Chris Mason Johnson's "Test" is one of a handful of narrative films in contention for this year's Teddy Award, which honors the best LGBT film at the Berlin Film Festival. Set in 1985 San Francisco, the film follows two modern dancers (Scott Marlowe and Matthew Risch) who develop a relationship amidst the increasing paranoia coming out of the onset of the AIDS epidemic. It's a refreshingly unpretentious and wholly affecting film that fits nicely in the all too small canon of narrative films about HIV/AIDS.
Johnson and his lead actor Marlow sat down with us in Berlin to talk about the film, which US audiences can look for when it hits theaters in June.
So what was the genesis of "Test"?
Chris Mason Johnson: The genesis of it was that I had had a larger budget script that I tried to get made for like a year and a half, and I guess by LA standards that’s not that long but to me after having made a first feature, I was really just ready to go so I spent a lot of time waiting and then I said “Alright, to hell with this” I’m not gonna wait to raise 3-5 million dollars, I wanna make something now. So I just started writing something that was very personal, that would have a very low budget, and that I knew I could go out and make.
How did you get involved, Scott?
Scott Marlow: Mutual acquaintance actually, because Chris is a former dancer and the dance community’s incredibly small, especially in San Francisco. So a mutual acquaintance put us in touch and we went out for coffee.
Chris Mason Johnson: Yeah and I was in the process of auditioning dancers, trying to find a dancer who could act, I’d needed dancers who could act not actors who could dance, because actors who can dance can’t do this kind of dance. And you can’t fake it and there’s no doubles or anything silly like that, so I just auditioned, you know read, met with, first of all, but then of course read, actual dancers to see if they had some kind of instinct for acting and Scott did. He was automatically very natural, and then I knew there was something I could work with.
And this is your feature film debut?
Chris Mason Johnson: His acting debut.
Wow, so how did you approach that?
Scott Marlow: The whole project? Slowly, actually, it was really luxurious, Chris and I were able to spend about 6 months together, he workshopped with me one on one. We did readings and edited the script and he was able to offer a lot of tools and techniques like concrete tools that I wasn’t aware of, or was but didn’t know what to call them.
Chris Mason Johnson: Acting technique.
Scott Marlow: Right, yeah. It was like one on one coaching session for like 6 months, it was fantastic.
Chris Mason Johnson: He sees it as free coaching sessions, I saw it as free script workshop sessions, so I think it worked.
Of all the challenges that came up for both of you over the process of this film what was something that sort of stood out as particularly difficult?
Chris Mason Johnson: I mean the biggest challenge was the obvious one which is the period aspect, you know you try to do period on a budget like that you’re not gonna have a bunch of picture cars, we managed to round up, well lets leave it at that. So the solution was in terms of a kind of storyboard design idea and there was an artist in San Francisco I liked a lot who had picture books of San Francisco where he would draw the tops of houses and a lot of telephone wires, I liked the look of the pictures and I also knew that if the camera was pointed up, we wouldn’t see cars, so that was that challenge. And then just finding locations. I wanted the story -- I knew that the story would have scale from the dancing because whether you’re spending $10 million or $200,000, if you’re filming world class dancers with a good dp on stage, it’s gonna look like spectacle, it’s gonna look like scale, so I knew I had that production value, and then the challenge was finding San Francisco locations that could be 1985.
Scott Marlow: I think that my greatest challenge in this whole process was staying less centered than I’m used to, I think as a, especially as a modern dancer we’re taught to be very rounded and centered and calm and you work from this place, and Chris was really encouraging me to stay a little bit more out of control emotionally and physicality and all of that. And so that was the hardest part and he did that a lot. A lot of shaking, a lot of yelling, a lot of trying to get me more up cause I don’t get worked up easily.
Chris Mason Johnson: Another challenge for me is to create a nice calm quiet intimate atmosphere on set. I think for a lot of American filmmakers, you come into a set and you have a whole work hierarchy and you just slot into that and it’s all so fast. You feel like you lose control of the room and you’re not creating your own space. So just making adjustments so that the set could be quiet, I could be present, I could talk to somebody calmly, and thereby not freak out the actors and have a good experience. Because so many films are a bad experience, because you’re running out of time and you’re screaming. Who wants to live like that? I think the product is better when you’re present and I think the experience is better too.
Scott Marlow: I’ve never had that other experience so whatever you did worked, because I felt incredibly taken care of and able to access things that if people were screaming and running around there’s no way... there’s no way it would’ve happened.
Chris Mason Johnson: Yeah I do think that’s important. I don’t think American filmmakers talk about that enough. I think controlling the set in that way, and making something happen in the room the way it does in theater, I think it’s more of a European thing, that they sort of take it for granted that this is what art film does, but we kind of slot into a vestige of the Hollywood system. Like there's division of labor and this is how it works and this is the way it goes, instead of this is my film, what kind of space do I wanna make, to make the kind of work I wanna make?
There were a couple of documentaries that came out the last couple of years -- really great HIV/AIDS-related documentaries like "We Were Here" and "How To Survive a Plague" -- and I remember the filmmakers all saying that they felt there had been a burnout, creatively, for people talking about HIV/AIDS in their work, but that they could feel a new opening for people to go back. I’m just curious if you agree, and really why or how you decided to tackle this topic.
Chris Mason Johnson: Well I think, I mean I agree with them. I think there was a burnout in some ineffable, zietgeisty way, there is now a space that opened to be able to talk again about it and I think it happened similarly with the Vietnam War. There was a wave of famous films and then there was a silence and then there was another wave like 10 or 15 years later, so maybe that’s part of a broader phenomenon that’s above my pay grade to analyze but in terms of me personally, I think there needed to be this much time for me to tell this story because it’s not a story of death and disease. Almost all of the films, and this isn’t a judgement this is just an observation, have been about somebody getting sick and dying. And of course that’s AIDS, thats logical, and those stories needed to be told first, so this story, which is about someone not getting sick and is really about a lighter kind of feeling and hope that comes out of the fear, that story hadn’t been told yet and I don’t think it could’ve been until now, it wouldn’t have seemed right.
There's so many stories left to tell.
Chris Mason Johnson: And it’s part of the tapestry of our lives in the past and in the present, and you know, that’s the thing. How do you weave it in so that it’s still there?
And I think it’s also just important for a new generation of people who weren’t there to see what it was like and this film gives you a different kind of notion of that.
Chris Mason Johnson: It’s not a death bed film nor is it the activism movie...
No, but you give us a feel for the atmosphere at the time.
Chris Mason Johnson: Very phenomenological, very specific tone, mood, moment, yeah.
I’m curious with you, too, Scott, because I imagine you were to young to remember the onset of AIDS. What did you learn about that history by making this film?
Scott Marlow: My relationship with the disease has been one of education and prevention. I grew up, with a lot more information, so it took seeing things like "We Were Here," and talking to family members and reading, to get a sense of what that time may have felt like. Chris offered a lot of -- I mean you did share some personal stories around what you had experienced, just so you can get a sense of what it must’ve felt like to not know, so it was a process of unlearning kind of, does that make sense?
Chris Mason Johnson: I started dancing professionally at 16 and that's when it all began, but yeah that actually also created a separation between us like 16-25 year olds, and the older gay men who were out. We weren’t necessarily out, and dance was also a closeted culture, who were out and had community, and support, so it’s also the story of really being alone and isolated. And I’ve actually had some older gay men come up to me and say I mean people have been very supportive and positive about the movie, a couple of people said “This wasn’t my experience, we immediately formed these support groups and people were dying right and left” and I said “Well yes, but this other experience coexisted” There’s multiple histories here and we can tell them all I would like to think.