Mathew Murray is a Toronto-based writer and director best known for his award-winning web series Teenagers. A 2015 graduate of York University, Murray has worked on many creative projects across several genres, including documentaries and fiction. He has screened short films at several film festivals. This year, he received the Best Screenplay award at the Vancouver Web Series Festival for his work on Teenagers, which has received over five million views on YouTube. You can follow him on Twitter here.
In our interview with Raymond Ablack, he said that Teenagers began as a school project — can you tell us more about the origins of the show and how it evolved into its current format?
I was 19 and in film school when I first started entertaining the idea of creating a web series. I had just moved out and was spending a lot of time on YouTube. Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl is the series that inspired me the most in terms of it being independently produced and it finding so much success online. Issa Rae seemed like the ultimate rule-breaker to me. She was so in control of her destiny in the way that she used her series to create a space for herself. I remember looking back at my teenage years with this sense of ‘wow, what do I have to show for it?’ and that definitely lit a fire under my ass. I really wanted to create something tangible, out there in the digital universe that could be a calling card of sorts. Like, proof that I exist as a creative person.
I had a few different show ideas floating around in my head and eventually decided to merge them all under one umbrella. I honestly can’t remember the moment where I decided to call it ‘Teenagers,’ but I do remember looking up the title on Google and IMDb… I was shocked that no one had used it yet. (laughs). That was probably one of the first moments where I realized I was onto something cool. So, the series was conceived and created when I was in film school, but it wasn’t a ‘school project,’ per say.
Teenagers has a kind of stripped-down minimalist vibe, where it focuses more on evoking certain emotions through imagery instead of pushing a lot of ironic humor or wild behavior. What kinds of stylistic decisions go into creating the series and its themes?
I went into the process of developing the series knowing that I wanted to have solid representation in terms of diversity. I didn’t want to make a younger version of Girls, I wanted to create something more like Kids, that focuses on the real, gritty life of teenagers from various backgrounds and worlds — boys, girls, black, white. I wanted to talk about the elephants in the room like racism and sexuality that urgently needed to be talked about, but I wanted to do it in a subtle way that didn’t feel preachy.
Stylistically, I’ve always tried to maintain a dark but colorful world in which the characters kind of flow through for the audience to observe. I also love playing with silence. As a director, I’ve learned that silence can be much more powerful than words.
What is the writing/scripting process like? Did you approach the second season differently from the first at all?
For the first season, I was working more with my co-creator Sara Tamosauskas on the story. We were younger and inexperienced so we were mainly focused on creating something that made sense and had some sort of consistent tone and style to it. For season 2, I worked on the story with Garrett Hnatiuk, who plays Porky on the show. He’s a bit older than me so he brings a cool maturity to everything and we click really well. I also had my executive producer T.J. Scott giving me advice as I went along for season 2. He’s a legendary TV director who won a Canadian Screen Award for Orphan Black last year, so his feedback was so important to me. He’s got a great eye for what works and what doesn’t.
Did you have any specific influences while initially making Teenagers?
I was really into John Hughes around the time I started writing it and The Breakfast Club is one of my favorite movies, so I guess I was initially trying to bring back the vibes of classic 80s teen flicks in my own way. I think John Hughes wrote teenage characters so honestly and authentically, but something has gotten lost in translation since then. Today, it feels like a lot of teenage characters are written very clean or flashy and that just wasn’t my reality growing up in the new millennium. Growing up is messy.
I’m totally biased, so the next few questions are about some of my favorite characters — what does Sara’s future look like? She’s had some really excellent personal growth, and her relationship with Adele is so interesting.
I’m happy we explored her world more in season 2. I definitely want to see her move from the honeymoon phase of her relationship with Adele, into the reality phase. I want to portray an imperfect LGBT relationship that isn’t as much about being gay as it is about being two young human beings struggling with monogamy.
We left Olive in a pretty dark place at the end of season two. Are we going to see her deal with the trauma of getting shot and breaking up with T more? What about questioning her sexual orientation? It’s ambiguous as to whether her new attraction to Sara was solely out of loneliness, or if there may have been sincere interest there.
The last sentence of that question is key and that is exactly what I want to explore with Olive — the ambiguity of sexuality and how it plays into one’s perception of themselves and how they’re perceived by others. I think Olive is used to being at the top of the food chain and now that she’s realizing she might have feelings for another girl, where does that take her? What does that mean to her? Is she gay? Why does she feel the need to be anything specific, you know?
I think a lot of people, not only teenagers, struggle with labels and defining themselves for others. I know that’s something I’ve always struggled with and still do. Sexuality is such a complex, terrifying, magical thing. I try to think of it as more of a scale instead of a rigid binary.
Speaking of T: he’s been through some of the series’ roughest material. How has all of the loss he’s experienced changed him? Will he ever get a chance to rebuild his life?
T is like one of those Stark kids from Game of Thrones. (laughs). He just can’t catch a break. Society can be so harsh and I want to use this whole issue with T and Molly — with the false accusations and how quickly he was viewed as guilty by his peers — to shine a light on that. T definitely has a lot of obstacles ahead of him and the odds never seem to be in his favor, but the beautiful thing is that he has the courage to continue living and fighting. I can’t say whether he’ll have a happy ending or not, but his journey will hopefully spark some much-needed conversations about race relations in North America.
Even though Bree and Gabriel reconciled, it’s left a bit open to interpretation whether they’ve sufficiently talked through their issues or not. Do you have any further details on that relationship’s evolution through season two?
The opening scene of season 2 is Bree getting physical with Gabriel before promptly kicking him out because she doesn’t take him seriously as a love interest. The final scene is them laying on the floor — stoned — finally opening up and talking about their feelings, beyond friendship. Throughout the season Bree kind of fights her emotions for Gabriel into the back of her head and avoids them. Eventually, though, she starts to open up and allow him in. I think when you’re friends first, the relationship has higher stakes, because if it ends, you might also lose a friend. So, in a way, everything is heightened.
I love Chloe and Raymond so much both as actors and as humans, so I honestly can’t wait to get back on set with them to continue playing with these characters.
Have any storylines gone in completely different directions from what you originally planned, or do you have very set ideas for how each character/plot evolves?
Well, stuff always happens behind the scenes. Schedules change and as a result, sometimes the script needs to tweaked. I put a lot of time into developing the scripts and story, but I like to have fun with the actors and create a really relaxed atmosphere where they feel free to improvise and sometimes when I film something, it plays out differently than I had imagined it would when I wrote it, so things change a bit. Sometimes we discover things about the characters in the moment on set. I like to be open and flexible.
We weren’t originally going to include the Molly storyline in season 2, but I’m glad we did, because Matilda Davidson was just so great. She really dived into the character and the intense fan reaction illustrates that. I think actors love playing evil people who do awful things. There’s nothing better than evoking a strong reaction from the audience.
Can you tell us anything about season three?
I think I’ve dropped some pretty good clues… (laughs).
Finally, since our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us, what do you “nerd” out over? What brings out your inner nerd?
It might be odd, but I definitely nerd out over high-profile crime cases, murder mysteries, serial killers… I loved Dexter. Recently I was obsessed with the FX show The People v. O.J. Simpson. I would read about the crimes and the case and the aftermath every day. All of the racial and class elements, how it became such a media circus and spawned reality TV… It’s like a movie. The sensationalism of it all fascinated me. I was in LA recently and actually walked past Nicole Brown’s home, where the murders took place. There were about 10 other people there — a family, some students, other people taking photos — all just as obsessed with the case. It was kind of a surreal, morbid experience. I was also really into the HBO mini-series about the Robert Durst murders. He’s terrifying. And I just started watching Making a Murderer on Netflix… So. Good.
You can view the series on Teenagers’ official YouTube channel: