Yen Tan: Bittersweet Nostalgia

April 23, 2019
The 1985 filmmaker discusses influences, why he shot the film in black & white, the significance of that year in particular and filmmaking in Austin, Texas.

1985 was the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic. It was four years after the first case was reported, high profile individuals such as Rock Hudson were passing away, it was an international crisis with no cure in sight. For Malaysian born Yen Tan, who was 10 years old at the time and with an inclination that he way gay, it meant that he was “absolutely terrified by the notion of that…” he tells us. “I assumed, in my adolescent mind, that AIDS was going to enter my world somehow. I think it did a number on me, psychologically, to think of my sexuality as something that came with the baggage of the epidemic.”

In 2016, the Austin Texas based filmmaker/graphic designer made an award-winning short film with the title 1985, and soon after a feature film version was in the can. The latter premiered, appropriately enough at Austin-based SXSW in 2018. The film is now outwardly about the AIDS crisis; it’s an individual story about a young man (Cory Michael Smith) returning to his small-town Texas home for Christmas, after spending a number of years in New York. His mum (Virginia Madsen) and dad (Michael Chiklis) are simple, religious folk, whilst his younger brother (Aidan Langford) misses the big bro dearly. In amongst the delight over the family reunion, one can sense a number of secrets boiling away under the surface, resulting in a sensitively and stylishly wrought drama that not only speaks to that fractious time, but also to today’s divisive climate.

You made a short film by the same title, but it’s very different to this feature. Can you tell us about the process of how the feature length version came into being?

When we were getting close to finishing the short film, I started writing the feature version of 1985. The short inspired me to dive deeper into the story and the world. Thankfully it was a quick turnaround, a little bit more than a year to go into production after the script was finished, which has never happened to me before.

The film is reminiscent of ‘90s American indies. Were you influenced by that era of filmmaking? Any others?

There’s unquestionably a New Queer Cinema vibe, but there are also influences coming from other films. I was especially drawn to stories that were shot in B&W even though you don’t immediately think of them as B&W material. Films like Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Anton Corbijn’s Control, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and Ken Loach’s Looks and Smiles.

Why shoot in black and white? What were the pluses and minuses of shooting it that way?

1985 was shot on B&W Super 16 film. HutcH (cinematographer/producer/co-editor) and I were really drawn to the aesthetic that is conveyed in B&W for this particular story. It felt more solemn and oppressive, which is precisely what Adrian, our protagonist, is experiencing. It was also a way to render what that era felt like for people who were impacted by AIDS. It felt dire. Hopeless. Traumatic. I don’t think the generation who survived it remember those days in a vibrant, colourful way. Frankly, the only minus of shooting something in B&W these days is that it affects the commercial viability of the film. But 1985 was made on a very modest scale, so it was a creative risk worth taking. We were also lucky to be released as the same time as higher profile B&W films like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, so we didn’t feel like an anomaly, in that other directors are still inspired to shooting on B&W, too.

Did you develop the script with the actors? If so, can you expand on that?

I was very fortunate to work with smart, insightful, and seasoned actors, so I take their input very seriously. They already responded to the original script, and the conversations from that point onwards were about their characters, what they mean when they say, or don’t say something, and so forth. Every now and then they’d adlib something that works, so I try to include their contribution as much as possible. I didn’t feel like anyone who came on board didn’t get what I was going for, so it helped that we were on the same page as a starting point.

You also work as a graphic designer. Can you speak to the way that job informs your filmmaking, or otherwise?

I predominantly design poster art for films and documentaries, so I feel like I’m just working on another visual medium. Graphic design is a more solitary experience, while filmmaking is collaborative and requires a lot more communication with others. I tend to prefer the former, to be honest, being an introvert, but I’m thankful that I get to explore these two, vastly different creative endeavours at this point in my life.

What’s the filmmaking scene like in Austin? Does the influence of Richard Linklater still hover over the scene? Or is it more about SXSW now?

It’s still thriving! Richard Linklater founded the Austin Film Society here, and it’s a hub that supports and brings together many regional filmmakers. The great thing about Austin is that it’s easy for filmmakers to meet up and talk shop. Most of us are also friends with one another, so there’s a blurred line between personal and professional, in a good way. SXSW remains an essential part of this experience, where it could bring filmmakers from all over once every year.

What’s next?

I have a few things in development, but as I’ve learned over the years, it’s getting harder to predict what I will make next. So much of it is driven by financing and availability of talents that I really don’t know what the future holds anymore. I just hope it’s sooner than later!

1985 is in cinemas April 25, 2019

Read our review of 1985.

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