Better Nate Than Ever Director Tim Federle on Crafting a Disney Movie with LGBTQ Themes in the Era of Dont Say Gay Legislation

“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” creator Tim Federle makes his directorial debut with the film “Better Nate Than Ever,” adapted from his award-winning book by the same name.

The story follows 13-year-old Nate (newcomer Rueby Wood), an awkward, aspiring theater kid who can’t land a role in his school play, yet follows his dream from his hometown of Pittsburgh to audition on Broadway. Lisa Kudrow, Joshua Bassett, Aria Brooks and Broadway legends Michelle Federer and Norbert Leo Butz also star.

As the cast and crew gathered at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood Tuesday night to celebrate the film’s April 1 launch on Disney Plus, Federle spoke to Variety about the story’s discussion of sexuality, the importance of LGBTQ representation in entertainment and weighed in on the controversy over Disney’s handling of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

You’ve described this movie as a love letter to kids, and to theater kids in particular. What were you most excited about when it came to bringing your popular book to life?

When I was growing up in the ’80s, and ’90s, I loved movies like “Ferris Bueller” and “Adventures in Babysitting” — these family movie nights. But what I hadn’t seen is that unapologetic theater kid at the center of it. I know — because I have this series [“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”] on Disney plus — that you reach a big audience. And I thought it was time, and I was really excited for audiences to meet a character like Nate leading a movie like this.

Let’s talk about your lead actor — you’ve discovered true talent in Rueby Wood. What was it about his audition that stood out to you?

We saw hundreds of boys — many really polished kids who’ve done all these TV shows, Rueby came in on Zoom. He sang a song from “Wicked,” and he was so unapologetic about that. There was a spark there; he really inhabited this role in an unapologetic way. Then, when he and Aria Brooks did their Zoom chemistry read for Libby and Nate, it was undeniable that these two would become best friends. To this day, they’re best friends and it’s the coolest.

It’s a lovely story about friendship, about family; it’s also about this young boy addressing and discovering his sexuality. There are more themes of sexuality in the book, while Nate’s own sexuality is presented as undecided. What conversations did you have about how you wanted to tackle Nate’s sexuality in the movie and for this audience?

It was always about going back to what was authentic for me at 13. And so at 13, my favorite food was macaroni and cheese. My dream was to be a cat in “Cats” on Broadway. And I was discovering about my identity — I was like, “I bet I grow up and I become gay.” So, I wanted to thread that into this film, in order to bring a character like that to life, and what I ultimately feel like is that the film is sort of one in a long line of coming of age films about any kid from a small town who wants to get out, whether they want to play hockey or go to the Olympics, that is relatable. I think that a character like this is going to make a lot of kids feel less alone, but also make a lot of people root for him.

There is a nationwide conversation about when kids should be learning about sexuality and approaching that conversation — with, in particular, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill and, in relation, Disney’s handling of that. What conversations have you had about all these things, knowing that you’re bringing this film to to Disney Plus next month?

The timing is wild, isn’t it? I run the “High School Musical” series. And in my several years with the company now, I was heartened to see we won the GLAAD award, we had the first-ever same gender kiss. And what I wanted to bring to this was a slightly younger POV of a middle-schooler discovering. For me, who didn’t grow up with a movie like this, I know this movie would have made me feel seen and a lot less alone.

Ultimately, good representation does not cancel out bad legislation. And what I’m hopeful for is that these first steps Disney’s taking now are only the first steps towards making the world a truly safer and more inclusive space.

The other question is this debate internally between employees of how to show their displeasure — whether it should be public facing, like the Disney walkouts or posts on social media — what is the right thing to do? What has been your take on how to navigate that right now.

My real take is I stand with anyone who wants to see the world feel safer and more inclusive. And thank goodness for the creators and the animators and the writers who are saying enough is enough. I’ve had an interesting experience because it’s been a very inclusive process. This movie is one that has not a moment censored; it is truly the movie I wanted to make.

So I’m hoping the company is starting to take real steps toward broader inclusion and a more transparent process of how they make content. I think it’s an ongoing conversation for a reason, and 10 years after publishing the book, the fact that we’re still having the conversation means there’s still a long way to go.

Creating opportunities for LGBTQ filmmakers within Disney has been a mission of yours — you most recently brought on Launchpad alum Ann Marie Pace [who directed “Growing Fangs”] to direct an episode of “High School Musical.”

Ann Marie Pace just nailed it. That [Launchpad] series is fantastic because it does the real thing, and we need more of these, which is giving opportunities to underrepresented voices. Ann Marie Pace walked on to set with the sharpest shot list I’ve ever seen. I’ve never left set so fast to go work on a script because she just had the set like under lock. I’m a big believer in hiring queer actors and filmmakers and doing what I can to offer greater representation myself.

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