Crystal Moselle on setting 'Betty' season two during the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests
- "Betty" season two premieres on HBO this Friday.
- Insider spoke to the show's creator and director, Crystal Moselle.
- Moselle revealed why she decided to set the show's second season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
Filmmaker Crystal Moselle first found widespread acclaim in 2015 with "The Wolfpack," a Sundance prize-winning documentary about six film-obsessed brothers whose father trapped them inside their Lower East Side apartment for 14 years. She spotted the brothers on the street during one of their first forays outside. Her HBO show "Betty," a series about a group of female skateboarders in New York City, had a similar beginning.
Moselle was on the subway in 2016 when she spotted an all-teen girl skateboarding troupe. She introduced herself and soon after cast the girls in a short film, a semi-scripted feature, and then a TV show.
The second season of "Betty" premieres this Friday on HBO and it is an ambitious piece of television. Like the first season, there is no heavy plotting or dramatic narrative arc. Instead, the show mulls around the lives of its five young women, which this season have all been derailed by a global pandemic and a series of protests over racial injustice.
Yes, the entire season is set during the latter half of 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests in New York City. It's a bold move considering we are less than a year removed from those scenes. But Moselle told Insider that it was a decision she and her collaborators felt compelled to make.
"We actually had an idea that was about them saving a skate park. That was our first initial idea. And then with everything that was happening with BLM we were like, 'We cannot compare saving a small little skate park right now to everything that's happening in the world,'" she said.
"The energy of New York last summer was so strong. It was so powerful, and we wanted to bring that into the show."
The show was shot under tight restrictions, but Moselle still caught COVID-19 halfway through
The word COVID-19 is rarely spoken throughout the season. The show doesn't attempt to dramatize the pandemic but rather dissolves the reality of living under restrictions into the milieu with refreshing maturity. For example, characters and background extras wear face masks, but they are often found around their chins. There are scenes set inside bars and clubs, but there is no social distancing. The inconsistencies are glaring but realistic.
The show's production was a lot less relaxed.
"We had to wear masks the whole time. It was so much testing. I think we were one of the first shows to go so it was wild," Moselle told Insider. "I got COVID halfway during the shoot. Nobody else got it. I don't know how I got it. I think it was on the Staten Island ferry when we were shooting. It was a pandemic. There was nothing you could do."
In contrast, "Betty" season two takes a more direct aim at police brutality. There is Black Lives Matter insignia and posters that read "protect Black women" prominently positioned in almost every scene. And one of the more interesting storylines in the season follows a community organizer who struggles to access government PPE loans to save his local charity.
"All these big businesses like the red lobster over there they're doing just fine ... but entrepreneurs, Black-owned business shutting down left and right," he says after his loan application is denied.
All of this commentary comes to a head in episode six, the season finale. A party is organized at the new underground skate park where the city's skaters have been squatting for most of the season. The police are called after things get a little unruly. As they arrive, the red-and-blue lights flood the screen, and Moselle's once-active handheld camera takes a fixed step back.
Instantly it looks and feels like the show is set to end in a tragedy that audiences know too well. But moments later the police officers retreat, and the partygoers flee without any casualties. The scene is chilling but one of the show's best because the political message is conveyed through the personal experience of each viewer instead of symbols. Although Moselle told Insider that there was a lot of "heated discussion" in the writer's room about how to best execute the scene.
"It was a very complex decision to make because we didn't want to downplay what was happening in the world at the time," she said.
"But we also wanted to push for this idea that there's a more peaceful way to deal with things. And in that regard, last summer at times it felt almost like the police didn't exist in New York because they just pulled back and that's really kind of what happened. That's actually the reality."
Large parts of the show are improvised by the cast
"Betty" is the fourth teen show to premiere on HBO in the last two years. The channel has made the genre a clear priority. From a business perspective, this makes sense - teen shows attract devoted fan bases and are ripe for spin-offs. But unlike HBO's other teen-led shows, there is a wholesome, almost innocent quality to how the drama unfolds in "Betty."
The characters date and have sex, but they are never hyper-sexualized. There is drinking and smoking, but Moselle's camera is never voyeuristic. This thematic departure is refreshing and it is largely informed by the show's young women who consult on the script. Large parts of the dialogue are also improvised to preserve authenticity.
"The girls are total geniuses with improv at this point," Moselle said. "And then we shoot it like a documentary so the camera moves around a lot and we capture things in the moment. I like to explain it in this way that's like, 'we were so lucky to encounter this moment on camera, like, I always wanted to feel like that.'"
"Betty" combines all the best elements of Moselle's previous work - beautiful cinematography, bold politics, and a gentle documentary tone. In many ways, the female-led skating sub-genre feels like the most fitting home for her specific talents.
So will "Betty" be returning for a third season?
"Maybe," Moselle quipped. "We are in a pre-room now, but we won't know for probably five weeks or so. But I am making a film about my father working at a mental hospital in the '70s. I just finished the script and that's really exciting. Something I'm going to probably do next."