When Yen Tan graduated from Drake University in Iowa in 1997, he moved to Dallas and found himself in an unusual job. He helped broker deals for terminally ill people who wanted to sell their life insurance policies at a discount for cash. Many of his clients were dying of AIDS.
As he got to know them a little, he heard variations on a similar theme: My family doesn't know.
Tan, who had come out in college after moving to the U.S. from Malaysia, found himself wondering: Your family doesn't know you're dying? They don't know you're gay? Both? He was haunted by these questions, and they stayed with him as he pursued his dream of becoming a filmmaker. The end result is 1985, a minimalist drama that shows Thursday, May 3, at opening night of the Dallas International Film Festival.
The film, set in 1985 and shot in finely textured black and white, follows a young man (Cory Michael Smith) returning home to Fort Worth for Christmas. The screenplay doesn't use the words "gay" or "AIDS," but it gradually and subtly makes clear that Adrian is ill and that he hasn't come out to his conservative family. As you watch you find yourself desperate for him to tell his parents (Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis) who he is, or what he's going through, or, ideally, both.
"It's like you can't tell them you're dying, because if you tell them that then at that time there was such an association of AIDS with homosexuality," Tan says by phone from his Austin home. "Back then it was like, 'Well, you have to be gay if you have AIDS.' I was interested in telling a story where the privilege of coming out is not there."
Tan, 43, is grateful he had that privilege. He couldn't come out in his native Malaysia, a conservative society where he lived with his traditional Chinese parents. Once he got to the states and told them he's gay, his folks, both open-minded academics, "eventually sort of learned to accept it. But at the same time, I know that's my privilege, because I feel like there are a lot of people where their parents just never come to terms with it. And then they don't want to learn about it; they don't want to understand it."
1985 was originally a short, and it was originally in color. But when it came time to make the feature, Tan and producer/cinematographer Hutch felt that black and white would protect the film from nostalgic interpretation. The story is very much based in '80s attitudes and fears toward AIDS, but the filmmakers didn't want any of the pastels and props that define pop cultural depictions of the period.
"Most of the time when we look at films set in that era, we think of very specific kind of colors and it's really bright and really neon and really poppy. We didn't want to make a nostalgic kind of film where you watch it and you're like, 'Oh my gosh! Look at that stereo in the background, it's exactly like the one that I had!'"
Dallas-based producer and cinematographer Hutch feels the challenge was worth it.
"Finding investors for a black and white film proved difficult, even with our stellar cast," he says. "Making 1985 has been the most difficult experience of my career, but in the end we made a film that I know we are both extremely proud of."
There are no clichés in 1985.Just people who love each other but can't quite break through the walls that keep them from communicating.
1985 shows at 8 p.m. May 3 and noon May 5 at the Magnolia Theatre, 3699 McKinney Ave. The Dallas International Film Festival runs May 3-10. For more information, visit dallasfilm.org.