Family behind HBO Max's Generation talks working with Lena Dunham, repping Gen Z, and privilege
Behind the scenes, the new HBO Max series Generation is a family affair.
The show "about a group of queer kids finding each other in their conservative community, and searching for connectedness in that community," as 19-year-old creator Zelda Barnz puts it, came from discussions she'd had with her dads Ben and Daniel Barnz about sexuality, race, and gender after coming out to them as bisexual at age 15.
"Originally, she wanted to write it as a book, and we thoroughly corrupted her and said, 'You know, this would make a really great TV show.' And when we began those conversations, we really thought this was just an opportunity for us to kind of teach her about the kind of work that we do," Daniel tells EW. "We loved the idea, but we didn't necessarily think it was going to show that it was gonna be made per se. We just thought what a great thing for parents to be able to say, 'You know what? This is how you come up with the idea for a TV show. This is how you conceive it, you put together a pitch' — fully thinking by the way that it was never going to go anywhere — and then the other thing that Zelda might learn from this whole experience is what happened when you have a wonderful idea, and you're all excited about it, and people just say no. And we thought that's not a bad lesson either because that teaches you about grit and resilience. And that's also what it is to be a writer."
"Well, obviously it didn't quite exactly pan out that way," cracks Daniel, who's credited as a co-creator on Generation, and is the director of films like Cake. Instead, they were able to pitch it to Lena Dunham who signed on to executive produce the project with the Barnz family. From there, Daniel says, "There's no question that the reason the show was able to move forward is because we had somebody like Lena, who herself had created a show about a very particular age group and took a very frank and candid look at identity and sexuality in that age group, as a champion of the project."
Before the show went into production, Dunham took Zelda with her to the United Kingdom to shadow her while she was working on the HBO drama Industry. "It was really, really cool for me to see somebody who'd had kind of a similar experience in the industry that I was sort of about to have," says Zelda. "She was definitely vital in helping me reach a place where I felt confident enough in my position to be able to do my job properly."
While he was not a writer on the project, Ben admits "he's a very involved producer." There from inception by way of living and working with Daniel and Zelda, "I was in the writers' room the entire time and I am on set every day that we are shooting," notes Ben. "I'm pretty hands-on. I love being involved in every aspect of it."
That includes finding the right cast. "We really wanted to find fresh faces that are new, and that people have not seen before, so that they could really create these characters," explains Ben. Some of the newcomers on the show include Chase Sui Wonders, Chloe East, Uly Schlesinger, and Haley Sanchez, alongside better-known talent like Justice Smith in a role like nothing he's ever done before.
"Something really important to me was to make sure that the people we cast in the show felt young and looked young," adds Zelda. "It can be really disorienting and also really hard watching a show as a teenager and seeing like, 26, 27-year-old models playing 16-year-olds. And nobody you know looks like that. And nobody you know is that confident. It can be really disheartening as a teenager watching stuff like that. So we wanted to make sure that the people we cast felt like kids."
Thinking about how they filled the writers' room, Daniel says, "We have so many characters of color that we wanted to make sure that our writers' room was equally diverse. And so our writers' room ended up being majority queer, majority female, majority people of color, which felt really important just in terms of making sure that we were lending that authenticity to all of our characters."
While the show has been compared to Euphoria, with both series being available on HBO Max, Zelda says Generation "leans more toward comedy than probably in any other direction…They're definitely drama aspects of it, but really we wanted the show to be funny."
Daniel also stresses that "we do not ever want anybody to think that we think we're trying to speak for an entire generation. All we wanted to do was choose some characters who are of Gen Z and realize those characters as fully and specifically and emotionally as we possibly could."
The entire whirlwind experience of getting to make the very first TV show idea she's had, at such a young age, with fathers who are established filmmakers, has helped Zelda find the right words to talk about privilege as well. "Coming from a family that works in the industry, it's definitely a huge privilege, and coming from such an accepting background where I can come out to my family and have that not be an issue at all — like nothing — because my parents are gay, that's also a huge privilege," she notes.
Ultimately though, Daniel acknowledges that "we as creators, we the family, we as writers are always trying to understand and think about where our blind spots are in all aspects. In terms of privilege, in terms of race and ethnicity, and even in terms of our attitudes about queerness even though we all are queer. We are constantly trying to find people to work on the show with us who can help us to understand where those blind spots are, so that hopefully we can move past them or try to move past them in the construction of the show."
"And shed light on them," adds Ben. "Bring them out of the dark because we all have them."
Generation is now streaming its first three episodes on HBO Max.