A Film by Tom E. Brown Explores Long-Term Surviving—With a Sense of Humor
by Hank Trout
The first thing I noticed about filmmaker Tom E. Brown was his impossibly clear blue eyes. When we sat down to chat at lunch recently, even our startled waiter remarked on Tom’s luminous eyes before he took our order. And then when Tom smiled, those eyes glowed with intelligence and a rapier-sharp sense of humor. I’ve rarely felt such an instant liking for an interview subject.
We met to discuss Tom’s compelling, heart-bruising yet laugh-out-loud funny film Pushing Dead, “an AIDS comedy,” fresh off the festival circuit and ready for wide distribution in April 2018.
Yes, you read that correctly: “an AIDS comedy.” For a long-term HIV survivor like myself, that phrase was quite jarring when I first read it—the words “AIDS” and “comedy” mashed up into a brain-rattling oxymoron.
“I started writing the AIDS film that I was craving—a film without IV bags and skin lesions. I wanted to make a different kind of AIDS movie, a comedy—in which nobody dies,” Tom has said. “After all,” he explained to me, “nobody goes through life without humor. And as a writer, that’s all I do, comedy; I’m not interested in writing humorless drama.”
Tom had already written and directed three short “AIDS comedies” (Don’t Run, Johnny; Rubber Gloves; and Das Clown) when he began writing Pushing Dead in 2000. He writes fast, he said, completing the first draft in five weeks. He workshopped the screenplay at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters and Directors Labs (one of only a handful of screenplays selected out of some 3,600 submitted). Financing the completed screenplay was another matter. “I kept hearing that ‘nobody wants another AIDS movie,’” but eventually, with the backing of Sundance and a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, he completed the film.
The protagonist Dan Schauble (James Roday, Psych) is a twenty-two-year HIV survivor living check-to-check as a bouncer at a dive bar in San Francisco, a tiny nightclub where he also promotes poetry slams that no one attends. When Dan deposits a $100 birthday present from his mother into his checking account, it is just enough to boost his account above his healthcare insurance’s acceptable income limits for prescription coverage. Unable to scrounge the $3,000 co-pay, Dan must navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy of state-sponsored insurance to get his medications. Meanwhile, the nightclub owner Bob [Danny Glover, (A&U, June 2002)] has a rancorous split from his wife and business partner Dot (Khandi Alexander, Treme, Scandal), and is spending nights at Dan’s apartment, where Dan lives with no-nonsense Paula (Robin Weigert, Deadwood, Sons of Anarchy), a massage therapist with her own relationship problems. Dan has eschewed the dating scene, dreading that inevitable “I’m HIV-positive” conversation, until he meets Mike (Tom Riley, Da Vinci’s Demons) who just might be “the one.” Mike too is HIV-positive, although he has been diagnosed much more recently than Dan. After just a couple of dates, Mike informs Dan in a gut-wrenching telephone call that he is not ready for a relationship with someone who has been positive for so long—we sense that Mike understandably fears that Dan, having lived with the virus for so long, might die much sooner than he.
And this is a comedy?! AIDS; monstrous, heartless bureaucracy; inadequate health insurance; marital break-ups; relationship frustrations; muggings; HIV stigma—these are the ingredients for a “comedy”? How is that possible? How does a filmmaker work with such serious material—issues like the cruel, petty bureaucracy administering healthcare insurance; the loss of love and companionship; the ugliness of stigma and rejection, even from within our own community, even from another HIV-positive man—and make us laugh out loud?
In Brown’s case, with a whole lot of heart and compassion.
For one thing, by letting us glimpse them at their most vulnerable, their most human, in scene after scene Brown shows us these characters navigating major roadblocks—my wife left me; I have AIDS and can’t get my meds, or a date; I’m in love with a stuffed animal (more on that later)—with great care and, yes, a sense of humor. In one scene, Dan and Bob are sitting at the bar portioning out their daily medication intake, Dan’s for HIV, Bob’s for “old man stuff.” Comparing their daily prescription intake, Bob says, “I win. Eight bottles—you, seven.” Dan picks up one of Bob’s bottles. “This is a multivitamin,” he objects. “Multivitamins don’t count. Therefore, it is a tie.” The scene is at once funny and a sad reminder of Dan’s and Bob’s dependence on life-saving drugs, as well as a heart-warming glimpse into the depth of the friendship between these two very different men. Roday and Glover—who both give poignant performances throughout the film—handle the scene with incredible tenderness and sly humor.
Now, about that stuffed animal….
Dan brings home for Paula a stuffed white monkey with a troll-like face that is, frankly, both frighteningly repulsive and kinda cute. When Dan thrusts the monkey in Paula’s face as she opens the door, she shrieks in horror and disdain, and throws the monkey to the ground. But then, gradually, Paula grows from revulsion to the monkey (keeping it in a corner on the floor), to a grudging acceptance (moving it to the living room chair), to a kind of fascination (talking with it), to a genuine love for it—it becomes a welcome companion, a respite from her horrible dating experiences. Watching the brilliant Weigert undergo that transformation is a wonderful sight to behold! A scene of Paula bathing the monkey in the sink and talking to it is a comedy miracle.
Other scenes from the film are also unexpectedly funny-sad. For instance, the scenes in which the drugstore pharmacist must reject Dan’s prescription for meds are rife with frustration, exasperation, and in the actress playing the pharmacist’s “don’t you dare try to pull that on me” humor. As Tom pointed out to me, with the Affordable Care Act in jeopardy under the current administration, the scenes are even more relevant than when they were written and filmed, the situation even more exasperating. The resolution of Dan’s insurance problem—which I will not reveal!—is unexpected, a comedic solution arising out of a truly horrible event. It is an entirely satisfying, surprising, and uplifting resolution we do not see coming—but happily cheer.
Pushing Dead has already garnered a boatload of awards on the festival circuit—best feature recognition at the Ashland Independent Film Festival 2017, the Roze Filmdagen 2017, Amsterdam, FilmOut San Diego 2017, and other festivals in San Francisco, Seattle, and Orlando, as well as acting awards for all three of the primary actors (Roday, Glover, and Weigert, as well as the supporting cast, all give pitch-perfect, memorable performances) and a best director award for Brown at Santo Domingo OutFest 2017. Brown’s other films have screened at the American Museum of Natural History, the Walker Art Center, and the Guggenheim; have run at hundreds of international film festivals; and been televised on PBS, Bravo, and The Independent Film Channel. As soon as Pushing Dead becomes available on VOD or cable or online streaming, it will also, I’m certain, garner a broad appreciative audience.
As it should. For although on its surface Pushing Dead is about a specific long-term HIV survivor navigating circumstances unique to surviving with HIV, in a much broader sense it is a wise and beautifully humane story about our need for connection with other human beings, our need to rely upon and love each other as we cope with the painful, laughable absurdities of life. That the film tackles these deadly serious issues with such a light touch is a tribute to Tom Brown’s skill and compassion as a writer and director. It is a difficult task he has set himself, this laughing through the tears, and he accomplishes it with grace and style.
Tom’s uncannily limpid blue eyes have obviously cried and laughed in equal portion, and we filmgoers are all the richer for it.
For more information about the film, log on to: www.pushingdead.com.
Hank Trout is an Editor at Large at A&U.