Today, a gay man living with H.I.V. can expect to live a healthy, productive life – maybe even with the support of his family.
It’s a scenario the same person living 30 years ago could hardly imagine.
That’s the experience Austin director Yen Tan explores in his emotionally probing new film, “1985,” which opens the Dallas International Film Festival (Thursday at 8 p.m and Saturday at noon at the Magnolia Theatre). Cory Michael Smith plays Adrian, a twentysomething living in New York who returns to his childhood home in Fort Worth to visit his family over the holidays. His parents (Michael Chiklis and Virginia Madsen) are regular churchgoers who listen to conservative talk radio around the breakfast table. Meanwhile, his little brother (Aidan Langford) hides his Madonna cassettes out of fear they’ll be confiscated again.
The minute Adrian walks through the door, the clock begins ticking on when he’ll finally drop the one-two punch of his health condition and how it came to be.
Tan moved to the U.S. from Malaysia at 19 and settled in Dallas after college. He came to town to take an advertising job out of college and moved to Austin in 2011 to pursue his film career fulltime.
At South by Southwest in March, where “1985” debuted, he sat down to talk about the aesthetic choices he made to serve his story’s themes – and about returning to a time when gay men like himself had very different outlooks on life than they have today.
Let’s start by talking about shooting the movie not only on film but in black and white. How did that look play into the story?
There was a very immersive quality to the format that I felt like really sold the period very effortlessly. When we decided to do the feature in black and white, there were very specific reasons for doing that. We wanted people to really focus on the faces and the actors, and I think black and white kind of narrows that – especially in the context of the ‘80s, which is a very vibrant, colorful period. We didn’t want that distraction, because we’re not making a film about nostalgia for the period. We’re setting it in that time, but we wanted to make a very character-driven drama. … And also I like the idea of presenting something in a way where you don’t associate black and white with the ’80s, and it forces you to look at that era differently. I think that’s what we do with the film also – narratively it tells the story from a unique perspective, and visually we wanted to convey that, too.
It seems especially effective in how you use shadows – you can’t always see a character’s eyes fully. And so much of the story is about what people say and what they hide.
Absolutely. Especially for the character Adrian. I feel like the way his character’s designed, he comes into the film, and then he sort of goes in the shadow. Because he’s very much a character who’s hiding a lot and not sharing everything about himself. That’s also a reality for a lot of people who were living with HIV/AIDS in those early days of the epidemic. They were kind of ignored and marginalized – society just didn’t want to deal with them.
I was thinking, watching the movie, that viewers could think that a lot’s changed since 1985 – gay people are more accepted, there’s marriage equality. But you could also watch it and think things really haven’t changed that much and people are dealing with the same things that they were 30 years ago.
I feel like it can be argued both ways. The film is still very modern in the sense that – the idea that people have to come out in environments that are not accepting is still very much a reality today. And I think it still remains a universal truth for a lot of people. Why is it to this day – even after the days of marriage equality – that whenever a public figure comes out it’s still a headline? Why is it still such a big deal? I think it’s because it’s something that a lot of people still have to struggle with, and by the time people come out, we have to make something out of it because it’s not easy still.
Is part of the thinking about setting the story in 1985 that maybe modern day audiences could stand to be reminded of just how awful it was for people living in those days with H.I.V.? Today, it’s a manageable condition, and back then that wasn’t the case.
I think even a lot of LGBT youth today are not very informed about that era and how dire things were and how it wiped out the community in a big way. So the film is very informative in that sense, too.
You had some pretty well-known actors in this film with Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis. Was that different for you?
Yeah. It’s different in a sense that conventionally with more seasoned actors, you don’t audition them. It’s more a conversation you have with them before they commit to the film. And that conversation is crucial, because you kinda want to make sure they’re on the same page as you. And I think for them, it’s the same way, too – they want to make sure they see the film the same way that you do. … Then once you see them perform, you just sort of let go and you’re like, “OK, this feels right – let’s go with that.” In that sense, it’s kind of liberating – OK, I trust them, they know what they’re doing and you just sort of let them do their thing. That happened a lot, to where I thought, “I don’t really have to worry about them.” And that was nice.