Behind the scenes of Netflix’s A Secret Love

Members Alexa L. Fogel and Brendan Mason discuss making the hit documentary about a lesbian love story that was kept hidden for seven decades

By Amelia Abraham  Images courtesy of Netflix   Thursday 25 June, 2020   Long read

A collage of a photo of an elderly woman and a handwritten letter.

Pat Henschel

A collage of a photo of an elderly woman and a handwritten letter.

Terry Donahue

'A Secret Love is rare in that it shines a light on three things we just don’t see: older couples, older same-sex couples, and female older same-sex couples'

‘There’s just something so ordinary about their lives together,’ says Alexa L. Fogel, the producer of the Netflix smash hit, A Secret Love. ‘It’s one of the things that makes them so appealing.’ Fogel is, of course, talking about the film’s two main subjects, Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel – an adorable, elderly lesbian couple in the United States. ‘They were just remarkable in how unremarkable they thought they were,’ Fogel continues, on a Zoom call alongside producer Brendan Mason. ‘They never saw themselves as special – they honestly couldn’t understand why we were making this film,’ adds Mason with a laugh.
 
Anyone who has seen it knows that Terry and Pat’s love story is in fact very special, hence why the documentary has become one of the most talked-about Netflix watches. Terry and Pat have been together for a staggering 70 years. And, while a love that lasts such a long time is rare, an enduring same-sex love can be even rarer. And, especially when you consider that, in America, homosexuality has only been decriminalised nationwide since 2003. So, many relationships have – like Pat and Terry’s – been forced to exist in secret, under the weight of societal and familial homophobia. 
 
The opening scenes of A Secret Love hones in on this, explaining how, for a long time, Terry and Pat pretended to be ‘just good friends’. In reality, they first met romantically in 1947 – Terry was 22 and Pat 18. Terry was playing as one of the first members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League at the time. They exchanged secret love letters, which they kept with the signature at the bottom ripped off, so that if anyone else were to find them, the writer could not be identified. When they later moved in together, they described one another as ‘cousins’ to anyone who asked and explained to their families that they shared an apartment because rents in Chicago were so high. They didn’t decide to tell their loved ones that they were a couple until 2009.
This is when the idea for the film came to director Chris Bolan, Terry’s great-nephew. When he brought the story to Fogel and Mason and their production house, Beech Hill Films, they instantly knew it would make a compelling documentary. ‘The crux of it was that they’d been together for so long, and we initially thought it would be about the family’s reaction to their coming out,’ says Fogel. But after they started shooting in 2013, the direction started to evolve, with the film taking five years to complete and seven years to bring to the screen. ‘As it took longer and longer to make – because we kept running out of money – it became clear that a big component of the story would also be about ageing.’ 
 
As Mason explains, in following Terry and Pat’s search for a care home after Terry’s onset of Parkinson’s, the film highlights the specific ageing challenges for older LGBTQ+ people – a section of the community that’s not necessarily as visible. ‘I think the main challenge for LGBTQ+ seniors is that when they go into these retirement homes and they’re filled with conservative and religious people, there’s this issue of “twice closeted”: people who have come out a long time ago go back in the closet to feel comfortable in that environment.’
 
In taking Terry and Pat as subjects, who were both in their 80s while the film was shot, A Secret Love is rare in that it shines a light on three things we just don’t see: older couples, older same-sex couples, and female older same-sex couples. While this is Fogel and Mason’s first documentary together, it does speak to their previous work. ‘All of our projects are focusing on a story about an underrepresented group or a voice that hasn’t been given an amplifier before,’ says Mason. The last film they worked on, for example, was called One Last Thing about an African-American man who discovers he has a lesbian daughter he has never met.

‘You’re watching a love story – told honestly. There’s something remarkable and applaudable about that.’ 

When not working as a producer, Fogel is a casting director for shows including Ryan Murphy’s Pose and The Politician – a connection that led to him coming on board as a producer of A Secret Love. This in turn helped with its acquisition by Netflix, where Murphy produces projects, predominantly with an LGBTQ+ representation. 

Like Pose, A Secret Love’s popularity demonstrates how hungry modern audiences are for queer stories (Mason points to the other much talked-about Murphy-produced Netflix documentary, Circus Of Books, about the Jewish family who ran a famous gay porn store in LA. There’s also The Half Of It by Alice Wu and Out On Television on Apple TV+, which goes through the decades of LGBTQ+ history). But even with this wave of queer content, you can never estimate a project becoming part of the zeitgeist, as has happened with A Secret Love – ‘You just can’t engineer that,’ exclaims Mason. 
 
The social media reaction was overwhelming and wholly positive, with hundreds of Twitter users posting photos of themselves crying at the documentary within the first 24 hours. The main response, Mason says, has been people saying how important the film is in the way it normalises a kind of relationship that so many still think of as ‘other’. ‘They’re just such real, regular people; no ego, no agenda,’ adds Mason, explaining why the story feels at once beautiful and mundane. 
 
When I ask Mason why it’s had such a huge impact beyond the queer community, across all audiences – spanning all ages and sexualities – he says simply, ‘Whether they’re gay or straight falls away in the first five minutes; it’s a relatable and aspirational love.’ Fogel adds in surmise, ‘You’re watching a love story – told honestly. There’s something remarkable and applaudable about that.’
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