The First Interview with 17-Year-Old Show-Runner Zelda Barnz
You may have heard of Zelda Barnz, also known as the teen behind what could be HBO’s next Euphoria. Produced by Lena Dunham, Generation explores youth grappling with issues like identity and sexuality. As Refinery29 notes, Zelda’s work has appeared in GirlTalk since our very first issues. Now, for the very first time, the activist we know and love gets to share another side of herself: the show runner. Zelda got real with us, sharing her thoughts about everything from taking time off high school for the show to accusations of nepotism.
GT: Tell us about yourself! When did you become passionate about writing and what inspired you to create Generation?
I’ve been a storyteller from the moment I could speak. My parents got this massive book when I was a toddler and they transcribed all my nonsense stories for me, before I could hold a pen. But I really started writing when I was around eight years old; in second grade, I hand wrote a 120 page “book” in a school notebook. It was about a dragon and her pet squirrel, it was absolutely terrible but I was convinced I would one day publish it.
I began working on Generation when I was 15. Originally it was a book idea, but I wound up pitching the idea to my dad, because I wanted help formatting a TV show. He was very supportive. He helped me create compelling arcs for each of my characters and together we shaped the plot into what it is now. Generation is the story of a group of teenagers, each at various points on the gender and sexuality spectrums. Some of our leads are cishet and some are closeted, while others are queer, genderfluid, and out-and-proud. But ultimately this show is about more than just identity or sexuality - it’s about the emotionally complex interpersonal connections that teenagers of every generation forge among themselves. Because people ages 12-19 have higher IQs than society gives us credit for.
GT: How did the development process start?
I suppose it began when people encouraged me to pitch my idea. I figured that because I was only fifteen, no network would be interested in developing with me, and I would just have to wait until I had graduated college. But living in LA worked to my advantage, and soon my little team discovered a production company that could be my idea’s home. This was Lena Dunham’s old company. I pitched conversationally first, to a few of her co-workers, and they thought she’d be interested. I met her for the first time the summer after my freshman year of high school. She is such an incredibly warm and kind person, and she was so supportive of me. Her company helped us develop our pitch document and our story, and in October of that same year we pitched to HBO, where the pilot was bought and later transferred to HBOMax.
GT: Have any obstacles have come up related to your age and gender? Is it difficult to juggle school life, teenage life, and work life now that Generation is so far along in its journey?
I’ve received immense support from the people around me, and I think my age has reminded many of my co-workers of their daughters or younger sisters. For now, people mostly seem very protective and supportive of me, though I know it won’t be easy being a young woman in Hollywood. My gender hasn’t been a disadvantage so far, I think the people I’m surrounded by genuinely want to see queer female creators in the industry. I haven’t yet encountered any prejudice in the workplace.
It’s been very difficult juggling all my priorities, because I care so much about all three of these things. I’ve had to drop the first trimester of my senior year because we’re shooting in the fall. That’s technically made life a lot easier, but I also can’t stop thinking about how I won’t get a “last first day” of high school. It’s sad to not have that experience, but it’s definitely made me take advantage of the time I’m getting to spend with my friends. Work has been absolutely amazing, going into the office every day and seeing this temporary family we’ve created - it’s really incredible.
GT: There are plenty of shows about high school, but not about high school and the LGBTQ+ community. Why is it important to YOU specifically that a show like this exists?
I came out as bisexual when I was fifteen, just before we began developing Generation, and I was lucky enough to be raised by LGBT+ parents. Growing up in a liberal environment like that can make you forget that homophobia exists, but people in LA still use gay as an insult and call out slurs. Some of my favorite people in the world have made horribly offensive jokes, not realizing the potential impact of their words. Around 60% of GenZ identifies somewhere on the sexuality or gender spectrums, and despite an abundance of queer characters on TV lately, we haven’t seen a show that reflects that statistic. So I think Generation has the potential to show queer teenagers that they aren’t alone and that they are valid.
GT: Do you feel as though there are any drawbacks to being a young writer? What have you learned about the industry of television and the profession of showrunning from the experience of creating Generation?
There are certainly drawbacks. I would definitely say people treat me like a child. Which is fair, because I am a child. I literally can’t even vote yet, so I understand the skepticism. It just makes me work harder and want to prove myself. And minors have different restrictions when it comes to work, so we’ve had to balance all that out.
I’ve learned so much, it’s wild. I didn’t realize how few shows actually get to the point of getting a pilot greenlit, let alone a series picked up. It’s made me appreciate every show on air a little bit more, because every show takes so much effort to create. Showrunning is an extremely fulfilling job. We just recently made some of our first deals with actors, and we called them to say congratulations. Hearing how excited they were and listening to their voices made me so happy. But it can also be stressful, because everything moves so quickly, and I never ever remember to check my email (I am horribly disorganized, I’ll be the death of our line producer. Sorry, Paul). Sometimes I won’t read an email and then later in the day a crew member will be like “the van is waiting for you outside!” and I just have to pretend to know where the van is going.
GT: There’s been a history of young females in Hollywood being accused of nepotism and discredited for their hard work. There have been similar claims against you. How are you dealing with the negativity? How would you respond to those claims?
In terms of dealing with negativity, those claims haven’t upset me too much because they’re such uneducated accusations. I don’t like accusing others of jealousy because I find it condescending, but I’ve come across many people (mostly cisgender men, if I’m being completely honest) who have struggled with the idea that I’ve actually accomplished something at such a young age. It’s like they can’t be happy for me for more than two minutes without making the whole situation about themselves.
It seems that people think my relationship with Lena Dunham is the reason I’ve been successful, but I met her completely in the context of developing a project with her. It’s true that my parents work in the industry, but their production company isn’t big enough for them to have just given me a job. There are owners of much larger and more significant production companies who have children, but those children don’t necessarily create shows. The TV process just isn’t that simple. Having connections is helpful, but they’ll only get you so far. HBO is also incredibly selective, and they wouldn’t have bought my idea if they didn’t think I was entirely capable of working on a series. It doesn’t matter who you are or who you know, it’s just very difficult to get a show made. I worked insanely hard to get Generation to this point, and I’m proud of all my work. I go to every meeting, every casting session, I spent 5 weeks co-running a writer’s room. I’m not comfortable speaking publically or talking on the phone, but I’ve had to walk into massive conference rooms and get on so many calls. And I’ve been willing to do all of that if it means my show is getting made. I’m extremely committed to this pilot, so that people would think I was just thrown in the mix for publicity is surprising. I think accusations like these are completely discounting everything I’ve accomplished, and I’m tired of hearing people find any excuse to tear down successful women. Saying I’m pretentious or accusing me of nepotism isn’t going to stop me from working, so I don’t see the point in taking time out of your day to make negative comments about a seventeen year old.
GT: What advice do you have for other young people who want to write?
Be open to everything. New experiences, particularly the ones outside your comfort zone, will improve your writing. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to try, just go for it. I always thought of myself as a novel writer, but the idea I most wanted to pursue was in television, and at first I was nervous to put myself out there. Pitching to a room of executives should have been scary, but it was the best moment of my life. So put yourself out there!