'195 Lewis': Making a Good Web Series is About Getting the Community Right

To create a three-dimensional world in the ever-tricky short format of the webisode, you need honesty.

When Terrence Nance (An Oversimplication of Her Beauty) read a rough script about young black lesbians exploring polyamory that came from two Brooklyn newcomers, a poet and a writer, he knew it was the right script for Chanelle Aponte Pearson for her directorial debut. "Which for me, was really scary because I had never directed anything before," said Bronx-bred, Brooklyn-based Pearson. Pearson, Nance, Yaani Supreme, and Rae Leone Allen reconvened at Pearson's apartment and fleshed out the series. "We use lines, not all but some, that came from our lives," laughed Pearson. "Being able to reflect on our own lives and the folks around us was really a huge influence in building the characters and the story." The result, 195 Lewis is a fresh, colorful series brimming with humor and music reflecting a world that has rarely, if ever, been seen on screen before. 

Pearson sat down with No Film School to discuss her first-time directing experience, recognizing what non-filmmakers bring to the table, and the value of the webisode format.

NFS: 195 Lewis follows a group of characters navigating being black, queer, female, and polyamorous. The result is a luscious, colorful, sort of addictive portrait from the inside. What was your directorial approach in how to tell this story?

Chanelle Aponte Pearson: This is my first time ever directing anything. My background has been in producing, for over a decade at this point. So I've been on a lot of sets. I've been able to witness the directing process—from afar. But this was the first time that I really had to sit there and understand directing. There was a lot I didn’t realize was necessary for the entire process.

Rae Leone Allen and Sirita Wright play a couple navigating a polyamorous relationship in this still from "195 Lewis."Credit: Jomo Fray

"I thought about the style in terms of each character's level of consciousness, the internal conversations that are happening with that character."

Thankfully, I worked with the talented Jomo Fray [DP] and together we tried to be really intentional about each and every shot, every scene, and how we wanted to approach it. I thought about the style in terms of each character's level of consciousness, the internal conversations that are happening with that character. I think the biggest take away was to make creative choices that reflected each character's level of intimacy with the other characters in the show. And so for me, that always felt like being extremely honest, being extremely close, and trying to pull people into that character. I had a co-worker tell me that at times he felt uncomfortable watching, like he's eavesdropping on someone else's conversation. But I didn’t want a voyeuristic perspective. I wanted you in there. I wanted you to feel this person's anxiety. I wanted you to feel this person's discomfort. I wanted you to feel this person's excitement or if they're hot and bothered. I really wanted to pull people into that.

NFS: A lot of people are trying to find the right collaborators. You and Terrence Nance have been longtime collaborators, and for 195 Lewis, you've got an all black, queer, and predominantly female team. Can you elaborate on how you came to find the people you work with and find the right working relationships?

Pearson: Honestly, it's kind of a community the way that it all shakes out. I give a lot on credit to Yaani and Rae who were really able to tap into the community. The community saw the importance of seeing ourselves on screen, and we really committed to getting it made. We worked with folks who had little to no experience in TV and film, but who still came with a wealth of skills and experience, maybe in a completely different field. But we were able to apply those skills.

Color and lighting play a big part on setting the tone as in this still from "195 Lewis" by Chanelle Aponte Pearson.Credit: Jomo Fray

"The community saw the importance of seeing ourselves on screen."

The strongest example of that is the music for the show. A really good and dear friend of mine, Ryann Holmes, is the co-founder of Bklyn Boihood, which is a collective based in Brooklyn. I'm not the person that knows what music is out, what new artist is out. I'm just such an old person, I've been listening to the same people for the last ten years. I just reached out to Ryann, knowing she has her ear to really talented artists, whether they are singers, beat makers, producers, rappers, or just creative in general. I texted her and was like, "Hey Ryann, I'm trying to find music for the show. Do you have anybody in mind?" And she immediately texted back and was like, "Oh my God, I have so many ideas. I've never really worked in this field before. I've never done it before, but you know, I think I'd be good at it." She came through with an amazing list of artists whose work is now featured in the show. All of the musicians are folks or color, queer folks of color, trans folk of color. The music is truly reflective of the community.

Actress D. Ajane Carlton plays the drama-prone younger sister Stacey-Anne in this still from Chanelle Aponte Pearson's "195 Lewis."Credit: Jomo Fray

"I think it was both a financial reality and then also a reality of distribution. What distribution channels, what financial channels do we even have access to?"

It's just incredible. I've seen the first full season a million times, and every time I'm still jamming to the music. That's one example of why it's important to recognize somebody and believe in their gift, even if their experience isn't directly related to filmmaking.

NFS: What can you say to other filmmakers about the shorter format of making webisodes, and why that was your vision for this series?

Pearson: The intention for creating this show in the very beginning for Rae and Yaani was to make a show where they saw themselves, where they saw their friends, their children, their family on screen, and they wanted to make it accessible. I think it was both a financial reality and then also a reality of distribution. What distribution channels, what financial channels do we even have access to? We have access to the Internet, and we have access to community resources. I think that really drove the intentions for this format.

Roxie Johnson walks down the street as her character tries to find the "Paper Over Pussy" art show in this still from "195 Lewis."Credit: Jomo Fray

"...at the end of the day, you still have to make the work." 

It's been a really interesting journey because, while we have had distribution interest, and have talked to production companies and financiers, and everyone is always really excited, at the end of the day, you still have to make the work. You have to workout. Build your audience. Prove your audience. Whether a commitment comes in from someone for broader distribution, at the end of the day, we're back where our initial intention was, which was to make it available on the web for folks from the community, outside the community, outside of Brooklyn, and here in Brooklyn.     

The worldwide VOD launch of 195 Lewis is today, November 16 at 7 pm EST, so check it out on Vimeo or the official site.

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