While working on his latest drama, “1985,” writer-director Yen Tan was approached by the agent for one of the movie’s stars. The agent noticed that Tan, who has been making movies around Texas for over 15 years and received an Independent Spirit Award for his Sundance-acclaimed 2013 feature “Pit Stop,” had no representation. In Tan’s recollection, the agent told him, “I don’t want to be blunt, but I think you being Asian has a lot to do with it.”
Tan, who was raised in Malaysia but immigrated to Dallas when he was 19, said he wasn’t surprised by the admission. “I’m really glad he said that,” Tan said in an interview, “and that it was a white person saying that to me, because I always felt that. A lot of people like me sort of internalize that, and wonder if it’s that or something else. I’m glad I wasn’t oversensitive or whatever, and that it was a real thing.”
Tan is hardly a newcomer to the film community. He co-wrote “Pit Stop” with David Lowery, his longtime Austin peer, who has since gone on to direct studio projects, and continues to make a living in part with graphic design work for filmmakers in Texas and beyond. His own directing credits reflect a gradual path toward a bigger audience. With “1985,” which premiered in competition at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, he has made his most accessible work to date: an emotional, nuanced black-and-white look at the experiences of closeted twentysomething Adrian (“Gotham” star Cory Michael Smith) in the titular era, as he visits his religious parents (Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis) over Christmas and struggles with whether to reveal his true lifestyle with them.
The story is at once a complex examination of sexuality and family dynamics, providing an intimate backdrop to the AIDS crisis and Reagan-era blue collar life. With Adrian caught between his liberated existence in New York and his family’s inward-looking ways, “1985” delivers a tearjerker that’s simultaneously life-affirming and downbeat. Tan knew from the outset that the movie would be a hard sell. “Granted, it was not the most appealing subject matter,” he said. “You add ‘AIDS drama’ to that, and people are like, ‘What?’ And that’s even in a post-marriage equality world, which makes it a bit weirder, because there’s more of a need for it. People want to see a positive representation of the gay experience.”
Tan again noticed racial insensitivities in the industry while assembling the cast, which includes Jamie Chung as Carly, Adrian’s old high school girlfriend who has yet to realize that he’s gay. Chung’s character was written as an Asian-American, but “when the agency started pitching the roster to us, a lot of agencies pitched white actresses for the part,” Tan said. “And I would go look at the roster and realize that they don’t have Asian-Americans in their roster, which is very telling.”
Tan acknowledged that the conversations surrounding diversity in film and television have grown louder of late. “People are paying more attention to it,” he said. “I’m glad at least it’s reached a mainstream level of awareness, because in the past we were just preaching to the choir.”
Tan has noticed a disconnect between his design work, which often happens through internet connections, and his directing projects. “Most of the filmmakers that I design for haven’t even met me in person, and some of them don’t even know my ethnicity or my gender,” he said. “Film is not like that, and I think being a queer Asian hurts me quite a bit as a filmmaker from a presentation standpoint.” He felt a kinship with women filmmakers. “I identify with what they go through, which is this sense that they have to be better than most who get what the average person would get,” he said. “I feel like I have to be better than most people to be able to get half of what they already have.”
Needless to say, Tan has grown comfortable working in Austin and has no plans to chase bigger projects in Los Angeles, like some of his peers. “I already struggle here on some level, but I think if I was out there, I would struggle even more,” he said. “I just don’t want to be in a place that won’t make me productive as an artist. My whole thing is always about finding a place that feels like home. In Austin, I feel like I’m accepted.”
Wolfe Video releases “1985” in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, October 26.