Last Christmas, 1985: An Interview with Yen Tan

If you turn you attention from Los Angeles, hop three states inland over to Texas, you’ll find a vibrant and diverse film industry driven by the likes of David Lowery (A Ghost Story, The Old Man & The Gun), Trey Edward Shults (Krishna, It Comes At Night), Justin Simien (Dear White People) and Yen Tan. That last name may not be so familiar right now. It belongs to the Malaysian-born writer and director, who emigrated to The Lone Star State in 1994 when he was just 19 years old. This year he made his fourth feature film, 1985, so-called because it is set in 1985 when Tan was a young boy, but not so young that he didn’t notice what was happening to hundreds of thousands of gay men at the time.

Cory Michael Smith in  1985  (2018)

Cory Michael Smith in 1985 (2018)

1985 tells the story of Adrian Lester, a young man who returns to his family home in Texas to celebrate Christmas with his mother, his father, and his younger brother. Adrian lives a double live. In New York City, he is a liberated gay man living through a devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic that is ravaging his community. In Texas, at his parent’s home, he is a closeted and enigmatic figure, loved by a family who do not really know him or what he is going through. This Christmas could be his last, but he cannot bring himself to tell anyone.

1985  (2018)

1985 (2018)

The film arrives in the UK just before the turn of the year, meaning it has narrowly missed the cut-off deadline for almost every Best of the Year list going (not counting the Curzon Best Films of 2018 list), but it is a film that surely would have featured prominently had more people had a chance to see it. We spoke to Yen Tan about the film, its unique tone and style, and the legacy of 1985.

“I was ten years old at that time,” says Tan of the year that was 1985. “I have an older brother but he’s not gay, and this is the part where it gets a bit meta.” 1985 is a film about an entire community of people, victims of a vicious epidemic that touched hundreds upon thousands. We experience things through Adrian, played by Cory Michael Smith, but in the film’s final beats we see that this is just as much a story about Adrian’s younger brother, Andrew. “I think I wrote that part as a way to go back in time and tell my ten year old self what’s ahead of me. I had an inclination I was gay and felt the whole gay experience was completely weighed down by AIDS and how being gay meant you were eventually going to die of AIDS.” Thankfully, the dialogue around the disease has moved on in the interim years, but it is none the less stirring to hear of a young boy dealing with such upsetting thoughts. “It fucked me up in a way.”

Aiden Langford in  1985  (2018)

Aiden Langford in 1985 (2018)

The film shares a title and some of its themes with a short film that Tan made back in 2016, but they do not tell quite the same story. “Both the short film and the feature are based on several of the stories I heard in the ‘90s when I had a job working for a life insurance business,” says Tan. “The majority of the clientele were men living with HIV and AIDS, and I was doing administrative work that entailed a lot of conversations with these people.” Anyone who has ever been through a telephone consultation for life insurance, or even one of those laborious online self-assessments, will know just how personal and at times invasive these processes can be. “I would help them fill out their forms and help them put together their documentation. It’s a very thorough process where I had to get very personal information from them, mostly about their medical records and knowing what their blood work was like, and as a result of that they told me a lot of private stories about themselves, personal stories about what they have lived through.”

It wasn’t the painful details about physical illnesses or the specifics of how their lives have been affected that came to inspire Tan some 20 years later. Beneath the clinical assessments Tan went through with his clients, he found something far more common place. “I noticed there was a common thread of secrecy in their stories,” says Tan, “there was always a sense of people in their family not knowing what’s going on with them, not knowing they’re gay or not knowing that they are terminally ill.” Adrian is a similarly closeted man, unable to tell his family the dire truth about his health because doing so would mean revealing to them the truth about his sexuality, his lifestyle, and it would mean acknowledging that his family do not know him at all. “To be unable to share with your family what’s going on in your life, is just,” Tan pauses for a moment, “it’s unimaginable for me. I wanted to make a film that honoured that generation of men who didn’t have the luxury of coming out that we have now.”

Cory Michael Smith in  1985  (2018)

Cory Michael Smith in 1985 (2018)

At its core 1985 is about all those things you can never seem to find a way to share, not with your closest family members and friends. Placing that idea at the heart of his story gives Tan’s film a universal appeal. When you hide who you are, Tan believes, “there’s a corrosive effect to your relationship with your family,” and honesty is not something that anyone should be afraid of. “When you assume they can’t deal with what you want to tell them, when you assume that their capacity for understanding is limited, you’re putting a ceiling to their humanity.” These assumptions and misunderstanding are self-defeating, of course. The truth, Tan says, is “the parents that you thought you knew all this time have a bigger capacity for love and understanding.”

Aiden Langford, Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis in  1985  (2018)

Aiden Langford, Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis in 1985 (2018)

As discussion about the LGBTQ experience have opened up in recent years, talk has turned to the idea of having to ‘play straight’. It’s something that Tan wanted to address in his film. “I certainly feel that I come from a generation of LGBTQ where in the early years we have to try to hide as much as possible,” he says. “We have to figure out how to fit in.” This ‘fitting in’ is clear to see in Adrian, who returns home to his conservative family home and readily slips back into those practiced ‘straight’ ways of being. Not even Adrian’s ex-girlfriend has any inclination that he is gay.

Jamie Chung and Cory Michael Smith in  1985  (2018)

Jamie Chung and Cory Michael Smith in 1985 (2018)

“I notice that the past five years, a lot of kids who are queer can come out at a really young age and they don’t really have to hide themselves anymore, there’s no sense of having to mask yourself for many, many years before you come to terms with that,” says Tan. This, more modern, perhaps more liberated coming of age is something that we may be seeing in Adrian’s younger brother, Andrew. At 14 years old, he is having a tough time at school and is clearly feeling a strong sense of otherness about himself. Adrian senses that his younger brother may have some confusing years ahead of him, but Andrew’s way of carrying himself in the world, already in 1985, is markedly different to how Adrian behaves. “Cory (Adrian) represents the generation of people who had to hide, and Aiden (Andrew) is like one of the kids who probably has a harder time doing that, so I think Corey’s character observes that, even though I don’t want to make that assumption.”

The clue’s in the title, but while 1985 is set in the not too distant past, ‘the past’ is only there in mood and context, and Tan was very careful to keep it that way. “I didn’t want to make a film that was nostalgic for the era. I didn’t want it to be like when you watch Stranger Things,” he says, adding that he has the greatest respect for the series, but that its particular brand of the ‘80s wasn’t right for his film. “For 1985 it felt a little bit wrong to be nostalgic for that era, when the story is told from the perspective of someone who is having the worst time in his life. I think if you ask the generation of gay men who were directly impacted by the epidemic, they don’t remember those days in the best way. They don’t remember the ‘80s as this fun time.” While 1985 does contain number of pop culture references (the brothers take a trip to the cinema to see A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and an afternoon in a record store name drops The Cure, Madonna and REM) it is their subtext that is important, not simply their status as artefacts of the 1980s.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge  (1985)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

1985 is shot in black & white on Super 16mm Kodak film, a curious choice on the face of it. Tan looked at two films for aesthetic references, films that were set during the same period but that, like his film, employed monochrome to similarly incongruous effect. Those two films were Ken Loach’s Looks and Smiles and Anton Corbijn’s Control. “The way I see those films is, when you watch them you come up with your own interpretation of why they were shot in black and white, and after you’re done with them you’re kind of like, I can’t imagine that being shot in colour,” says Tan. The photography of 1985 is a high contrast wonder, but there was more to it that simple good looks. “A lot of people who were impacted by the epidemic, they don’t remember those days in a colourful way. It really felt that bleak and there was no sense of a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Control  (2007)

Control (2007)

Looks and Smiles  (1981)

Looks and Smiles (1981)

While 1985 is a period film by definition, and although it adheres to the knowledge and awareness of that period, it wears the wisdom of 2018. “A lot of films that were made back in the day, even films like Philadelphia, they always had to incorporate this educational perspective,” says Tan, who approached the script with the assumption that today’s audience knows a great deal more about HIV and AIDS than the characters on screen. “The audience figures out pretty much five or ten minutes into the film that Adrian is gay and that Adrian might be sick,” he says.

“For many years, I had this strong fear of sex, of intimacy, and I think it came from those days when I thought the experience was going to mean something awful,” says Tan. “So it’s me going back in time and telling myself that being gay and having AIDS are two different things, and being gay by itself can be this complete and well rounded experience that is not weighed down by the baggage of the epidemic.”

Yen Tan’s 1985 plays at Curzon Bloomsbury and on Curzon Home Cinema from Thursday 20 December.