Ryan White doesn’t stop.
The documentarian behind The Case Against 8 and The Keepers has enjoyed two consecutive Sundance Film Festivals with new movies having their premiere. Last year, we chatted with White about his acclaimed documentary Ask Dr. Ruth. His next feature, Assassins, comes out later this year.
For the moment, though, White is focused on an epic television event. We mean that in two senses of the word. As produced by Wilson Cruz & Wanda Sykes, Visible: Out on TV is a five-hour chronicle of LGBTQ images and representation in the medium. It is both about, and an example of television at its best. Featuring interviews with the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, Raven-Symone, MJ Rodriguez, Janet Mock, Ryan O’Connell, Sean Hayes, Billy Porter and dozens of others, Visible traces the history of queer people from the first TV broadcast to the present. The series streams exclusively on Apple+ beginning February 14.
Our conversation with White begins with an apology: the poor man has the flu and a nasty fever. But, as we said, he doesn’t stop. We managed to get White to open up about his latest endeavor, his discoveries in making it, and the wild evolution of queer representation. Visible: Out on TV streams exclusively on Apple+ beginning February 14.
You don’t stop dude. How long have you been working on this exhaustive chronicle of queerness?
I’m stopping now. I’m not sure if I was referring to this; I also had a film at Sundance, Assassins. I’m not sure which one I thought was big; they both are. But that came out at Sundance, now this comes out on Sunday. After that, I think I’m gonna need to chill a little bit.
You’ve earned it, I’d say.
Between those two and Ask Dr. Ruth, they’ve taken up my life for the past three years. I started being part of Visible two years ago at Sundance. I met with Apple to talk about it. This a passion project of two producers, David Bender and David Purvis, who had been trying to make the series for a decade.
David Purvis is more a Hollywood producer. David Bender is more of a writer/journalist. So Apple partnered with them a couple years ago, but wanted to bring on a documentary filmmaking team to finish it. So they brought me and my team and my producing partner Jess [Jessica Hargrave] about two years ago. I think we have almost 100 interviews in the series, and thousands of hours of archival footage. So it was a busy two years.
Distilling that to five hours is impressive. So when did your other producers, Wanda & Wilson get involved?
Wilson predates me as well. He shared the passion project with the two Davids. At some point years ago he joined them. Wilson knows everybody and is so beloved. His access is key to a series like this. I can’t tell you how many people told me “When Wilson called me I had to say yes.” So Wilson was incredible in that way. We’re a diverse community, but from all different sides, people love Wilson.
With good reason. And Wanda?
Wanda came on board when I came on board. We kind of knew Wanda from the past. I adore Wanda. I’d never worked with her on a project, but I knew people that said how brilliant and incisive she is. And she proved that. She would watch a storyline or an episode and give me notes, and every time, they were something I could not dispute at all. And Wanda as well is very well connected in this world. She was just on Ellen talking about the series. So I was thrilled to work with them. They’re both incredible human beings.
The stories they both share are amazing. So, the team had been working on this before you joined the project. When you came on board, where there specific people that you wanted to reach out to, that you brought to the table?
I did a lot of the interviews, definitely the majority. The project had actually been in the works for so long that some of the interviews looked too old to use. So we went back to a lot of people, like Rob Reiner. I know him personally. I worked with him on The Case Against 8. So I went back to him. History changes rapidly. I also inherited an interview with Jill Soloway before Jeffery Tambor left the show.
And I thought it was totally unfair to Jill if we presented an interview with them where they’re not acknowledging his absence. So there was a lot of that. It’s kind of a chicken or the egg type thing. A-list celebrities want to know other people are participating and that they’re not wasting their time. So you need names on board to get those people. So a lot of people like Ellen or Oprah came through at the end. My last interview was with Ryan O’Connell, who is a friend of mine and had just started Special as we were finishing.
I had dinner with Ryan this weekend and told him “Just so you know, you’re not in the first three episodes because we’d already finished them when we interviewed you.”
But it was exciting. It was a lot of friends reaching out, or calling on Wanda and Wilson to reach out to these people. Then five of our interviewees became our narrators.
One thing that really impressed me was how many of these images say with people. A weepy TV movie like A Question of Love—to hear Jane Alexander talk about it is one thing. But to hear Wanda Sykes give her very emotional recollections of it is another.
What stories from your subjects surprised you the most? Did they alert you to images or stories that you had overlooked?
Totally. I’m born in ‘81, so a lot of the television predates me. Wilson on My So-Called Life is probably the most formative moment for me. I guess I was 12 or 13 when that was happening, and coming into my adolescence. Everything before that I might have heard of. Of course, I knew the legendary ones like Liberace or All in the Family. Even An American Family [a PBS documentary about the Louds, a family with a gay son] I’d heard of peripherally, but not in-depth. And I’m a documentary filmmaker! So that’s one that totally jumps out. Now that I’ve watched that series twice, I think it’s a masterpiece. But I wasn’t aware of the impact Lance Loud had on people across the country.
A Question of Love is also a great example. I always tell people to go back and watch A Question of Love. It’s not like a Lifetime movie.
It’s not that weepy. It’ s a pretty great film. But the absence of lesbian representation in the 70s, how formative that show was for people… What I like to talk about in a funny way, because the show predates me, but the interviewees who were in their 40s or 50s, when I’d ask about the first queer image they’d seen on TV, a lot of them would say Three’s Company [the famous sitcom about a straight man posing as a gay man to share an apartment with two women]. And then I’d watch them work it out in their heads…
Jessie Tyler Ferguson did that. There were many others that were like that’s the first gay character…but was he gay? I’m fascinated with the confusion that show caused, and how people grapple with if it was good or bad representation. It was the same thing with the younger people I interviewed. That’s why I’m so glad Apple allowed us to do this in five parts. I’m allowed to show how different generations were shaped by television.
There are storylines I never would have heard of. I haven’t watched a lot of television over the past 20 years. So I know Raven-Symone from The Cosby Show. I’m from Atlanta, she’s from Atlanta. We’re about the same age. But I was way too old by the time That’s So Raven came out. So to hear MJ Rodriguez from Pose and Nicole Maines from Supergirl—two young trans actresses—talk about how important Raven was for them…it was a show I never would have put the microscope on. And that was what was really fun about interviewing these people.
Do you remember your first image of a queer person on TV?
I thought about this a lot. Wilson is definitely formative for me. I’d definitely seen queer images before that. My mom was a single working mom, so I came home and turned on the television before I did homework. I think mine, realistically, are the talk show images.
Like the Club Kids [a group of clubgoers that included the likes of RuPaul, James St. James & Michael Alig]?
I think even by the time I was watching TV the Club Kids were less of the focus. I think they were the late 80s. Mine was more of the really sensational type of stuff, like Jerry Springer. I hate to say it. Ricki Lake had a ton of LGBTQ people on her show, which was often baffling because the subject matters were the most sensational subject matters. But I remember being entranced by these people. I loved The Real World. That was so formative for me when I watched it as a closeted teenager. It’s not a “gay” show. Everyone watched it, so I wasn’t outing myself. It wasn’t until I was in college that I could really watch television on my own. Six Feet Under was formative, with David and Keith.
It’s hard to look at this series and not think of The Celluloid Closet, which was a formative text for me as a queer man and as a lover of Hollywood. One thing about that film though is the directors Rob Epstein & Jeffery Friedman, had to leave whole sections out because they ran afoul with certain actors. Did you have anything that you had to leave out here?
I can’t think of anybody who was reluctant to go on camera. We weren’t making a show that was outing people. The only story that really goes in that direction is Raymond Burr from Perry Mason. And the story is told by his longtime lover. Everyone says it was an open secret. So we weren’t ever in a territory where I felt like we were going after controversy. I think one of the big differences with our series from The Celluloid Closet, apart from focusing on TV instead of film, is that television has always covered real-life events.
Whether through news or talk shows or sports. At times, you would find going back to old news footage, for example, that it could be difficult to clear because some of these representations are archaic and networks don’t want to be attached to them in that way. We were always very careful to say this is not a love letter to television. Television had, oftentimes, harmed the movement, representation or positive portrayals. But I can’t think of much pushback. I won’t name names, but we did get people who might have been straight showrunners from the 70s that created gay characters who don’t want to take credit for it now. They don’t want to pat themselves on the back because so much of the controversy now is who gets to tell who’s story. But for the most part everyone said yes.
When you and I talked at Sundance last year, we talked about how much your films often deal with themes of shame, and rising above it. Looking at this in context of your filmography, I see something different: you gravitate towards humanizing figures; people who personalize an issue or a concept. In the case of The Keepers, that is victims of sexual abuse. In The Case Against 8, that’s gay couples struggling to protect their relationship status. Here, it’s the people who lived through representation, and how that affected people we see in the media now. What’s the appeal for you?
Even when Apple approached me about this project, I said I would do it if I could do it as a documentary series. I didn’t want to do it as a clip show. I wanted the liberty of fleshing out these storylines to have a beginning, middle and an end, and that it wasn’t just rapid-fire through history. I think that’s why there are a gazillion A-List celebrities in it, but there are also a lot of activists in it. Actors, showrunners, they get congratulated all the time, and they deserve it. But the people who were using television as a tool to force progress.
One of my favorite moments of shooting this series was shooting an interview with Mark Segal. He’s the guy that zapped Walter Cronkite and Barbra Walters on live TV. He stormed the stage. He’s a local journalist in Philadelphia, but he’s never really gotten his victory lap. The interview immediately after him was Anderson Cooper. So as Mark was leaving, Anderson was coming into the interview room. I got to watch their interaction, these two legends of television from very different sides. It was an authentic interaction. They spent 10 minutes together talking, and Anderson saying how he remembered him, and thanking him. And Mark thanking Anderson. Those types of exchanges—if we can convey that in the series, if this isn’t just about actors playing roles or showrunners writing roles, and how that shapes creators later on, then we’ve done our job. So that’s it from a storytelling point of view. From a personal point of view…
Because I’m LGBTQ, I know what those experiences were like for me watching TV. So I was deeply interested in finding out from people from every generation how that impacted them. That one of the most special parts of making the series.
Last question then. In compiling this chronicle, what images do you wish you could have seen as a kid that would have helped you accept being queer?
I mean, I’m not trans, but I can’t imagine how incredible of an impact Pose is having on, not just LGBTQ kids, but especially trans kids and trans kids of color. The fact that the show is even on television, and the fact that I was at the Oscars last night and saw Billy Porter holding down the red carpet. Seeing people like Janet Mock, who was so amazing to interview, starting to run television. She has an exclusive deal at Netflix now. I love the show so much, and I can’t imagine what that would have been like. In the first episode, we have Miss Major Griffin-Gacy and Caitlyn Jenner talking about how the only trans person they ever saw on television was Christine Jorgensen. And that was just for a minute. So Pose for sure.
Visible: Out on TV streams exclusively on Apple+ beginning February 14.