Vida Wasn’t Supposed to End This Way

Photo: Kat Marcinowski/Starz

Vida showrunner Tanya Saracho compares producing the final season of her Starz series to getting through a pregnancy: The first trimester was writing, the second was production, and editing was the third. “Emotionally, getting through each trimester was hard,” she says from her Los Angeles apartment where she has been quarantined with her two cats.

Saracho wasn’t ready to say good-bye to the Hernandez sisters and the Boyle Heights neighborhood story she created four years ago, but it was out of her control. Before she started to work on the third season, she said, Starz told her that it would likely be the show’s last. “People would try to have meaningful conversations with me, especially toward the end about how I felt, and I was just shut down,” she said. “It’s not just about the story ending. It’s the writers’ room that I adore, my cast because we are so close, and my editors. It felt like such a great privilege to be able to give jobs to people. And now I don’t have that anymore. It’s a stress. Now I’m sitting here corona-ing and wondering what’s next.”

Vida’s farewell season premieres on Sunday, and though its life has been cut short, it does tell a complete story and leaves viewers with the satisfaction of watching Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn Hernandez (Melissa Barrera) evolve as women. Producing a truncated season on a smaller budget presented a variety of challenges for the producers, including figuring out how to shoot the series climax on a day when ten members of the camera crew were out sick with a stomach flu. Saracho spoke with Vulture about the legacy of a show that crafted nuanced characters out of queer and nonbinary Latinx people and also employed them behind the scenes, why she kept the ending a secret, and how Vida changed her life.

Did you know this would be the last season before you started writing?
Yes, Starz told me they were giving me six episodes and suggested I prepare this like it’s my last season. It was tough. I went through all the stages of grief while also being grateful we were getting six more. I was hoping we could maybe change their minds if we produced six masterpieces [laughs], but I think this is it. I wanted to tell a love story between two sisters and it’s very satisfying to be able to do that. Starz was fantastic about letting the episodes be what they needed to be, length-wise. They were really respectful and supportive of making this a special season.

With a shorter season and budget cuts, what challenges did you face in wrapping up the story the way you wanted to?
The technical part was more challenging. We had half a day less to shoot each episode. We had to tighten the belt. People had to be at their best all the time. It’s a lot of pressure. We would [normally] do more handheld shots, shaky cameras, and now we had to do more medium and close-ups. Hopefully you are not able to tell from watching it that we had to tighten our belts, but technically that’s what we did.

How did you prioritize the stories you would tell in the writers’ room?We began the first week like normal, just putting all our ideas out there, but then the second week was the most heartbreaking because that’s when we started killing our darlings. There was going to be a love triangle between Emma, Baco, and Nico, but there was no space for it. So then we started talking about what stories we owed: We owed the story of the dad, obviously. Nico was such a dreamboat last year that we decided to scratch up her image a bit. Make her real. And Lyn losing her way in search of a family member also was important. We wanted to follow Rudy and his family story to address classism within our community because that’s important, too. So, we started working from there.

The thing that I wouldn’t do was I wouldn’t write the last scene. When we pitched it to Starz, they wanted to know what would happen to the sisters, but I told them and I told my writers they had to wait. Partly it was because I hadn’t fully made my decision, but also because I just needed to sit with it. It didn’t exist until the script so everyone got to read it at the same time.

Was it hard to figure out, or did you have a feeling all along?
I had one image, the very last image you see. Weeks before I wrote the scene, I found this song “Luna Lovers” by Las Cafeteras, and I just kept imagining the scene with the song. It kind of wrote itself. As soon as we hired our sound person, I said we had to get that song because that’s how we’re ending the series. It was the same thing for the first scene of the season: As soon as we shot it, I asked for that Chavela Vargas song. I had been trying to get one of her songs since the beginning of the series, but it wouldn’t license. This song has never been in anything. “Macorina” is the lesbian anthem of Latin America. “Ponme la mano aquí [put your hand here],” it’s code. For decades, it’s been code for lesbians in Latin America. Chavela Vargas is singing it about a woman. I cried when we got it because this is for Latin American queers, older generations, that have been hiding in the shadows.

You directed your first TV episode last season. Now you directed the last three episodes. Would you direct projects that you didn’t create?
The bug has bit me. I love directing now, but no, I don’t wanna fuck anybody’s stuff up. [Laughs.] Before corona, I was supposed to go to take a course at the London Film Academy in cinematography. I’m so serious about this. I don’t have any training and I want to learn more. And then, coronavirus. Coronavirus! Did you see Cardi B? [Laughs.] So that didn’t happen. Oh my God, I’ve been alone too long.

You’ve directed four episodes and you still struggle with confidence?
I never will feel confident. [Laughs.] But I also don’t feel confident anytime I write a script, so that’s just me. I’m scared to mess up other people’s stuff. Who knows? Post-corona, maybe I’ll feel different. I knew Vida so well that no one could tell me shit. Wait, she doesn’t cry in this point. No one could tell me that! She does cry. I say she cries! I wouldn’t dare do that to someone else’s TV show.

Vida put you on a different career trajectory. But what do you take from this experience personally?
I feel like I count everything BV and AV: Before Vida and After Vida. I wrote Vida while I was recovering from back surgeries. From then to now, it was a total life shift. I was a mid-level writer. I was a co-producer on a network show. And then I almost died. When I was writing, I actually had MRSA. So I wrote the pilot like that and then I’ve just kept going for these three seasons. I never stopped. Now, I’m different. My knowledge of the industry is the same, yet my knowledge of the craft of making a television series is profound. It’s weird because I still feel like a co-producer that doesn’t know shit about the industry. I don’t wake up and read the trades and see what show’s been canceled and what the numbers were and know how to sell stuff. I still have no experience when it comes to the industry, except for crafting this lovely little show that I did. I’m seen differently, but I still see myself the same. It’s a mind-fuck, especially when I run into Latinx people who tell me they know they can do it because I did.

After Netflix canceled One Day at a Time and you spoke up about what that void meant, people saw you as a leader in the Latinx community. How do you feel about taking on that role?
It’s overwhelming. I sometimes feel like, Wait! The emperor has no clothes! [Laughs.] People ask me, “How do you pitch? How do you sell?” Honey, I’ve never done any of that. I’ve done a lot of other things — sold plays, directed plays — but [Gloria Calderón Kellett] can teach you the craft and the business of it. But when it comes to us and this industry, I can’t shut up because I got here and realized that we were oppressed and pushed aside.

I hired Latinas and queer Latinx people and nonbinary people because that was the only way I knew how to build the show I wanted to make. But I am glad that it’s helped others feel they can do it, too. Things have shifted since I started this. It’s not super different, but there are a few more Latinx shows. The perception of the self shifts. Right now, I’m super militant about “no stories about us without us.” Truly to the core, Vida did that. From the writing to the casting to the editing, we did that. When I started this, I had been told things like, “Why would you want to limit yourself?” Well, it doesn’t feel like a limitation anymore. The experience and the people I worked with fill me with pride and also make me so fucking sad that this ephemeral experience will live in my memories now. And on the screen, thankfully.

Vida Wasn’t Supposed to End This Way