Michael Zara – Elevating Camp One Letter at a Time

Written by | The Lens

In 1909, the Oxford English Dictionary first defined the term “camp” as “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual behavior” and from that definition on, we have delivered.  Camp has been used to comment on society’s idea of what high art, taste, and culture is by disrupting it with high energy and overblown presentations, often approaching the boundary of bad taste with always smart humor.  The successful camp is true camp, and bad camp is just kitsch.  For example: Lady Gaga is camp, the movie Showgirls is kitsch.

Fighting the good fight in the world of cinematic camp for the LGBTQ community is screenwriter Michael Zara.  In this past year, with an increasing abundance of Hallmark and Lifetime holiday films, the SyFy network premiered Michael’s debut on-screen film, Letters to Satan Claus.  Adding to SyFy’s library of films that include Sharknado, Shark in Venice, Dinocroc, and Santa Jaws (seriously, what is SyFy’s fascination with sharks?), Michael’s film included characters and actors from the LGBTQ community, something fairly new to the “macho man, shoot ‘em up” network.  Michael’s script and inclusion in the network’s lineup reflect the uptick in LGBTQ representation on networks that previously had disregarded us.  Filmed during the height of the pandemic, Letters to Satan Claus was directed by Emma Jean Sutherland, who is non-binary and bi-sexual, and features a diverse cast with openly queer lead Karen Knox, trans actors, and a black love interest storyline.

In addition to Letters to Satan Claus, Zara has developed original pilots IT’S A MYSTERY for The CW and KILL THE LIGHTS for YouTube Originals and cut his teeth writing for TNT’s Major Crimes.  He also co-created the unauthorized musical parody of TEEN WITCH at The Groundlings.  Michael’s style is smart and sassy, elevating the camp genre with a quick wit and fleshed-out characters.  His next project?  He’s tackling PROM DRESS, the classic (the late 80s is considered classic now) YA novel about a prom dress that has horrifying powers over those who wear it.  We can’t wait.

We chatted with Michael after watching Letters to Satan Claus again (who doesn’t love a holiday film in March?) while listening to Lady Gaga and roasting glitter-laden s’mores (it’s camp, get it?).  All things were on the table to chat about, including the relationship between Hollywood and the LGBTQ community, the future of our cinema, sexuality, and writing during COVID:

Where does one come up with an idea like Letters to Satan Claus?

I was up one night late, watching a Hallmark Christmas movie — as one does — and had an epiphany: there should be a horror parody of these films! I brought the idea to Syfy, and Letters to Satan Claus was born. 

When did your relationship with horror films start?

Oh gosh, so long ago! I was that kid who would walk the aisles of Blockbuster, looking for the craziest movie poster art. The one I can remember vividly was the VHS cover for The Stuff, about this killer Cool Whip-type substance. It still holds up. 

What films first influenced you as a kid?

I’d say the Nightmare on Elm Street series is what got me into horror, but more horror-comedy, mostly. I need a little wink with my blood. Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master is my absolute fav of the series. Probably because it was on TV the most when I was little. Non-horror films that shaped my creative brain as a kid would be Teen Witch, Troop Beverly Hills, and The Little Mermaid. I guess I have a thing for redheads. 

There has been an incredible boom in gay-led films and characters – especially during this last Christmas season – every network had their first gay holiday film.  Is there a danger of too much too soon?

No! Bring on the holiday gays, I say. I mean, how many straight romantic Christmas TV movies do they churn out each season? 100? 1000? 

How have you seen LGBTQ content in entertainment change the most?

I guess I’d say there’s just more of it. More mainstream, too. Like, I absolutely love Pose, but it wouldn’t have been made ten years ago. So I think we have to thank openly queer creator heavy-hitters like Ryan Murphy and Greg Berlanti for helping get our stories out to a larger audience. 

What is Hollywood getting right about our stories?

I think highlighting all the shades of queerness. It’s not just the sassy gay best friend on a sitcom anymore. For example, I loved that show Happy Endings on ABC because I have definitely met a slobby stoner gay or two in my lifetime. I may be in the minority, but I really enjoyed Looking on HBO. The sex and relationship stuff felt very real to me. I know those are older examples, but they stick out in my mind for uniqueness. 

What is Hollywood still getting wrong about our stories?

We still have a lot of sassy best friends out there. I mean, I’d prefer they exist than not exist at all, but let’s try to make them more three-dimensional. Like, I had a gay bestie in Letters to Satan Claus (played by Alex Harrouch), leaning into the holiday movie trope. But I tried to give his character an arc and a love interest. Who turned out to be a Prince! 

Should gay and trans characters be only played by gay and trans actors?  What if Brad Pitt wanted to play one of your gay characters?

You are going for it! Personally, and this is just my opinion, I don’t think in 2021, cisgender actors should be playing trans characters. Again, look at Pose. We’ve got all these incredible artists getting to tell their authentic stories. New voices. Important voices. Let’s give an opportunity to the folks who are living this truth. In terms of gay characters being played by gay actors, I prefer to provide those people with a chance. But I would never want a gay actor not to be allowed to play straight, so it gets a little murky — a bit double standard-y. And if Brad Pitt wanted to play gay in one of my projects, that meant that more people would see an LGBTQ story because of him, maybe changing their preconceived notions about our community, I wouldn’t say no. Call me, Brad. K?

What was the first script you submitted to a studio?  Tell me about it.

The first feature of mine that went out is called The Convention, about a former scream queen who travels to a small-town horror convention where a serial killer — disguised as the villain from her franchise — terrorizes the event. It was my total horror fantasy: I wrote in real-life actors like Robert Englund and Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira), who have these epic death scenes. I’m still hoping it gets made one of these days. 

What were your feelings when seeing your script for Letters to Satan Claus on the screen for the first time?

Lucky. I felt incredibly lucky. 90% of the time, the scripts you write that get purchased are never made. It’s happened to me and all of my writer friends. 

When did you first realize your sexuality was different than other kids?

Oh, wow. Probably six years old? I was your Barbie-loving, Disney song-singing, boy-crazy type child. For me, it felt normal. It only became “different” when kids at school told me it was (in not so nice ways). 

How does your sexuality affect your writing?

Pretty much everything I write has a female lead — it’s just what I like to write — so I get to really tap into my feminine side in my scripts. There’s real freedom in that. My love for pop music, fashion, and strong women all play big parts in my work. I don’t think if I were straight, I’d be telling these stories. 

I LOVE the campiness of SYFY holiday films…what are the fundamentals to good camp in film?

Playing it for straight, so to speak. I think as soon as an actor is “campy” on purpose, the magic is lost. In other words, being earnest when playing a character in one of these movies is key. 

Tell me how PROM DRESS is coming along – what can we expect?

Oh, thank you for asking! I’m so excited about this one. It’s a queer teen “bloody bubblegum” horror feature I wrote with Nick Verso (Boys in the Trees), who is also attached to direct. It’s based on my favorite Scholastic Point Horror novel from childhood, about a cursed dress that makes you do bad things. I was tracking down the rights for years and finally got them. We definitely updated it for 2021, hence its poppy queerness. As we speak, we are talking to a couple of buyers. Fingers crossed!   

What kind of films are you watching on your time “off”?

Man, what is time off? All I do is write! But! I have been able to binge some great TV, like The Flight Attendant, Doom Patrol, Search Party, Lovecraft Country, and, believe it or not, Stargirl. I sound like HBO Max is paying me. I wish. There’s also a horror movie from the 70s I recently discovered called Burnt Offerings, a pretty fun haunted house story. 

You wrote for TNT’s Major Crimes.  Was it difficult changing your style to fit a mainstream drama?

Major Crimes was my first TV writing credit, so it will always hold a special place in my heart. I think it really stretched my writing — showed me I could do more than just snappy teen girl dialogue. But I definitely got to play to my strengths, too, writing a lot for the gay teenage character, Rusty (played by Graham Patrick Martin). And in one episode, I got to create a faux CW-like superhero show. We shot a whole fake trailer with stunts and rain on the Paramount backlot! That was some dream come true stuff. I’m actually developing something right now with James Duff (who created Major Crimes). It’s so nice to be back with him. 

What is your favorite script line from Letters to Satan Claus?

Off the top of my head, it’s when a new body literally drops from the ceiling, and Faith (played by Jessica Clement) says, “It’s Carol! From Carol’s Electronics!” So stupid. 

If you had to write a legit script for a Hallmark rom-com – what would it be called? What would it be about?

Good question. But I can’t give you a free movie idea ;). How about a title: Gingerbread Kisses. 

What do you think the next age of LGBTQ content will look like?

Oh gosh, hopefully just more and more of our stories, told authentically. I want to see a network show, like a soapy drama, specifically made up of LGBTQ characters, not just one. Hmm. I see my next pitch…

How has COVID affected your writing, if at all?

In terms of content, I’m trying to avoid writing crowd scenes for safety. But I’m not telling any COVID stories currently as I feel like we all want to escape into a bit of fantasy right now — looking towards a future of not wearing masks 24-7. Although, I will say it is a little weird watching a show where someone goes into a supermarket without a mask. On working during COVID, I’m used to staying home all day, writing on my laptop. The only difference is that way more people are now in the same boat. 

What would your own letter to Satan Claus include?

I’d ask Satan Claus to make Syfy greenlight the sequel already 😉 

You can follow Michael on Instagram: @ZaraShots 



Last modified: March 9, 2021