INTERVIEW | Chris Mason-Johnson, Director And Writer of Test
Chris Mason Johnson’s new movie TEST (that we reviewed in THEGAYUK on June 23rd) finally opened in the UK on July 14th on VOD & the DVD will be available on July 28th and is set to repeat its Stateside smash success over here.
It is the tender and heartbreaking story of Frankie a young male dancer in 1985, which had to deal with the early onslaught of the AIDS epidemic and see if he could find the resolve to take the first ever HIV Test that had just become available. It’s a stunning tale, powerfully told and will undoubtedly be on our list of Top Ten Movies of 2014.
Director/writer Chris Mason Johnson took time out of his busy schedule to sit down with our movie critic Roger Walker-Dack to give this EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW to THEGAYUK.
RWD: About a decade ago there were some tasteless and opportunistic gay movies that made AIDS another clichéd plot element, do you think the recent outpouring of movies on the epidemic are more responsible and relevant?
CJM: It’s a hard subject to tackle. Sometimes it takes a culture a while to process and digest so maybe it’s time for people who experienced the sheer horror of it all and now have something relevant to say creatively to have their say.
RWD: Did raising the finance through Kickstarter give you a freer hand creatively?
CMJ: (laughing) You say that as if I had the luxury of being offered studio funding! Both of my movies were truly independent. Although you have much less money and a smaller audience as you don’t have enough funds to market it properly, the trade-off is that you have total creative freedom. What Kickstarter did give me was connections to an audience in a very personal way as many of the donors, whether they were giving $10 or $500, wrote to tell me why the subject mattered to them so much.
RWD: You had such high production values in your film that the finished product is so good that it’s hard to believe you did it all on a shoestring.
CMJ: Thank you. I am a filmmaker that really cares about image and the camerawork whereas a lot of other directors are just interested in the script and the acting, and see the camera as a means to an end. I am very much interested in the language of cinema and I try to write the script and film in that way.
RWD: Congratulations on your truly wonderful new movie, We at The Gay UK repeated the well-deserved honour you got from the NY Times who very happily gave it a very rare 5 Stars. Setting this in a very crucial and tough moment in gay history in the context of this contemporary dance troupe was a major element in why this film succeeded on so many levels. Can you tell us about how your own background as an ex-dancer led you to making this decision, and how it affected the film?
CMJ. Although I was a teenager when this all occurred I drew a lot through autobiography and what was happening to people close to me. As an ex-dancer, one of my pet peeves was that male dancers hadn’t been represented well in movies at all. They are either ultra straight or they are outrageously gay and something of a joke. I’ve never seen a male ballet dancer especially taken seriously in a movie.
I wanted to tell the story of a group of young frightened men, well one in particular, that didn’t have a lot of language to deal with. Most of the movies dealing with AIDS up to now have been mainly deathbed stories, and I didn’t want to do another one of those. Drama is usually played out by dialogue and is talk, talk, talk, and my experience as a very young teenager in the early epidemic was that we didn’t say a word about it, as we were too petrified. Talking about it would make it real. So by using dance as a metaphor to tell this story, I could use all the facets of the body particularly, the vulnerability and the sensuality. I could represent that all through the image of dance without having the characters talk about it.
RWD. One of your characters in your first movie in The New Twenty was also HIV +, and now after this latest movie, I am wondering how important that aspect of his character was to you.
CMJ: It’s very important. To any gay man in their 30s and up, this was such a critical moment in our lives, with the fear and urgency of so much ignorance, fear and paranoia, it just left an indelible mark on who we are. Now with recent alarming rises in infection rates today, it’s even more important to remember these things.
RWD: Your two lead actors were as hot as hell! And you took a major leap of faith in casting SCOTT MARLOWE a non-actor as Frankie, which really paid off. Can you talk us through your casting process?
CMJ: I knew they had to be real dancers, as you cannot fake this kind of dancing, as there is a lot of pure choreography in the movie. I interviewed countless actors and dancers and looked for someone who was very natural and had a great sensibility. And when I found Scott we spent a whole six months whilst I was raising money constantly workshopping scenes as we developed the role of Frankie between us. He considered it acting lessons where I thought it was the rehearsal, so it was a kind of a win-win. He learnt that as an actor you cannot put on a show, you must feel and believe it to make it real.
MATTHEW RISCH, however, is a classically trained actor and not only did he manage to fit in with the dancing but he really helped Scott with their scenes.
RWD: They had a great chemistry together
CMJ: I‘ve never experienced that before when it worked so well, even in the intimate sex scenes.
RWD: No need for a ‘sex choreographer’ like they used when they filmed The Normal Heart?
CMJ: (laughing) NO!
RWD: The dancing was impeccable and completely moving. It was erotic with a touch of danger about it, is that how you intended we should see it?
CMJ: I wanted it to be both erotic and macabre. I had written a lot of the detail into the script and I worked very closely with the very talented Sidra Bell, the choreographer who created all the dances in just 2 weeks. I was by her side the whole way through with my suggestions, as an ex-dancer who has worked with some major choreographers I knew what I wanted.
RWD: Here in the UK at the same time in 1985 we had some 275 people diagnosed with AIDS (out of a worldwide total of 20303). We also saw the introduction of the Test that year too. Although you set your story so firmly in San Francisco, which then seemed to be one of the worst affected cities in the world, do you think a worldwide audience will relate to your film as well as American audiences have done so far?
CMJ: I didn’t have any thoughts on that when I made is as I had no idea when I made it that it would get such a wide distribution. I’m sure that the backlash and the homophobia were the same for all of us as we were paranoid and constantly looking for signs of Kaposi Sarcoma. The sheer panic of not knowing what this fatal plaque actually really entailed beyond the media hysteria was by no means an American phenomenon.
RWD: Certainly not. And the way that you so poignantly portray this in your movie was so spot on, that it brought back many personal uncomfortable moments that none of us would ever want to re-live.
CMJ: Thank you.
RWD: This movie certainly establishes you as one of the leading members of this new wave of ‘queer cinema’ alongside the likes of Ira Sachs, Andrew Haigh, David Lambert and Xavier Dolan. Is that important to you, and do you want to make more gay themed movies?
CMJ: Yes, it’s important to me and it’s one of the main reasons that I started making films. When I questioned my motives for why I was taking on yet another difficult profession after dancing, and one of the reasons I decided was that core representation made a real difference in my life. Few positive influences as opposed to the many negative ones that I experienced when I grew up were extremely important and shaped who I became. It also mattered to me on a political and moral level.
I want to keep on doing gay themes but I also like the idea of them becoming more assimilated with other content so that it is not so marginalised or ghettoised. I like to see gay characters who are not stereotypes, I like seeing a world of characters whose sexuality has not been explored much in cinema so far. So in terms of a being part of new queer cinema, I am honoured if I am considered a part of that.