Themes of death and despair have long defined Hollywood’s take on the AIDS crisis. From weepy courtroom affairs like Philadelphia to sweeping ensemble medical dramas like The Normal Heart, the scope is often frustratingly broad or painfully tragic. In 2018 — nearly four decades after the epidemic’s ignition and countless entries into the cinematic subgenre — what does the disease look like on the big screen?
In 1985, director Yen Tan found the answer firmly rooted in the past, nestled uncomfortably within the confines of a Middle-American home during the namesake year of his new black-and-white film. Star Cory Michael Smith (Gotham) tells EW the story is “more about family and the secrets we keep to protect each other” than it is about slathering the gay experience in doom and gloom.
“I feel like this is a film about a lot of Americans that we don’t get to see in a lot of films that deal with the AIDS crisis, [which often] center more around activism or medical drama, but don’t really take a magnifying glass to middle-American experience,” Smith explains. The family drama sees a closeted man named Adrian returning home to Texas for the holidays to inform his religious parents (Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis) of his impending death.
Interestingly enough, the words “gay” and “AIDS” are never uttered throughout the movie, a masterful slow burn chipping away at the burden of secrecy that often conceals simple human truths, from Adrian’s mother’s hidden political allegiances to the stash of Madonna cassettes his little brother hides from their homophobic father. Or, in Adrian’s case, news that he’s gravely ill. But for Smith, the journey isn’t defined by tragedy, but rather Adrian’s optimism for a better future for his younger sibling (whom the film alludes to being gay as well) by enriching his life with wisdom, hope, and support for the bumpy road the boy faces ahead.
“He still found someone and loved someone. He’s not dying from this disease from behavior that he found shameful; he found someone and had built a life with him,” Smith says of Adrian’s pure motivations, which stem from the AIDS-related death of his long-time partner and inform his desire to carve a safe lane through life for his brother. “There’s something about knowing there are so many people’s lives that were cut short and lost, but so many of these people found a community where they, in a short period of time, were able to live very freely and experience love and a connection with people they maybe thought was otherwise unavailable to them. I think there’s an inherent beauty inside of this thing that can kind of be construed as tragic. I also think this film is a bit of an elegy to these people and trying to find positivity in the experience of love.”
While the film’s unique visual style serves as a fitting throwback to a period of years past, Smith says Tan and his co-writer Hutch intended the aesthetic to recall the divisiveness of the period.
“[It’s] the idea that the issue of AIDS was a black-and-white issue and sexuality was a black-and-white issue: it was good or evil, a dead-or-alive kind of thing,” he observes. “In a world now where sexuality is being seen more on a spectrum, which is wonderful, this takes us to a time when things weren’t so fluid, or your individuality was relegated to this or that.”
Researching for the part also clued Smith in on the isolation someone like Adrian must have felt at the time, which led him to speak with friends who survived the crisis as well as doctors and nurses who spent time on the front lines in the early ’80s.
“The things I wanted to focus on or fill in the blanks for were about the social experience of dealing with losing so many friends, arranging for friends’ funerals or their possessions, their apartments, their life insurance policies, and what it was like to be in a hospital at a time when even doctors and nurses didn’t know what was going on or what it felt like to be looked at by a nursing staff as someone who could potentially be dangerous to them in a way that they’d never experienced before,” he recalls.
“If you read a thumbnail of what this film is about, it could be perceived as something so tragic, but I find there to be so much heart and hope in this,” he adds, noting that the film will speak across lines of sexuality. “There’s such a flavor of evolution, future, and hope in this film, and in a very subtle Yen Tan way, the idea that love is stronger than all of these things if we open ourselves up to that. I see this film as quite hopeful.”
1985 enters limited theatrical release on Oct. 26. Watch EW’s exclusive premiere of the film’s trailer above.