First there was Buffy The Vampire Slayer, then there was Twilight, and now First Kill on Netflix, a queer teen vampire series, based on the book by Victoria “V.E.” Schwab, starring Imani Lewis and Sarah Catherine Hook, with Emma Roberts as an executive producer.
First Kill is a kind of Romeo and Juliet-esque story at its core, beginning with Juliette (Hook) now at the age when she has to make her first kill, solidifying her place in her vampire community and feeling from the pressure from her family, coming from a highly regarded legacy of women vampires on her mother’s side. Until that happens, Juliette has to manage these massive migraines with, essentially, blood pills.
But Juliette is distracted by a new girl in her school Calliope (Lewis). What she doesn’t know is that her crush comes from a family of monster hunters, which includes hunting vampires. While Juliette is expected to have her first kill, Calliope is trying to show her strength as a monster hunter, just like her brothers.
'My whole life has been marching toward this point'
Leading the series as showrunner is famed TV producer and writer Felicia D. Henderson, whose credits include working shows like Empire, The Punisher, Gossip Girl, Everybody Hates Chris, and even Sister, Sister and Moesha back in the ‘90s.
So what was it about Schwab’s story that attracted the legendary TV icon to the project? It was the genre, specifically being able to push for more representation within the genre.
“I started in the eight o'clock family sitcom and as my family always reminds me, my whole life has been marching toward this point, I think you can look at my credits and see that they've also been marching toward this point,” Henderson told Yahoo Canada. “At eight or nine I thought, I'm sure I'm going to grow up to marry Batman, I thought that was a real possibility”
“Since I was a kid and writing stories when I was that little, they were always in the sci-fi or magical realism space. My early drama work, even when I did Soul Food, my first family drama, I had a character who had a big old dream life about a fantasy place… I love writing about it as genre, which has been in my heart since I was a kid.”
Additionally, she highlights that it’s important work in terms of representation, with strong female leads, two young women where we see a lesbian love story unfold under the guise of this vampire drama.
“It really is the sweet spot of everything I love and care about,” Henderson said.
'I wanted to see myself in Buffy'
For decades, vampire stories have been cemented in popular culture, particularly for entertainment and books geared towards teens, but both V. E. Schwab and Felicia D. Henderson celebrate that fact that First Kill brings queer characters into the genre in leading roles, particularly for a younger audience to see.
“I have a Calliope and a Juliette in my life and I have one who had an experience coming out that was easy because I was the centre of her life and I just said, ‘that's interesting, I love you, come let me hug you,’ and then I also have one who would almost have rather died than tell her story,” Henderson revealed. “For both of them, who are both thriving now in their 20s, but both of them needed this at 16.”
“When I read it, I thought there is a 16 year-old version of them out there now who needs this and I want to be part of bringing that to television.”
For Schwab, someone who is completely immersed in the young adult space, she recognizes that we’ve “come so far” for queer narratives but, "it still feels like the vast majority of the time when queer characters get to be at the centre of a story, it's because the story is about queerness.”
“But that is reducing them in a way that their straight counterpoints don't get reduced,” Schwab said. “The fact is, I grew up and one of the reasons I didn't see myself in stories is because I wanted to see myself in Buffy, I wanted to see myself in Supernatural, I wanted the fantasy to go with my identity.”
“I wish I had the show when I was 16, it's why I wanted to write it, because I think if I had seen a show like this it might have saved me about a decade on the identity journey. I just think it's important to know that you don't have to be reduced to one aspect, that doesn't become your whole story.”
'There is no such thing as a monolithic experience'
That representation also translated off screen as well, with the way the writers room was constructed for First Kill.
“Putting the writers room together to have more than one person with a similar, at least, view because I've been, a lot, in a room where I'm the only Black person and so every time there's a Black character they’re like, ‘so Felicia,’...and I'm like, ‘well I don't know, let me call the big collective of Black people and asked what we would do now,” Felicia D. Henderson said.
“In this room, we had multiple queer people so that you can have different points of view, and no one would have to feel like, 'OK I'm supposed to speak for that experience,' because there is no such thing as a monolithic experience. So in that way, the room was fun as well.”
It’s that representation and collaboration in the writers room that made it an “amazing” experience for V. E. Schwab to move beyond the usual solitary activity of writing a novel.
“Especially with a show like First Kill, it absolutely needs that,” the author said. “Sure, I have creative intentions, but I don't have lived experience for half of this cast, for half of the story.”
“I was so excited by the aspect of collaboration by getting to work with Felicia, to work with our room and build a team that could speak to so many different strengths, and so many creative aspects and have so many ideas. I went back to writing novels afterwards and I was like, ‘this is a bummer, I can't just throw it out to the table and get feedback on it.’”