TALENT ON TAP: Director Heyishi Zhang Introduces us to the GAY MEAN GIRLS

As a Pride month commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots unfurls, it’s a prime time to take notice of queer stories on screen. On offer this month is the premiere of a new web series, Gay Mean Girls. Based on the viral 2015 short film of the same name, the series explores the trials of Lucy Ching (Vicky Li), a prom committee member struggling not only with her proposed theme of gay prom royalty (two kings, two queens) but also with navigating her own sexuality and how it may affect her feelings for her best friend Miranda.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the series creator and director Heyishi Zhang on the phone from Toronto:

What was the genesis of the original 2015 short film?

That got started when I was in film school at Ryerson as my third year project. I kinda had a wake-up call from one of my profs, Min Sook Lee. She basically said to me that I wasn’t making any work that was true to me as all my films were about white people. 

I was kind of offended at first but then I realized that the story for Gay Mean Girls had kinda been sitting inside me for quite a while. So that’s where the concept started. The story is based on my experience of questioning my sexuality in high school, meeting allies in university and becoming more of the world that I was in.

I came out in high school in Grade 9 as the wrong sexual orientation (Lesbian, now Bisexual) and I think for me realizing that I might be queer was very scary because I think that it opens up a lot of possibility of existing in a world outside of male control. It was a yearning in some sense, but it was also very scary because I could see how people like that were treated. 

When I was in high school, I was going through this whole thing of questioning my identity and what that means. At the same time, I think that because I came out so young, it was a thing I felt had defined me within the context of the school and it was a label that I couldn’t escape. So I was experiencing a lot of like, how the way that other people see you affects how you see yourself. I think it was those feelings of confusion and my self-doubt that resonated with me the strongest and the context I was living in.

What prompted the decision to expand the short to a web series?

I think there’s a lot of potential for the universe to expand. I think with the short film, I tried to fit a feature-length concept into a short film. My feeling was there was a lot of room for that expansion. With the web series, there’ll be multiple scenes that expand one scene in the initial film, for example the dress scene. I decided to go for a web series because that’s where our audience was as opposed to a feature film.

Your writers were all Queer women of colour. Was this a conscious decision?

Yes. I think that for the story being told from the perspective of a person of colour, it was important that persons of colour were writing it. You don’t often get to hear experiences by other marginalized writers (we worked with a non-binary story consultant). I wanted to give opportunity where their voices were heard. I think it just makes the most sense that the story is told by the person who can get inside of the character and the audience is able to connect.

What do you hope the audience takes away from the series?

I hope the series is maybe reassuring in some way. That the things they’re going through, especially audiences who are people of colour, that it’s able to adequately address the double-bind of being both queer and a person of colour. I think that’s a different type of struggle especially when it comes to your identity and I hope that they feel that they’re not alone with what they’re going through. I also hope that audiences think that it’s funny!

Gay Mean Girls will have it’s premiere at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Wed June 19 @ 7pm

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