Dónal Ferris chats to Morgan Jon Fox, director of Feral about his inspiration behind the show and how he found himself working with new streaming service Dekkoo.
TQ: Hi Morgan. First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I really loved the show and it is a pleasure to be able to interview you. My first question is -what was your main inspiration behind the show?
Morgan Jon Fox: So I got a phone call around 2 years ago from the head of TLA Releasings who put out my last documentary. He said “Hey I am launching this new service, it’ll be like a gay Netflix and we want some original content”
I really quickly put together three pitches the day before I left for Ireland for a trip with my fiancé and we had been in Ireland only a few days when we got greenlit for Feral. The reason why this was amongst one of my pitches was because I had been wanting to figure out a way to tell the story of growing up as a young twenty something in the south, as an artist, someone who didn’t have very much money, always having roommates etc. That kind of artist trying to figure out myself and trying to figure out just who are the family I can trust.
That was my experience in my 20s and that’s where the title Feral comes from. Like a feral cat, that’s what I felt like in my 20s. I wasn’t homeless but it was a real time and space where I was trying to figure myself out, and wherever I was at one time was my home and what group of friends I walked around with were my family, and that was kinda where the show came out of.
Did you draw on any personal experiences when creating the show?
My early work can be seen as pretty autobiographical whereas the stuff I am making at this point in my life has started to draw away from that – still using the stuff I am drawn to, but trying to really translate that into characters that aren’t me. But yes, certainly I think one thing I think is very accurate is that I know a great deal of people who have suffered with mental illness and often they were not issues that were being dealt with because the person was gay. It wasn’t like “I’m gay and suicidal because I can’t accept myself” or because people can’t accept me. This person just happens to have a mental illness, and happens to deal with depression in a certain way, and so I know many people who have had that experience or loved people who have had mental illness as well as the issue of drugs and drug addiction. These are experiences that I have seen and witnessed and/or personally dealt with but none of it is autobiographical in some sort of strategic sense.
That was my experience in my 20s and that’s where the title Feral comes from. Like a feral cat, that’s what I felt like in my 20s. I wasn’t homeless but it was a real time and space where I was trying to figure myself out and wherever I was at one time was my home and what group of friends I walked around with were my family and that was kinda where the show came out of.
It appeared at times that some of the dialogue in the series appeared to be improvised by the actors – was this so and if yes what convinced you to take this approach?
I tend to write half a script that is fully scripted and have dialogue with a traditional script and the other half is very detailed descriptions of what happens in the scene both physically but also emotionally, and so the reason I do that is I generally cast people who are close enough to their characters. For example, Billy who plays the film director has never made a movie in his life but he is a queer guy who grew up in Memphis so he knows how to talk like and act like the general person who is existing in that space. I often found that some scenes do not require me to put words into the mouth of a person who is existing in that space. However, what it is really important to me is during rehearsals is to do a lot of character development. I really never rehearse actual scenes but more rehearse thematics and do character building workshops between the actors, so that in a moment of improvisation they are pulling off of actual experiences that we have had during rehearsals.
What drew you to selling the rights to Feral to an online streaming site rather than to a major TV network? Was this always your intention?
I had spent about five years working for another director, helping him develop stuff and doing some producing and I had worked on a documentary for 6 years so this sort of fell into place really quickly. In this situation it was sort of like, OK this is happening, let’s go. There was no real time to shop it around or look at other homes for it. So really it was just that they were the first to the table and they were willing to give me lots of freedom to work on it and let me make it the way I wanted to.
At the same time I now have five new properties that I am currently going out everywhere to pitch. I am entertaining all options. Certainly companies like Amazon and Netflix have changed the game and with companies like Dekkoo popping up with specified content and not to have be to held down by advertising and having to be limited by fitting in to a certain block of 30 minutes or an hour. Also, with censoring we didn’t have to deal with any of those problems you do have to deal with when working with a network. I am not anti-network but I do love the freedom of being able to make what I want to make how I want to make it, with a company that celebrates that.
How have you found the reception to the series?
So far luckily we have had really positive feedback. As it’s out longer and gets more exposure there will be haters on the internet and people who like to say negative things. I am aware of that – it always happens but so far I feel really positive about it. It really is my hope that more people get to see it. I mean Dekkoo is a new company. I would just rather have more eyes on it. The type of story I want to tell is not the type of story that is told a lot, you know, something that is regional, of the south. The biggest shows that exist that have gay characters in them, other than a show like Looking, they tend to have very stereotypical gay characters in them. Like a token gay that’s funny or super safe because they’re the gay best friend or whatever it might be. In the American South there is a real stereotype about the bible belt and what it’s like to live in the south in America and I think people will be surprised potentially by seeing this story.
I am not anti-network but I do love the freedom of being able to make what I want to make how I want to make it with a company that celebrates that.
Do you see a second series in the pipeline for Feral?
Yeah, they (Dekkoo) have expressed interest in it. There has been no official announcement or anything like that but I certainly see more development with the characters. I have already started to envision that and outline that in a rough way as I tend to do and I am just kinda waiting on their thumbs up and a green light to go forth with it.
What do you think of the current state of LGBTQ+ representation in the media? Do you find it a positive that we seem to be more realistically represented as compared to being the comic relief as it has often been in the past?
I think representation is positive in general as long as it’s not totally hurtful. Things have come a long way. You’ve got teenagers now who are gay characters and representing those coming out stories, they are treated in a serious way – not just like some teen who is suicidal or super messed up. So they’re affording the same type of emotional space that other characters are, slowly. Not maybe as leads but as side characters so that’s incredible.
You have a background of directing documentaries and films – what drew you to taking on a TV show?
At the very beginning of TV and web series and these sort of things starting to happen I worked on a TV show called $5 Cover here in Memphis. That was kinda before these things became popular but even around that time, around 2007-ish I began to develop ideas that were kinda in that realm. Even early versions of Feral I was thinking of as early as 2007. Also at that time it was really difficult to get shows and episodics going and it was easier for me as a DIY queer director in those. One of the things I find really refreshing in TV shows is that you can cling on to a character and you can find more about them over time. It was something I wanted to get into for a while, so as soon as that door open I jumped on it and I love that you can potentially tell the story over several seasons and continue to invest with these characters and follow them.
You’ve got teenagers now who are gay characters and you know representing those coming out stories, they are treated in a serious way – not just like some teen who is suicidal or super messed up.
What makes a TV show or film great for you? Are there certain qualities that make them better for you?
I can go and watch a Bourne movie and really enjoy it or go watch Avengers or any of these big budget action movies and really enjoy it, and view that as a different experience. It’s almost like going to the fair and riding an incredible ride, like going to Disneyland. It’s great and it’s a lot of fun but to me great film is film I can tell is that somehow cracks through to the human condition. There’s something about watching and having the wall between me and this content breaking away and I am absorbed in a way that I am watching human beings experiencing something and I am dropped right in the middle of that situation. There’s something really great about that for me.
Do you think services like Dekkoo are a sort of antidote to a lack of creativity in Hollywood?
I think it’s clear that Hollywood, if we can refer to them as one big machine, is only concerned about its bottom line. Most companies who are in it to make money are, but Hollywood’s bottom line is a lot bigger than other companies who have direct access to their customers. A Hollywood studio has to go ten steps before it gets to the consumer, whereas a company like Netflix, Dekkoo or Amazon can figure out more quickly and directly what their subscribers and viewers want. As a result they can take more risks because they are only having to serve their own bottom line and not the bottom line of theatres round the country, or advertisers, or other financiers who may have put in money. All those things are out of the door so they are able to take more risks both in the content they create and the size of the projects.
A Hollywood studio can’t make an $100,000 TV show. They just can’t do it – it makes no sense for their model. Their only real hope for survival for the future is to make these sort of movies that they hope will make a billion dollars. You know, whereas as Dekkoo can make something a lot smaller and hope it turns around and allows them to survive.
Where did your passion for TV and film making come from? Was there a particular movie you saw that made you think “This is what I want to do?”
Dead Poets Society was the first movie I ever saw as an adult or a teenager that made me… it was such a strange movie. It had a very depressing ending. Terrible things happen but there is so much hope at the end of that movie and it made me cry like a baby and for the first time ever something had impacted me like that.
I remember writing in a journal “I hope someday I can create a movie that affects people in the way that this movie affected me”.
Though, I put that aside and when I saw Wild Reeds that seeing a queer character and that literally was my coming out moment, the moment I realised that’s all the things I felt or all the friends I fell in love with, or whatever over time – “Oh I’m gay” and I only knew that because I saw it in a movie. That was an insanely huge deal in my life and so that’s the moment I was like “That’s what I wanna do”. So I started writing that script for my first film Blue Citrus Hearts.
Do you feel a certain amount of responsibility as an LGBTQ+ director to tell certain stories?
Certainly when I was younger I felt a responsibility as I felt my life was changed by the movies I saw and I truly desired only to give back. I felt a lot of pain with losing my mother at a young age and coming out and not being able to be open with that. To have that freedom from just seeing a movie was so crazy to me. It was so magical. It didn’t solve all my problems, but it fixed so many years of not being to able define or explain what I was going through. As I grew older I still truly desire to tell stories about queer folk who are off the grid a bit.
I remember writing in a journal “I hope someday I can create a movie that affects people in the way that this movie affected me”.
DF: Morgan, thank you so much for your time for this interview and I look forward to your next project and hopefully a second series of Feral.
Click here for more information on how to watch Feral.