Podcast producer James Kim (“The Competition”) launched the coming-of-age and coming out podcast series “Moonface,” an indie-movie style fictional story about a 20-something Korean-American son and his Korean-immigrant mother. The story explores the difficulties of expressing oneself when you don’t speak the same language — in more ways than one.
The six-episode audio fiction podcast stars Joel Kim Booster (Shrill, Sunnyside), playing the part of Paul, a late 20-something who lives at home with his mother in the quiet suburb of Downey, California. He wants to come out to his mom about his homosexuality, but he is a second generation Korean American who only speaks English, while his mother, Gina Mi-sook Kim, only speaks Korean.
We chatted with James about the inspiration behind the podcast series, and how it hits home on a personal level for him.
What was the process of creating Moonface, a story so close to your own, like for you?
Liberating. It was nice to reimagine situations that happened in my life and rewrite my history. I could say things I never said in those real-life moments, have events play out differently, for better or worse, and I got to analyze my emotions, thoughts, and feelings in a way I’ve never done before. It was like being my own therapist.
Since this story is based on personal experience, do you feel like it was more or less challenging to write?
I chose to write something personal because I thought that would make the process of writing a script easier for me. This was the first time I ever wrote fiction. I didn’t know the basics. I never had taken classes or read books about screenplay writing, so I figured that writing a fictionalized version of my life would make the learning curve less steep.
I was totally wrong. It took me several years to write six episodes with my group of writers. Even though a lot of it is based on personal experience, I still had to write characters that were fully realized people, create a story arc that can sustain six episodes, and create stakes and build to a climax and resolution. I would name all of the people who helped out, who looked at a draft, offered suggestions, but that was like 10 people. It took an entire crew to make this show.
But the one experience that helped make things easier is my background in audio documentaries. I considered how I could use sounds and music in every scene, every transition, every line of dialogue so things didn’t feel so expository.
I wanted to write a story that was best told through audio.
How did the story of Moonface first come to you?
Thank you Jed Kim [a former colleague]. The thought of making a fiction show never occured to me until Jed wanted to submit a podcast idea to NPR Story Lab in 2015. We were working together at a public radio station at the time and he wanted to do a detective story. I told him if we’re gonna make a fiction show and pitch it to NPR, it has to be grounded in some sort of truth or news.
One of the first pieces I did in radio was a story about first language attrition and the language barrier I have with my parents. I thought since the subject matter revolves around language that it’s the perfect story to tell in the audio fiction space. We worked together on the pitch and it ended up not getting selected. But my mind kept thinking about it, and eventually I decided to just make it myself.
How do you feel telling the story of Moonface through a podcast enhances the story versus telling it through a medium like film?
Whenever I’m listening to a podcast compared to watching a TV show or film, I’ve noticed I pay more attention to every detail, every word, every sound, even the story as a whole. Intimate moments feel more raw, dramatic moments feel more gut-wrenching, every emotion just feels more intensified. I mean, you’re literally right in the ear drums of a listener when they’re listening on their headphones.
So I wanted to play that up and make this show something where people would stop what they were doing, turn the volume all the way up, and pay attention to the sound. We wrote scenes where there’s more silence than there is dialogue. We wanted people to feel uncomfortable in the silence, to feel the way the characters feel in the moment. But we also wanted to use sounds to make the listener feel like they’re in the bar hanging out with the characters, or in the bedroom as the two main characters are having sex.
We boosted up sounds like a bed creaking, sheets being shuffled around to really make the listener feel like they were on the bed during the sex scenes. Our sound designer Artin Aroutounians and composer Andrew Eapen worked a ton of endless nights to just get these moments right. Podcasts just allow you to create a more immersive experience than any other medium.
What do you want listeners to take from Moonface?
I just want listeners to feel something. Whether it’s emotional, or joy, or even being disappointed that the show could have been better. If it’s something they connect with then that’s awesome. But if it’s something they think they could have done a better job, I really hope it inspires them to make a fiction show. I’m being serious. I want more people to be making fiction shows, to be telling their stories, sharing their perspectives on life, and hopefully creating something that makes people feel less alone in their struggles, and pain, and happiness.
Episodes can be found on Apple, Stitcher, Acast, Spotify or wherever you subscribe to podcasts.