Homo Horror

Christy Hall on bringing a queer teen lead to life in ‘I Am Not OK With This’

Sofia Bryant (left) and Sophia Lillis with Christy Hall on set. Photo by Nicola Goode

Sometimes overnight success doesn’t just happen overnight.

Just ask Christy Hall, the co-creator/producer/writer of Netflix‘s newest foray into sci-fi, I Am Not Ok With This, debuting February 26 on the streaming service. Having toiled for years as a playwright, her first attempts at writing screenplays gained the attention of Jonathan Entswhile, her collaborator on the show. The two paired to adapt Charles Forsman’s cult graphic novel, upon which the show is based.

I Am Not OK With This centers on 16-year-old Sydney (Sophia Lillis of IT: Chapter One), a teenage girl reeling from the sudden death of her father. As she struggles to adapt to life with a single mom and younger brother, she begins manifesting telekinetic powers…and sensing a malevolent presence around her. Complicating matters, Sydney begins to bond with her hipster neighbor Stan (Wyatt Oleff, IT: Chapter One) as her bestie Dina (Sophia Bryant) suddenly has eyes for a popular boy in school. Sydney realizes she’s not sure who’s she’s attracted to more…

We caught up with Christy Hall just ahead of the big premiere. I Am Not OK With This hits Netflix February 26.

So this is your first screen credit. How are you feeling right now?

My last two years have been a bit of a whirlwind. I was in the theatre space doing work that I’m very proud of. I wrote a two-hander stage play called Daddyo. I was really working hard to leverage it. I thought it was cool enough that it could be my New York debut, on or off-Broadway. And started getting passed around town—this was back in 2017. So no that long ago. It got enough attention that I turned it into a film script. That same year, it landed #3 on the Blacklist [a list of the best-unproduced scripts in Hollywood].

That’s awesome.

The next year I wrote a screenplay called Get Home Safe that landed in the top five. Through that, I started getting a feature career. I landed here because I did a feature adaptation for 21 Laps Entertainment [the production company behind I’m Not Ok With This] of a beautiful sci-fi story called Hold Back the Stars. There will be announcements about the film soon.

Terrific.

And we all work very well together. So when they started putting I’m Not OK with This together with Jonathan Entswhile for Netflix, they were looking for a female since the show has a strong female protagonist. And they threw my name in the hat and here we are.

That’s an exciting ride. Not quite an overnight success, but very close.

Listen, if it’s true that it takes over a decade to become an overnight success, I’m very much a product of hard work. I’m really proud and grateful to be here.

What was your first exposure to Charles Forsman’s comic book? What were your impressions?

When 21 Laps approached me about partnering with Jonathan, they sent me the graphic novel. I had read [Chuck’s] novel The End of the F*cking World. I thought it was super cool. But reading the actual graphic novel I Am Not Ok With This, I found myself very charmed by it. Chuck has a very specific voice. I see him as a true artist, in that his offerings are just so unapologetically from his heart and soul. It’s not adulterated at all; it’s very raw. So I really loved it. What I really like about inviting the story into the television space is that opens up the world, maybe reimagines a few things, resets the table a little bit and has a different trajectory, and maybe a different conclusion. They can both co-exist and be celebrations of one another.

Sure.

I think the graphic novel is a little darker in nature than the TV show. I think we brought it into a little more of a brighter space, not because we think the graphic novel is wrong. But I find there’s a melancholy to the graphic novel that I really love. I think it’s pitch-perfect. But we lightened it a little bit just in terms of tone.

It’s hard to look at this and not think of both classic Stephen King stories like Carrie, and Stranger Things, which itself takes inspiration from King.

Well, you know, listen. You have the classic stories like Stephen King’s Carrie. Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Eleven from Stranger Things. Knowing we were entering the same creative sandbox, wisdom would only dictate that rather than shy away from that and be uncomfortable with it, we should lean into it. We have fun with it. There have been a lot of female characters that share in this treasured landscape. We’re excited that Sydney now gets to be part of that and stand along these iconic characters. I’m a huge King fan, and it was fun to see ways to own the box but play in the same sand in a playful way. Sydney stands on her own, in her own quirky world.

One intriguing element to me in this show is the lack of cell phones. There are a couple of instances where we see them, but very rarely. That’s a gift to a thriller writer, but it also raises questions about “when is this happening.” Was it a deliberate choice to not nail down a year in which this takes place? It could easily be the early 90s up to now.

Wonderful question. The original graphic novel does not rely heavily on technology. It feels like it could easily exist in different time periods. We have it a bit in the pilot. But it was extremely deliberate. The reason why we have a couple touches of cell phones in the world was that nobody wants to feel like this world has lifted out of the pages of the graphic novel. For example, Spider-Man’s New York is not our New York, know what I mean?

I think so.

Spider-Man’s New York has a very specific look and feel to it. In the same way, in this world, or whenever you’re dealing with characters with superhuman abilities, you want the world to feel very used to them, as if they exist within a mythology unto themselves. So we have cell phones in there to say it’s modern day-ish. We want it to familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

The other big question I had involves nostalgia: I grew up in an area quite like Syd & Stan, where everything seems to be old and out of time in a small town. Nothing in the show, though opines for bygone days. In that way, this show strikes a big contrast between something like Stranger Things which is very nostalgia-driven. Sydney’s world feels a lot more dangerous. Was it a conscious choice to eschew the nostalgic treatment? 

Interesting. It was very deliberate. This is from the original graphic novel, but she has her diary. And a diary feels antiquated already when it comes to young people. I want people to start having diaries again.

If only.

But the story starts out with “Dear diary, go f*ck yourself.” It just opens the world up to what Jonathan calls faxu-stalgia, in that it’s out of place and time. But to your point, similarly, I grew up in the Midwest in a small town. When you’re on the coasts, you get hit with the here & now. Everything is so current, you’re so ahead of the curve and don’t realize it.

I know what you mean.

But when it came to fashion, or hair, or even Sydney’s mom getting upset because her stockings aren’t ready when she needs to go to work, we wanted to live in a world where you can celebrate the decades, but make the world feel dangerous and specific. Down to the finest detail, we wanted just a hint of nostalgia.

That’s great, because it doesn’t get overly nostalgic, which is something a lot of period shows tend to do. Sydney and her world feel more current and more dangerous.

Mmmhmm.

The success of a show like this really rests on your lead actors, and Sophia & Wyatt are extraordinary and have great chemistry together.

Oh yeah.

Were they cast together?

Sophia was cast first. When we cast her, we were still auditioning Stans. But once she was cast, it just felt so organic to cast Wyatt. Their performances are so special. They’re true artists. I can’t even tell you how fortunate I felt to watch them work and speak my words. We won the jackpot with those two.

Did you hesitate to cast them because of IT that theirs would be typecasting?

You know, it’s just what you said. You said before that it surprised you. It’s not too on the nose. I like that it’s a world you recognize them in, but they’re playing wildly different characters.

Very much so.

Sophia as Bev [in IT]–she’s kind of their leader. She’s a militant leader, which I love. But Sydney is still figuring it out. She doesn’t know who she is. Wyatt plays Stanley a little more self-assured, a bit more grounded in authenticity in knowing himself. What I like about that is that it adds intrigue. These are similar worlds, but I think it will surprise and delight. And listen, I would never shy away from Stephen King.

[Laughter]

The fact that their casting ties us to Stephen King is always a bonus. He’s the king of genre.

I love that you describe Syd as someone figuring it all out. The issue of sexual exploration obviously plays a very key role this season. In that regard, I really identified with Syd’s own personal journey at that age. But that’s also wildly groundbreaking. I’m also loath to think of another teen show where the undisputed lead character is queer.

Isn’t that exciting?

Totally. But was Netflix totally open to the idea?

100%. Netflix has been nothing but absolutely thrilled. Every single person that has saddled up to make this show a reality not only understands but embraces the liquidity of what sexuality looks like in the Homosapien species. I think it’s a reflection of the world evolving. It was never even a question. No one was ever nervous about it. Isn’t that f*cking fantastic?

Very.

In this story, even her abilities are a metaphor for what it feels like growing up. What is the most challenging thing when your hormones are through the roof, and you’re a kid and you’ve never had sex before and you’re discovering what you’re attracted to? What clothes you put on your body, how you present, it’s all this beautiful potion of wild possibility. It’s just a reflection of that.

The other thing that I really admire is how dark the show is. High school isn’t portrayed as a colorful John Hughes cartoon. It’s dark and awful…so very much like the real thing.

Yes, exactly!

[Laughter]

High school is miserable. How far are you prepared to go with that?

This is the exciting thing about Syndey’s world. I think, so often, when we tell a high school story from the point of view of a young lady, too often the biggest dramatic question facing her is “Mommy am I pretty?”

Yes.

And we have to evolve apart from that. The next big dramatic question is always “Who will take me to prom,” or “Who will like me?” And too often female friendships are pitted against each other in order to get the attention of the boys. So this is an exciting landscape. I like that a young, female protagonist like Sydney is a d*ck sometimes. She’s not perfect. She’s frustrated. And to your point, when I wrote the monologue of Stanley comparing high school to Hamlet, that’s sort of what we’re talking about.

Interesting.

Stanley’s having a charmed high school experience. But guess what, at some point, it’s all going to go to sh*t dude. So we’re going to go as far as we can play in spaces that other people have avoided. I’m with you on these bright, polished ideas of high school, where everyone is polished and has nice clothes and is beautiful and has it together. Sydney’s clothes are very important to us. Some are hand-me-downs that came from a second-hand store. She’s a blue-collar girl. We’ll go as far as we can because it’s important. I think a lot of kids aren’t living the charmed existence, and I think it’s important that they can go to a young adult show and understand that there is more than just the polished experiences we see. They’re very commercial, but is it the truth? Not for most of us.

So what’s the long-term plan? Do you know about Season 2 yet?

I’m sworn to secrecy. But listen, we’re so excited. We’ve had an incredible reception. I think we’re in a great place right now, though obviously as a creator, I’m hopeful that we’ll get to continue to surprise and delight.

Hopefully.

I want people to go to Comic-Con and dress as Sydney. I want people to know from a mile away that is Sydney, the way you see people dressed as Eleven [from Stranger Things].

I have a feeling you will.

I Am Not OK With This streams February 26.