The Queerty Interview

Director Yen Tan talks his film ‘1985’ and why we should never forget the horror of AIDS

Yen Tan (center). Photo by Eliana Pires.

Yen Tan sounds a bit out of breath when he greets me on the phone, and no wonder: he’s spent most of the year on the film festival circuit with his new film, 1985. 

Shot in gritty black & white, 1985 tells the story of a 20-something gay man who returns to his hometown to tell his family he’s dying of AIDS after the death of his boyfriend. The drama stars Cory Michael Smith (of Gotham), Emmy-winner Michael Chiklis, Oscar-nominee Virginia Madsen and Jamie Chung (of Gifted).

We caught up with Tan the film’s October 26 opening in New York & Los Angeles before it hitting streaming services in December.

This is a remake or companion piece of sorts to a short film you made a few years ago with the same title. What made you want to revisit the same territory?

I was revisiting a lot of these open-ended conversations that I had with a lot of men living with HIV and AIDS. This was around ’97 when I graduated from college. I worked for an insurance company that did a lot of viatical settlements. It was one of those booming industries where a lot of people would come in and have the option to sell their life insurance policies to a third party.

Ok. That sounds heavy to say the least.

So if you were HIV+ or had AIDS back then, and most of the time, at that time, you had a projection of your life expectancy. For instance, if you had a $100,000 policy, and your doctor gave you a life expectancy of two or three years, you could actually get a percentage of the face value. So that’s a chance to get like 70% of the face value–$70,000 in cash selling your insurance policy. So I interacted with a lot of people who were considering this as an option.

So what happens when you’re in that situation, naturally, people tell you a lot about themselves. You’re collecting very private information about medical conditions, looking at lab work, that kind of stuff. A lot of them were directly impacted by the epidemic when it hit in the ‘80s. I was like 22; I came out as a senior in college. Meanwhile, I was hearing about their hardship—how tough it was for them to come out, and in many cases, they had family that didn’t know. They had the burden of having to carry on deception for a very long time.

Just like you did with those interactions, I’m sure.

I thought about these conversations five or six years ago, before I started writing the film. I realized, in hindsight, that I wasn’t mature enough to ask them more questions. Being young, you don’t think about the gravity of the situation. Now that I’m in my early 40s, now that I’ve lived a little, I can understand better some of the things they were telling me, and articulate that pain better as an artist. So this was an attempt to revisit these questions that I couldn’t ask them at the time.

Cory Michael Smith

Needless to say, this is an intensely personal film for you, not just because you worked with people with HIV. I know you’re from the Dallas area; the film’s set in Dallas. The Tan’s diner in the film, I don’t know if this is intentional, or an in-joke—

It’s an in-joke, but it’s completely unintended. Long story short, we put the menu [in the window of the diner] to address a technical issue we were having. That’s why it was propped up in the shot. As much as I hate that people can see it, there’s nothing I can do about it.

[Laughter]

I think it’s cute. I found it really interesting that the movie features a very prominent Asian-American character who is sort of an observer to this family where AIDS is causing all this conflict.

Right.

How literally is this based on your life? Is Adrian [Cory Michael Smith’s character] based on a single person? Are these events you were privy to?

The really funny thing is that when I was writing the film, right up to when I was cutting the film, I didn’t think that I was drawing from anything very specific. It wasn’t like this is based on me, this is based on that other person. It’s only now that the film has been doing the festival rounds and I’ve talked to a lot of people that I can better identify where some of these things come from.

I think the Asian character is sort of a collage of these men I talked to during my [insurance] days. A lot of them were from the south, or they were born and raised in this very specific kind of Texas environment. I think that’s what you see in the film—the sense that you don’t talk about something directly, you always talk around it.

That’s something people all over the country can relate to.

So I’m just pooling all these observations…and putting them in this film. So the Asian character, Carly [played by Jamie Chung], is not really based on anyone. I just like the idea of putting an Asian character into a situation where you don’t conventionally picture an Asian character. I remember having this conversation with Jamie, where she kind of had a hard time visualizing a character like this growing up in Texas. She’s born & raised in the Bay area. There’s a lot Asians there. But in parts of Texas, there aren’t. So I tried to get her to imagine…Carly is Margret Cho who actually grew up in Texas instead of the Bay area. So that was my deliberate attempt to put a character like her in this story.

Jamie Chung & Cory Michael Smith

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Carly ends up being a messenger for Adrian. And in many ways, you’re also being a messenger for people you spoke to who had HIV. You’re delivering their story. That’s an interesting sort of metaphysical comment on itself.

Totally. And just to add to that—that’s a great observation. [The film] is my attempt to give voice to people who couldn’t share their stories because they died. Also, on the most personal note, I can make when it comes to this story, 1985 is actually my attempt at going back in time to tell myself as a boy growing up in Malaysia where I was deeply closeted and deeply alone.

Ok, yeah…

It was my attempt at going back and telling myself “being gay doesn’t mean you’re going to have AIDS.” In 1985, I was 10 years old and nursing this crush on Michael J. Fox because he was so popular.

[Laughter]

Back in the day when Back to the Future and Teen Wolf came out the same year. And I was like oh my gosh, I really like this person, and he’s a boy. I must be gay. And then Rock Hudson’s death hit, and I saw how [AIDS] was portrayed in the news. And in my adolescent mind, I just thought gay equals AIDS. I feel like that impacted the way I view sex, and how I was fearful of sex for the longest time.

I think a whole generation can identify with that.

I think of all my hang-ups, and to this day, I can sort of draw it back to my earlier days as a boy—how I view homosexuality, and how I view gay sex in a way. So the tape recording that Adrian leaves at the end was sort of my way going back in time. I was doing my own Back to the Future to tell my younger self that being gay can actually be a complete and meaningful experience that doesn’t have anything to do with AIDS.

Totally, and there’s a Back to the Future reference in the film.

Right.

[Laughter]

And Nightmare on Elm Street.

Adrian, played by Cory Michael Smith. This is kind of a revelation for him. It’s a splendid performance. How did he come to your attention? What made you cast him?

We got a lot of submissions from agents. He was probably the one actor I was really excited about when his name was pitched. At that time, I already knew his work from Olive Kitteridge with Frances McDormand. And I always thought he was so fantastic on that show, that in the back of my mind I’m going remember this person. So thankfully he read the script and really responded to it too. There was a window where we were going to shoot the movie earlier, and we wouldn’t be able to work with him because he was doing Gotham. So when we had to push the film and he came back into the picture, it was meant to be.

I just remember talking to him the first time on Skype, and he just articulated his thoughts on the character, on the story. And it was the first time I felt like somebody totally got it. When an actor can just get it on the page, it makes your job as a director so much easier. One of the things with Cory, when he showed up on the set, I didn’t have to worry about if he was doing something too much or too little. I think tonality of a movie is a very important thing.

In particular with a subject like this.

It’s so easy to overdo something and then a scene becomes really melodramatic. And with Cory, it’s uncanny how he always knows how to cry correctly.

[Laughter]

And I’m always like, I don’t have any adjustments. I’m just really thankful I could work with someone like him.

Michael Chiklis, Virginia Madsen, Cory Michael Smith & Aidan Langford

And you have veteran actors in Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis. You layer them in some surprising ways. What was their response when they read the script?

What they brought to the table was that they did a very good job at adding nuance. They’re seasoned actors; they just know what to do. You just have to trust that. And that’s what happened. They totally knew what I was trying to do. And the way those characters are shaped is very much based on the way I see people in Texas. Post-election, where I had to reconcile this notion that I had a lot of neighbors who are Trump supporters. For me, it was a very jarring experience because I knew these people before the political labels. I knew of them as good, kind-hearted people.

Of course.

I talked to them on a one-on-one basis. Then suddenly, it’s like pulling a mask over my head: These are horrid people. They voted for this asshole. So I quickly condemned them in my head. But later on, I had to ask myself, have they changed?

It’s a legitimate question.

And they haven’t really changed as people. That’s the way I had to reconcile that. They’re not bad people. More than likely, they’re misinformed or come from a place of not understanding what’s going on. So that’s the way I see their characters in the film, especially the dad. Over the course of the film, you realize his ultimate conflict is that he feels like he’s losing a connection with his kids. He yearns deeply for that, but he doesn’t know how to get there—something that I think is a very real thing for a lot of people.

They’re not evil. They’re a product of a time and a place. For me, I always want to have an understanding before simply condemning them.

The film is shot in black & white. You use of lots of long takes and deep focus. That’s great for your actors because it shows how raw their performances are—there’s no manipulation in the cutting room. Did you rehearse them in this style?

We didn’t have the luxury. In a nutshell, with these actors, with this kind of production where we spent a small amount…we’d have a conversation on Skype. It’s like a dating thing, where both parties say yes, and you have a really extensive conversation until they get to the set. When they show on the set, we just do a blocking. And we just roll the tape, and then they act. So literally, you sometimes don’t know how a scene will unfold until you shoot a take.

They’re great actors. They know we’re shooting on film and don’t have a lot of money. They know they have this kind of challenge to get it right. So it created this kind of energy that was really nice but really scary at the same time. So everyone was always game in that way.

Cory Michael Smith

When you are working with actors on a tight schedule what atmosphere do you keep on set?

The actors tell me what they need and I give it to them when it comes to space or time to be on their own. But the people on my crew and I are sensitive to their body language; we can tell when they need to do their thing. Some of the toughest scenes were some of the easiest to shoot—and this is a testament to them as actors—when they’re ready to shoot, we just do it. And you realize, it’s amazing, or it becomes this moment where you’re completely devastated by what you just saw. For instance, the airport scene, when Virginia drops off Cory.

Oh my lord, yeah.

We shot at an airport. We got a permit to shoot there. But we also didn’t have control over the environment. There were always random people drifting in the shot. And we had to go really fast. And that scene, the first take we roll with the actors, I just completely got lost in it. I remember watching their faces and it’s like a punch in the gut.

It’s heartbreaking.

So raw. That’s one of the scenes in the film that—even though I’ve seen it so many times—if I walked in a theatre and just watched that scene–the power of the scene is still there. You always feel the energy of the room shift.

I’ve had many conversations with filmmakers recently who talk about when they’re doing a drama about queer characters, they have this sense of guilt. Queer cinema has a glut of tragedies, of sad stories already, be they about murder, AIDS, homophobia, heartbreak, whatever. How do you respond to the idea that LGBTQ films shouldn’t dwell on these subjects?

I would say I definitely made this film knowing I had to be ready for backlash. These days, there’s a lot of backlash. For this story, it would be the AIDS backlash or the tragic gay backlash. For me personally, it would be people asking why I’m not making a film about an Asian-American family dealing with AIDS. So, there’s also that. As the movie was coming out, I was preparing myself for these things, and fortunately, I haven’t had any uncomfortable conversations about it. I recognize that the film has a tragic, gay character, but my intention was to counterbalance that with the younger brother character. I feel like Andrew [the younger brother] is sort of the gay generation that came after. Adrian is of the generation that was heavily overshadowed by the epidemic. They weren’t able to realize their full potential.

I think we need to realize that it was a terrible time. We lost a lot of people. As a result of that, a lot of stories weren’t told. And much of what we’re riding on these days with marriage equality and all these other things—a lot of it came from the activism that was happening back then. You can draw a straight line. I think that part of it we should never, ever forget, 20, 40 years from now, I hope people are still making films about AIDS because the younger generations need to know there was this time people didn’t have the privilege of coming out. People had to live with their tragedy silently, without sharing it with their family. So I think we always need to remember that.

We need to acknowledge history. I do feel like I’m adding a specific spin to it. A lot of people have told me there was a hesitancy to watch the film because of what they’d read on the page. They’d think, “I don’t want to watch one of those kinds of films again.” Then they’d come out and experience hopefulness from watching the film. They feel like they watched something that enriched their souls. That was always my intention. You watching something happen to this character that happened to a whole generation of people.

There’s something to be gained from that.

1985 opens in New York & Los Angeles October 26.