DIVA chats to writer and director Jane Marlow all about her new TV pilot, They Them Us

BY SOPHIE GRIFFITHS

They Them Us is a new LGBTQI drama exploring the main character Suze’s journey towards acceptance when it comes to gender identity. It’s incredibly raw and honest in its exploration of what it means to not fall within the rigid binaries of gender. 

Suze has everything a young LGBTQI woman could hope for. A partner she adores, a great job with prospects, a group of friends she hangs out with and her football team, Victoria Park Women’s FC.

Still, there’s one fundamental thing Suze lacks: a certainty about her gender identity. 

Suze has contained and justified her discomfort for years but when her secret gets out, their journey in series one towards a non-binary they/them identity comes with powerful and challenging consequences. 

It features the music of Lots Holloway and Heather Peace and some hugely talented actors from the LGBTQI community and we can’t wait to see the full series one day soon. We caught up with the writer and director, Jane Marlow, to find out more about this ground-breaking series. 

DIVA: Where did the idea for the show come from? 

JANE MARLOW: They Them Us was inspired by a conversation I had with a young friend who was questioning his sexuality and gender identity in a way that was unheard of when I was a young gay woman, when really there were pretty much only two options – straight or gay. The claustrophobia he felt by having to nail down his identity was so powerful I felt there was a poignant and contemporary story to be told that speaks to the experience of this generation. 

When did the writing process begin and how long did it take? 

Authenticity is key to me as a writer. Having discussed the germ of the idea with my producer, Virginia Orr, we decided to run some workshops with LGBTQI actors as well as straight actors to explore themes and ideas and discover what the strongest story was to emerge. Early in my career I trained and worked as a professional actor so thought it would be a really creative way to develop the project. 

How did the idea develop? 

The story that felt fresh and really dynamic focussed on a gay woman’s journey towards a non-binary identity. It wasn’t a story that had been explored extensively on screen, so I created the character of Suze. She’s in her mid-twenties, she has a partner she adores, a great job, a group of friends she hangs out with and her after-work football team. There’s one fundamental thing she lacks: a certainty about her gender identity. When her gender confusion is exposed in episode one, it kicks off a journey that impacts on her friends and relationship. I wanted to play the story out among a group of friends and my experience writing for shows such as Hollyoaks and EastEnders was invaluable when creating the characters’ story strands. The idea is that each season would pivot to put a different person in our group in the spotlight. As a writer, I’m kind of obsessed about portraying female identifying characters as active wherever I can and busting gender stereotypes; using a women’s amateur football team as one of the backdrops not only provided great story further down the line, but also a dynamic setting. 

How was the casting process? 

Long! We started talking to actors in July last year having put an ad on an industry website. We were inundated with applications and created a shortlist of actors who we read audition scenes with on Skype initially. We narrowed that group down again and held two workshop groups with some fantastic actors from diverse backgrounds. There’s a big debate around casting LGBTQI actors in LGBTQI roles and we felt that was really important to our core queer characters of Suze, Brook and comedian Jaxon. Our cast was phenomenal and gave performances that were brilliantly detailed and so natural. One industry professional said the show is “effortlessly diverse” which was a comment we were really proud of. 

The show has great representation of the queer community – why is it important to you that we share these experiences and stories on TV?

The stories and characters we see on TV have such a powerful effect on shaping our worldview and also making people feel recognised and connected. They also help people understand that everyone’s experience is different. I think the first time I saw my experience reflected back at me on TV was the lesbian kiss on Brookside (I’m not going to even guess at the year!) The excitement of watching Desert Hearts, devouring The L Word was huge. Even though there are more LGBTQI characters on TV now, I think we still have to work at telling our stories. In They Them Us the experience is specific, but I think the emotions that go with it around identity – who am I, where do I belong – are universal. 

Did writing a non-binary narrative come naturally to you? 

Researching the character made me appreciate how tough it is for someone to disassociate themselves from identifying as either one gender or the other. The binary is everywhere and gender fluidity can be seen as destabilising as it challenges the status quo. Suze’s journey opened up a rich narrative that I hope will be emotionally engaging and thought-provoking. When it came to dialogue, changing how to use language that’s engrained in us takes time and it’s details like this that make the show so important. 

Was there a lot of research involved, did you consult anyone? 

Research was key and I spoke to some non-binary people about their experience and was really lucky that a spec email to Fox Fisher at My Genderation requesting a chat, ended up with Fox becoming our story consultant on the pilot. 

What TV shows would you say this is similar to? 

I guess Mae Martin’s Feel Good treads similar ground, but ours is definitely a drama with multi-strand stories and not a comedy. There are laughs in there too and the banter you’d find between friends but ours is a grittier proposition, I think. 

How did you find the music for the show? 

The soundtrack is a huge part of the show and we were super excited when Lots Holloway agreed to let us theme the show with their music. I’m a huge fan – lyrically and musically, their sound is a perfect fit and adds so much. Big thanks also to Heather Peace for letting us use her track, Reckless, over the key scene in the show and even cast member Raychel Addo (Natasha) donated a track; we’re grateful to these talented artists. 

What have you learnt from the process of making the show? 

After the workshops we were so fired up about the idea and had found some amazing actors that we shot the pilot on a shoestring as a “proof of concept’” Having worked as an actor myself, it was really important to make the cast feel comfortable, supported and part of the process; they bonded so quickly which was fantastic and really shows on screen. Virginia and I had made a short film with Take Me Back, with filmmaker Nick Swannell which picked up a couple of awards, so we brought the team back together for this production with Nick as director of photography, camera and editor; planning and multi-tasking was key to making this a success. Shooting quickly puts everyone under pressure and our team spirit held strong – even on a cold November evening on a five-aside football pitch when rain stopped filming and we still had a crucial action sequence to shoot! 

What are your aspirations for They Them Us? 

The show has been picked up by Canadian LGBTQI television network OUTtv and this month will also be featured at an industry TV Festival in Fontainebleau, Série Series – via Zoom of course. We’re very excited about building a coproduction with creative partners for They Them Us and bringing this show we’re so passionate about to screen.  

Watch the trailer for They Them Us here and to watch the pilot email admin@donutfilms.uk.

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