them, and there's definitely a homoerotic element to that.

There's a scene at Fire Island, and they see a couple embracing in the dunes and it looks like a muscle man and a skinny woman. The couple rolls apart and you see that it's two men. You don't forget those things. The more that -- both in my career and in support of organizations like Outfest and the Legacy Project I can facilitate the creation and preservation of images that people in future generations can look to, the better.

You were the executive producer of Swingtown, a CBS drama from last year that looked at suburban party animals in the '70s. Do you think it would have lasted longer if it was on a premium cable network?
Unquestionably it would have been different. We got with Swingtown -- during the summer, which is low ebb for network viewership -- 5 or 6 million viewers a week. That is not enough to keep a show alive on network, but on any basic or premium cable network [it] would make it a huge hit. I believe the show would have survived on cable. On the other hand, I don't feel that we were hindered by being on network. As proud as I am of Swingtown, on HBO or Showtme it wouldn't really have been groundbreaking. It would have been good, but that level of sexual explicitness and mature thematic material is a given on cable. You can imagine people watching the pay cable version and saying, "Of course they're going to fuck the neighbors." But on CBS, it's, "Oh my God, they're going to fuck the neighbors." I'm not happy the show didn't last beyond one season, but I'm thrilled CBS put it on the air.

Above: Tales of the City

What project do you look back at most fondly?
Six Feet Under was five years of my life, so it was the longest continuous job I've ever had and clearly the best job I've ever had. It was a golden age for HBO, a golden time for me. The relationship with Alan Ball was the longest and most fulfilling creative relationship I've ever had. We kept so much of the same crew and writers for the entire run. It was an astonishingly stable and joyful workplace to go to.

The other is the Tales of the City series. Having been able to have and maintain that relationship with [Tales of the City author] Armistead Maupin, who remains a very close friend, and having nurtured that project from the beginning was wonderful. That's the other long-term achievement I'm most proud of. They're also saying when the first Tales aired in 1994, there was a huge watershed because there weren't characters on network TV showing affection towards each other in same-sex relationships. When the first series aired on PBS, there were death threats and we were condemned on floors of several state legislatures. If you look at how the bar has moved in the 15 years since, there's virtually nothing in the first Tales of the City miniseries that couldn't be shown on network TV. What was really shocking and controversial then was that it dared to treat same-sex relationships exactly the same as heterosexual relationships. Now, it doesn't seem outrageous and controversial, which makes me feel really good about where we've come to.

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