Tests of Courage
A New Film by Chris Mason Johnson Doesn’t Dance Around the Issue of HIV
by V. Anderson
With his first feature film since The New Twenty, writer/director Chris Mason Johnson has created a powerful story grounded in his own experiences in ballet and modern dance. Set in 1985, Test follows Frankie, a young member of a San Francisco dance company, as he meanders alone in search of love amid the panic and fear that the unknown of AIDS incited. The definition of “test” in this film is nuanced, and we’re with Frankie through a series of them. Off the heels of a European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, where the film was sold in various markets, I spoke to Johnson about filmmaking, music, dance, and monogamy.
Says Chris Mason Johnson: “Because this story is so personal, I had to make myself vulnerable to get it out there at all, and I was really afraid that people would reject it…. It’s been really heartening to go through that experience and have it be validated; it sort of restores my faith in the old idea of making personal art.”
V. Anderson: Frankie’s sense of isolation is so palpable throughout, even though he is a member of a dance company, he lives with a roommate, and he is almost always around other people.
Chris Mason Johnson: The culture we were in was very closeted, and the older men—thirty and up—started getting sick first. They quickly formed communities of support…and that has been really well represented in movies, for example, Love! Valour! Compassion!, but what I hadn’t seen represented was this group of people, and in particular my protagonist, who goes through this crisis without the support of communication. The fact that it was a closeted culture complicated it, because to talk about it was maybe to out yourself.
Putting Frankie’s isolation in the context of this very tight community of dancers complicates it. Even the women dancers are marginalizing; one female dancer asks Todd to wipe his face after his sweat drips on her during a rehearsal. This really speaks to the time, because people didn’t really know how HIV was transmitted and what the risks were.
…Here you have dancers who by profession are mute, and in general it can be a very infantilizing culture. They’re treated as children, and sometimes they act in very young ways, so that was an ideal setting for the lack of communication, the isolation within the group. And, I knew that world very well, so I was drawing on my sense of that world. And in terms of the girl and the sweat, yeah, there was definitely a crazy period during the early epidemic where there was panic.”
One of the challenges the male dancers face in the film is the pressure to maintain a heterosexual aesthetic in their movement. Is this particular to the time, or have things changed?
I don’t think it’s changed as much as you’d think it should have….People like to see people, and people are men and women. It’s like storytelling. Storytelling doesn’t involve eunuchs; it involves people who are gendered….In some companies, it’s not an issue, but in other companies that tend to be more conservative, you still have young men being told to ‘act less gay.’ On the one hand it’s awful and offensive and ignorant, and on the other hand you can understand it. Because when you see a man and woman dance together in a duet, if the fiction is that there’s erotic chemistry, it’s just like good acting, you want to see it. But where the terrible, ignorant part comes in is that in these communities, some of the authority figures aren’t able to separate out gender of representation and your own sexuality. So, they’re punishing the young men for being gay, instead of saying, “I don’t care who you fuck, but this is how you have to move to make this story work.”
Scott Marlowe, as Frankie, has an incredibly sympathetic and endearing quality to him, probably natural to him as a person, and you utilized it well for the character. The role seems like a difficult one to cast.
The problem was, I had to cast dancers who could act and not actors who could dance, because this kind of dancing is a little bit more like opera in terms of singing than it is like carrying a tune or singing a pop song—you can’t fake it. So I knew I had to get dancer dancers….Once I found Scott—because he really does have a natural instinct for it, and he really is a sweet and great and very smart guy—we workshopped for like six months before there was any shooting or pre-production. During that period, I taught him some acting techniques, which he picked up very quickly, and then I also reshaped some of the scenes with him, sort of around his rhythms. He was a real collaborator on the project.
Scott and Matthew Risch, who plays Todd, had great chemistry. Did they know each other as dancers, or did the chemistry emerge in the audition/rehearsal process?
I did chemistry reads on Skype with Scott and various actors auditioning for Todd so I could gauge the chemistry before I cast it….When you’re working on a four week shoot on a microbudget—we had under $200,000 for production, to do [a period film]—if you have chemistry between your actors, it saves a lot of time [Laughs].
In the final scene, Frankie and Todd’s conversation about monogamy speaks to a larger community. How have people reacted to that scene?
It’s funny because when I was screening rough cuts of the movie, that was, from the beginning, a real sticking point. There was even some talk early on that it should be cut out, and I’m really glad I didn’t because everyone asks about it and audiences always talk about it. And it’s just a line of dialogue, but I think it really strikes a chord for people making the connection between these two eras. You know, an era where it wasn’t taken for granted that gay couples were monogamous and would even get married eventually, and an era where that is taken for granted. I think that the AIDS epidemic was a causal factor, among many others, in that shift. Of course, the big cultural factor is the evolution of equal rights, but I also don’t think it’s an accident that, in the face of the AIDS epidemic, monogamy suddenly looked very attractive.
The scene really speaks to an audience of today, as many people are beginning to question the idea of monogamy again.
I do think it’s in the zeitgeist.
After the film screened in Berlin, how did audiences respond?
I think one of the things that happens in Q&As with Test is that the film is so not what people are expecting. They’re really expecting Philadelphia, Dallas Buyers Club, Longtime Companion, Parting Glances….Test is something very different and hopeful and lighter, even though it has some darkness in it. And I think at the end they’re kind of stunned that they feel good, and sometimes it leaves them a little bit speechless.
The soundtrack, with artists like Klaus Nomi, Bronski Beat, Laurie Anderson, creates a rich layer that is part of Frankie’s environment and inner experience. How did you decide which artists and songs to include in the story?
I have a great music supervisor, Rick Clark. I had written some of the songs into the script, like the Laurie Anderson. I had permission from her early on to use it….But what’s great about Rick is he knew that era, and he found music that had hidden meaning as well as being really good music. Klaus Nomi…he happened to die of AIDS, so there’s an extra resonance there. Some of the other musicians were active in politics, or maybe they were in ACT UP, or they were actually groups based in San Francisco, stuff like that. So it’s a great soundtrack, but it’s also music that has other levels of meaning relative to the story.
You’ve said that you like to write women characters and collaborate with women. What are you working on in relation to this?
I’m working with two collaborators, and one of them is Jenni Olson, who was an executive producer on Test. We’re working on a story set in the 1970s—a mother-daughter story. As an audience member, I connect to great actresses and great female roles, and looking back on my two movies, I have done all men. I also of course don’t want to be so arrogant as to say, “I’m now going to write women, as a white male, I’m going to conquer all the diversity angles” [laughs]. So obviously I’m working with collaborators so that we get it right.
What kinds of work do yousee yourself doing in the more distant future?
I’m trying to figure out, as all independent filmmakers try to do, I think, how to keep working while you’re waiting for larger amounts of money to come together. I’m thinking about different processes. Like, I have some friends who are great actors in Europe, and going there with a camera and a skeletal crew and starting some improvs and building a project out of that—that kind of mode is very different than writing a script, getting it funded, hiring a crew, and moving all of that machinery into production.…It’s the question of, am I a screenwriter, and am I part of a culture in which I write spec screenplays and wait for someone else to greenlight them? What happens there is you give away so much of your power as an artist, and you’re waiting, and it’s frustrating. Or, is it possible to make something now, and what does that mean for me?…I think as independent filmmakers—because unlike painters we can’t just pick up a canvas and start painting—or can we? Can you pick up a camera and start making something? But, because we’re sort of acculturated to need, and because we realistically need, this whole infrastructure, it’s really easy in America, where we don’t have government financing for small films, to fall into this whole marketing-pitching-screenplay-three-act-Barnes-&-Noble kind of thinking and really as artists not look to ourselves for the solutions. I guess it’s the old empowerment story.
That’s hard to do, because it’s kind of the scariest path to go down.
But also I think one of the more rewarding ones.
Test will have its day-and-date North American theatrical and VOD release on June 6. For more information, go to: www.testthefilm.com.
V. Anderson holds an MFA in Film from New York University. She has worked in India, the Caribbean, and the U.S., and is currently based in New York City.