In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Amy Hill packed her bags in Hollywood and returned home to her family in Hawaii, thinking she would quarantine there. But the actor-comedian’s short-lived break from production came to an end with a surprise Zoom call in April.
Hill, 67, stars in directors Quentin Lee and Adi Tantimedh’s sci-fi feature “Comisery” as a Japanese American psychiatrist based in, ironically, Hawaii. Having previously collaborated with Lee in the webseries “Comedy InvAsian,” she didn’t hesitate to sign on to be the lead in an experimental project filmed entirely over Zoom.
“Now that I’m getting older, my time is more valuable, because I have fewer moments left in life. So I don’t want to waste any time on anything that I don’t really enjoy. But with Quentin, he asks me to do anything, I’ll say yes, because he gives me a lot of freedom to do what I want to do with my role,” the veteran actor tells Variety.
Shot during the pandemic lockdown, the film is told through web chat sessions among a group of Asian American friends surviving an alien virus. Written by Tantimedh, “Comisery” also stars Bee Vang, Sheetal Sheth, Nat Ho, Jennifer Field, Harrison Xu, Verton R. Banks and Richard Anderson.
Lee and Tantimedh originally conceived the project as a 10-episode series. Alarmed by the spike in anti-Asian hate crimes during the early days of coronavirus outbreaks, the longtime collaborators agreed to produce a film as well to address the issue at hand.
But Tantimedh was adamant that the story not reduce Asian American identities to being exclusively about oppression. “Racism, anti-Asian racism cannot be the be-all and end-all of the script, because that’s only a tiny fraction of what Asians go through in America,” he says. “What we want to tell is an interesting story that has Asian American stories. They’re interesting, specific characters, not the third FBI agent in the room or the person who’s working in the store.”
Because the co-creators are based across the country, Lee in Los Angeles and Tantimedh in New York, Tantimedh proposed the idea of a remote production recorded over Zoom. Rather than using video calls as a vehicle irrelevant to the storytelling, the writer incorporated experiences specific to the platform — such as Zoom bombing, calling with the camera turned off, and entering or leaving a group meeting — as details integral to the script.
Lee explains that with every actor “sitting at home, going crazy, doing nothing all spring,” recording took four hours, three days a week in May. During weekends, he single-handedly managed post-production, editing and posting new episodes on Sunday evenings. The independent filmmaker believes the limited budget and staff pushed his creativity: “One time, we had some sound issues, but I tried to work some of the sound effects into part of the episode. So a lot of it is overcoming limitations on the cuff and some smart improvisation.”
For Hill — who is known for her roles in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “UnReal” and “Preacher” — reciting lines to her laptop screen was an experience like no other. Under Lee’s direction, the actor prepared her own backdrop, costume and makeup. She describes shooting from her living room as surprisingly comfortable.
“Quentin actually sent me earbuds, because the sound wasn’t good on my laptop. But that was the most technical thing I had to deal with,” she says. “The acting part was very similar — reading then memorizing the script and rehearsing as a group — and I haven’t met any of the actors in-person. But we made a film together. How crazy is that?”
Due to the pandemic, the future of independent film productions remains unclear. But Lee hopes to devote his time to telling stories he finds missing from the screen, even if they are on a lower scale. He even teases the possibility of a “Comisery” sequel, following the ongoing experiences of not only Asian Americans, but also other communities of color in America.
“I think it’s kind of ironic but cool that COVID appointed us to really take time off,” Lee says with a laugh, before realizing he hasn’t taken a break from filmmaking since quarantine started. “We just got together and made something without having to worry about what the producers say and the budget, and we were able to take a lot of risks. And I think that’s a very pure way of filmmaking that we don’t get to do very often.”
“Comisery” premieres Tuesday on Asian American Movies. Watch an exclusive trailer below.