TALENT ON TAP: Heyishi Zhang Brings Us a New Season of GAY MEAN GIRLS

It was only near the end of my recent interview with Toronto-based writer/director Heyishi Zhang that I remembered we had spoken before nearly four years ago in the summer of 2019. That interview had been about the first season of her web series Gay Mean Girls, itself a spin-off of her 2015 viral short film of the same name.

We were now speaking about the second season of the web series, which covers a different set of characters as its creator has envisioned Gay Mean Girls as an anthology. This season focuses on student journalist Savannah Lin (Jenna Phoa) who becomes entangled in the unsettled dynamics of a local Queer POC “safe space”. It’s a unique look at conflicts within marginalized spaces. Heyishi joined me on Zoom to update me on her latest production:

For the uninitiated, what is Gay Mean Girls?

Gay Mean Girls is a short film-turned-web series. It’s an anthology web series that follows the coming-of-age stories of Queer racialized teens. The series overall looks at issues within marginalized communities.

What was the genesis of this show?

What inspired me to do it was wanting to expand on the short film. I had initially made a short film when I was in film school that went viral on YouTube. With that, I felt I was trying to fit a feature-length concept into a short. 

So when I got the opportunity to do a web series, it allowed me to expand on the things I was trying to talk about with this short. I felt like making a web series was the right medium for it because the internet was where our audience was.

What’s the writing process for a typical season? 

We had an in-person development room right when lockdown restrictions were lifted. Then I took some time to tinker on the ideas a bit. The development room was, I believe, a week.

A few months later, we came back and did a writing room where everyone wrote the scripts. 

After that, I realized that I wanted more time to consider the story. During that time, I had also re-worked some of the story beats for the season and then we wrote from there.

The theme of in-fighting within marginalized communities is not one we often see reflected in pop culture. Can you talk about what inspired that storyline?

I have had my own experiences of corruption within marginalized communities. I went into these spaces kind of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about how great things were gonna be. But I learned the hard way that the rules of mainstream society were reinforced in different ways within these spaces.

The stuff I saw happen in real life was way worse than anything that took place in the story. A lot of these issues are about power which is rife for storytelling and I was interested in how there’s a theatrical quality to the way that being a “good person” is performed.

Also, one of the (other) themes this season is social surveillance and I think that being in a smaller tight-knit community allows for your actions to be surveilled more closely.

I hope that the second season is able to portray these issues in a nuanced way that’s also entertaining, but that feels true to what people have experienced.


Season 2 cast photo for Gay Mean Girls

How did you approach casting?

So we worked with our casting director Jesse Griffiths this season. We also went ACTRA this season. But essentially Robyn, who plays Jen, was first cast. She was the obvious stand-out amongst everyone.

I knew that our true Savannah would not have auditioned for Savannah. I was proven right with Jenna who initially auditioned for Jen’s role. I saw some potential, so I put her on for Helen’s role and from there, she became Savannah.

I really love the whole cast including the bit players. The first season wasn’t union, but this season is.

How long did this season take to produce and were there any unique challenges along the way?

Principal photography was 18 days, then we had two days of reshoots. In terms of interesting set stories, I had COVID for the first three days so I couldn’t be there. We had to switch our location, so the school we filmed in is actually a synagogue. 

This season in general is a little more action-packed. There’s some singing involved, there’s a fantasy sequence, there’s destruction of property, and an allusion to an alien abduction.

The destruction of property was an interesting challenge because it was kind of a stunt but we couldn’t afford to do a stunt. So there were things that we did to improvise in order to avoid doing that. In the original vision, Savannah trashes her house and breaks the TV and stuff, but we ended up having to have her break soft objects so that it would be easier to reset and that it would also be safer for the actor. We did get a vase that we were able to break that was made of sugar glass.

Also, there was one shot in the sixth episode where Savannah gets off a bus. Obviously we couldn’t afford a bus on our little indie budget, so the gaffer, J.R, ran down the street with the light and switched it between red and white to simulate (the bus) driving off.

What do you hope audiences take away from Season 2 of Gay Mean Girls?

I hope it rubs the right people the wrong way. I think the topics this season are much more personal. I think that the stance that the second season is making is bolder. The story makes much bolder choices. So I hope that it riles the right people up.

Also, I think there are a lot of people who find themselves in Savannah’s position, but are reluctant to talk about it because the communities that are affected are so vulnerable. So I made this to give people an avenue to understand their own experiences and I hope people like it and that they have a good time.

Gay Mean Girls is now streaming on the KindaTV YouTube channel

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