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Filmmakers Chat: Chris Mason Johnson talks TEST
July 30, 2014
One of the best offers from the latest BFI Flare, London LGBT Film Festival back in March was the American indie feature Test, which has been released on DVD this week. It’s an exquisite piece of queer cinema that actually impresses for its ability to transcend the niche status and tell an interesting and poignant story with the potential to capture wider audiences. Set in San Francisco during the mid-80s AIDS crisis, Test follows Frankie, a modern dance company’s understudy who’s trying to find himself in the midst of unsettling times. My full review published on Candid’s film page two weeks ago upon the film’s VOD release is here. During the BFI Flare Festival I had the pleasure of chatting with Test’s promising writer/director Chris Mason Johnson (CMJ, pictured below), a former dancer himself who after working in script development and teaching screenwriting has transitioned behind the camera in 2008 with his feature debut The New Twenty and now returns with Test, confirming he’s one filmmaker to watch.
It seems like there’s been a renaissance of stories set during the 80s AIDS crisis: Dallas Buyers Club, How To Survive A Plague, HBO’s The Normal Heart. Do you feel there’s a particular reason why this period comes back? CMJ:
There probably is a reason but it’s hard to truly pinpoint what it is. Human beings don’t experience things in isolation. I think it’s not an accident that all of us filmmakers are returning to the subject now but I think it’s an ephemeral kind of thing, a zeitgeist. Maybe enough time has passed. There were some Vietnam movies that came out immediately in the 70s but there was another big wave with Full Metal Jacket and Platoon that was about the same number of years from Vietnam as we are now from the mid 80s with the AIDS crisis. So maybe there’s just something about this twenty years period that makes you use a new perspective.
You’ve said how you were more interested in telling a story about survival and take a more uplifting perspective than we’re usually accustomed to with this subject matter. Surely the film is part cautionary tale but also deals with other themes such as a reflection on being ready for monogamy. The final scene surely leaves you open for debate. Did you build the script towards that moment? How do you feel about that? CMJ:
I do think that the films that have been made before which I’m a big fan of were deathbed movies that dealt with disease and death and naturally so because with such a subject it’s a natural narrative direction to go into but a lot of those stories have been told. I wanted to tell a different kind of story, something that had more hope in it and that was lighter and that was about survival, sort of like a fairy tale almost, moving through this dark period and coming out of it unscathed. But in terms of the ending, I guess that’s a screenwriting answer. I came out of development, I teach screenwriting and I was affected by some of the typical ways of thinking about screenwriting with structure and outlines and plotting. I had gotten stuck with that and I just wanted to go back to just sort of own my creativity in a more personal way. So I wrote from beginning to end without stopping and I thought I knew where I was going but then I got to the end and I realized “oh, that’s what should happen!” That totally surprised me and I think the audience feels that, it feels like that old screenwriting cliché, inevitable but surprising. The ending feels fresh, it’s not predictable, it’s not formula and I think in part it’s because it surprised me. Like Robert Frost said: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”.
Absolutely. I felt the ending wasn’t trying to feed the audience a set message. It’s open to interpretation and it perfectly fits the kind of nuanced storytelling the film offers, being told more visually than relying on overly on-the-nose dialogue. Surely the story lends itself to it well, given how the protagonist’s world is mostly internalized but I loved the many little moments that say something thematically like the mouse he has at home. CMJ:
Yes, the mouse is a little symbol of him. That’s the thing, drama deals in general with a moral universe. It’s not life, you have to construct a very limited story and within that story things happen to people. In movies we tend to want good things to happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people and there’s nuance in the middle and there’s irony but the point is: it’s a moral universe. The problem with AIDS in the dramatic context is that it’s completely amoral, completely random. That’s what the mouse represents. Some small creatures are killed in a glue trap and some small creatures get a happy life in a cage with a treadmill and it’s random and I wanted to represent that visually.
There isn’t a typical antagonistic force in the film and that’s a testament to your writing steering clear of the average Hollywood screenplay. Obviously there are antagonistic elements that oppose Frankie’s journey like the disease, the choreographer, Todd (one of the dancers) but to the core it feels like Frankie is the main antagonist to himself. You passed the test as a filmmaker. Do you feel Frankie passed his test as well? CMJ:
Thank you so much. Well, yes, the typical drama would’ve been the dance one where the antagonist is the choreographer, Frankie has to go along as the understudy and he eventually triumphs. Those climactic sequences are usually at the end of a movie but I purposely put those in the middle of the film to say “no, this isn’t the movie” and yes it was more of an internal obstacle for Frankie: his fear and anxiety. But he definitely passed the test.
Your film is refreshing since it definitely feels it tries to aim to a wider audience. Do you think there’s a missing ingredient to make gay cinema more universal and less niche, especially for aspiring screenwriters like myself?
CMJ: I think we’re moving in that direction with films like Weekend, Keep The Lights On, Looking on HBO and I hope my film. As an artist the best advice would be keep it personal, keep it real and when you hear those old world industry voices saying “oh this is too gay”, completely ignore them and go in the opposite direction. The other point is I think the era of broad gay comedy is starting to feel a little old fashion, kind of the “Uncle Tom” phase of our development. I’m talking about those stereotypes and tropes of the fabulous witty gay which don’t get me wrong, they’re part of my world too so I don’t want to put them down but I do think that path is a little too overly treaded. Comedy is fine but keep it real. There’s so much in gay life that hasn’t been represented and we’re interested in the reality, in the details.
TEST is out now on DVD.
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor