Independently-created Kissing Walls is a web series, which centres around two queer characters of colour. Created by Chicago-based filmmaker Zak Payne, it is a show that features an intimate and unique perspective on romance, friendship and life from the eyes of Cameron (Zak Payne) and James (Nathaniel Tenenbaum). Following the release of Season Two on OTV, Payne and Tenenbaum have agreed to do an interview to share the creative process behind Seasons One and Two of the show.
Kissing Walls arose from the surge of creative energy Payne felt when he first moved to Chicago. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he found himself “with my whole life in front of me like a blank canvas.” He completed a coming-of-age/horror feature screenplay, filmed an unreleased music video for Nathaniel Tenenbaum, made a supernatural-comedy short film with his roommates and found himself developing the idea for a romantic-dramedy with queer people of colour as the leads.
“I was just trying a lot of stuff out, and in the process falling in love with my life and the people in it,” he comments. Living in 2015 — before Moonlight won the Oscar and Lena Waithe won the Emmy — he hadn’t seen queer people of colour as main characters. “It was a completely different cultural landscape for QPOC. Once I decided to create a queer web series, I began to write and the rest slowly fell into place.”
Being friends with Nathaniel Tenenbaum for about three years, the two have been through a range of situations together. “It’s truly always an adventure when we occupy the same space, I can’t describe it,” says Tennenbaum on their creative process. Together, Payne and Tenenbaum decided to bring their stories to television — “who would do it better than us when we already had been living them.” So, they got together and collaborated to begin creating the first season of Kissing Walls.
However, the road to creating a web series was difficult. Both Payne and Tenenbaum agree that “each season brought its own unique brand of hell that we had to go through.” Payne states, “I don’t think there’s been any moment throughout this process, where I’ve thought: that was easy!” Bringing the show to the viewers has taken a lot of perseverance through two failed Kickstarter campaigns or breaking through the completely different headspace of people then. Despite all this, Tenenbaum remains positive: “Ultimately, we ain’t giving up without a fight, so bring it on season three!”
Payne and Tenenbaum moulded the screen versions of themselves by drawing a lot from personal experiences. Payne knew the tone he was going for with Kissing Walls: “We weren’t going to do some broad comedy, it was going to be something smaller and more authentic.” Even some parts of the dialogue, such as in Episode Two from Season One, are verbatim from the actual experience it is based on. To produce a show that is funny relatable, yet not over-exaggerated for comedic purposes, Payne and Tenenbaum found realism to be the key.
This is, in fact, where the name Kissing Walls derives from: based on Payne’s memories of practising kissing in the privacy of a shower on the bathroom wall. He tucked the phrase away into the notes app on his phone and later, stumbled upon it once again when writing the web series. “I thought it fit perfectly,” he says. “These characters are still woefully unprepared for the pressures of their adult lives — they were still kissing walls.”
Tenenbaum agrees with Payne on the title: “It encapsulates all the raging emotions and awkwardness and fear and worries that we sometimes go through when you start feeling like you want to kiss other faces — that doesn’t go away once you get to your late 20s. It’s the same for Cameron and James, who are in the midst of realising that awkwardly kissing walls, as a way to prepare for when the time comes, is nothing like the real thing.” For the two characters, real-life comes unpredictably and often, not in the way they expect.
Payne and Tenenbaum have taken numerous personal experiences and reproduced them in Kissing Walls, such as their experience with dating apps, which are frequently on the show. “Dating apps have become increasingly integral to the romantic lives of the queer community,” Payne comments. “I’d say a good 80% of my romantic relationships originated online — so it would have been false if we made a romantic comedy sans dating apps.”
Tenenbaum has managed to find himself in the struggle for genuine affection that the characters from the show are facing in their relationships. He states that this is something that he struggles with in both, platonic and romantic relationships, especially given the change that everyone goes through at some point in their lives: “We change so much, it’s natural that our emotional needs will also change and shift. Having to navigate my changes along with the other parties is just destined to test even the strongest of bonds.”
Some scenes in the show have actually occurred in real life exactly as they do onscreen, such as the one with James in Episode Two of Season One. Just like his character, Tenenbaum considers himself to be “more so of the adventurous type”, unafraid of seeming awkward. Perhaps, such a close link to his real counterpart is what provides James with his relatability. “I think I have an over-confidence in my sense of judgment at times but it does lead to great TV,” agrees Tenenbaum.
Releasing series that are so closely tied to real-life experiences has been a lesson in vulnerability for Payne and Tenenbaum. “I remember having a small screening of the first season in a coffee shop and having my head in my hands through most of it as if it were a horror movie: I felt so exposed, seeing myself on screen,” recalls Payne. The response to such openness in the series has been genuinely positive and many related to the series
“You never know how anything can be perceived from all angles, so you just hope that there’s someone out there who can see themselves in the story, feels represented and maybe even takes a piece of advice from it,” says Tenenbaum about releasing something so personal into the open media. It was, indeed, frightening to allow others to see significant events from their lives. However, the positive reactions have been worth it.
What is admirable about the show is how delicately Payne and Tenenbaum manage to navigate through some of the darker themes of the show, such as rejection, while also balancing them with comedy. In response to a question about this, Payne says: “Laughter can be healing. And rejection is universal, everyone can for the most part relate, and the quickest way I’ve discovered to overcome those icky feelings of rejection is to simply laugh about it. Once you’re able to laugh about it, you’ve won.”
This could explain the lack of fear Payne and Tenenbaum have, as they dive into difficult issues of polyamory, jealousy and body image in Season Two. “It is a big jump from our first season. The stakes are higher. We had more time to flesh out characters and give them complete story arcs,” states Payne. With an original soundtrack by musician Owen Duff, more actors and numerous landscape shots of colourful and vivid Chicago, the second season comes out of Payne’s apartment and into the big world.
Moreover, with the technical developments, the characters have also grown and progressed, as Tenenbaum mentions: “The leads really have to start facing some truths and breaking down walls — it’s the only way to move forward and up. You see more of their desires, their fears, their resilience.” Season Two provides a closer encounter with Cameron and James: the viewers are provided with a deeper insight into their inner selves. Perhaps, this is what makes this show so culturally significant.
With Kissing Walls, Payne and Tenenbaum strive to make QPOC feel represented and seen by showcasing their stories, especially considering how characters like Cameron and James are rarely featured as main characters. “We hope that they see themselves in these stories, in these relationships and that their experiences are beyond a secondary storyline,” comments Tenenbaum. The series is another small, but important, step towards a variety of groups being represented on TV.
To end the interview on a positive note, Payne spoke some words of encouragement to WPOC teens and young adults. “The world honestly feels so crazy right now and it has never been an easy road for us We still have to work twice as hard to get half as far. But the world is opening to QPOC in a way that was impossible to predict half a decade ago. So seize the moment and get your life, gurl!”
Featured Image via Jon Wes