When Chris Van Dusen launched Bridgerton on Christmas Day, he hoped that this sexy, escapist period romance would find an eager audience. What he didn’t anticipate was how the series would skyrocket into the pantheon of Netflix’s top five debuts of all time, with 63 million households projected to stream it within less than a month of the series premiere. Even for Van Dusen, a Shondaland veteran accustomed to the enormous followings that have coalesced around shows like Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and Private Practice, Bridgerton’s hit debut was surreal.
Van Dusen is still reeling from the enormity of it all, but in the wake of the show’s outstanding launch, he’s had a lot of time to think about what went into the making of this stratospheric hit. As the creator and showrunner of Bridgerton, Van Dusen spent years developing the story from Julia Quinn’s beloved historical romance novels, seeking to create an adaptation that would read as both faithful and modern. The finished product is exactly that: a lovingly adapted fantasy of romance and glamour, but also a keen dissection of genre tropes about gender, race, and class. Van Dusen spoke with Esquire about striking the right balance of historical accuracy, challenging conservative attitudes, and bringing the show’s steamy sex scenes to life.
Esquire: Bridgerton has been such a massive hit, ranking among the top five most-watched Netflix debuts. How does the enormity of that feel to you?
Chris Van Dusen: It feels amazing. I’m so proud of the show. I’m so proud of the cast and the crew. It’s a little surreal, and I’m overwhelmed with the response, but the response has been so positive and so exciting.
ESQ: Mainstream adaptations of popular historical romance novels are few and far between. When you took on this project, what appealed to you about breaking into that very specific genre, with its very specific conventions?
CVD: I’ve always been a fan of the period genre. Specifically, there’s a 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, with a white-shirted Colin Firth coming out of the lake… I think that image is seared into my brain. But as much as I love a good period piece, they’re considered a little traditional and conservative. I wanted to put my own fresh spin on the genre. I wanted to make the period piece that I always wanted to see and one I hadn’t seen before. That image of Colin Firth coming out of the lake is seared into my mind, but I wanted a period piece that goes a little further than that and pushes the envelope.
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ESQ: It sounds like you wanted to create a piece that didn’t just have the male lead wet in the lake—you wanted one where he could fully strip down.
CVD: Absolutely. It’s no secret that we’re based on a series of really delicious romance novels. From the beginning, we were definitely excited to lean into the sensuality and sexuality.
ESQ: With beloved entertainment properties like Bridgerton, there comes a built-in audience with a huge swath of defined opinions. As you developed this series, did you feel anxiety about how Julia Quinn’s fan base would receive it?
CVD: Going into the project, I knew that these books were beloved. They have such a passionate following, and fans of the books feel so strongly about these characters. I think with any adaptation, there will always be differences from the source material. Knowing that the books were so beloved added a healthy sense of pressure and maybe a healthy sense of anxiety. I knew that there were certain things I wanted to get right for fans of the books. I wanted them to see all the elements they love from these novels; I think we did that with Simon and Daphne’s incredible, sweeping, moving love story, and in the incredible love the Bridgerton family members feel for one another. I wanted to get the spirit of their banter right, and I wanted to capture the way that Violet, this powerful matriarch, loves her family with such a fierceness.
ESQ: There are other forms of genre fiction that we often see adapted on screen, like the detective novel or the science fiction novel. Why haven’t romance novels gotten that same big-budget, mainstream screen adaptation treatment until now?
CVD: I think there’s a misconception out there that all romance novels are trashy and disposable, or that they can’t be smartly written. I don’t think that’s true. It certainly wasn’t true for the Bridgerton books. I think that misconception has held people back, as far as thinking these were a viable franchise. The show is about smart, funny, tortured people. Their lives are messy, and their love lives are even messier; that’s what really attracted me to the project. The fact that they were called romance novels wasn’t really what I was looking at or what I thought was important. I thought of them as really great books that I found to be an amazing starting point to create the period piece I always wanted to see.
ESQ: When you put it like that, that’s a classic Shondaland show. Smart, tortured people with messy lives—that’s Shondaland in a nutshell.
CVD: That’s right. With Bridgerton, you get everything you love about a period piece, but you also get everything you love about a Shondaland show, which are men and women figuring out who they are and who they want to be.
ESQ: You worked with a number of historical consults on this project. What did that process of collaboration look like?
CVD: I worked with multiple historical consults from developing the show through running the show, then to shooting it. We had Dr. Hannah Greig, who was our on-set etiquette advisor. She was with us every day, and she was a fount of information. Take our dining room scenes, for example—there were so many intricate rules about how people sit at the dining table, how they take their meals, how they ask for more wine, and how the footmen interact with the guests. Dr. Greig was also indispensable when it came to how people made introductions. A young lady couldn’t just talk to any person she wanted to talk to; she had to be introduced by a common acquaintance. As I learned these rules, I thought they were so fascinating, and our historians were invaluable when it came to illuminating those things.
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ESQ: What was your outlook on negotiating the relationship between historical accuracy and creative liberty?
CVD: With our show, we strive to honor the history, but we’re not beholden to the history. At the end of the day, the show is for a modern audience. There’s a modernity to everything we’re doing, from the themes to the characters to the stories we’re telling. It wasn’t such a stretch for us to take certain creative liberties with this being a re-imagined world, because we weren’t interested in being a history lesson or a documentary. We wanted to explore that intersection of history and fantasy, and we wanted to see how we can marry those two things in really interesting ways.
ESQ: What did you learn about the Regency era that most surprised you?
CVD: I think it was all of the rules that young men and young women had to follow. That system was so rife with rules and conflict. Learning the behaviors of men and women, knowing how they were expected to behave, how they knew what to do and what not to do… that was really fascinating for me.
ESQ: In Bridgerton, you’ve run with historical evidence suggesting that Queen Charlotte was England’s first biracial royal, and you’ve written a version of history where she has elevated people of color to the nobility. Why did you feel it was important to add that plot architecture about the changing nobility?
CVD: From the very beginning, we knew we wanted to make the show reflect the world we live in today. Even though we were set in the 19th century, we wanted modern audiences to find it relatable. Having worked at Shondaland for so long, it’s what we do there. Ever since Grey’s Anatomy, we’ve been casting the best actors for roles in ways that represent the world today. We knew we’d have that same chance with Bridgerton.
As far as Queen Charlotte, when I learned that possible fact about her heritage, I was really taken by it. The idea that Queen Charlotte was actually England’s first queen of mixed race, something that many historians believe today, really resonated with me, because it made me wonder what that could have looked like and what could have happened. We went with this theory that she elevated other people of color in society by granting them titles and lands and dukedoms. That’s how our Duke of Hastings, Simon, came to be. We wanted to go beyond mere representation, and we wanted to make race a part of the text and scripts.
ESQ: Some people have argued that the show’s vision of race is happy-go-lucky. They feel that it hand-waves away the racism that newly-titled Black nobles would experience. What do you think of that argument?
CVD: At the end of the day, we created a show that we wanted to be modern and fresh—a show that celebrates diversity. I think audiences have really taken to that idea, and they’ve been really excited about the way we cast the show, as well as the modern spin on the genre.
ESQ: Sex scenes are such a remarkable and surprising part of this series. Period pieces almost never go there, but Bridgerton went there. I know that you teamed up with an intimacy coordinator to bring those scenes to life; was this your first time working with an intimacy coordinator?
CVD: This was my first time working with an intimacy coordinator. I’m so happy that this role is becoming more commonplace on set, because we never would have been able to do this show without our team of intimacy coordinators. Our approach to every intimate scene began with a conversation between myself, the director of the episode, and our intimacy coordinator. We would talk about what we wanted emotionally from the intimate scenes and what story we were really telling. We do have a lot of sex on the show, but nothing is gratuitous. There’s no scene where we’re having our characters have sex just to be having sex. We’re always pushing the narrative forward and telling a story through these scenes.
ESQ: What strikes me about those sex scenes is how rooted in the female gaze they are, both in their content and their framing. What was the process of bringing that to life?
CVD: That was our approach from the beginning. This is Shondaland, and I had a room full of primarily female writers when we were writing the show. That’s how it was always going to be. I couldn’t imagine the show being different than that. It goes back to the twist and the spin on this genre. Historically, scenes aren’t really approached through a female gaze in many shows. That’s really a shame, because leaning into the female gaze is what makes Bridgerton what it is.
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ESQ: One of the beats I found most astonishing was when Simon instructs Daphne about how to touch herself. That night, she goes home, locks herself in the bedroom, and experiments with her own body. I can’t think of any other period piece where I’ve seen self-pleasure highlighted for women. Why was it important to you to go there?
CVD: I always refer to this first season of the show as “The Education of Daphne Bridgerton.” She starts out as this picture-perfect, wide-eyed, innocent debutante, but soon transforms into something else entirely. She begins as someone who knows very little of love. The only thing about love she knows is the model exhibited by her parents, which is only one model, and it isn’t much. She knows absolutely nothing of sex. Over the course of the season, her sexual awakening is very much a part of her journey and her education.
ESQ: A lot of viewers have reacted strongly to the scene where Daphne and Simon are having sex, which ends with him ejaculating inside of her against his will, amid his pleas for her to stop. In the book, she takes advantage of Simon while he’s drunk and asleep, which many readers view as a rape scene. Why did you feel it necessary to adapt the scene in this way?
CVD: We are a show that allows our female characters to be complicated and to be far from perfect. They often have to make complicated choices. In the writers’ room, we discussed that scene at length. We felt that the female characters on this show—Daphne, especially—should be allowed to do just that. She should be flawed. She should be able to make questionable choices. We felt a responsibility to the story of The Education of Daphne Bridgerton, and that scene is very much a part of her story.
ESQ: I’ve seen some people take offense to that scene, arguing that it’s a violation of consent. What do you think of that interpretation?
CVD: I think part of the scene’s design was to raise conversation. The conversation that this scene has brought up around consent is an important one to be having. It’s one that we encourage audiences to engage in. The show can only present our commentary, and we can only present our critique. That’s what the show does, and that’s what the scene is really about. As storytellers, we can’t really pass judgment on the decisions Daphne makes, but it was important to us to understand why she’s making those decisions. I think the “why” of it all is pretty clear.
ESQ: Our 21st century understanding of consent is very different from what Regency-era people would have understood about it. How does that historical layer factor into all of these sex scenes?
CVD: I think that when we try to make sense of the complicated choices these women are making, it’s important to consider the era in which these women lived. We explore all kinds of social structures and hierarchies of power on the show. This scene is definitely representative of that.
I think that as a show, we’re very clear about this being a time when a woman was told that her sole existence was good only for marriage and childbearing, with no value outside of her role as a wife and mother. That’s exactly what Daphne says in the pilot. When it comes to the topic of sex and the actual practice of making those children or being a wife, she’s kept in total darkness. Her own mother, we see, doesn’t even tell her the truth about the matter. I think you can only imagine her state when she thinks the man she’s been sleeping with this entire time has been manipulating and lying to her about the subject. What she ends up doing is making that incredibly complicate, human choice— and doing what she believes she has to do.
You asked earlier about one of the most interesting things about this time period. The attitude about sex during this time period, especially when it comes to women, is one of the most interesting things I learned, because ladies’ work was kept in the dark, and it was such a taboo subject. It was much too scandalous a topic. In the world of the show, it was one conversation between a mother and her daughter on her wedding night. That’s it. You see how vague Violet is towards the subject. I think there were other subjects that were much more prized at the time, like conversation and art and watercolors. Sex education wasn’t one of them; that came from a woman’s husband. I think it’s really interesting to explore that double standard between men and women, and that’s something we definitely looked at on the show. It speaks to larger questions we’re exploring, such as misogyny and other attitudes towards women.
ESQ: In a counterpoint to Daphne, you have Marina Thompson, who is certainly just as disempowered by the marriage market, but with a different sensibility about bodily autonomy. Marina doesn’t have a large role in The Duke and I—why did you see fit to expand her story?
CVD: To me and the writers, Marina’s storyline was among the most complex and riveting stories in the show. We wanted to explore how women have been strategizing ways to find their agency and assert themselves for centuries. Marina is smart, beautiful, complex, and so layered. If you look closely, she’s really one of the only people speaking truth to power. Marina, in a really interesting way, is one of the few women who has an incredible amount of agency throughout the season. We learn that she speaks French, and we learn that she has hidden skills.
ESQ: It’s so interesting—and yet also so demoralizing—to hear Marina and Daphne have to remind the people around them, “I want to be in love. I want to care for my husband and enjoy my life.” How sad that even their right to happiness is questionable.
CVD: In the writers’ room, what we always looked at was how to make these stories relevant to today. Underneath the beauty of this world—the decadence, the glamour, the lavishness—we wanted there to be this running modern commentary about how, in the last 200 years, everything has changed, but nothing has changed. I think that’s true for both women and men.
ESQ: Speaking of departures from the novels, you reveal Lady Whistledown’s identity in this first season, whereas the novels withhold that information until Book Four. Why did you decide to reveal her secret identity now?
CVD: For us, it was time. The end of season one was the perfect time, because we’re really thinking about what it sets up for the future, for Penelope specifically. When we looked at the season, where we’ve spent eight episodes with Eloise hot on Lady Whistledown’s trail, I think it was really satisfying for the audience to see who it was at the end. Eloise got this one wrong; at the end of the day, it was her best friend, all along.
With Penelope’s storyline, there were two tracks. There was one track for audiences that had never read the books and had no idea who Lady Whistledown was. We wanted to keep that mystery alive, and to never telegraph where we were going. But we also knew there was a portion of the audience who were familiar with the books, and who would know exactly who Lady Whistledown was. We needed those scenes to be fun for that section of the audience.
ESQ: Were there Easter eggs or clues you tried to drop for fans of the books?
CVD: There are. If you go back and watch it again, you’ll see something at the first ball, when Daphne and Simon meet. You’ll see Penelope in the corner, her eyes roving over the whole scene. We layered in little Easter eggs like that, which I think are really fun. Penelope seems like a wallflower, but surprisingly, she’s the one with the most to say.
ESQ: Further on changes from the novels, you introduce a gay character through Benedict’s storyline, but in the books, we don’t meet a gay character until Book Eight. What was your thinking behind layering in that storyline from the very beginning?
CVD: For me, the show was never going to be just about the Bridgertons. I wanted to expand the world. I wanted to introduce new characters. We had the Queen, obviously, who really opened up the world and allowed us to spend time in new and fascinating places. Henry, the gay artist that Benedict befriends, is obviously a new character for the show. Bridgerton is about a society. It’s about an entire world. I wanted to be able to explore an array of characters, from all walks of life and all backgrounds.
ESQ: I’m sure you’re sworn to secrecy, to some degree, but I have to ask: what you can tell us about a Season Two?
CVD: I can’t tell you much is what I can tell you. Obviously we’re focused on Daphne and Simon’s story in Season One, but we do know there are eight Bridgerton books and eight Bridgerton siblings. In success, I would love to be able to explore stories and romances for all of them.
ESQ: Do you have a favorite book in the series, or is there a storyline in one of the books that you’d love to bring to the screen?
CVD: I love all the books for different reasons. I love Book Four, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, which is the story of Penelope and Colin’s romance. I think that’s a really fascinating one, but I love all of them for different reasons.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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