Over the last couple of years, executive producers Jennifer Lane and Michael Williams have had their hands full. Working on two new seasons of Queer Eye, as well as a four-episode international season, Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!, the pair have always had an eye toward exciting locations and people with fresh perspectives that the show can celebrate.
Created by David Collins of Scout Productions, the Emmy-winning pop culture phenomenon centers on The Fab Five, a group of “make better” experts that travels from city to city, to shed a light on heroes within various communities, and help them improve upon their already extraordinary lives, by offering insights on grooming, design, culture and lifestyle, fashion, food and wine.
Filming in Kansas City, Missouri and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania between Seasons 3 and 5, with an Austin, Texas-based sixth season on the way, Lane and Williams have had their own mission with Queer Eye, not unlike the Fab Five, taking the experts’ spirit of love and acceptance across America and beyond, in building on an already substantial fan base.
In thinking through their experiences with the Queer Eye reboot to date, the EPs find that the joys of producing the series are essentially the same as they’ve ever been. “We love to touch people with these stories, and that people can open up. We try to just reach out to all groups, and show different ways of life, and how everyone interacts with each other for the good of all,” Williams says.
“I’m proud, too, of the fact that we remind people not to judge a book by its cover, that everyone has a story to tell, and everybody wants to be heard,” adds Lane. “And I think that’s something we do well.”
Below, the executive producers discuss the process they went through to put together Season 4, the challenges of shooting internationally (in the pre-COVID world), and how the pandemic will impact future seasons of Queer Eye.
DEADLINE: What kinds of conversation and planning went into Queer Eye Season 4?
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: First is picking the city. The first two seasons, we shot in Atlanta, and then for Seasons 3 and 4, where we were doing two seasons at a time, we were like, “Oh, we’re really doing great on the coasts, but we could use a better audience in Middle America.” We just thought, what better place to go than Middle, Middle America, right dead center? And we picked Kansas City, Missouri. I had experienced filming there years and years ago, and had a great time, and we went out and did some scouting, so that was where we got to start.
JENNIFER LANE: We throw a wide blanket to find the heroes. I think part of our charm is telling stories that haven’t been told before, finding heroes with voices and stories that are layered and complex, but also fresh. So, we do the blanket flyering of places where people meet and greet, whether it’s a coffee shop, or a hair salon, or a barbershop. There’s general outreach, and then also a very targeted outreach.
We connected with civic leaders. The film commissioner in Kansas City is just extraordinary; what a lucky thing. She immediately connected us with the mayor’s office, and those kinds of friends helped us to establish a very rich fabric of the people of Kansas City, because they were also interested in having us showcase the people of their town.
WILLIAMS: As a side note, when we first called Kansas City, inquiring, within I think 24 or 48 hours, the mayor personally did a video, addressing each of The Fab Five, and telling them why we had to come to Kansas City. And the film commissioner, Steph Scupham, was just amazing. We couldn’t have gotten more help and assistance.
DEADLINE: What is your approach to producing travel series? Even if you’re only traveling locally for a given season, that must be a challenge.
LANE: Usually, we just put our protractor down at the center of the city, and [go from there]. But even when we were in Atlanta, we went out to Athens [Georgia] for Skyler [Jay]’s episode. We went two and a half hours away for Sean Vanmeter’s episode. So, if the story’s right, we’ll chew up some of our production day for travel, if we have to. But it’s generally about a 60-mile radius we put on the city, to try to get rural stories, as well as urban stories. We really do strive, [too], to reflect the industry of the city, and the culture of the city in the stories we tell.
WILLIAMS: We have brainstorming sessions between all the producers and our brilliant, Emmy-winning casting team of, “Okay, what’s Kansas City? Barbecue. We have to do a barbecue story. We have to do something with a farm. Is there anything with jazz?” You take the city for what it’s known for and try to find people. So, we really try to not justuse the city as a backdrop, but use it as a backdrop, and take the people who have stories that are unique to that part of the country.
DEADLINE: One of the most poignant episodes in Season 4 sees grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness returning to his hometown of Quincy, Illinois, to celebrate the life and work of his selfless high school music teacher, Kathi Dooley. How did that episode come about?
LANE: When I first put the protractor down and discovered that Quincy was three and a half hours away [from Kansas City], we talked about how we could do this, and that meant that we’d have to spend the night up there, with the most stripped-down crew we could do. Normally, we take five days to shoot an episode; in this case, we took three. We knew we had to keep the costs down to make it sort of appealing, and initially, I drove up there a few times.
Actually, the idea started because there’s this picture on the internet of a kid in a Quincy cheerleading uniform. He’s taking a selfie in the mirror, and he wrote something like, “Thanks to Jonathan Van Ness, I can wear this uniform,” and I was like, “Ding, ding, ding.” I thought, “Oh my gosh, it’s going to be September, October. There’s going to be cheerleading tryouts. What if we got a kid who could mirror Jonathan’s story?”
So, I initially reached out to Jonathan’s mom. She put me in touch with his beloved music teacher, and I went up there to visit her, and the rest is history. I immediately had to sit down with the school superintendent to get approvals, and that is a daunting process, when you think about how hard it is to get into schools these days, with so much tragedy we’ve seen. So, it felt like a big get. We enjoyed great access to the school, which was also a surprise.
DEADLINE: How did producing that episode affect you?
LANE: I’m still stuck on Kathi Dooley. I think the scene where she’s clutching that damn braid in her hand was one of the most beautiful scenes ever. To have a woman who really opened herself up because she thought it would help the school, these are the heroes’ stories that we love to tell. And, gosh. That tear streaming down her face as she let go of her past was just incredible.
DEADLINE: Last year, you took The Fab Five to Japan for a special four-episode season. What inspired that? What were the logistics of putting the show together in a foreign country?
LANE: This was Scout’s brainchild, to go to Japan. I remember we had just started our third season in Kansas City, and Rob [Eric], the Creative Officer at Scout, had this idea that people are watching Netflix in Japan. What if we took The Fab Five to Japan? So then, it all started to roll forward. By December of that year, we were casting, and by January, we were in Japan.
Our first mission was to make sure that we found the right fixture in Japan, the production company that would help shepherd us through production, because we knew we didn’t want it to feel too one-sided. Part of Queer Eye’s effort in everything we do is to stay balanced, and in terms of our effort in Japan, that meant that we were going to travel with as few people as possible. We flew 12 people to Japan, besides The Fab Five, and the rest of the crew was Japanese. What fun that was.
WILLIAMS: It was great, and our biggest challenge was translation—obviously, you have translators, but how to shoot that, [in a situation where] we’re not the [only] audience. The series is really aimed at building up a Japanese audience, so you have their version, that I believe cut out the English, and our version, where our Fab Five would be speaking English. I think only one of [the heroes] spoke a little English, but most of them spoke no English at all. So, it was like one of The Fab Five would speak, the translator would translate, they would answer back. But when Jen and our post team cut it, they’re speaking English and they’re responding, so it just really flowed perfectly without the repeat of seeing the translator. We were really worried about it, and it just really flowed well.
LANE: Our show’s about The Fab Five, and their very intimate experience with the hero—generally, one person. And we knew that by introducing this sort of UN translator, that was just going to introduce a sixth character. Of course, Kiko [Mizuhara], the host, became sort of an invitation to ask questions, as a fish out of water, for The Fab Five. But in essence, we knew from the get that adding a character to The Fab Five’s experience with the hero would be perhaps too far outside of what we do best.
And it was so cool. Because we were shooting with two cameras cross-covering these conversations, all of a sudden, it forced…Let’s imagine Antoni [Porowski]’s talking to Yoko in her kitchen, and all of a sudden, they’re forced to stare at each other, while the translator [translates]. We told them they couldn’t look at the translator, because that would take them away from the scene. So, the guys told me that it became an incredible bonding experience. It was like, how cute was that result of that decision, that it actually made them feel incredibly close to the heroes?
DEADLINE: Was it tricky to pull off things like home transformations amidst an unfamiliar landscape?
LANE: There were a lot of different regulations in Japan, starting with the fact that they don’t like daunting paperwork. You know, when we’d hand over the location agreements, the Japanese are like, “Excuse me? I’m not signing that.” So, legally, there was that sort of adjusting the paperwork, and rewriting our agreements for the Japanese culture.
The other really funny thing is that the Japanese culture is really about synchronicity and flow. So, we would be trying to find a bakery, for example, for the Yoko episode, and not one bakery in town would want us to go shoot there, because they think it would disrupt their normal clientele.
WILLIAMS: Unlike the U.S., where it’s like, “Oh my God, I can be a part of this hit TV show and get more customers,” everyone there—restaurant owners, and other people—didn’t want any press. They didn’t want more people to come because it would displace their regulars. So, that was very surprising.
DEADLINE: Released last month, Season 5 was shot in Philadelphia. What stood out, in the experience of shooting this most recent season?
LANE: I think what stands out most was that it’s an urban environment. Philadelphia is a huge city, and not the richest city in America. So, right away, it felt to me like the heroes were less crunchy, less inclined to just be gullible about self-help talk. There was a little edge, so at first I was nervous about it, and then all of a sudden I was like, this is exactly what we embrace fully. It feels different. I kind of like to call it, “working class people that haven’t given up on the American dream.” You know, they’re like salt of the earth.
DEADLINE: Any new seasons of Queer Eye coming up will inevitably be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. That said, would you like to take on more international seasons in the future?
WILLIAMS: We’ve been talking about it, whether it’s our Fab Five traveling again, which I think they would like to do soon…We’ll see what their schedule is, and world travel right now, that’s sort of all up in the air. So, I think those talks will [happen] often. International versions with a different cast, I think there are talks about that, as well.
DEADLINE: How do you think the show will be different, post-COVID?
WILLIAMS: The show, I imagine—and we haven’t gotten into these detailed talks yet—will be different. Our show has a lot of hugging. It’s a lot of hugging in Queer Eye, and that may indeed change, especially with strangers. So, things are going to potentially look different. Whatever guidelines that we set, it’s going to be different.