Freedom Was the Reward: A Conversation With Alan Poul

Alan Poul has a distinguished career as teller of queer narratives. As an American film and television producer and director, he was the driving force behind all four television adaptations of Armistead Maupin’s celebrated “Tales of the City” books, from the beloved 1993 original, starring Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney, to the most recent iteration which aired on Netflix in 2019.

Other producing and directing credits include megahit shows like “Six Feet Under,” “The Newsroom,” “Swingtown,” “My So-Called Life,” “Westworld,” and “Grace and Frankie.” He has been the recipient of an Emmy, a Golden Globe, two Producers Guild Awards, three Peabody Awards, and six GLAAD Awards. He is currently the executive producer and director of HBO Max’s upcoming series “Tokyo Vice.”

Poul’s film producing credits include Paul Schrader’s “Mishima,” Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain,” Bernard Rose’s “Candyman,” Scott Winant’s “Til There Was You,” Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Los Locos,” Skip Woods’ “Thursday,” and Fina Torres’ “Woman on Top.” He made his feature directing debut in 2010 with “The Back-up Plan” starring Jennifer Lopez and Alex O’Loughlin.

Before he moved to Los Angeles to explore a career in entertainment, he was a devotee of the underground disco scene in New York City and a charter member of The Saint. I spoke with him in November 2020 about his New York days (and nights), about the complicated narratives of AIDS and gay liberation in America, “Tales of the City,” and the painful divisions that exist between gay men of different generations.

How is it out there? Because New York’s doing pretty OK. 

I hear New York is OK. L.A. is kind of messed up. Because the numbers haven’t gone down enough to let things open up to a new phase. We have a house in P-town, and we were up there for all of July. And while we were up there,  the numbers dropped and they re-opened L.A. They opened up the gyms and they opened up restaurants to indoor dining, and then the numbers spiked and they closed it all down again, and they still haven’t opened anything up . So being  in Massachusetts, you know, restaurants are open, gyms are open, but it’s not like that here. It’s still like — we’ve been eating in  parking lots.

Yeah, my first workout in, like, four months was at Mussel Beach at P-town. 

We were just back up there in September for three weeks, and I went to Mussel Beach every day, and it was like, oh my God, I’m back in shape! Oh my god! It’s my well-being, you know? I had shoulder surgery in June, so I’ve just been recovering enough that I can actually lift weights again. It was great. And then I come back to L.A. and I can’t go anywhere. It’s freaking me out a little bit.

Yeah, I know that freak out. Well, I was talking to [the owner of The Saint at Large] about you and I know you both work in the same industry. Is that how you know him?

Oh, I’ve known him for, like, I don’t want to say how many years because it’ll give away our ages. But I’ve known him since back in the day. 

Through work? Through The Saint at Large? 

Through The Saint at Large. And even before that. Let me think. I took him to lunch because I remember it was a very interesting lunch. Sometime in the mid-nineties, probably.

Oh, so while you were working on Tales of the City

It was sort of right after that. But the company that I was working with, I was covering all of their like, low-budget films. And so I was there for years after Tales. For most of the nineties.

Well, here’s what I’m trying to do. I’m recording conversations and dialogue with people who either experienced the Saint or figures from that time period and who can comment on its cultural importance. Many writings we have about this as well as a lot of firsthand accounts are from people who weren’t necessarily part of the core culture of the Saint. You know, the hardcore attendance guys. Just because, I think, a lot of those guys aren’t around anymore. And [the owner of The Saint at Large] said you’re one of those guys.

I was there on opening night.

You were?

Yeah. I was what they called a charter member. So I had my own locker.

Can you tell me about opening night?

Yeah, but first can you just — let’s just backtrack. Can you tell me a little bit about the project that you’re working on?

Sure. [The owner of the Saint at Large] wants to create more content for the Saint at Large. Not long ago, the Saint Foundation was started up and his goals are — he wants to be able to use the extensive archives we have and create something like a nightlife archive or possibly a nightlife museum. And right now that’s just taking the form of digital content, everything that we can digitize. So music and art and photos and so on. I’m just a writer. I’m not a historian. I write for the Advocate magazine and a few other places. I wrote about the Saint at Large and about the Black Party last year and that’s how I met [the owner of the Saint at Large] last year, and he recently asked me to work on content. That’s sort of what I do. I manage blogs for a few clients and create more social media content. And I’m fascinated with gay history. And so I’m just documenting conversations.

So this is content that then would be made available through the Saint at Large website? Is that the idea? Are you — you’re not necessarily working on a book?

No, not working on a book. Although a lot of people have asked me that, so maybe I should. [laughs] Actually, it’s gonna be going on the blog, which I just started. It just went live on the 40th anniversary of the Saint opening.

Cool.

Yeah. I’m actually working on a book, but it’s my own, it’s not for The Saint at Large.

So this is for content.

This is for content. Yeah.

Got it. Okay. Cool.

Yeah. Any questions?

No, I just didn’t know. Who else have you been talking to about stuff about the Saint? It’s true that most of my — I’m gonna get emotional at some point during this, so I apologize in advance, because most of the the people that I went to the Saint with and who were my hardcore posse in those days are not around anymore.

Yeah.

I mean, I have a photo that somebody — what was the date of the Saint opening?

September 20th.

What year?

1980.

Okay, so I have a photo from Halloween of 1980. It was the first Halloween at the Saint. And my best buddies and I — we —  there were seven of us, and we went as a pumpkin patch, and we all had matching pumpkin customs. And then we just went out into the middle of the dance floor and sat down and just stayed there, and it became like, a big thing. And I have a photo of the seven of us before we went to the Saint. Like once we got all dressed up, we took that photo. And to the best of my knowledge there’s one other person in that photo who’s still alive. But that’s it. So, yeah. In terms of background, I moved to New York from — I moved to New York in 1976, right after college. And my first year in New York, I spent, like, circling around the real underground gay disco scene. I rarely went to more above-ground places and bars. I mean, I was 22. I was just finding my way. I shared an apartment with a roommate who cut hair out of the apartment and who was a bona fide disco denizen then, and so the weekend after I moved into his apartment, he took me under his wing. He was older, and he said, Okay, I’m gonna take you out. And he took me to Flamingo. And at that time, basically, this is just after the 10th Floor, you know, which was the big place, you know, that Dancer From the Dance is based on. And before that, there was [Le Jardin]. You know, you probably know the history of the underground clubs. So at the time, in around ’77 it was 12 West and Paradise Garage and Flamingo. Flamingo was the most exclusive, the hardest one to get a membership card to— you know, it’s at the corner of Broadway and Houston, and it was not that big, but it was, you know, very male, very overall white. And it was hardcore drugs and discoing, but it was completely underground. In the sense that it was a place you’d go to if you might be a doctor or a lawyer or a high-end fashion executive during the day or a banker. But you go there and you would shed your skin literally, you know, and all your inhibitions were gone, and everybody took a lot of drugs, and it got, like, very sexy and down and dirty. And it was amazing. I was 22 or 23 years old when I walked in there, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. That was my introduction to the underground disco scene. And that was like, one of the greatest moments I can remember. So immediately I  started going back regularly, and eventually I got my own membership card, and  that’s where my friends came from. And that was my weekend world with partying, sometimes other clubs, but almost always Flamingo with the same group of people, and consuming a lot of drugs. It wasn’t an above-ground club. It was a place where I wasn’t trying to hide.  What made the Saint different is that it was really out in front of the world. And it was huge. It was also, you know, 10 times the size of any of the clubs before. We went opening night and we couldn’t believe that there was a locker room. And we had lockers that we could stash our drugs and our clothes in And everybody was so gobsmacked by the size of the dance floor, plus all the balconies. It was like people were used to being in much darker, lower-ceiling, cramped places. So there was this incredible sense of the sky having opened, literally, and of us having arrived somewhere in a big way. And then at some point during the night, during a peak moment of the DJ set, they turned off all the lights and put on the planetarium machine — because, you know, there was a fully-operational planetarium machine in the middle of the floor. I mean, of course people were high, but people literally fell over because they thought the floor was moving. I mean, they were — you just — in that moment, in that first moment, it was so hard to understand what was happening. I can’t even relate it to you in terms of the ground and the stars and people on the floor. And then, of course, it became a huge moment of jubilation and elation, because it was money being spent for 1980 high-tech, money being spent to create this out-of-this-world experience for a bunch of gay people. Nobody had ever experienced anything like that. So essentially, from that moment on, it was the Saint. And in that moment, you know, on that one night, it was like all the rest of the clubs fell away as being something from an earlier era, almost less-than, and the Saint just took over and began to dominate the night life.

Wow. I spoke with a DJ from that night and he said that everybody just gasped. Instead of cheers, it was just like a gasp across 5000 people, which I can’t even imagine what that sounds like. Must have been an incredible moment.

I mean, it was just the sense that — just vertigo, because nobody in their right mind knew what was going to  happen. It was physically disorienting. It was like somebody had the foresight and the wherewithal to create a theme park just for us.

And you went back. How long were you a member?

When did it close?

1988.

Four years later I started traveling and I left New York for a year. And then I was traveling a lot after that, and so I  fell out of the rotation. And then in ’87 I moved to L.A. And also, by the time we got to ’84, for me, the party was kind of  over because I was losing so many people. To go out to the places and be so aware of the missing souls on the dance floor, you couldn’t have that sense of joy there. It just was out of reach by that point. I think I still went sporadically, but it got darker. And then, by ’85, I was pretty much out of the scene. And by ’87 I flat-out left New York. I moved to L.A. It was partly for career reasons.t I knew I wanted to work in films. But also I just couldn’t bear being on the streets in New York.

Yeah, I’ve spoken to a few people who — for some the Saint is inseparable from a very dark memory. It’s brought up some dark conversations.

People remember the wonder but that wonder is coupled with loss. So, so many of my available memories from the Saint involved people who are not around.. And it’s all — I mean, for me, the sense of loss was more acute on the Island. You know, those are two sides of the same coin, you know, Flamingo in the winter, or then eventually the Saint, and then the Island in the summer. And it was in the Pines where — because it’s daylight, and that’s where you became so aware of people who were not doing well and people who were gone and people who couldn’t come, and it became unseemly to be having that wild abandon without compunction in front of large crowds of people when everybody knew what was happening.

That sounds a bit like this current moment we’re in now. Does it feel similar?

Yes and no. I’m sure you’ve heard this but — there are moments where COVID evokes what happened in the HIV years. But mostly it points out the differences. It’s a study in contrasts. Even though in both eras there was a lot of idiocy, with HIV there was a conscious effort on the part of society-at-large to ignore the illness and to wish it away. And yeah, I guess Trump is trying to wish COVID away, too. But in our case, it was an entire community decimated because nobody wanted to help us. Which is a very different situation than trying for political reasons to minimize what is actually a very dangerous pandemic. And I know the number of deaths fromCOVID are staggering, but it’s spread out across the entire United States, affecting everyone. And really, it’s not HIV. HIV killed everyone and killed them miserably, and it decimated gay communities in big cities. And the whole world’s mobilizing against COVID, but it was hard to get anybody to mobilize against HIV. And if you have a positive test for COVID you immediately tell people, but if you had a positive test for HIV, your first impulse was to hide it because it was going to become a huge stigma in your life.

I don’t know if that necessarily went away. I tested positive at 21 and tried to hide it.

Yeah, but I mean now, more recently because of PrEP — 

Oh, it’s totally changed the game, even in just the seven years I’ve been positive. Those first two years, the pre-PrEP years, were vastly different than after it became part of the lexicon.

Yeah.

I’m looking through my notes. You experienced the opening party. Did you go to the closing party?

Do you know when that was?

In ’88.

I don’t think I was at the close, but I was — you know, I was always at the Black Party.

Have any wild stories? Everybody has a favorite performance and for most people I’ve talked to, their favorite night was Grace Jones. But I haven’t heard a lot of Black Party stories.

No, not a specific story. At Flamingo in the day every year there was a Black Party, and a White Party, so those color-themed parties started there. And the White Party was always upbeat. And the Tropicana party was like Hawaiian shirts and kind of kitschy and probably a little more Latino-infused. But the Black Party always related to leather and sex, but then it it sort of took a quantum leap at the Saint because of the balconies. It was like having an enormous backroom be part of the club. There was always some sex going on in the balcony, but it would be off the hook at the Black Party. 

I’ve heard that over time they started to crack down on the sex. Did you ever experience any of that? Mailman is quoted with saying in multiple magazines that he had people walking through to break up the sex. But then again, I have anecdotes from people who were attendees who say that wasn’t true.

I never saw it. But again, I was mostly there in earlier years. I guess the later years they might have — what went on at the clubs before the Saint never broke the surface with regard to the press. And then in the Saint, suddenly there was a much larger population that was let in, so things surfaced much more easily. That wasn’t the case in the earlier clubs. There was a kind of a code of secrecy, because in those days, in the seventies, the people who went to clubs like Flamingo were mostly in the closet in their day jobs.

Sure.

And then you get into the eighties and that’s where things began to change. More and more people being out .

I’ve heard people say that the club was representative of gay men’s shifting place in culture because it was so public. Did you feel like that was true?

I felt it was tremendously empowering for people. The Saint wasn’t really an underground club in the way the places like Flamingo or the Garage had really been underground clubs.

Mhmm.

And so it was part and parcel of the shifting identities of men and women in New York, where it became much more  matter of fact to be out. I was always out at work, but I mean, really, I was working in fields where it didn’t matter. ou can still refer to the gay culture of those times as a subculture. But in the seventies, it was a subculture in the sense that it was actually underground. In that people walking on the surface of mainstream culture would not be aware of what was going on. And when you get to the eighties, the public aware of it.

And if someone is researching all this now, why is this important? If you were having a conversation with someone who was brand new to gay culture and and did not know this history, as I think a lot of people do not, especially those younger than me, how would you speak about the Saint or even just the climate of New York at that time?

It’s something — I’m gonna go back a few steps, if that’s OK. For the generations before I grew up and came out and for some time  after, there was a great oral tradition in the gay world, in the gay subculture, so to speak, of handing down history and handing down traditions. And, you know, people learned from their forebears. Even though they were people who lived closeted lives, they still often lived lives of great joy, and sometimes danger and terror. And when you get to the early eighties, that culture became more and more above-ground and there wasn’t — it didn’t have to be so much of a secret handshake anymore, but what also happened was that then it exploded. The oral traditions went kind of radio silent for some years because we were just dealing with our sick and our dead. And then, when we began to come out on the other side, there was a generation gap that was created with the young people who came of age after the crisis. Once the HIV drug  cocktails came into play, young people didn’t want to know. I know that this is very generalizing, and there are of course exceptions. But overall, young people didn’t want to know. They didn’t want to hear how much we suffered….. so they could  have this freedom. Nobody wants to hear that from their parents’ generation.

Oh. I think a lot of them still don’t.

Oh, what I’m talking about, this is still today. It hasn’t stopped and it’s gotten worse and worse. And so there’s a generation gap in the gay world.t’s the sense that, ‘I don’t want to hear your sob stories about AIDS. I don’t know anybody who ever got sick, and maybe I have some friends who are positive, but they’re on PrEP, so it doesn’t really matter. And so I don’t wanna hear about death and sickness and all that.’ But for those of us who are over 50, it’s part of our personalities. Our adult selves were forged in that crucible, and it’s a part of us. You can’t take it away. And the fact that people don’t wanna hear it shared has created a division, a generational division within gay men. And there is resentment and some hostility on both sides of it. It’s very painful to me. And, for starters, it’s one of the reasons — I don’t know if you watched the recent version of Tales of the City on Netflix?

Of course. It was beautiful.

That scene with the “A-Gays”, , the dinner party that Andy Parker wrote so brilliantly, and that’s the dialogue that’s happening. You know what I’m talking about?

Yes.

All the old gays are talking about trannies and this and that, and then, you know, Mouse’s young boyfriend Ben objects to their terminology, and it becomes a standoff, which isn’t just like — it’s not just telling the old queens that they need to get wise. We’re on both sides, and Stephen Spinella gives this ferocious speech about how, you know, your newfound sensitivity and political correctness and entitlement was built over the dead bodies of everybody we knew, and there’s real anger in there. That dialogue is not happening, and somebody needs to poke it with a stick a little bit. But going back to why it’s so important to tell these stories is that, in hindsight and for younger generations, they’re going to  automatically connect the dots in the same way that straight society connects the dots, which is that the  seventies was the ‘me’ decade. There was gay liberation, but it led to a lot of hedonism, and out of that mindless hedonism came AIDS, and then a bunch of people died. And that’s not the correct connecting of the dots to me. It’s so important to undo that automatic line of thought and make people understand that. It’s the assumption that  from the moment people started going to disco clubs and fucking like crazy on Fire Island, that suddenly AIDS was on the horizon and was some version of the wages of our sin. But it wasn’t on the horizon. And it’s not the correct interpretation. For the  generation of people who grew up in the closet and who lived through it, it’s wrong. We began to see the beginnings of what it meant to go out in the street and say, I’m gay, when that was such a revolutionary thing to do, and that sexual freedom was the reward. This was the personal liberation that came from being able to go where you want to go and do what you want to do and fuck who you want, and it’s not — there was a huge sense of uplift and communal personal empowerment that came out of that. And it wasn’t preordained that it would end with death and disaster. It was not preordained or deserved. It’s just something that happened. But the virus doesn’t have the right to retroactively color the wonder and the joy and the burst of creativity that came out of those years and continues to impact us all. So  many of the creative geniuses of that period are tragically not with us, but their work remains, and it came out of that culture. And so I feel like the younger generation’s AIDS denialism becomes  denialism towards the culture of dancing and joy that preceded it. And it’s a historical injustice.

That’s powerful. That’s a beautiful way of putting it.

Thank you.

A lot of people don’t talk about that. Especially about — what did you say — bitterness. Bitterness on both sides of of that, I hesitate to say, cultural divide.

I have friends in New York who are from the old days. You know, we were the ones  lucky enough to survive, and I still see them when I’m there. And yet, on Tales of the City, I was also working to connect with and represent the younger queer generation. And it’s not — there is a younger generation of guys who still party the same way, and  rank people by hotness, and go to the Island or whatever. But there’s a much larger younger generation that is genuinely much more fluid, less binary. And they look at us as the ones who forced people into into declaring, Are you gay or not gay. Because once you were branded, you were branded, and it was a binary world. There weren’t other choices. But now there are more choices for people and they’re able to make those choices at much earlier ages, so they  look at their own sexuality in much more flexible ways. And I think that’s an extraordinary thing.  Yet some of my older friends in New York  don’t want to hear about ‘nonbinary’ and don’t want to have to learn to use the pronoun they. And that’s also inappropriate.

I was writing for Advocate as it started making the decision to use ‘queer.’ And it was so contentious. We got brutal comments on articles when we started saying the word ‘queer.’ And I’ll be totally honest, I wasn’t fully in favor of doing it, just because you know that more than 50% of the readership is people who remember it as a slur. It felt kind of needlessly inflammatory. But I also understand both perspectives of it, and I don’t know — I don’t know if a later generation has a right to tell an earlier generation that your understanding of a word is wrong.

You know, language is a living thing, and it changes. And in the moment when things are changing, it can be tough to accept, and for valid reasons. But look at what’s happened with the word ‘queer.’ 

Oh, completely. There’s nothing inflammatory about it.

And I’m like, I had to learn it because, for self-respecting gay men, ‘queer’ was what other people called us. And so we did. We called each other fags, too,  as a way of taking a word and co-opting it and changing the meaning.

New power. Yeah.

But you had to understand that it was hard for people of my generation to understand that younger people didn’t want to use the labels ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ because they belong to another era. Because they already seem to indicate the compartmentalization of choice.

I understand.

That’s interesting, how language changes and people will always resist it. But somehow, you know, time is a great leveler.I don’t think anybody objects to ‘queer’ now. But there was a passage involved in having it earn that acceptance.

I don’t know. I mean, up until very recently, I saw the comments, and I ran a column, a sex column on The Advocate online for a while, and even up until 2017 we would get some angry comments from people objecting to the word ‘queer.’

Older?

Yeah.

I mean, that’s going to happen. You got to expect that. But it is common usage.

Yes, it’s common now.

When Lauren Morelli, who was the show runner on Tales of the City, and I were scouting in New York and setting things up there, at one point, we were talking with an older gay gentleman about a store that focuses on unisex clothing. And he said, ‘Oh, this store is fantastic, and the trannies all love it.’ And because it was somebody of my generation, I knew there was nothing wrong with his intent. But, you know, Lauren is younger than I am, and I saw her bristle.In  Tales of the City those older gays  weren’t necessarily intending malice. But they didn’t understand how hurtful the language was

The most recent 2019 Tales of the City — correct me if I’m wrong — that’s the only one that’s not based on one of the books, right?

It’s springboarded. Armistead wrote a final trilogy of books. You know, Michael Tolliver Lives, Mary Ann in Autumn, and The Days of Anna Madrigal. And we took some of the younger generation of characters from those books. Like Jake, r Shawna. They were in the newer books. But we added more characters to the younger generation who had not been in the books. And then we brought it  into the present, butall with Armistead’s  participation and approval.

Does [Maupin] still have a place in P-town? Or did I just think he had a place in P-town?

I don’t think so, but Armistead still comes in and does, ‘an evening with’ kind of events. He’s living in the U.K., in London. But, you know, my husband and I got married in P-town three years ago, and Armistead officiated our wedding.

Oh, no way. That sounds lovely. I love P-town. Well, hey, thank you for all this.

Yeah. If you think of anything else you wanna ask me, I’m around. And, like I said, my own memories can be a little shaky. Some things are crystal clear and some things I have to kind of fish for.

You were great. This also isn’t a traditional interview. I’ve done many editorial interviews, you know, when you’re interviewing somebody for a magazine piece and you assume certain information and you ask questions to get that information. And I really don’t want to do that. I’ve worked very hard to not do that. Like I said, I just want to preserve dialogues between people who experienced the culture and the music and a place, good and bad. My generation and the generation behind me really have a weak link to our past, as I guess you know. When I tested positive, single-pill regimens were already available. So I had to learn the history of my disease from the cushy life of someone who will never really have to worry about my virus progressing to AIDS. I can’t imagine testing positive when — 

When there was no effective treatment.

I can’t even imagine. Somebody I talked to two weeks ago kept an account of all the friends he lost. And he said his list alone was more than 2700 people.

I used to have an address book. It was one of those books where you put in the little address slips with a single entry on them. And every time somebody passed, I would pull their entry out and store it in a pocket in the front of the book. And at a certain point, the stack got to be too big to fit in the pocket. And I was seriously having a breakdown about it. This was shortly before I left New York. And so one night I just, um, I just ripped up all those loose pages and kind of, you know, scattered them because I just couldn’t —  I felt like it was just weighing on me, making it hard to breathe. And I regretted it immediately  because I wanted that record. But I have since kept a little notebook with the names of who I remember,, and when  people appear to me in some dream or memory. I jot down the name of the person I’ve lost, and I have mostly recreated the list over the years. 

I have no context for what that’s like. I don’t even think I know 2700 people. But I also recognize that the only reason why I had a single pill regimen available to me when I tested positive is because of you and your generation. And ACT UP. Well, hey, I appreciate it. And if I have any other specific questions, I’ll let you know. OK?

It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Alex. Clearly done your work, and you’re very sensitive about it. And you have a measured point of view that I wish more people of your generation have.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s