Laurie Nunn is an award-winning playwright and film and television writer. She was born in London and grew up in Victoria, Australia. She studied Writing and Directing at the VCA School of Film and TV in Melbourne, and then completed an MA in Screenwriting at the National Film and Television School in the UK. Since graduating in 2012, she has found huge success as the creator of Netflix’s hit show “Sex Education,” which has just released its third season. “Sex Education” has received critical and commercial success, with over 40 million viewers streaming the first season. Her first play “King Brown” was workshopped at the National Theatre Studio and went on to win a Judges Award at the 2017 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting.
At this year’s Canneseries, Tara Karajica sat down with Laurie Nunn, the recipient of the first KONBINI Commitment Award at the festival, to discuss her groundbreaking TV series, “Sex Education,” the female gaze, women in TV and what she is working on next.
How did the idea for Sex Education come come about?
Laurie Nunn.: The idea for the show really came to me as a seed pitch quite a few years ago now. And, the seed pitch idea was: What would happen if we put a teenage sex therapist onto a school campus? I was really, really drawn to this idea. I thought that it can be like a really brilliant comedic hook into a show. And then, I took it away, developed the characters and created the world, and it was really unlocking the relationship between Otis and his single mom that really opened up the story that I wanted to tell. I realized that this story of this very potent single parent relationship was very much going to be the motor throughout the series.
How do you explain the success of Sex Education?
L.N.: I really don’t know how to explain the success of the show. It still feels really surreal to me, and I’m just really happy that it’s resonating with people and that people are enjoying the characters and the storylines.
How do you think the series has changed people’s attitude to sex and sex education?
L.N.: I think it’s definitely changed my attitude towards the idea of sex education and I really wanted to create a show that felt like it was an antidote to some of the bad sex education that I had at school. I wanted to create a show that really put forward a positive message about things like body positivity and consent and really put female desire and female pleasure into focus.
It’s a coming-of-age story that is different. Can you talk about coming-of-age in 2021, compared to, say, coming-of-age a decade or two ago?
L.N.: I’ve always really loved the teen genre. I’m a real super fan of the genre and with Sex Education I wanted to sort of pay homage to a lot of the shows and films that came before, and was very inspired by John Hughes and films from the 90s and TV shows like Dawson’s Creek and The O.C.. And, I think, in many ways, some of the core of that storytelling is still very much the same. I think it’s really about young people wanting to feel like they belong and wanting to see something of themselves reflected. But I do think that, now in 2021, there is a much more urgent need for more inclusivity and queer representation on screen. And, I think that Sex Education is really trying to contribute to that conversation.
It’s a healthier and more inclusive way of depicting teenagers and teenage sex and sexuality compared for instance to the American Pie era, and the way it was portrayed two decades ago. Can you comment on that?
L.N.: I think that it really helps that with Sex Education the writing process is led by me. So, the show has been created by a woman. And then, I lead the writing process. I do most of the writing, but my writers room is made up of mostly female writers and also LGBTQ+ writers. And, I think that there’s something about that that just shifts the perspective in the storytelling and it means that the focus is going on to some of the characters that maybe would have been more sort of comedic side characters in past film and TV shows, whereas here they’re really taking center stage and they feel like they have a lot of agency and empowerment.
You mention queer representation in the show. Can you delve more into it?
L.N.: So, the writers room that I lead is a very queer space. I think because we’ve got a vast representation of different identities and sexualities on screen, it’s really important that we have writers contributing to the process that also share a lived experience. And, it’s also really important to me that the queer characters in the show are not defined by their sexuality; they have other things going on in their lives or other storylines, but the fact that they are LGBTQ+ is just another aspect of who they are – it’s not completely who they are.
The actors are dressed in a sort of timeless way. Can you talk about this choice?
L.N.: It was a very conscious decision. It was a very conscious decision to make the show feel timeless. To me, the show’s not set in any specific place. I want Moordale to feel like it’s its own utopia, it’s almost like a kind of comic book where these teenagers exist. And, I wanted people to be able to watch the show and be from any background or of any age and see something that they relate to and I think that really creating this feeling like you don’t really know if it’s the 1980s or the 1970s or the 1950s helps give it that universal appeal.
Did you work with an intimacy coordinator?
L.N.: Yes, we’ve worked with an intimacy coordinator since season one. Myself and another female producer felt like it was really important. We knew that we were going to be working with less experienced actors because it was a teen show and also the show is all about sex – it’s in the title – and the sex scenes are very essential to the show. So, we wanted to have somebody whose sole job was to make sure that everybody felt really safe and protected on set, but also whose job was to translate the intimacy scenes into something that feels really congruent and funny, and tells a very clear story.
You talked about the show being led by you and written by you and many other female writers. Can you elaborate more on presenting the show from the female gaze, and how important this is today, being that it also tackles female pleasure and how that is still a taboo topic in the 21st Century?
L.N.: I think what’s really interesting with the female gaze is that when you are a woman and you are writing that, you just naturally write from that perspective, so I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily conscious, but I do think that it really does have an effect on storytelling and where the storylines are weighted. It’s a real personal mission of mine to center female pleasure and desire. In Sex Education, because I just felt like it was something that I didn’t get taught about at all at school and I feel very sad for my teenage self, I just wanted to fly the flag for female pleasure in the show and show that there’s absolutely nothing shameful about it, and to try demystify it and take away some of the stigma.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film and TV these past four years. What is your take on the matter?
L.N.: I think it’s definitely better. I think that there is there is a lot more representation. I think that people are more interested in hearing women’s stories and giving women the opportunity to tell their stories. But I also think if you do dig into the numbers, the statistics are still not great. And, we’re definitely nowhere close to anything that looks remotely equal. So, even though I think it is a very positive time, I think we mustn’t rest on our laurels and we do have to keep fighting for more inclusivity in the industry.
What could you tell us about season 4?
L.N.: I’ve started writing season 4 and I’ve completed the writers room and I’m well into the writing process of it now. I can’t really reveal too much, but obviously we’ve left season 3 with quite a few cliffhangers and there are many, many questions that are yet to be answered.
Are you working on something else?
L.N.: Sex Education at the moment. We work on such a tight schedule. There’s not a huge amount of time and space for me to be thinking about other things, but I absolutely love writing for TV and I’d love to work on other projects after Sex Education and I’m also really interested in directing and would love to try and incorporate that into things as well in the future.
Photo credits: Olivier Vigerie.
This interview was conducted virtually at the 2021 Canneseries Festival.