“This is a story that I just wasn't sure it was ever going to be told,” admitted Steven Canals, who created Pose along with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, on the eve of the FX show’s premiere.
Pose has already made history as the first network television show to feature multiple transgender women as series regulars. But the existence of the production — which centers on the ball culture of 1980s New York, a la Paris Is Burning — had a long and uncertain journey to Hollywood, as did Canals himself.
The story is the brainchild of Canals, 37, who first conceived of the idea around 2003. At the time, he was an undergraduate majoring in cinema at Binghamton University in upstate New York. Canals, a queer Afro-Puerto Rican from the Bronx, dreamed of one day becoming a director in order to tell a story like Pose that centered on historically marginalized people. Canals said he found “solace in film and TV as a child. But nothing that ever affirmed my identity.” He wanted to help bring this representation to the entertainment industry.
Canals was also inspired to pursue this career in part because he shares a name with famous directors like Steven Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh. “I'm supposed to be a filmmaker. I'm the next big Steven,” he recalled thinking. His education provided him with an inspiration for subject matter. Through a professor, Canals learned of and watched Paris Is Burning — the landmark 1990 documentary by Jennie Livingston about New York City’s 1980s ball scene. The experience was transformative.
“I really loved what the community represents — it's family, and it's resilience. And the fact that these beautiful black and brown people managed to make it through the New York of the 1980s, which was such a bleak time for the city and was fraught with not one but two epidemics, HIV and crack,” said Canals, who also grew up in this turbulent time. He was amazed to learn he had lived in the same city as this “incredible community” but had not known of its existence. The documentary gave him “a kernel of an idea” for a drama about a young man who moves to New York City and falls into this storied scene.
However, this dream slipped away while Canals was learning the tools of the cinematic trade as an undergraduate. At the time, the thought of standing behind a camera “was very scary to me.” His upbringing in the New York City projects made him second-guess his abilities, and he experienced an irrational fear that blocked his ambitions. “I did not have the emotional intelligence to work through the fear. I stepped away from that desire to be a storyteller,” he said.
Thinking the world of filmmaking was impenetrable for a person from his background, Canals returned to Binghamton for a master’s degree in social science and then became a school administrator. Throughout his 20s and early 30s, his job was to speak to young people and help them transition from college to the workforce.
But after years of inspiring others “to live their best lives,” Canals realized he had not done the same for himself. In a moment of self-reckoning, Canals remembered his old dream of filmmaking and decided to once again pursue it. Directing and its technical skills involving cameras and editing still seemed daunting. So instead, he picked up the pen. He decided to enroll in an online screenwriting program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“It was just one of those moments where every single piece in a puzzle … made sense,” said Canals, who likened his enrollment to “that moment in Minority Report when Tom Cruise is flipping through memories” and is able to piece together the full narrative for the first time.
After writing a few scripts through this online course to get “my feet wet,” Canals took the plunge and applied to UCLA’s master of fine arts in screenwriting program. He was accepted, and he moved to Los Angeles in 2012. There, he found a mentor in a professor, Neal Landau, who is famous for writing the screenplay of Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. During Landau’s course in television drama, Canals was tasked to come up with an idea for a show. His mind turned back to his old idea of a young man being introduced to the Harlem balls. The premise aligned perfectly with his interests.
“I love stories that dramatically explore authenticity and truth and resilience,” said Canals, who was also drawn to stories about families and found families in an urban environment. As a result, in 2014 he penned the pilot for what would become Pose — one of several pieces of writing he produced as a graduate student. Others included another pilot, Providence, which won a prize at the UCLA Screenwriters Showcase.
But Canals wanted to take his writing beyond the realm of academia. After graduation, Canals began submitting the spec script of Pose to players in the entertainment industry to see if there was any interest in development. Initially, “the feedback was less than positive.”
“I was confused because, you know, while writing it, it just, it felt so good,” said Canals, who had received enthusiastic reactions from his classmates and professor about the script. “I thought, this doesn't make any sense, because everyone's saying it's good, and now it's going [into] the industry and everyone is not interested in it.”
Discouraged, Canals stopped sending the screenplay out into Hollywood. However, one year later, a television executive stumbled upon it. She read it and loved it. She forwarded it to other executives, which sparked a series of meetings that led to his 2016 hiring at the network Freeform, where he joined the writing team for Dead of Summer.
While the spec script for Pose earned Canals employment, its future for development was still uncertain. Even as late as 2016, Canals recalled “finding myself in rooms with executives, mostly straight white cisgender men who just really didn't understand the material.” They were “asking the same handful of questions, which is, ‘Who is the audience for the show? Where does a show like this live? Why is the show so urban? Is everyone gay or trans?’”
“I found that there was a lot of blatant homophobia, sexism, racism, where folks are saying, ‘I don’t know if you're ever going to get the money to make a show like this because it's too black. It’s too gay. It’s too urban,’ directly to my face … which was surprising and also really disheartening because I entered the industry as an idealist," he added.
“Especially [during] my time at UCLA, we were told that we were the next generation of storytellers. … [We were told] the industry can't wait to produce your undiscovered material. And then you go out into the industry equipped with this portfolio that you have worked so hard to craft, and suddenly, that isn't the case.”
Disheartened again, Canals began to write new material. But a meeting with Sherry Marsh, who is an executive producer of the History Channel’s Vikings, marked another turning point. After reading Pose, she forwarded the script to an old colleague — Ryan Murphy. Murphy read the script and was impressed. He wanted to meet Canals.
Now, Canals had seen the exterior of the 20th Century Fox Studios before. As an unemployed writer, he would walk daily from his apartment to the Los Angles lot and think “maybe one day I’ll have an opportunity to be on the other side of this gate.” And in September 2016, just days after Murphy had taken home a slew of awards for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Canals walked through that gate. He met with the gay producer, who was also a longtime role model.
“I've admired him going back to Popular, when I was still just a young closeted kid and would find solace in TV and any stories that were either queer or queer-adjacent,” said Canals. “And so to be sitting across from him was pretty incredible. That was a pinch-me moment, obviously.”
The meeting lasted about an hour. In it, the pair discussed their shared passion for telling stories that center on people from marginalized communities and their common experience of “being an outsider and what it feels like to not have your voice heard.” At the conclusion of the conversation, after Canals had shared his life story, Murphy “just looked at me and said, ‘OK, well, let's make that together.’ And it was just that simple.”
“I was in shock. I was like, wait, did that just happen?” Canals recounted of his feelings during that moment. “I'm still wrapping my brain around it because I grew up in the South Bronx in the projects. My family was impacted by the epidemics of New York. I think when you're growing up in that environment, you can't imagine your life being anything other than what your reality is in that moment.”
“I think that there was a part of me that maybe secretly always hoped that everything that's happening right now would happen,” he added. “But I don't know that I ever actually allowed myself to really truly believe that it would.”
Pose, which premieres Sunday on FX, will introduce viewers to a world that hasn’t been seen before on network television, where queer people of color are the centers of their own narratives. Bucking the norm, trans women will be portrayed by trans women, with transgender producers like Janet Mock and Our Lady J also working behind the scenes to make these stories authentic. Canals hopes that by putting Pose out into the universe, he will also empower a new generation, who had never seen their experiences reflected on-screen, to follow their dreams as well.
“Pose is the story that I feel my younger self deserved [but] never received,” concluded Canals. “I think it's important to be out in the world because representation matters, as simple as that sounds. And I want other LGBTQ people, I want other people of color, I want people who live in the intersections of those identities to know that they're important and that they're loved and that they're seen, that they're heard and that they matter.”