After three consecutive trips to the Sundance Film Festival with inventive, hilarious shorts, San Francisco filmmaker Tom E. Brown was ready to make the leap to features. Going on nine years later, finally on the verge of shifting from pre-preproduction to preproduction, Brown is philosophical about his hiatus. "AIDS comedies make people nervous," he admits.
Pushing Dead, which Brown is aiming to shoot in late April in San Francisco if the financing clicks into place, centers on a scuffling HIV-positive writer-slash-bouncer. When Dan’s medical coverage is suspended, he’s forced to give up his daily drug regimen. Not to worry—things get weirder and weirder, but nobody dies.
"It is an AIDS movie but it’s not an AIDS movie," says Brown. "It’s a movie about coping, whatever that might be. There’s no denying it’s an AIDS movie, because it’s all over the script. But it’s accessible, because it’s very funny. Everybody has some crap they’re dealing with, and they can substitute it for AIDS. It’s a movie about systems, really, because it has a lot of dysfunctional systems in it. You’ve got the immune systems, the support systems, the health-care system."
I jest that if Pres. Obama overhauls health care as promised, Brown likewise will have to overhaul his script. "That’s another reason we’re fueled and we have to make this movie soon," he responds half-jokingly. "Otherwise it’s going to be a period film. Maybe if it takes a long time, people will be nostalgic to revisit the Bush catastrophe. I hope not. For my own sanity I need to shoot this movie soon."
Brown is also eager to get rolling because the inexorable gentrification of the city, even amid the recession, is shrinking his inventory of tarnished jewels.
"I’ve been compiling photos of locations or tonal stuff, [like] sidewalk art," he explains. "If I see anything that reminds me of the movie in any way—I have a photo of a mattress on top of a car. And the book’s been changing shape as the city changes." The S.F. Convention & Visitors Bureau may welcome every "improvement," but Brown has a different reaction when he pages through his old location pictures: "That was such a beautiful building before they planted trees and gave it a fresh coat of paint."
San Francisco still has its down-market spots, but "it has an edge that you’re less likely to see now," Brown laments. "In the pockets we focus on [in the film], they’re not untouched but they’re less improved in the last decade."
At one point, an East Coast investor asked the filmmaker to shoot the movie in New York. It was a tough call for Brown, who says he would have also needed to rewrite the screenplay. And back in the beginning, he was offered a deal to shoot on digital that he turned down, insisting on 35mm.
"I think there’s a certain richness to celluloid that helps narrative," he muses. "I don’t know that I can explain it any better than that. I would rather shoot it digitally than not shoot it at all, but at the time I didn’t want to make that compromise."
Brown, whose resume includes the fondly remembered shorts Don’t Run Johnny, Rubber Gloves, and Das Clown, is working with the veteran New York independent producer Dolly Hall (The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, High Art) and he also has an ally in writer-director Richard LaGravenese (Living Out Loud), whom he met at a Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2000. Indeed, Brown has a soft spot for Redford’s operation; he credits the late staffer Lynn Auerbach with championing Pushing Dead, and his trip to the Directors Lab remains a highlight.
"It’s so hard to return to real life afterward," Brown recalls. "It’s kind of crushing. You’re there for a month and it feels like a year. You have your own crew. You can shoot all the time. It’s really jarring when you return."
Until the financing for Pushing Dead is nailed down, Brown won’t divulge any cast details except to say that Dan will probably be played by a Brit. Perhaps Sean Penn’s all-but-certain Oscar nomination for Milk will once and for all clear the way for American actors to play gay characters without fear of adverse career consequences, but we’re not there yet. In any event, Brown has more immediate concerns.
"When I moved here [from Connecticut], I made three short films within three years," he relates. "They all played Sundance, they played a couple a hundred festivals and that was really gratifying. It’s a very different thing right now. Since we started this project I’ve been doing a lot of writing. It’s not nearly as satisfying writing another screenplay, or working on other projects, and not actually pumping out a movie. I’m thinking that when we finish this feature, I’ll say, ‘It was all worth it. That was what that eight years was.’"
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