Kyle Patrick Alvarez knew he’d have to take a risk.
The director, known for his cult film The Sanford Prison Experiment, as well as for directing episodes of 13 Reasons Why and Tales of the City signed on to direct all 10 episodes of the second season of Amazon’s Homecoming in the midst of a creative shake-up. Season 1, though praised and popular, was designed as a stand-alone story. For Season 2, most of the show’s cast–including lead Julia Roberts–would depart the series. Alvarez, along with the show’s writers, would have to fashion a new story and a new cast based around a similar premise.
Fortunately, Alvarez got lucky. Singer/actress/icon Janelle Monae signed on to play the Season 2 lead last July. The show would also benefit from the presence of Hong Chou (Watchmen, Driveways), Oscar-winner Chris Cooper, Stephan James and Oscar nominee Joan Cusack in major roles. The story, as concocted by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg (who also penned Season 1), would revolve around a woman (Monae) waking up with no memory of her past. Her quest to reclaim her identity would lead her to the Geist Group, a mysterious company that has produced a drug that can erase memories.
Queerty scored time with Alvarez to chat about the challenges in making the show, his leading lady, and his life and career as a gay man. Season 2 of Homecoming comes home to Amazon May 22.
I would call this quite a departure from your work on Tales of the City or 13 Reasons Why. This is a potboiler thriller, and at times, a very surreal one. How did you land the job? How did you develop your approach?
Getting the job meant a lot to me. I was a big fan of Season 1, and actually watched it while we were shooting Tales. I was in New York and watched it all in my hotel room and loved it so much. It’s a show that asks a lot from a director. The visual style is baked into what the show is and how it’s built. Sam [Esmail, director of Season 1] had built this beautiful fresh thing for TV, so it became about evolving it, making it different. For me, the last movie I’d done was The Sanford Prison Experiment which was in the same style of 70s filmmaking, all the stuff Sam was drawn to. I suspect we like all the same movies, because watching Season 1, it felt like someone made the show for me.
In the interim, I’d done a lot of TV work with Tales and 13 Reasons. So was going back and forth between a lot of genre stuff. Honestly, I was waiting for an opportunity like this to get to direct every episode and have a voice. It’s not like directors don’t have a voice in TV, but it’s different. You’re the substitute teacher. You come in, do your episode, and leave. Here, I was there from the moments the scripts were finished until the very last special effects shot. It feels really gratifying.
Absolutely. And it is very much yours. That’s one thing I love about it—it has a cohesive voice and visual style. You like to use a lot of very long takes, and a lot of split-screen. I’m guessing you’re a fan of Brian DePalma, in that sense. The long zooms feel like something out of Kubrick, especially The Shining. What do you love about that approach?
You know, it’s interesting. Even though I think the styles are relatively similar between the seasons, I feel like Season 1’s North Star, in terms of a director, was Alan J. Pakula, with The Parallax View being essential. This season I kind of went into a little bit pulpier, like let’s do DePalma. I always joke that there are a couple of moments where, if he is watching, he’ll roll his eyes. I obsessively watched the end of Carrie and especially Blow Out. It’s one of my favorite movies.
It’s just about making sure you’re not copying a filmmaker you love; you’re taking inspiration from how they evoke a feeling. That’s how you avoid imitation. Kubrick, obviously, the set was out of 2001. But zooms kind of went out of fashion. I love them. I think it’s kind of wrong; there’s a lot you can do with them. I just love what they do.
That’s wonderful. And I wouldn’t be too self-conscious about borrowing from DePalma. He’s borrowed from other directors—Hitchock, Eisenstein, Antonioni—his whole career. It’s everywhere.
That’s very true. He may have invented the idea of referential directing.
But it fits. It adds an almost surrealistic feeling to the action. Do you storyboard or rehearse?
We didn’t have the time to rehearse. We did storyboard a lot. Weirdly, for me, the process of storyboarding is where you get the value. Storyboards themselves are more for everybody else. Me and the storyboard artist would meet from 6-7:30 every morning before everyone showed up and try to draw as much as we could. When you have 500 extras, you can’t improvise.
A crane shot can take three hours to set up, so you have to be so exact. If not, you won’t make the days.
It helps that you’re working with some extraordinary performers here, including Ms. Monae. This is her most complex and challenging role to date, and you’re hanging a whole series on her. Did you have anxiety about that?
Oh no. I was excited. For me, I was a big fan of hers. Very much her music. “Prime Time” is my song.
Related: WATCH: Janelle Monae replaces Julia Roberts in season two of ‘Homecoming’
But I’m always excited about working with an actor where I don’t know what they’re going to do, someone you don’t know. In this case, Janelle had this incredible start between Moonlight and Hidden Figures where she was this shining bright spot in these movies. So I thought oh cool, I get to be one of the first directors to see how she carries something. She worked her ass off and pulled it off. That’s what’s exacting about this: people get to come in not knowing what to expect from her. And I think that contributes a lot to what we discover about the character.
You’re a gay man, and often feature LGBTQ performers and themes in your work. That’s certainly the case here. What’s your experience been in the business? Do you ever feel pigeonholed as “the gay director?”
Ya know, no. In some cases, if I ever experience that, it’s probably more as a Latino. I think when it comes to gay content, I think something like Tales of the City they were going out of their way for queer directors. I think with 13 Reasons Why, Brian and I just got along and I understood the characters. In this case, one thing I appreciate about Mike & Eli, in a lot of ways there’s a blissful naivete in terms of the LGBTQ themes of the show. I think they just thought it would be interesting, something we’d not seen before. That’s very freeing; their intentions are so pure. So we’re in this specific 70s throwback world, and we’re making a thriller, and we have these characters and it’s important that they’re gay.
I’m not of the mind that we need to see characters that happen to be gay. It’s got to inform it. And I think, in really subtle ways, it does that later in the season. That was refreshing to me: characters informed by their sexuality, but it’s not a plot point. It’s the best of including representation while not pandering.
And it does fit and feels organic to the story. So do we know about Season 3?
I don’t know anything. I would never talk myself out of a job and would be back in a heartbeat if I could. I loved doing this show. At the same time, I would probably encourage them to find the next person and have the same freedoms that I had by Sam moving ahead, and by Universal and Amazon allowing me to make it my own. But, Season 2, I think proves that the central idea of the show—these berries and this drug—can keep generating interesting stories. Losing memory deals so much with human pathos and identity issues, they’re human tales you can keep on going.
What’s next for you?
Nothing official yet. We’re waiting things out to see when things start shooting again. I feel really spoiled on this show. I feel lucky. So for me, it’s just about trying to stay on that path. I never see anything as “a job.” I wouldn’t rule out doing episodes, but I’ve had a chance of doing every episode and producing the show. I’d love to continue that, and I’d love to do it in a smaller form: seven episodes, 30 minutes long. I’d love to have a hand in creating something and continuing to focus on representation in genre stuff. That’d be a thrill. I’ve been trying forever to make a gay action movie. I have a script, and if I can get that going, I’d be really happy.
I’m here for it.
Homecoming Season 2 streams on Amazon May 22.
I’m a huge fan of Janelle Monáe and enjoyed the first season, but I’d watch this new series just because Stephan James, with his captivating face, is in it. He also was very good in If Beale Street Could Talk. Looking forward to Alvarez’s run with this series.
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