Robert Sella in "1985"

SXSW ’16 Interview: Yen Tan on Moving Forward by Turning Back the Clock to “1985”

Before Yen Tan became a filmmaker, he worked at a viatical settlement company, often cashing in life insurance policies for the terminally ill who decided to use what money they had to enjoy their final days rather than on medical care that would only prolong the inevitable. Though he met a number of clients who profoundly touched him, it was a job that actually inspired the Austin-based writer/director to act on his passion to make movies rather than spend more time doing work that he never saw himself pursuing as a career. Since then, he’s shown a deeply sensitive touch as a writer/director, whether in his touching 2013 feature “Pit Stop” or last year’s wonderfully prickly political send-up “The Outfit,” yet Tan has described himself at a crossroads, having had just enough success to push him to keep making movies yet not quite enough to carry out plans to make more ambitious films to meet his growing skill.

If Tan’s latest short “1985” was born out of frustration, it doesn’t show, but perhaps could explain how he has so vividly captured that feeling of uncertainty in the poignant story of Adrian (Robert Sella), a man living with HIV. Just nine minutes long, “1985” unfolds with the confidence that Adrian clearly lacks, existing only in the present as it describes a painful past and a potentially even more torturous future as Adrian prepares to move back in with his mother with whom he had fragile relationship well before learning of his HIV status, news she has not yet heard. In advance of his move, he calls upon Tammy (Lindsay Pulsipher), an Avon lady to touch up the areas of his face that show signs of his condition, ultimately receiving something more profound than a physical makeover.

“1985” is that rarest of beasts, effortlessly moving in such a concise amount of time featuring indelible turns from its leads Sella and Pulsipher, and just as Tan was coming of age as the AIDS crisis entered mainstream consciousness, the film feels like a necessary reminder of the devastating effects of AIDS as both a disease and its lasting impact on the gay community at a time when it may be perceived as less of a threat. Shortly before the film premieres at SXSW, Tan spoke about the inspiration for the film, how makeup became a crucial element and the challenge of making shorts.

Why did you want to make a film about this particular moment in time?

“1985” is based on a story I heard in my twenties. I wasn’t thinking of it as a movie idea until I was in the right frame of mind for it, which was in the past year. I was feeling at loss as a filmmaker. A sense of hopelessness came up so persistently that I thought I just had to channel it into a film that dealt with that thematically.

It seems to be an interesting time to release this into a world with a generation, at least here in America, who might think HIV/AIDS is increasingly controllable, so it’s less of a concern. Was it tricky to decide how much context you felt was necessary for the audience to understand the story?

1985 was the symbolic year when Reagan mentioned AIDS publicly for the first time. It’s as if the disease and the patients didn’t exist because it took him so long to say it out loud. That to me, established the tone of keeping certain things in the dark. Not mentioning the disease at all in the film seemed appropriate. Many people who weren’t impacted by the epidemic back then weren’t aware of what was really going on either, as I’d imagine a lot of the audience who watch “1985” now. I hope the film, without spoon feeding too many details, provokes them to look further into the history and the kind of world we were in.

The idea of someone getting made up is such an interesting way into this story – did that come first or did you the subject come before the story?

Makeup was a main component in the original story I heard, but it’s interesting for me to watch the film now and see what it means to both Adrian and Tammy. Adrian’s make up is to cover his illness for his mother, while Tammy’s make up has an initial facade of superficiality that’s shed at a moment of vulnerability. They’re both wearing “masks,” so to speak.

There’s also a push/pull feel to the camera movement that’s very effective. How did that shooting style come about?

It goes back to the way the disease was perceived at that time. The powers to be weren’t doing enough to address this epidemic. They’d rather sweep it under the rug due to the kind of people who were affected. But for the family and friends of the ill, they witnessed tremendous pain and suffering. They didn’t have the option of looking away. This push/pull effect worked its way into our cinematography.

How did you cast your two leads? I didn’t even realize that was Lindsay Pulsipher until seeing the credits.

Robert Sella was discovered by Brad & Kimberly Burton, our casting directors. Since his character Adrian is seldom seen on screen in a conventional way, his voice quality has to be incredibly emotive. I remember watching Robert’s audition with my eyes closed, and I just knew he was right. I’ve admired Lindsay’s body of work over the years, and knew she would knock this out of the park. She responded to the material and her character Tammy right away. It spoke to her on a very emotional level because she lost her dad to cancer.

It feels like you’ve really embraced the short format – they don’t feel like things that are there to bide the time in between features – so how did you realize this was a good form for you?

Shorts are definitely something for me to bide time between features, but they’re just as fun and immersive as making a feature. Telling a complete story under ten minutes can be more confining, but I love that challenge.

“1985” will play at SXSW as part of the Texas Shorts Competition Program on March 11 at 10:15 pm at the Vimeo, March 14 at 2 pm at the Rollins Theatre, and March 17 at the Topfer Theatre at 2 pm.

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