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Arts & Entertainment

Why Texas Filmmaker Yen Tan Wants You To See 1985 In Black and White

The DFW-made jewel set in a closet of a Texas town screens Thursday to open the Dallas International Film Festival.
By Lyndsay Knecht |
Dutch Rall

A quiet, simmering, emotionally potent drama set at a turning point in the United States during the AIDS crisis, 1985 sees Adrian leaving New York City for his small Texas hometown at Christmas to visit his family. He’d only just found himself and his people. How fragile Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) still is, steadying himself in the world as a gay person and hoping to reconcile two separate existences. He’s become sane enough to dream they have a place together, his loves, and his lives— but fearful enough of his conservative parents’ reaction to hesitate in opening the door.

Adrian has not only returned home to come out to his parents. Austin-based filmmaker Yen Tan worked with a crew almost entirely from Dallas to tell the story of his attempts on borrowed time to say goodbye, as the year President Ronald Reagan addressed AIDS in public for the first time comes to a close. The film’s production took place from May to June of last year after Tan began the script on a cruise ship at the end of 2015.

1985 follows a short film of the same name. It’s based on a story Tan, who is gay, heard in his twenties, about a man whose skin was covered with KS— Kaposi’s sarcoma, a sign of AIDS— and his encounter with a beauty consultant at a department store.

“I was struck by what she attempted to do for him when they were both strangers meeting for the first time,” Tan says. “The grace and kindness conveyed in a simple gesture has haunted me for decades. I had to retell the story.”

Tan didn’t intend for the short to expand into a feature when he made it.

Teaming up with HutcH, the cinematographer responsible for the short and other gorgeous works by area directors like Dallas-raised Cameron Nelson’s 2015 triumph Some Beasts, to develop the story, Tan imagined Adrian’s homecoming in black and white 16mm. Vistas and locations from all over Dallas and Fort Worth appear, through a veil of generalized nostalgia that gives viewers a sense of surprise and loss. The characters, who you think will stay to idealized types, tenderly defy them in brief moments, but they’re trapped in a finite template of repressed longing. This is the central sadness of the film: that Adrian was born in the wrong time.

Here Tan talks about  the making of his fourth feature, and the deep recognition expressed by audiences upon 1985‘s world premiere at SXSW in March. Tan hopes viewers will try and pick out the area locations he and his crew used, when the film screens Thursday and Saturday as part of the Dallas International Film Festival.

In the 1985 short, makeup is used as a kind of mask for the characters – for Adrian, here Robert Sella, to mask his illness. In the feature, it seems that the masks, in a societal sense, are employed through black and white. What function did you want the black and white motif to serve?

We didn’t want to make a nostalgic film set in the ’80s where the color palette of that era becomes a distraction to the viewers. Black and white was an effective way of narrowing your focus to the characters, their faces, and their emotions. It also has a captivating effect of enhancing the drama in the story and immersing the audience into a world of the past. Black and white also feels very timeless, and we embraced the inherent style and elegance of the aesthetic.

Without giving too much away: there is such a long arc of waiting for audiences in the film. How did you make the decision to keep disclosures at bay, and how did you know when that pacing was right? How do you learn to trust audiences to wait?

I’m aware that my films have always been described as slow-burns. I feel like that’s a part of my voice, part of my way of drawing you into the story. I never underestimate the intelligence of my audience and I think they know that they’ll be “rewarded” when they’re willing to hang in there a bit for me. I really believe that the emotional payoff of 1985 in the third act wouldn’t resonate as deeply if not because the first two acts takes its time to reveal itself.

What was important to you about the characterization of Adrian’s sweet, gentle, self-contained personality? Is his manner and temperament modeled after someone, in particular?

Adrian wasn’t modeled after anyone specifically, but I definitely thought about the men I met who were living with HIV/AIDS in one of my early post-college jobs in the ’90s. They’ve suffered tremendously, but I think many of them were also wanting to make the best out of their predicaments. There’s a sense of grace under fire about these men that I found intriguing, and ultimately inspiring.

When Adrian and his high school sweetheart Carly (Jamie Chung) dance during a night of catching up, she doesn’t know what’s going on with him and has expectations to reunite in a romantic sense. How did you direct their interactions to feel so conflicted and yet loving at the center? I found their dynamic to be very believable. How did you achieve it on set?

I attribute a lot of this to the talents of Cory Michael Smith and Jamie Chung. The dynamic has to come across on the script to start off, but their job as fine actors is to really flesh it out. That also means they’re willing to challenge me when we work through the scenes, as they both had notes on how to improve on the scenarios. Directing them was like moderating a conversation without our egos in place. Our commitment was always to make it feel truthful and nuanced.

The expensive jacket Adrian gives his father for Christmas drudges up a problem— it read, to me, like in wearing the jacket, his father sees a part of himself he’s denying or repressing – just basic joy or even comfort. It made sense that Adrian gave his brother, Andrew (Aidan Langford), the new Walkman – they share a love for Madonna and music as escape— but how did you settle on the particular gifts Adrian gave his mom and dad?

I remember this story told by one of the men I talked to where he said that he and a lot of his friends, when they received their “death sentence” diagnosis, would begin to spend all their money and max out their credit cards. I thought Adrian would have done the same, driven by his guilt of not having seen his family for awhile. He’d be compelled to buy them really nice Christmas presents. There’s also the tragic undercurrent that these may be the final gifts he’d ever get them. Buying them things that they can’t afford for themselves way his way of showing his love. For one last time.

The brothers watch a movie in the theatre, in this film. Talk about the significance of this, for you.

I was definitely revisiting memories of my brother taking me to the movies when I was a kid. I always thought that was one of the ways we bonded, along with the music he introduced me to.

 My brother took me to movies when I lived in Penang and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Some highlights: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, and Return of the Living Dead, Part 2. Music-wise, he was a huge fan of English acts: Yaz, Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo, Nik Kershaw, Bananarama, and Howard Jones.

Were there any other parallels of note between your relationship, and Adrian and Andrew’s?

 There weren’t a lot of parallels, to be honest. My brother’s straight, and I don’t know to this day if he had a sense that I was different. I do remember one time when I was 12 and was walking to the movie theater with him, and he corrected what he perceived as my effeminate posture. He’s not a very talkative guy, but we would write letters to each other cause he lived in Singapore while I was in Malaysia.

Who did you make this feature for?

For the lost generation of men who are no longer around to share their gifts with the world, and tell us what they went through. Hopefully, the film sparks a new conversation to their untold stories. It’s also made for people who know very little about the history. I think there’s still so much to learn about all that has happened.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from Adrian’s contemporaries— people who had to live double-lives in the mid ‘80s? What about people who have had to do so more recently?

It’s been very emotional. I recently spoke to a mother who came to a screening, and she has two gay sons; one of whom died of AIDS in the 90s and she took care of him till the end. The other one is alive and well and has a husband. She just broke down in tears. I had to hold my composure as I realized I’m talking to someone who’s like Eileen in the film, and her sons could have been Adrian and Andrew.

There was another gentlemen who was diagnosed in the late ’80s and is a survivor. He empathized the importance for us to keep documenting these events. I certainly understand, too, when people don’t want to relive the devastation with 1985. They were deeply traumatic times.

Yet, there are other important things that the film touches upon that are still very relevant today: complex family dynamics, an unsettling political climate, and the limits of unconditional love. It is especially meaningful for people who are still challenged with the notion of not living an authentic life. That’s certainly true when someone’s coming out can still make headline news today. The struggle is still alive and kicking in 2018.

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