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Director Chris Mason Johnson talks to GLAAD about the intersection of the AIDS crisis and ballet in his new film, Test

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Chris Mason Johnson's second film, Test, tells the story of a young gay dancer living in San Francisco, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Test will begin a limited theatrical run this week through Wolfe Releasing, which you can learn more about here and below.  Before it opens, Johnson took some time to talk to GLAAD about how his own dance world experience came into play while making the film, and how he wanted to tackle AIDS without doing "another death-bed story."

Director Chris Mason Johnson actually began his career as a ballet dancer in the U.S. and Europe, and later transitioned into filmmaking with his first feature, The New Twenty (2008). Test is his second feature length film, which won two Grand Jury Awards at the 2013 Outfest Film Festival for outstanding screenwriting and outstanding U.S. dramatic feature film. The film includes beautiful dance sequences choreographed by acclaimed U.S. choreographer Sidra Bell.

The film is set in 1985, where Frankie (Scott Marlowe), an understudy for a dance company, faces the challenges of homophobia and the fear and paranoia brought about by the AIDS crisis. On the sidelines of the dance studio, Frankie begins a flirtatious friendship with Todd (Matthew Risch), a veteran dancer where together they navigate through a life of risk, passion, anxiety and hope.  

1.    Test tells the story of Frankie, a young dancer living in San Francisco in 1985. Given your background in dance, how much did your own experience play into the film, and were there any scenes or aspects that were autobiographical?

I had to come to terms with my own survivor’s guilt to write Test. As someone who lived through the epidemic and remained negative, who survived “unscathed,” I didn’t think my story was worth telling. And it probably wasn’t worth telling 15 or 20 years ago! I think the time is right for this smaller story about someone who was on the sidelines rather than at the front. 

So yes, I drew a lot from my own story for Test, but there are real differences. Frankie is much more comfortably out than I was. I changed that because I didn’t want to tell another coming out story. And I was dancing in New York and Europe rather than San Francisco. One big difference in NY was the terrible presence of the New York Post blaring its homophobic headlines every day at the height of the epidemic. I don’t think there was anything quite as awful in SF, although there was a similar backlash and scapegoating across the U.S., even in a city as liberal and gay as SF.

2.    The emotional backdrop of this film is the palpable fear and frustration the gay community was experiencing in the midst of the AIDS crisis, and how the advent of a new test for HIV/AIDS magnified that anxiety. Considering what an incredible impact the epidemic had on the LGBT community and America at large, there are surprisingly few scripted films examining its impact on such an intimate level. Why do you think that is? And what was your goal in telling a story on this subject?

One of the reasons I think there’s a shortage of intimate films about the AIDS epidemic is that we tend to frame the subject exactly like that — as "The AIDS Epidemic" — and it immediately becomes something big and general.

I wanted to reframe much more intimately on the fear and anxiety these very young characters experienced, characters who were not part of a broader gay community because they hadn’t made those connections yet. The characters in Test are not particularly verbal either, so they suffer the crisis in silence. It’s a very internal portrait, and I wrote it as a kind of visual poem more than as something dialogue-driven.

I also didn’t want to do another death-bed story. There’s an uncomfortable way we fall into Vito Russo’s necrology (from The Celluloid Closet) if every AIDS story shows the gay male protagonist dying. Mainstream gay representation has made progress, of course, but there are still two ways we are most often represented, and each is problematic: a) as characters who die; and b) as the court jester. 

3.    One of the unique aspects of that story is how many people felt ambivalent about practicing safe sex and using condoms for the first time, as well as entering into monogamous relationships as a means of avoiding infection. Why did you think this was important to include, and how do think the epidemic has affected the community in the 28 years since then?

It was important to include because it happened! Condoms were something old-fashioned and rarely used. Why on earth would gay men use them? No one can get pregnant! I thought it was important to remind audiences of that surreal and frightening moment when they were re-introduced, and I’m glad I did because I get a lot of comments about it. A lot of younger audiences assume condoms never went out of fashion.

As for the issue of monogamous relationships as a means of avoiding infection: again, I wanted to re-complicate the history. If AIDS had never happened, would we be where we are today in terms of our civil rights? It’s hard to say. Do I support gay marriage? Of course! I’m delighted by our progress! Do I think a certain degree of fear and anxiety in the early AIDS epidemic pushed gays in the direction of monogamy more quickly than they might otherwise have moved? Probably.

4.    The film includes several extended dance performances woven into the story. How do these performances speak to the greater story, and what did you want audiences to take from them?

The dance functions in several ways within the story. On the most obvious level of plot, it’s the classic understudy-goes-on trope, which we know from 42nd Street to The Red Shoes to The Turning Point to Black Swan — although notice there’s not a male lead in any of those, because men in tights are either “straight” or worthy of sniggering contempt in our cinematic history. 

At a more thematic level, the dance sequences are a way to eroticize the male body in a morbid, almost creepy but still sexy way. They’re an externalization of the intersection of sexuality and disease. Usually AIDS movies vet out the eroticism of the gay male body because it’s just too uncomfortable to think of sex while you think of disease. But I wanted to put the sensual body back into the story and the dance gave me a perfect way to do that. I worked very closely with my gifted choreographer Sidra Bell to tease out those twisted, almost horror-movie-like gestures embedded in the dances. We used the paintings of Egon Schiele for gestural inspiration.

Also, the group male dances in the movie are a way of reminding the audience that these other men are going through the same experience at the same time. The group of male dancers may be mute and abstract, but they’re there. A presence. Hard to ignore.

5.    One of the issues brought up in Test is the pressure Frankie experiences to dance more like a "man" by his choreographer. Even though the film was set almost 30 years ago, even today we still see on reality programs dancers being pressured to perform in a more masculine or feminine manner. Is this something you included from your own experience in the dance world, and do you think gender roles are still rigidly enforced?

Yes, they are! Mainstream dance is built around an aesthetic of male-female romantic tension, much like Hollywood. To appear less than manly as a male dancer is to threaten the art and business model of dance itself. Sissies are shunned. I’ve heard some pretty scary stories still coming out of major ballet companies. Part of the problem is that ballet masters usually aren’t educated or sensitive enough to separate the performance of gender (masculinity/femininity) from sexuality itself. So young gay dancers get a confusing message: that it’s wrong to be gay. Ideally it could be framed another way: gay is good! Be as gay as you want! But in this particular role we have to believe you desire this girl. Then it becomes a physical acting challenge that doesn’t necessarily threaten the dancer's identity.

I’m glad you mention the reality program issue! There were a couple episodes of So You Think You Can Dance that were like bad flashbacks to my own “dance like a man!” memories. And it seemed like SYTYCD was going to let that effeminaphobia stand, but then I recall Adam Shankman stepping in and defending the male dancers and reframing the issue in a smart way. I could tell he was sensitive to the whole thing. I was grateful to him for being there and saying what he said.

6.    For audiences who came of age after the events depicted in the film, what would do you hope they will take away from seeing the film?

That history isn’t some neat little story from an educational documentary, with a predictable outcome. That when you’re in the middle of something big, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. There’s no hindsight or clarity. There’s just the fog of war, so to speak. It’s so easy for us to objectify and simplify the past, and we lose the detail and nuance. We all experience the world from a single point-of-view, after all, but too often our historical fictions try to tell the story of everyone. Sometimes one small story is enough, and from that one story we can imagine something bigger and more complicated, full of many “ones.”

Director Chris Mason Johnson will be in San Francisco opening weekend with lead actor Scott Marlowe, and in NYC with choreographer Sidra Bell. Actor Matthew Risch will be in LA opening weekend for a Q&A.

Here are the cities and dates where Test will be playing in theaters:

6/06 - San Francisco, CA at Lee Theatres’ Presidio

6/06 - Berkeley, CA at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood

6/06 - Sebastopol, CA at Rialto Cinemas Sebastopol

610 - Denver, CO at Sie Film Center’s “Cinema Q” - one night only

6/10 - Portland, OR at Clinton Street Theatre - one night only

6/11 - Philadelphia, PA at Trocadero Theatre - one night only

6/13 - New York, NY at Quad Cinema

6/13 - Los Angeles, CA at Laemmle NoHo

6/13 - Atlanta, GA at Plaza Theatre

6/27 - Columbus, OH at Gateway Film Center

Test will be available on VOD June 6th, and comes to DVD June 17.

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