Inside Out 2018: An interview with 1985 director Yen Tan

For his latest film, the period drama 1985 (which has a Gala premiere at the 2018 Inside Out Film Festival tonight), Malaysian-American filmmaker Yen Tan looks at a nostalgic point in American history that wasn’t so nostalgic for many gay men that lived through it. A time synonymous with HIV and AIDS related deaths within the gay community, the 1980s weren’t the “feel good” era that so many outside the community make it out to be today.

Writer-director Tan, working closely with his cinematographer, HutcH (who shares a story credit), and shooting on 16mm black and white film, creates a decidedly anti-nostalgic work of human drama with 1985. It’s the story of Adrian (Gotham’s Cory Michael Smith), a young advertising agency worker from New York, returning to his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas for the holidays and making his first appearance before his family in several years. His younger brother (Aidan Langford), evangelical, blue-collar father (Michael Chiklis), and mother (Virginia Madsen), don’t know that Adrian is gay, or that the reason he’s been absent from so many family gatherings is because he’s been battling AIDS. The journey home isn’t framed necessarily as a way for Adrian to say goodbye to his family, but more as a chance to spend some time reflecting on his past and making the most of the time he has left.

We sat down with Tan in a Toronto lounge hours before his film’s local premiere at Inside Out to talk about creating a less than nostalgic view of the 1980s, the importance of the era in gay history, the story’s depiction of strong sibling bonds, and the importance of sharing stories from within the gay community that don’t often get told on screen.

I think immediately people are going to be taken with the cinematography, right from the opening frames. Not many people would use black and white film stock to depict events happening in the 1980s, but it works and has sort of a Jim Jarmusch quality to it. I know you worked very closely with your cinematographer on this project, so when in the process of putting 1985 together did you guys make the decision to shoot in black and white?

Yen Tan: We made a short version of 1985 in 2016, and we shot that on Super 16, also, but we shot the short in colour. By the time I wrote the script to the feature and we had conversations of what it should be like aesthetically, our whole thing was that we really didn’t want it to look like a film in the 80s would have looked. We didn’t want it to immediately make you think back to the era specifically. That was when we realized we couldn’t shoot this in colour, because the 80s were such a colourful decade.

I think colour can play a role in enhancing the nostalgic aspects of the 80s. We didn’t want people to pay more attention to the random stuff in the background. We didn’t want to draw attention away from the characters and towards the set design or the props, or even just how clothing looked at the time. We didn’t want to bring that out because I think that unintentionally makes things feel cheesy. We wanted people to focus on the actor’s faces and their body language, and we didn’t really want the viewer to look at anything else but them. Black and white was sort of the perfect way to zone us in on what we wanted to feel most specific.

At the same time, it also feels timeless when you watch it. Yes, this is a period film, but there’s an immersive dramatic component to the colours of black and white, as well as the textural grain of film stock. We always saw it as a way of getting the audience fully into the story.

I’m glad that you brought up nostalgia, because while the 1980s are a time that many are currently nostalgic for, this is the story of a family going through something that no one would be particularly nostalgic about or keen to relive. When you make a film called and set in 1985, from a storytelling aspect, how do you balance those period details and stay away from too much that could be deemed nostalgic?

Yen Tan: Narratively, this kind of homecoming setting is a familiar kind of story to tell. You’ve seen similar kinds of narratives in other films, some of which can be quite nostalgic. Someone comes home and they have to deal with what’s happening in the family. The angle I always took as to ask the question, “What if the truth just never comes out?” We had this commitment to not revealing the truth that extended all the way to the end of the film. I feel like that kind of approach to this type of coming home narrative hasn’t really been explored before. I think the interesting thing about doing that is that it allows us to segway into different territory with some of these characters, especially when it comes to questioning what the sexuality of the younger brother could be, or a sudden, but slight turn in how we perceive the father, who could have been a complete archetype otherwise. We set things up in a way that seems familiar and that could lend itself well to a more nostalgic kind of story, but gradually you realize that we’re not going in that direction. Every character has their own revelations, but they’re never really speaking the truth about what’s going on.

The relationship between the two brothers in this film really is the backbone of the film, and the idea of a family from this part of the country and living within a certain religious structure potentially having two gay sons is also something that never gets talked about much, either.

Yen Tan: Yeah, and in this particular case I think it’s particularly poignant when talking about this time period. The AIDS epidemic took out an entire generation of gay men entirely. So many of them died, and the generation that came after them – and I would include myself in that generation – didn’t have the privilege of experiencing firsthand the lessons they could have taught us or the mentorship they could have offered. They could have showed us the ropes, in a way, but that generation got wiped out, and we had to sort of figure it out again somehow. Of course, there’s a whole generation of gay men who survived and worked as activists, but I still feel like that a whole section of people who were just wiped out.

The New York Times came out recently with this thing a few weeks ago where they showed pictures of all these artists and designers who died of AIDS. When you look through that gallery, it’s staggering the cache of talent that we lost as a society, and you think about all the works we never got because they died. It’s mindblowing all that we have missed out on, and the fact that so many people couldn’t continue with their work was such a huge loss.

That was part of the reason why I wanted to make the film with this strong brotherly dynamic. The older brother is this representation of that older generation, and in the context of this film I wanted to make him the one to pass on that knowledge. I wanted all of us who see the film to be the younger brother, so we can get something out of the older brother that can be passed on. And I’ve always been moved by how an older sibling can try to leave or impart something onto you that’s meaningful.

We’ve had a lot of great dramas and documentaries that center around this specific era in gay history, but they’re often narratives about key figureheads that were at the forefront of the AIDS epidemic or who worked on a larger stage. Was it important for you to make a film about this era from the perspective of an everyday gay man and not someone who was famous or at the front of the fight? There’s definitely something poignant about a film from this era being told from the perspective of someone who might not have had their story told otherwise, and I think there are far more narratives out there from this time period that people have hung onto that never get talked about.

Yen Tan: I think it was. There are so many stories from that era that still need to be told, and I think that every story is valuable to someone. It’s why we still have movies made about The Holocaust. The tragedy is so enormous that there’s no way to count how many stories, perspectives, and experiences could come from it. And much like the Holocaust, it was so big that we’re still finding out things that we previously never knew today. The AIDS epidemic was a massive tragedy for a lot of people, and there’s no telling how many stories have been lost or untold. There are so many stories that could be told, and this idea of one man simply returning to his home for the holidays is just one of millions that could exist.

It’s also quite freeing to tell a story from this kind of perspective in the sense that we also don’t have to give a lot of background information into this time period. By now, I like to think that most people who see the film will know what went down, and I don’t have to say the words “AIDS” or “gay,” because those should already be known. I don’t use either of those words for most of the first part of the film. I like that I can tell a story like this and not have to worry about spelling it out for people.

I feel like we’re participating in and realizing that this might be Adrian’s farewell, and that lack of over explaining too much about the era allows us to be there with him and in the moment. We’re always ahead of where these characters are mentally. I don’t think I am surprising anyone when we say that he’s positive or that he’s gay. We figure these things out very quickly, but the other characters in the film don’t. I think that forces us to be more empathetic because we start to participate in his deception, and we try to see how far he can go before he breaks.

I was very confident that the audience will be able to figure this out. There’s a danger in telling too much or being too obvious. You don’t want something this emotionally loaded to be melodramatic. Yes, this is a story that’s very sad, and it’s very heavy emotionally, but we don’t need to tip things towards being sentimental or overly manipulative, which is what I think happens when you over do things. It’s a fine line to play with, and in those kinds of cases, you just want to be sure that the actors are on the same page as you and they know what’s going on. It’s all about having conversations with them so we can tailor things, and maybe even scale them back further. If they said they could do something with an expression instead of saying a line, I would honestly prefer it. It’s a dance.

The family dynamic here is very well established from the opening scene, and although some of your four leads have worked together before on various projects, it still has to be hard to create such a subtle, lived in shorthand between these characters on a film with a limited amount of time and money. How did you all work together to make this dynamic a reality?

Yen Tan: I think that working with seasoned actors is the key to something like this, and they all fit into that category of performer. They’re all used to not having the luxury of rehearsals. We all had so many conversations with each other before we got to set, either over the phone or on Skype. Everyone was always informed of what everyone else was doing and what needed to be prepared before we all got around to shooting. That’s always fun and scary at the same time. You can have these conversations, and things might seem to be going well, but you never know what’s going to happen until they show up and say their very first lines. (laughs) And thankfully, with them I never felt like anything was wrong. They’re all such good actors, and they’re all so good at preparation. I think the key to being a seasoned actor is making sure that you show up and knowing that you’re not going to do something wrong. (laughs)

1985 screens at the 2018 Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival on Friday, May 25 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 9:15 pm. For a full list of films and screenings at this year’s festival, check out the Inside Out website.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.

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