Chris Mason Johnson On ‘Test’, The Camera as a Moving Body
A multi-layered character portrait set in 1985 San Francisco in the early days of the AIDS panic, Test follows Frankie (Scott Marlowe), a young dancer torn between his sexual cravings and fear of contracting a mysterious, deadly disease. Director Chris Mason Johnson’s sensuous, cinematic film sidesteps queer cinema tropes, telling an earnest story of desire and terror full of gorgeous modern dance numbers steamy one night stands.
We spoke to Chris in San Francisco about conveying the fear of the early AIDS epidemic, the examining the human body in film, shooting in San Francisco, the camera as a moving body, his favorite dance films, and more.
The film’s been doing very well on the festival circuit.
Chris: It’s been to Berlin, Athens, Taipei, Buenos Aires…it’s everywhere. Festivals are an amazing thing for independent filmmakers. You travel everywhere for a year, they treat you like a rock star, and it’s amazing.
The period in time your film covers is a somewhat distant memory here in the states, but I imagine there’s an even bigger disconnect in other countries.
Chris: They do have a disconnect, and I got a bit of that in Berlin. I love the Germans–they have a very intellectually oriented and earnest national character–but I don’t think they had the same weird, backlash, scapegoating moment in the early AIDS epidemic that we did here, where it was just horrible and homophobic.
It was a scary time, and your film is about fear. It’s not about getting sick; it’s about the fear of getting sick.
Chris: Exactly. It’s a story about people who don’t get sick, and most AIDS films tend to be, for obvious reasons, deathbed narratives, which have a long fictional history. It sort of falls into that fictional trope, and I wanted to do something different. The film is about the fear of getting sick, and that was the experience for a lot of people in those years. For everyone who lived through that time, whether you were positive or negative, there was this period of fear where you didn’t know. It was this huge existential reality that I didn’t think had been represented.
What was your experience like back int he ’80s?
Chris: Fear! [laughs] I was a teenager, a little younger than the guys in the movie, but I was petrified. Mortified. When you’re in the middle of something like that, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. The analogy must be the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. In hindsight, it’s like, “Why didn’t they get out? Why didn’t they know?” But when you’re in the middle of something, there’s the fog of war. You don’t know how big it’s going to be or how long it’s going to last, but specifically, in those early years people didn’t know if you could get AIDS from sweat, from food…even after the first scientific information started coming out, there was ambiguity for years. It was perfect breeding ground for fear and paranoia.
Talk about creating that sense of paranoia cinematically. There’s that very telling scene where one dancer is anxious about another being too sweaty.
Chris: I didn’t want to make a dialogue driven film. I really like cinema of images. I wanted to tell this internal portrait and stay focused on my lead character: his face, how he moves through space, what he’s going through. But to answer your question, that sweat scene in the studio is one of my favorites in the movie. It’s a scene in which the choreography is interwoven with the drama very directly.
The human body plays a big role in the film; you photograph it in so many ways and examine your characters’ bodies in various contexts.
Chris: When the story is the disease and not the fear of getting sick, it’s understandable how the body gets looked at as the site of disease, because you don’t really want to think about erotics and sensuality when you’re thinking about infection and disease. I wanted to create this different territory where that’s exactly what’s intersecting: the eroticized body and the paranoia. The choreographer Sidra Bell and I worked really hard on the choreography to get these kind of morbid, creepy gestures in there that are still very erotic. The body is the site of disease, but it’s also the site of sex and sensuality. These guys are young, beautiful, and frightened.
I’m not a filmmaker, but if I was, I think it would be a dream come true to shoot a dance film. Dance is so inherently cinematic; it must be a blast to film.
Chris: I wanted to strike a balance between being able to see the body and see the whole space like in Pina and old Fred Astaire movies, and a more dynamic style where there’s editing so that if feels volatile and modern. It was about getting on stage with our dolly and moving around and through the dancers. This is where my dance background really helped, because I knew the choreography. I knew the phrases of movement. In a dialogue scene, you have to match the over-the-shoulders and the wides and where they’re moving in space, but something like this is a little more of a jigsaw puzzle.
Your skill set is useful, because you understand both body movement and camera movement very well.
Chris: I think dance and filmmaking really complement each other, and there’s a long history of dancers and choreographers who become filmmakers: Maya Deren, Herbert Ross, Rob Marshall, Bob Fosse. When you’re a dancer and/or choreographer, you’re thinking about how movement connects in space, and film is really that as well. You have the body moving, but the camera is another body moving, and you have the movement in between cuts and that connect cuts.
As Walter Murch–a great San Francisco filmmaker–points out in his book In the Blink of an Eye, how the eye moves is also how we “cut” in real life. You know when there’s a POV shot in a movie and the camera turns to see something and it feels fake? If you’re looking here, and you want to look over there, you blink. That’s a cut. You don’t pan; you cut, internally. The argument is that the ontology of cinema is very much like consciousness itself. As a dancer or choreographer, you’re already aware of that, and it fits well with cinema.
Your actors had to be dancers first. It wouldn’t work the other way around.
Chris: I wanted real dance in the movie so that dancers would like it, and that means I had to have real dancers in it. You can’t have actors who dance. People can sing a song or carry a tune, but very few can sing opera. This is opera. I found Scott [Marlowe] in San Francisco and worked with him for six months. He’s really talented, and he’s going to continue acting. Scott has a great sensibility, and that was what I was looking for. His face is great on camera. It reminds me a little of Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor.
What’s the reaction to the film been now that it’s hit so many festivals?
Chris: It’s been great. I came out of a more commercial project that didn’t get off the ground, one of those stories one hears often, and I turned around and did something personal and small that I knew I could make. I didn’t have super high expectations. I was also dealing with some survivor’s guilt; I was there at the time and I didn’t get sick. Was my story worth telling? To have people respond well to it has been really, really rewarding and validating. The responses from audience members after screenings, the emails I get…that’s the good thing. That’s the rewarding thing. You want the film to get good reviews, but if you let your ego get bound up in that, it’s a tricky thing.
You were living in New York in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, if I’m not mistaken.
Chris: Yeah, that’s correct.
Why is the film set in San Francisco?
Chris: Because I was living here when I wrote it and also because I got a grant from the San Francisco Film Society. I really love this city, and it’s underused in film. There are only a few cities that are dance cities that are comparable to New York, and San Francisco definitely has a great dance scene. Plus, San Francisco and New York have parallel AIDS histories.
Did you shoot the whole thing here?
Chris: Yeah, shot the whole thing here.
That’s good to hear, because nobody shoots here!
Chris: I know, and I don’t know why! I guess it’s money and logistics. That’s changing a little, isn’t it?
I hope so. It’s such a cinematic city.
Chris: It was a bit of a challenge shooting here because the film is a period piece, and we didn’t have any budget, and there are cars! The strategy I developed really early on was to point the camera up, because I couldn’t show any cars. We got four cars for one scene and put them in the parking lot at the Cowell Theater, and that was, like, our big day. [laughs] I’m looking forward to doing a movie here that’s not period. You see people do San Francisco, and they’re in Toronto and they only do a couple of actual shots of the city. You don’t get the detail of cities in film.
Frankie’s bed is underneath bay windows, so you know you’re in San Francisco!
Chris: Yeah! We found that building. It was empty, and we did six or seven sets there. It was amazing.
It was like a little studio.
Chris: Yeah, and it was dirt cheap. It was a godsend. I understand why people like shooting in studios.
What are some of your favorite dance films?
Chris: The Red Shoes is amazing. Cabaret and Hair are awesome dance movies. Saturday Night Fever is great. I love the way social dance is used in movies. In Roman Polanski’s Frantic, with Harrison Ford, there’s this short social dance scene. I’d like to see more imaginative social dance scenes. The Lindy Hop is coming back, I hear. The gold standard for Lindy Hop scenes is an old movie called Hellzapoppin’. Find it on Youtube–you’re going to freak out. It’s all these amazing African American Lindy Hop dancers that the studio brought in for this one number, and they do things that you won’t believe.
For your viewing pleasure, here’s the Hellzapoppin’ scene Mr. Johnson’s raving about below. Test will be screening at the Presidio Theater on June 6th, 7th, and 8th, at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on June 7th, and at Rialto Cinemas Sebastapol on June 8th. The film will also be available on iTunes, Amazon, and other on demand services on June 6th.