Test, writer-director-producer Chris Mason Johnson's second feature film, is set in the San Francisco of 1985, early in the AIDS epidemic, and follows a young dancer as he struggles to navigate both the dance world and the increasingly unfriendly world outside. In the studio, taunts of "Dance like a man!" thwart Frankie's (dancer and first-time actor Scott Marlowe) attempts to transition from understudy to lead in his modern dance company. Out on the streets, he faces antigay slurs and the looming questions posed by the advent of an HIV test. Risk and paranoia complicate Frankie's budding romance with veteran dancer Todd (Matthew Risch), and Test provides no easy answers.
Johnson himself performed in ballet and modern dance companies early in his career before transitioning to the film industry, where he was worked as an executive and script editor. He has also taught screenwriting and film production at Rutgers University, Amherst College, and California College of the Arts. Earlier this week, he answered some of our questions about the making of and inspirations behind Test.
HIV Plus: You were a dancer at around the same time that Test is set. Were your experiences in the dance world your inspiration for the movie?
Chris Mason Johnson: I was a teenager in the mid-to-late 80s ... so I was there during that whole era. So yeah, I drew from my own experience. If you're a novelist you just sit down to write, if you're a painter you just paint, but if you're a filmmaker you're dependent on all these other people and money to do your work. I was like, "I want to make mine personal. I want to just do it. I don't care if I get the seal of approval from the industry." Then I turned to what was most on my mind. This project had been germinating in my mind for literally 10 years, and it had taken all kinds of different forms. But basically I wanted to deal with the dance world in those early years of the epidemic. For a long time I just didn't think this story was worth telling. Who wants to hear about me, who wants to hear about this? And so I was really nervous. [But] it was something that I really had a desire to tell and had for a long time, and I think the time was right.
Frankie (Scott Marlowe, left) walking down an unfriendly San Francisco street.
A lot of films about the AIDS epidemic focus on activism and people who took a political stance, but you chose to focus on regular people who were living through the crisis instead. Did you think it was time to portray a different perspective?
Yeah, that's exactly right. The movies that they've made so far have either had a political angle or politically motivated characters, or they've been deathbed narratives, which is understandable. But this is not a movie about being sick; this is a movie about the fear of being sick. That was the dominant experience. Even people who later became positive, of course, still went through a phase of not knowing and being afraid. So they had a universal sort of existential experience, and I hadn't seen that represented at all. [Test is] not another movie about people getting sick and being sick. Not to knock those movies. We needed those. But this is a smaller angle that has just been overlooked.
Todd (Matthew Risch) looks up at Frankie as they take a break from a party.
The title, Test, applies to a variety of themes. We see Frankie's dance skills tested in rehearsal and onstage, and we feel the gay community's anxiety over whether to embrace the newly available HIV blood test. Toward the end of the movie, you pose a question about the test of monogamy. How do you think the atmosphere depicted in Test contributed to the growth of monogamy, and has the impact of that change reached to today?
It's a complicated issue and a complicated question. I am obviously all in favor of gay civil rights and gay marriage and all that, as we all are. It's fantastic. But also, there was this moment when people got pushed into monogamous behavior maybe a little earlier, though for different reasons, than might have been otherwise, because of the epidemic. My point with all that is just to complicate the history, to remember all the contradictions and to ... remember the details. I don't want to draw any broad conclusions. I think the early epidemic as it's depicted in the movie ... it was all about shaming. And I think our trajectory since then as a community, both positive and negative, has been to reject that shaming and to claim some dignity and respect. AIDS shaming is still a powerful thing in a lot of communities, but in the time that the movie depicts, it was overwhelming. So I think that's moved in a positive direction, but there's still a lot of work to do.
In the movie Frankie is told during rehearsal to "dance like a man," an idea that haunts him as he strives to join the main dance company. Was that something you experienced yourself? Why did you choose to include it in Test?
"Dance like a man" was something I definitely heard in the rehearsal studio. I was trying to represent something that was real, that phenomenon in the dance world. The problem is, people aren't careful enough or smart enough to separate out the performance of gender, which is masculinity/feminity, from sexual identity. So you get these guys who are basically being told "be less gay," and that's the wrong message. The message is, in this dance, it's a dramatic scene with a man and a woman, and we need to believe you desire the woman. That's a difficult acting challenge that has nothing to do with who you are. Also, I found a really interesting resonance with the early AIDS epidemic because in those early years, when the press and the public really scapegoated and shamed, there was this sense of "you're worthless, you deserve to die" and "you had this coming," etc. There's a weird overlap with "dance like a man," "the way you move is no good," "who you are is wrong." So Frankie sort of had it coming from all sides. I definitely just wanted to shine a little light on that issue, which still exists, and I think that ... we still don't know how to deal with it.