Can two tops make a great couple? Can two bottoms?
Countless queer men have asked that question of themselves and their community for years. Among them: writer/director Tim Zientek, who channeled the question into his first digital series. Apropos of nothing, he titled the show The First.
The First follows Will (Will Branske) and Leo (Charles-Curtis Sanders) from their first date onward. What begins as a sweet and fulfilling relationship turns into something else entirely, as the two men realize they both prefer the receptive position during sex. Spread over six episodes, the digital series a series of firsts in their relationship, how the couple changes individually and together, and deeper questions that gay and bisexual men face in the dating world.
We snagged some time with Zientek to coincide with the release of The First on YouTube to chat about the show, the pressing compatibility questions queer men aren’t always keen to discuss, and the writer’s upcoming work on the upcoming Sean Hayes-produced gay spy series Q-Force. All episodes of The First stream free now.
So this is a story about two pure romantics who come to realize there’s more to a lasting relationship than just love. Where does the story of Will & Leo originate from?
I’m a hopeless romantic, and I love that genre. I always want to see more. The germ of the idea came when I was with a group of my gay friends on a Friday night drinking wine. The conversation turned to sex positions and different intimate details about the relationships we’ve had. Even in that, it was weird: we’re in a safe space and we would ask questions that people would be evasive about. They wouldn’t want to say their position. It felt like it was furthering shame.
Well, you’re in a safe space with close friends, and I felt like if we can’t talk about [sexual role] in this space, it creates shame. There’s nothing wrong with being a bottom. There’s nothing wrong with being a top or vers. But there seems to be more shame around being a bottom. That was the illusion of one of my friends. And I guess the story [for the show] came from an amalgam of those friends. I remember thinking I really want to do a story about this. I was writing something else, but this was my passion project on the side. But I thought it was so niche, so specific, that I didn’t think anyone would be interested in it.
Then I was writing something to submit to the Austin Film Festival. I had some extra money to send another submission, so I figured I’d submit this too. And that was what went the farthest and got the most positive feedback. It gave me the impetus to write and direct it.
Did you always see it as a web series?
Yes. I actually submitted it at the Austin Film Festival as Best Digital Series. To me, I liked the idea of it tracking the firsts in a relationship. I had come from the television world where there’s very rigid storytelling. I was excited to break that: so maybe the first couple episodes could be about the euphoria and nerves in a relationship, and then get into the meat later. I wanted to explore in a way that lent itself more to bite-sized storytelling.
One interesting approach you take is focusing in on just these two characters—we don’t really meet anyone else. That gives the series a voyeuristic quality.
I saw it more as a bedroom series—what happens behind closed doors. So you don’t really see their other life, you just get to see the couple’s life when it’s the two of them. The thing I was more interested in was making it universal: this could be anywhere, it could be any two people. It’s just about the two of them.
It’s a lot to stake a whole series on two actors alone. Were they cast together?
I was very aware of the fact that we had no budget. The thing I don’t like about web series, typically, is that there’s this stigma that it’s not very good. I wanted to show you can still make something good with high production quality and good actors. So it took forever to find the actors.
Since we didn’t have much money, we did Cast It [an online talent search service]. I saw hundreds of actors. I picked some, and on a weekend they came in and auditioned. It took a really long time. I found Charles-Curtis first. I did a couple chemistry reads with him and several guys, but none of them worked out. I was at my wit’s end, so I reached out to a head of casting on a TV show I wrote for looking for a non-SAG [the actor’s union] person. They referred me to the head of Drama at UCLA. He gave me the suggestion of the Celebration Theatre [an LGBTQ theatre company in Los Angeles]. I sent my casting breakdown to them. Two months later I got an email from Will, the other actor. Apparently, in that time, my casting breakdown was posted at the Celebration Theatre. At that point, I had him in at the last second, and I found my actors. So it was a long process.
So much of the show takes place behind closed doors, but you do have scenes in public with a lot of background actors that I gather didn’t know they were part of the show. How did you manage to steal those shots?
We did have to stealthily shoot. We shot near the Americana [a mall in Glendale, just east of Los Angeles]. We shot all those outdoor scenes the same night. It was our first day of shooting. Our director of photography Andrew Ceperley had a rig attached to his body. It was really hard to pull off. I will say it was very limiting in the sense of sound and getting the takes we wanted because there were so many obnoxious people in the background screaming obscenities because they knew we were filming. The number of takes we had to do because of teenagers just swearing in the background…
Put it on the blooper reel. The show uses a remarkable economy of writing. We get to know these people and their dynamic so well in a very short amount of time. What’s the approach you take to sharpening characters to get in and out of a scene?
That’s a great question. I think on a certain level I knew I wanted to hit the benchmark “firsts” in each episode. So that made it more digestible. At the end of the day, I’m a sucker for dialogue-heavy conversations. Some of my favorite movies are Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. I think what those movies capture so well—what I was going for—was that you don’t’ have to encompass the entire relationship. There are certain things, key moments, that define what a relationship is. There was a circularness that I wanted the series to have. In real life, when a relationship ends—I think, anyway—you automatically go back to the beginning and start the process over again. How did we get here? So we see the first date, but in a later episode, we see them talking about feet. It’s random, but those smaller moments are the times you get to see the couple. So I focused on small moments to show their relationship [dynamic].
My process is such that I tend to write and write and write. My favorite part is editing and cutting; it’s easier for me.
The top and bottom divide is something that we don’t talk about much publicly as a community. It’s a conversation that we have among queer men—in essence, within the family. And it is a serious issue for a lot of single men and couples. So the entire premise of the series raises so many questions. Can a gay relationship survive without good sex?
I think it’s open to interpretation for everyone. One thing I wanted to explore is that, in a straight relationship, it’s easy. One person is the penetratee, one is the penetrator. In a gay relationship, you could fall in love with someone that has a similar sexual preference that makes it harder to navigate. It was something I didn’t feel like is talked about enough. As a younger person, I would have loved to have seen something like this. It feels so basic; it’s very common.
In releasing the series, I’ve had comments from straight couples that relate it to different sexual positions, and how one person can only get off in a certain position. It’s also called The First because it’s about first love and a first relationship. Sometimes are reasons that things don’t work out, and they may not be the right reason, but it’s a first relationship. You learn things. You don’t always make the right decision. So I wanted to spark discussion in that regard: in a first relationship, you don’t know.
Well, and to some extent, that speaks to another issue that’s come up in several recent interviews: the lack of good gay sex education. Forgive me if this is a bit personal, but how do you think having some gay sex education would have made a difference in your own dating life?
I remember looking at porn, but that’s not even a true depiction.
No, it’s not. It’s not anything like real sex.
I think I would have been a lot better at it had I known things. But, when you’re an awkward young person with another awkward young person—that was something I wanted to explore in the first episode. I wasn’t trying to go for jarring, gross-out moments, but I wanted to focus on sex as awkward and embarrassing. So there’s a moment in the first episode where one guy hits his gag reflex [while performing oral sex] and spits up. Obviously, that’s super embarrassing, but when I submitted it to the festival, it was the thing most people talked about. People would come up to me and say “Oh my God, it happened to me.”
That’s amazing. Do you feel like, as queer men, we put too much emphasis on our sexual role? Or is that warranted? Should we all be forthright about our sexual roles in dating profiles? Or does that make us look overly sexual?
I totally hear you. On the one hand, it does expedite the process. If you ask those questions earlier, you weed out a lot of [awkward or disappointing] moments. As gay men, yes, we put a lot of emphasis on our sex lives. It’s part of what makes us different. But if you don’t put any emphasis or say it doesn’t matter, it can very much matter. Being gay is awesome—I feel so lucky. But what comes with that too is our sexuality.
You have a terrific soundtrack to the show. Are these all artists you know?
This is my favorite question! Post took a really long time because people were helping as friends or doing favors. That meant working on the weekends or as a secondary job. The plus side of that was that it allowed for more time looking for music. The thing I’m most proud of in regards to this series was that I wanted the crew to be as diverse as possible. Behind the camera, I wanted gay people and people of color. But it took a long time—finding a sound person who’s not a straight, white male is impossible. It took forever. I also knew there would be a lot of sex scenes, so I wanted everyone to feel comfortable. And I carried that through to the music. I was adamant about finding as many gay artists as possible on the soundtrack. The biggest song [sequence] plays during their “falling in love” montage. That song is from Mathew V, and it took forever to get his music rights. But that song is a gay song, and I thought it was so perfect for them falling in love. The other guy we came across is Raf Sanchez, who is the unofficial musician of the piece. A lot of the songs are his. He’s an old friend of mine; we wrote a musical together in college. He, very gratefully, provided so much of the music. He wrote two songs specifically for the series, two more with his band Pikoe, and others that were unreleased. I personally think the music really elevated [the show].
I also know you’re working on another queer show right now. What is the status of Q-Force? [the Sean Hayes-produced gay spy series]
I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say. I will say it’s a dream to work on, and coming out in 2021. It’s animation though, so it takes forever. So it’s still a bit away.
The First streams on YouTube.