SXSW 2023 Interview: Filmmaker-Actor Kevin Yee Talks A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone (Exclusive)

Confronting mortality and the life-defining questions that accompany it is a powerful motivator for many people to fully ponder what’s truly important to them, and ultimately change the way they lead their lives. That’s certainly the case for both actor Kevin Yee and the protagonist he plays in, his introspective pilot, ‘A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone.’

While the show is told from a gay Asian perspective, its theme is driven by the idea that everyone is similar as they try to figure out how to survive. In the 11-minute pilot episode, Yee confronts mortality with a more direct and relatable approach than many other shows.

‘A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone’ follows a queer Asian writer, Ben (Yee), as he suffers from a panic attack and passes out in a bathroom at a gay bar on the night of his fortieth birthday. He wakes up in the hospital with Rory (Brittani Nichols) at his side. The event makes Ben realize that he doesn’t like his job, and is detached from society. Terrified of dying alone, he decides to improve his life, and chronicles his journey by penning the titular self-help book.

Yee served as the creator, screenwriter, showrunner, executive producer and lead actor on the short. He also served as the co-editor with Yen Tan, the latter of whom also served as the director on the project. Besides Yee and Nichols, the drama also stars Alex MacNicoll, Betsy Struxness and Paul Wong.

The script for ‘A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone’ has been making its way around Hollywood for the past five years. It has never been pitched to any networks, but has been considered by several production companies, and was almost sold in 2021. This prompted Yee to make the project himself as an independent pilot for the festival circuit.

After a successful Indiegogo campaign fueled by a video concept that amassed over 47,000 views, production on ‘A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone’ began in spring of 2022 with a condensed version of the script within a small workable budget. The final product was completed at the end of last year.

‘A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone’ had its World Premiere during the Independent TV Pilot Competition of this year’s SXSW this past March. In honor of the show’s premiere, Yee generously took the time two days after the project’s premiere screening on March 12 to sit down for an exclusive interview at the Residence Inn by Marriott Austin to talk about serving as the screenwriter, showrunner, executive producer, lead actor and co-editor on the pilot.

The interview began with Yee explaining why he was inspired to pen the script for ‘A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone,’ and how he approached scribing the story. “I am a TV writer, and I wanted to tell my specific queer Asian story. I wrote this about six years ago, in the midst of a very dark moment, and I was thinking about where I was in my life,” he shared.

“In my 20s, I was very confident, and then in my 30s I transitioned from New York to L.A., and there were a lot of big life changes. When I got to L.A., I didn’t work for about five years, and I really struggled there. So I started to feel the loneliness more than ever,” the scribe admitted.

“I was used to having my life be full of work. I was also starting to miss my family more than I had ever before, as they’re back in Canada. Also, my friends around me were starting to leave the industry, and some of them started to get married and have kids,” Yee revealed.

“So I was feeling very left behind and alone. So I decided to put those feelings into a script,” the filmmaker also shared. “So I wrote the script six years ago, and I’ve been trying to sell it in Hollywood since then.

“It has been a challenge, since it is queer and Asian-centered. A lot of times, people ask, ‘Well, what kind of show is it like? Who would star in it?’ But I can’t point to anything. There are only two or three big queer Asian stars who can be in it,” Yee pointed out.

So about two years ago, the filmmaker decided to make the project himself as an independent pilot for the festival circuit. He chose to do so after he almost sold it to a production company, but “the deal fell through in negotiations. It felt really disrespectful, so I thought, I think I need to make it myself and self-produce it,” he shared.

“I’ve made other shorts for festivals, so I knew what I was doing with this one. So I made it, and luckily now, here we are at SXSW,” Yee added. “So it’s been a long journey, but it’s finally here!”

Following up on the producing side of making the episode, the filmmaker further delved into what his experience was like making the project in that sense. “It was originally a 30-minute script, but the final product is about 11 minutes. So it’s really meant to present as much as I could of the show and what it’s meant to be,” he shared.

“I self-funded a lot of it, but I also launched an Indiegogo campaign. We made it inexpensively, but I really wanted to have a certain vibe behind it, so I talked to my friend, Yen Tan, who directed” the short, Yee continued.

“We’ve also worked on a movie together; we’re writing the movie together. He’s a pretty prolific queer Asian director who has made some beautiful dramatic work, and my work is usually very comedic,” the producer noted.

“So for this project, since it’s very personal, I needed someone who could meld the two worlds together, and would allow us to meet in the middle. So he came on board,” Yee shared.

“Our cinematographer, Joe Han, is also Asian-American, and I felt that was an important element. Since I’m trying to tell a certain story, I needed people around me who understood that,” the filmmaker also noted.

“Then in terms of casting, I pulled from the people I knew in the world around me. I got lucky with the people who said yes,” Yee divulged.

“It’s been a journey, as there were also a lot of delays. It was during COVID, so we kept getting pushed. But we were finally able to do it, and we filmed over two days, and this is the final 11-minute product,” the producer shared.

“But I will say, I kept having to cut things so that I could make it within my budget. I think we have accomplished being able to tell this story. But there’s so much more to this story that I’d love to tell,” Yee added with a hint of a laugh.

Further speaking about casting the drama, the showrunner delved into how he decided which actors he should choose to play the major characters alongside him on screen. “It was important to me as a creator (to find the right cast) because I want to be the change in Hollywood,” he shared.

“For example, I wanted to cast someone in the Rory character, who in the script is a Black lesbian, who is open about their queerness. Brittani Nichols is someone who’s a friend, and I know her work. She writes for ‘Abbott Elementary,’ and I really wanted her to be a part of our project,” Yee noted.

“So I reached out to her. She has been so generous with her time. Since she’s invested more in writing right now, I’m guessing it felt good for her to perform,” the filmmaker stated with a laugh. “She gets to be in the spotlight with this, for sure.

“Also, the concept of the show is queer POCs supporting each other,” Yee noted. “But there were moments in casting where we knew that we weren’t going to get certain types, and I was like, ‘I guess it can be this or that.’ But ultimately, Brittani was really important to cast.

“Then Paul Wong, who plays my (character’s) father is someone who I have worked with in the past. Again, he came to mind right away. He’s pretty prolific in the Broadway community, as well, so that was pretty important,” the showrunner shared.

“Everyone else were my friends. Betsy Struxness and I were in ‘Wicked,’ the musical, for many years together. Alex MacNicoll and I have been friends for a long time,” Yee added.

“I think that’s the cast – it’s a pretty small cast! So luckily, I was able to do it in my own world, and I didn’t actually have to hold auditions,” the filmmaker noted.

Once the rest of the performers were cast in ‘A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone,’ Yee embraced the experience of collaborating with them to build their characters together. “It was important to me that not only was my vision was fulfilled, but they also took ownership of their characters. So it was a really good mixture because everyone respected the work. Since they’re my friends, I knew they would, luckily!,” he said with a laugh.

“I usually write and direct my own stuff. But since Yen directed this project, I really wanted him to take the reins. We work in a collaborative way, so one of us made the decisions, so that we didn’t have to make all of the decisions together,” the filmmaker shared.

“That was in the screenplay, as well. We would pass it back and forth, as opposed to having to make every decision together. With this, I really trusted him. At a certain point, I said: ‘This is now your project; you direct it,’” Yee revealed. “So he was able to cultivate the performances he wanted, and I think he very much succeeded,” he added.

The filmmaker then delved into what his experience was like of also serving as the showrunner on the pilot. “It was beautiful to watch it come to life because it’s been a big part of my life for so long. When you’re in it, it’s hard to see because you’re taking it moment-by- moment and shot-by-shot,” he said.

“But when we finally edited it together, and it had the music and was color corrected and all of the things you need to do technically, I thought, we did it!,” Yee fondly recalled.

“But American independent projects are very poorly funded, so I had to do it myself. So financially, it could have looked a different way. But in the confines of what we had and what we could do in the timeframe that we could do it, I think we went beyond my expectations of what this project was,” the showrunner added.

Following up on the editing process for ‘A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone,’ Yee further delved into what his experience was like approaching putting the final version of the project together with Tan. “Luckily, I edited it with my director, Yen! I kind of know how to edit, and usually edit my own projects, which I think is helpful. Sometimes I think editors are as important as directors because they craft what you see in each scene,” he revealed.

“So I like to have that power over my own work. But one day I will have to have another person edit, although that day has not come yet,” the editor divulged.

“But again, Yen and I trust each other, so we would pass it back and forth. This is the product we came up with, and I think it worked,” Yee added.

After the show was fully edited, the filmmaker then delved into what the experience was like of premiering it at SXSW. “We world premiered it on Sunday (March 12), and I’m always nervous at the first screening; it’s always incredibly emotional,” he admitted.

“This project is so personal, and it’s the most personal I’ve been as an actor, as I usually do comedy; I’m not usually a drama person. This is the most dramatic that I’ve been on camera,” the actor revealed.

“Sometimes you’re so self-aware in those moments that somethings I think, I have to sit here and watch it happen. So it was very surreal to watch it happen,” Yee continued.

“We’re also going to other festivals (including SeriesFest in Colorado earlier this month), so I think the impact that I’ve been able to accomplish will hit me then. Since this was the first screening, it’s still so surreal!” the showrunner concluded.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s