‘P-Valley’ Creator Katori Hall on Reclaiming the Female Power of the Pole

     September 5, 2020

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From creator Katori Hall, the Starz drama series P-Valley (which has already been renewed for a second season) is set deep in the Mississippi Delta at a strip club filled with women whose personalities are as big as their platform heels are tall. While The Pynk is barely keeping its doors open, its genderfluid owner Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) is constantly trying to work enough magic to keep it going and keep his club family together.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, showrunner Katori Hall talked about how the story of P-Valley evolved, all of the research she did to make this show possible, creating the character of Uncle Clifford, the experience of being a first-time showrunner, lining up a season of female directors, adding a bit of mystery to the story, the nationwide casting search, always exploring the story through the female gaze, celebrating the wide variety of body types, and just how far ahead she’s thought about this story and the characters.

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Image via Starz

Collider: I absolutely love this show and these characters!

KATORI HALL: Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. It’s been a long journey. I’m very thankful to arrive on the other side of it, and hear that people are vibing with the show. That means the world to me.

It’s one thing to see these women and think that they’re interesting individuals, but it’s another thing to see a story in that and a way to tell that story. What was it that originally made you want to tell this story?

HALL: I’m originally from Memphis, Tennessee, and my Southern roots had a lot to do with it. I grew up actually going to strip clubs. I’ve had friends celebrate birthday parties there. I’ve had other friends who celebrated their bachelorette parties there. So, it always felt celebratory. Something that a lot of people don’t know is that, for the women who are up on the pole, there’s a craft. I would look up and see heroes. I would see women flying around the poles like they were Wonder Woman because of the strength and the flexibility and the athleticism that was required of them to perform for an audience. And then, I learned how to do pole tricks at a class and it made me respect, even more, what the women did. That was my entry point into researching the world because I had experienced, myself, how hard it was to be able to pull your own body up on a pole and throw your own body weight around. And then, in terms of trying to create the story of it, I really was interested in looking at the economics of not only the strip club business, but also the economics of society and the business of desire. It’s a billion dollar business. It’s the age of the stripper, where you’ve seen Cardi B blow up and other strippers, like Blac Chyna and Amber Rose, create whole economies around their strip club cred. So, I was really interested in a story that looked at how women, and particularly Black women, were able to find a piece of liberation within a very exploitative place. Once I started doing the research, which took me six years to do, the stories just fell into my lap. All I had to do was have a very open ear and an open heart. A lot of the stories that the women shared with me made it into the show, in some way, to make our show more authentic and real.

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Image via Starz

And then, you throw in a character like Uncle Clifford, which is just one of the most fantastic characters on TV. Was that based on someone specific, or was that a combination of people?

HALL: Uncle Clifford is a fusion of three people in my life – my mama, my daddy and my Uncle Clifford. I had three amazing human beings who raised and reared me, and I wanted to create a character that paid homage to them. I always try, in everything that I do, to name a character after a family member. I feel that it’s a way to honor ancestry. So, I wanted to attach Uncle Clifford’s name to this character. He’s completely different from the fictionalized Uncle Clifford, but he’s got lots to say. I really wanted to create a person that was really able to live in the masculine and the feminine equally. In the theater, when I was doing this as a play, Uncle Clifford was initially a pre-op trans woman. And then, I felt that I just really wanted to have a character who felt like a mother, but also sometimes felt like a pimp, all within a few seconds of each other. I find it very interesting that, while Uncle Clifford can be very nurturing, Uncle Clifford can also lay down the law, and oftentimes uses their maleness and their privilege in order to try to have more power in a world that is very oppressive, particularly to women and especially down south. Uncle Clifford has been an absolute joy to create. The actor that plays Uncle Clifford, Nicco Annan, actually played Uncle Clifford in the play version, and has been playing Uncle Clifford for almost 10 years now.

It must be so interesting to watch the character not only brought to life, but evolve like that over such a long period of time.

HALL: Oh, my god, it’s been a blessing, the fact that I got the opportunity to create a TV show, which demands long-form storytelling, and is a story that has legs to it, literally and figuratively. I see my characters, five years from now, and I hope that I’ll be able to help walk them into their sunset. I have a lot of things still, for each and every one of them.

This is the first TV show that you’ve done like this and that you’re running. What is that experience like, walking onto the set as the showrunner, and having everyone look to you, having all of the questions thrown at you, and being the one responsible for the success and the failure of it? What has it been like to find your voice in all of that?

HALL: I will say that showrunning is an absolutely impossible job. The fact that you have to be the keeper of conviction while, at the same time, you’re managing and shepherding hundreds of souls through a challenging production process. I actually had to go to the doctor twice because my blood pressure went up. There’s a ton of pressure and only a few books to read about showrunning, and the mentors that are available are busy because they’re running their own shows. Day by day, you just have to be an open and valuable person. I always say that the best training for showrunning is being the mother of two boys under five because you learn how to make life or death decisions on little to no sleep. It’s just astounding, what you have to balance. You have to have two people inside of yourself. You have to be a writer and you have to be a producer, and a lot of times, those skill sets don’t overlap and sometimes don’t even align. I lucked out in that I hired an amazing team that I could trust and who had a lot of experience because I didn’t have a ton of experience, but I understood the world. And so, I think my success came out of just hiring an amazing team and figuring out how to delegate. A showrunner can’t actually do everything all the time. It is too much work for one person.

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Image via Starz

I love that you put together a whole group of female directors for this. What was it like to be able to do that and to give these women the opportunity of directing this show?

HALL: It was a dream come true to be able to hire a slate of women directors. I feel as though I’ve been given opportunities, and when I got to a certain position of power and privilege, I wanted to use that to give other folks who were ready an opportunity. Oftentimes, men get hired off of potential, but women have to show how many credits they’ve got, and I was like, “To hell with that!” For me, it’s about what women can bring and what their perspective is. So, I was really happy that, through a very challenging interviewing process, I was able to find eight women who really understood the goal of the show, being that we wanted to do a strip club show that was centered through the female gaze and told through a woman’s perspective. And so, we had so many conversations about the writing, and also just blocking and camera movement, to really underscore that we were gonna be a show that’s all about the female gaze.

What made you want to also add a bit of mystery to the show when it comes to telling Autumn’s story?

HALL: I’m a lover of history and a lover of noir, and the show actually has its own aesthetic, which we call Delta Noir. Traditional noir, with its contrast and colors and lighting and a focus on the male perspective, hasn’t always had people of color in it or a feminist version of women. So, for me, I wanted to subvert those usual tropes and techniques within noir by centering the lens through women and having the women be the detectives, and having the men be the people that you hunt. There’s a lot of laughter in the show, which I think a lot of people are surprised by. The fact that we’re fusing something that has levity and love with darkness and grit makes for a very unique viewing experience.

How did you find a cast who could not only pull off the acting required of them but that would be confident enough to get on a pole?

HALL: I looked through thousands of tapes. I’m not joking. And because I had that experience of having researched the strip club scene for six years, my bar was really high, in terms of trying to reflect the authenticity. Being with these women, they move and groove in a specific type of way. And so, we had a nationwide search. We had four or five casting directors on it at one time, ‘cause we were scouring the earth for the absolute right actresses for the parts. While challenging, it was a joy because you always learn a little bit about your work by seeing and hearing it come out of actors’ mouths. Not only was it hard to find actresses willing to do what was required, which was to be open emotionally and physically, but it was also really hard to find actresses that could handle the language, or slanguage. It almost feels like a completely different tongue. And so, the women, in addition to having dialect coaches, had a training program that they underwent. And then, when they got to Atlanta, they started training together to create that chemistry that’s so natural. And then, when we got to the more complicated choreography, we ended up using an amazing core of body doubles who stepped in and worked with the actresses. It was a seamless process, and that’s thanks to our amazing choreographer, Jamaica Craft, who’s been in the business forever. She’s worked with the likes of Ciara and Justin Bieber, and she’s Atlanta-based. She, too, went to strip clubs all the time and really understood how hard that dancing is, so I was really grateful to have someone who really understood the need for this show.

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Image via Starz

I love that this is a show that really celebrates the wide variety of body types of women and the imperfections that all women have. How did you want to approach shooting that in a way that came across and that feels real and authentic?

HALL: We had so many conversations about how to define the female gaze and how to not repeat what has been done before, especially in shows and movies that are set in the strip club or that focus on strippers, where the nudity is gratuitous and it’s focused on how a woman’s body looks, rather than what a woman’s body can do. So, we had some ground rules, where we would never cut a woman’s body up. It was about her, as a whole person. We discussed how we were gonna place the camera in the perspective of the women. We ended up having a lot of POV shots, where you felt like you were inside of a woman’s brain or inside of the experience, instead of just being a voyeur. It was really about putting people in the highest platform heels of a woman and allowing them to really understand how that lived experience is different from a man’s experience. Everybody was on board with that – all of the directors, the DP, even the people who were dealing with the camera. We also talked a lot about lighting. For example, there’s a scene in episode 2 where there’s a lap dance that’s happening, and instead of showing the audience everything, we embraced the shadows, so you see the shadow slicing through a woman’s body, and it forces an audience member to complete the picture in their mind versus giving it all and serving it up on screen. We thought about those techniques that we could use that didn’t feel forced, pushed, or gratuitous because we wanted the audience to always feel for these women. We didn’t want them to look and feel like these hyper-sexualized beings. We wanted folks to really empathize with them. I think we were actually very successful in that. Everything from the writing to the acting, and all of the departments, really focused on the experience of our characters and this idea of the female gaze.

Clearly, you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about every aspect of telling this story and who these characters are. So would you say that you have a pretty solid plan in place for season 2?

HALL: Yes! I have enough story in my mind for 10 years. So, god willing, I will get an opportunity to go to the end. But, we shall see.

P-Valley airs on Sunday nights on Starz.

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