Comisery is an Asian-American Science Fiction Screwball Comedy that Quentin Lee and I created and made over eight weeks during the lockdown. It stars Bee Vang, Harrison Xu, Amy Hill, Jennifer Field, Nat Ho, Sheetal Sheth, Richard Anderson, and Verton Banks. It was a screwball comedy response to the pandemic and living under lockdown. It premieres on September 1st on Quentin's streaming service Asian American Movies and on Amazon Video.
Full disclosure: when I'm not working on screenplays and film work, I'm a correspondent for Bleeding Cool. In the week leading up to the premiere, the editors of Bleeding Cool have let me run a series of interviews with the cast and crew to talk about what it was like to make a movie during the lockdown, shot on zoom, without leaving home. It's a new form of narrative filmmaking that the industry is still coming to terms with.
Today, I talk to Producer, co-creator, co-writer, and co-director Quentin Lee, my filmmaker friend of over 20 years, about how we made Comisery.
Hong Kong-born Quentin and I have known each other for over 20 years when we were both still in film school – he at UCLA and me at NYU. Since graduation, Quentin has directed and produced over ten features. His first feature Shopping For Fangs (co-directed with Justin Lin, who since went on to direct the Fast and the Furious movies) premiered at Toronto International Film Festival and became a cult classic as part of Asian American New Wave Class of 1997. Quentin's subsequent features Drift, Ethan Mao, The People I've Slept With, White Frog, and The Unbidden have all been sold and played festivals worldwide. Quentin has produced Big Gay Love, Serial Killer # 1, and Gay Hollywood Dad. Quentin is currently producing three stand-up comedy specials, three for Comedy Dynamics.
Two Filmmakers Walk into a Zoom to Create Comisery
Adi Tantimedh: Once we decided on the nature of the project, that it would be Science Fiction, that it would be a comedy because everyone could use a laugh, that it should be Asian-American because no one had done this before, you just ran with it. I thought we'd try a pilot and suddenly we were going to do eight episodes! How did you mentally jump in and start thinking about the cast?
Quentin Lee: Well… I've been hanging out with Bee and enjoyed his performance in Gran Torino… so I thought he'd be perfect to play the lead. I just went to the actors I knew who fit the role. Richard Anderson is a childhood friend from Montreal, and he starred in one of my plays when I was in high school. Richard and I never got to collaborate again until Comisery.
AT: Bee and Richard – well, all the actors – surprised me, and that was the joy of collaborating with actors who bring their own unique talents and energies. I originally thought Bee's character might be lighter and more comedic. But Bee is essentially a serious emotional actor, so I started to write the rest of the story to his strengths, and he grounded the whole story in the sense of emotional reality. Richard's ability to imbue both human frailty and nutty comedy also made me rethink the racist troll character and create another one for him to play. Jennifer brought an odd quirkiness to Camila that pulled the character away from just a menacing femme fatale to something odder and kookier. Amy's deadpan stillness could make anything funny, so I wrote to that. Harrison has this ability to make seriousness very funny, so I wrote to that. Nat has a cool quality that made me turn his character into this extremely odd, unflappable Zen-type guy. Sheetal's sense of dry pragmatism made her very real reactions to the absurdity hugely funny to me as well. And Verton just brought a very nuanced lightness and humor to Danny that made an impact on the story.
How you do you feel, now that it's done, about the story, the characters and how the actors played them out?
QL: I think the actors did a great job. I wasn't sure if there was a feature when we were making it… but after making it, I felt confident we had a really fresh and cool feature that is innovative in terms of both the storytelling, genre, and format. It reminds me a bit of making Shopping for Fangs with Justin Lin, which was ahead of its time. But I think now it's the perfect timing for Comisery. And I've busy working on it as a distributor now.
Trust without Ego
AT: From my view, we never even consciously discussed our roles. You just became the producer and co-director, as well as the sound recordist/engineer and editors. It was surprisingly organic. We were not only a crew of two, but a writer's room of two where we discussed where the story was going as the episodes went on. We seemed to have that trust in each other to just go with that without really even discussing it. Is that how it felt to you?
QL: Definitely… cuz we knew each other for so long and kept in touch… like 20 years. I don't think all relationships are like this, but generally, I'm a trusting person unless there is something weird happen at the beginning of the relationship. We're both passionate people and know how to make a film.
AT: We certainly didn't have a lot of ego at play. We just wanted to make a story that held together that gave the actors something fun and interesting to play that hopefully had substance.
Creating a Story on the Fly
QL: And what's fun is we had to improvise a lot. As you know, Richard's role was supposed to be in one episode, but because he was so good, we created two characters for him. And there wasn't supposed to be a Danny, but we created the role for Verton Banks, whom I wanted to work with for a while.
AT: We shot the whole thing over eight weeks, and you not only cut together and released each episode within days after we shot it — and then you also cut the 75-minute feature-length version together during the 8th week! How did you just fall into the rhythm of cutting each episode together within days after production?
QL: I was actually very stressed out for the first two or three episodes/weeks. Not sure you remember for one episode we had to shoot on a Friday, and I had to get everything cut and posted by Sunday evening. I finally got the hang of it after the third episode, and the rest were a breeze. It was definitely a learning curve at the beginning on the post-production side. I think we all grew as a team, and making the series was a lot easier after the halfway point.
AT: Yeah, I remember the stress as you pushed yourself with those self-imposed deadlines. That became the rhythm and the dynamic for the rest of the production period. Since we ended up only devoting one day to shooting with the cast, it became something very manageable for everyone involved, not to mention enjoyable. Is this something you'd like to do again, whether it's a new project or a sequel? We certainly haven't run out of material to cover or places to take the characters.
QL: Of course. But my job now is to get it distributed and seen by the world.
I can't be more proud of Comisery, especially for being a crew of two taking a film from development to distribution. It's kind of cinema in its purest form. With the current technology… and oddly thanks to COVID, we got to make a film focusing on just the storytelling, actors and performances. It was work, but just so much fun. I don't think it's a filmmaking experience you can have back, let's say even before COVID. I had a blast. You?
AT: I agree. We may not be the first or only ones to make a movie on zoom during the lockdown, but the experience of actually doing it feels unique and pure. There was no long period of waiting around for a camera position reset or a new lightning setup or an FX rig. We just went into a take, and the actors could concentrate on performance. It was exhilarating and unlike any other filmmaking experience. I think every filmmaker should try it. You find out a lot about yourself and your own abilities when you do it.