Out In The City


Interview: Chris Mason Johnson

test movie directorMovie director Chris Mason Johnson's latest film, Test, looks at a budding romance between two male dancers in 1985 San Francisco as the spectre of AIDS looms large over the local gay community. Chris [pictured right] spoke to David Hudson about the movie...

Can you tell us where the idea came from for Test?
Chris Mason Johnson: 
It came from my own experience. One of the reasons I think there's a shortage of intimate films about the AIDS epidemic is that we tend to frame the subject exactly like that – as "The AIDS Epidemic" – and it immediately becomes something big and general.
I wanted to reframe it much more intimately, concentrating on the fear and anxiety these very young characters experienced: characters who were not part of a broader gay community because they hadn't made those connections yet. The characters in Test are also not particularly verbal, so they suffer the crisis in silence. It's a very internal portrait and I wrote it as a kind of visual poem more than as something dialogue-driven.
I also didn't want to do another deathbed story. There's an uncomfortable way we fall into Vito Russo's necrology if every AIDS story shows the gay male protagonist dying [Russo lists gay deaths in movies from his seminal 1981 cinema book: The Celluloid Closet]. Mainstream gay representation has made progress, of course, but there are still two ways we are most often represented and each is problematic: a) as characters who die; and b) as the court jester.

After documentaries such as We Were Here, and the success of Dallas Buyers Club, why do you think filmmakers are only now exploring the early days of the AIDS epidemic?
It's an interesting phenomenon. Twenty years or so after it ended there was also a wave of films on the Vietnam War. Maybe there's some kind of incubation period the artist needs to process something so traumatic and get perspective on it. I'm not sure. But I'm happy to be a part of this mini-Renaissance of films that tackle the early epidemic in new ways.

Is this a period you can remember, or did you rely on the stories of others from that time?
I'm younger than the characters in my movie but old enough to have memories of the early epidemic. I had to come to terms with my own survivor's guilt to write Test. As someone who lived through the epidemic and remained negative, who survived "unscathed", I didn't think my story was worth telling. And it probably wasn't worth telling 15 or 20 years ago! I think the time is right for this smaller story about someone who was on the sidelines rather than at the front.
I drew a lot from my own story for Test but there are real differences. Frankie is much more comfortably out of the closet than I was. I changed that because I didn't want to tell another coming out story. And I was dancing in New York and Europe (Germany) rather than San Francisco. So I had plenty of memories to draw on, but I also did a lot of research and worked that into the story too.

Test features a lot of dancing. Was it important to you to include the choreography in the movie?
Absolutely! I'm a big fan of dance in film but think it's rarely done well. The dance functions in several ways within the story. On the most obvious level of plot, it's the classic 'understudy-goes-on' trope, which we know from 42nd Street to The Red Shoes to The Turning Point to Black Swan... although notice there's not a male lead in any of those, because men in tights are either "straight" or worthy of sniggering contempt in our cinematic history.
At a more thematic level, the dance sequences are a way to eroticise the male body in a morbid, almost creepy, but still sexy way. They're an externalisation of the intersection of sexuality and disease. Usually AIDS movies veto the eroticism of the gay male body because it's just too uncomfortable to combine that with the threat of HIV. But I wanted to put the sensual body back into the story and the dance gave me a perfect way to do that. I worked very closely with my gifted choreographer, Sidra Bell, to tease out that dynamic.
The group dances in the movie are a way of reminding the audience that these other men are going through the same experience at the same time. The group may be mute and abstract, but they're there. A presence: hard to ignore.

test movieWas it a challenge to find actors who were also good dancers? Did you use any body doubles?
No body doubles! And it was a challenge, yes. I actually didn't look for actors who could dance but rather dancers who could act. I found my lead, Scott Marlowe [pictured], in San Francisco fairly early in the process – when I was still raising money – and we workshopped together for six months. I taught him acting technique and he helped shape the scenes with his own perspective. I thought of it as free rehearsals and he thought of it as free acting lessons, so it was a win-win for both of us.

test movie packshotWhat are the next projects that you're working on?
I'm working on several: first, a 'dramedy' set in San Francisco that takes on our lovely, if mockable, penchant for self-improvement and mindfulness, aka New Age stuff. Second, another period piece I'm co-writing that's set in the 70s with a teenage girl protagonist; and third, a bigger budget piece set in the 1950s that deals with a historical aspect of homophobia within the U.S. government.

Test is out on DVD from 28 July 2014. www.peccapics.co.uk

Posted: 21 July 2014



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