Transformative Experience

Director Yen Tan’s 1985, set during the early days of HIV/ AIDS crisis, revolves around Christmas for one family in Texas, whose eldest son Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) is home for the first time in a long while. Concealing from his parents (Michael Chilkis and Virginia Madsen) and his younger brother (Aidan Langford) that his life in New York is falling apart, he confides in friend Carla (Jamie Chung) who he has a complicated history with, as he looks to make the most of his final visit home.

In conversation with ASFF, Tan discusses the choice to film in black and white, the purpose of the score in cinema, and how he experienced a delayed feeling of transformation.

ASFF: In spite of the tragic sadness that emotionally weighs the film down, there is a visceral intersection with a sense of hope that runs through the film in surprising and less surprising ways.
It is surprisingly hopeful towards the end, in a way that still feels ultimately very sad and tragic, but I didn’t want to just make a film that I kept going down the hole [laughs]. I don’t know if there is anything to derive from it because I feel then it becomes a story that we have been told for a long time about what happened back in the day. So, by adding the angle to it of what transpires between the two brothers was like a thread that connects the people from that generation to us, who are still around. One of the saddest things about that era is where I felt we lost a lot of our older gay brothers who are not around to share with us their wisdom or their experiences.

ASFF: In communicating this sadness, did shooting on film and in black and white allow you to present the film or bring something out in a specific way?
I would say yes, in that making a film in black and white was intentional just in that it comes from a place of wanting to portray the 80s in a way that was not expected. We definitely think of the 1980s as a very colourful era, but I wanted to honour this idea that for a lot of people who were impacted by the epidemic back in the day, they remember those days in a very stark way. I thought black and white was the right way of showing that experience for them. It also narrows down your focus to just watch the characters, and after a while you are not paying attention to the details of the era, the set design or the colour palettes. I wanted to make a film about the 1980s where you can be very present when watching it. You are not looking at it thinking that you are watching something that happened in the past, it wasn’t an historical thing, it needed to have this sense of immediacy that feels like you are immersed in it. A combination of shooting in black and white and on film had that effect. 

ASFF: The score has a strong emotional presence, yet in moments it is discreet, mirroring human emotions that can be still and calm beneath the surface, only to swell up with tumultuous vigour. Would you agree that music in film is a communicative tool for the story and the characters, and not just filler?
I have a very complicated relationship with how score is used in the cinema, because often times we are used to seeing how score is used to add something that sometimes is not even in the movie itself. Whether it’s a movie that’s lacking emotions and the music has to add that element, or a scene already has its emotion, and the music is plastered on top of it so it then becomes too much. Personally, it’s always about riding that fine line where I love score, but I also don’t want to abuse it. So for me it is just to compliment what is already happening. It has to compliment it in a way that feels like sometimes you are not even aware of it when it’s there, or it comes up, or it is is set at a volume where it becomes subconscious, where you feel like it is helping what you are experiencing while you are watching it, but it’s not deliberately leading you to a certain place. This is what I am drawn to and I just want to ride that line as much as I can.

With 1985, when I talked to our composer Curtis Heath it was very much to not do anything that sounds too obvious, or too on the nose. It’s one of those things where I always marvel at musicians who are able to articulate what that means [laughs], because I can’t figure out what that is. It’s just something that when I hear it and when I pair it with images, I know whether it’s right or it’s wrong.

ASFF: Has the making of 1985 represented a transformative experience for you?
For 1985 it is a very special case, where the good thing about making this film was that it happened so quickly. I am used to projects having to sit around for a while before they get made, and when I say a while, it’s usually a couple of years. The film was the thing that happened very fast. It didn’t take a long time to write, it didn’t take a long time to develop, and then it didn’t take a long time to cast, and before you know it we were in production. We weren’t making the movie with a lot of money either, so the fact that everything came together and clicked was as much as a surprise to me as anyone. So I don’t think going through the making of it, and then diving right into post production afterwards to finish the film quickly for a festival deadline, I had time to look at the whole before and after of making the film, and whether I had changed. Even though, and it’s weird because this story if anything else should call for that before and after transformative thing. It only came about after we screened the film, went to festivals and talked to audiences and journalists because I felt that was the time where I could really experience the story through other people.

Walking into a theatre in the ten minutes before the film ends before I do the Q&A is always very interesting, because I can feel that energy in the room. You can call it transformation or something else, but something is happening where there is this collective sense of people intensely feeling. I feel very fortunate to be able to see that and to be able to say that the story I am telling is having that kind of impact on people, and it is very meaningful. To hear what they are willing to share with me, people I will never see again because it’s just this one time encounter when I have this conversation with them, and they tell me these deeply personal and intimate stories about themselves. Once you have heard several of them it’s going to do something to you. It definitely did something to me mentally, not like a bad thing, but in my early twenties these people were telling me their stories and I didn’t feel the gravity of these situations. Now people are telling me their stories after they have seen the film, and I can feel the weight and gravity of what they went through.

1985 is released in UK cinemas and on VOD by Peccadillo Pictures on 20 December. For more information:

Paul Risker

1. Still from 1985.