'Fellow Travelers' Showrunner Shares Secrets to Writing Mind-Blowing Sex Scenes
November 10, 2023
Starring the irresistible Matt Bomer and the adorably quirky Jonathan Bailey, Showtime’s new miniseries Fellow Travelers delves into queer American history, tracing the intricate and difficult relationships of two gay men that starts in the 1950s with the McCarthy-era “Lavender Scare,” all the way to the tragic AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
The show was written and created by Ron Nyswaner, best known for writing the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Philadelphia in 1985. More recently he’s worked in television on great shows like Homeland and Ray Donavan.
Fellow Travelers is based on the book of the same name by Thomas Mallon. Nyswaner says the show is meticulously researched but it feels far from a history lesson. The romance between Hawk (Bomer) and Tim (Bailey) keeps the historical context feeling alive. I asked Nyswaner about writing the two contradictory main characters Hawk (Bomer) and Tim (Bailey), who are dynamic, sexy and very flawed.
“What drew me to Mr. Mallon’s book was the love story at the center, which is this relationship of opposites that I find really compelling. There’s a power imbalance,” says Nyswaner, adding, “Hawk is very much in control of his life. He dresses precisely, his apartment is perfectly decorated, he’s got excellent taste and that’s how he goes through life. That makes him feel safe and gives him a lot of pleasure because he has a lot of pleasure in life.”
Nyswaner says that though the Lavender Scare was very harsh and many homosexuals were expelled from Washington, he never wanted to make a show about victims. “There’s a lot of joy and celebration, music, art and sex in our show. People are having a good time,” he says.
The character of Tim is much more idealistic than Hawk, which is perhaps what attracts Hawk to him. Nyswaner says that after World War II, many young people flocked to Washington to help rebuild the world that had been devastated by war and fascism, hoping to make the world better. Tim wants the same thing, even if he’s a bit naïve at times.
“Tim is enthralled with Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was adored by the Catholic Church and Catholics. I love that we present a character who, perhaps in our 2023 way of thinking, is politically incorrect. One of the stories that we tell is Tim’s growing disenchantment with his hero, McCarthy, with the anti-communist movement and his growing disenchantment with Hawk as well. And his struggle with his faith. Trying to hold Hawk, McCarthy and God in the same place makes a great character,” says Nyswaner.
The Rules for Writing Great Sex Scenes
All the sex scenes in Fellow Travelers, both the gay and straight ones, are absolutely electric. And there are a lot of them! But there’s a lot more going on than simply great chemistry between the actors.
Rule No. 1: Every Scene is a Negotiation
“We were encouraged by our executives at the studio and our network to be provocative and not to hold back. The thing that makes the sex scenes so effective – we had a rule that we applied to all the scenes, especially the sex scenes: every scene is a negotiation. It’s a love story, but it’s also a thriller with a plot engine that moves the story forward. People are taking risks with their lives and careers. We wanted to bring that power dynamic to the sex scenes. Tim is enthralled with Hawk and Hawk is totally in charge in the [scenes in the] 1950s – until he realizes, even in the pilot, ‘Oh, you know what? This guy wants me. So if I want something, I know how I can get it.’” While the sex in the show isn’t overtly transactional, it is a way for the characters to explore their power and achieve certain goals.
Rule No. 2: No Repeats
Another rule Nyswaner had for the writer’s room was that they couldn’t repeat the same sex act. “By the time we got to episode 8, we were scratching our heads. What haven’t we done? And we figured out something we hadn’t done,” he says. It seems creativity is important in all things.
Rule No. 3: Sex Scenes Must Move the Story Forward
Nyswaner says that even the sex scenes had to be functional and serve the plot to move the story forward. Luckily, his actors were on board. “The actors were very committed because they knew that every sex scene was a scene about the story. It wasn't about, ‘Let’s give the audience some beautiful skin to look at.’ So, the actors didn’t feel exploited, they knew they were pushing the story forward.”
Why It’s Okay to Make People Uncomfortable
Writing a show that spans four decades is certainly challenging. Even with meticulous research, it’s hard not to fall into the trap of viewing the past through modern eyes. Nyswaner says he had a rule to prevent this.
“The rule was: we will not approach our characters in the 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s with a 2023 mindset. We’re not going to judge them or say, ‘Well, that might offend some people today if this character says this thing.’ Or ‘I know my friends might be uncomfortable.’ Who gives a shit? Art should make people uncomfortable and I hate revisionist history. I really think it’s a dangerous thing. We wanted to honor these people for the lives they lived and the way they thought,” says Nyswaner.
Cultural norms around LGBTQ issues have obviously changed a lot in society – even since the 1980s. Nyswaner explains: “In the 50s for example, there was no ‘gay identity.’ If you said you were struggling with your ‘gay identity’ they would think you were speaking Martian. You were a homosexual and you met other homosexuals in bars and those bars could be raided at any moment and your life could be destroyed. Yet, people found a way to connect with each other, have culture, have art, have sex and have relationships. Do not revise history because you’re afraid of making people uncomfortable. Make people uncomfortable! That’s why you’re an artist! If people want to be comfortable, they can go to their social workers and their therapists,” he says.
It's clear Nyswaner has a lot of passion when it comes to telling stories about the queer experience and that passion translates to the screen in the best ways possible with his decade-jumping plotline, flawed yet intriguing characters and the best sex scenes you’ll see on TV. Fellow Travelers is an 8-episode limited series and is currently playing on Showtime.
Written by: Shanee EdwardsShanee Edwards is an L.A.-based screenwriter, journalist and novelist who recently won The Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer and was honored to be mentored by actress/producers America Ferrera. Shanee's first novel, Ada Lovelace: The Countess Who Dreamed in Numbers was published by Conrad Press in 2019. Currently, she is working on a biopic of controversial nurse Florence Nightingale. Shanee’s ultimate goal is to tell stories about strong, spirited women whose passion, humor and courage inspire us all.