In the 16 years between writing his first feature screenplay, “Pushing Dead,” and making the finished movie, writer-director Tom E. Brown had hoped his movie’s central drama — an HIV-positive man dealing with a health-insurance crisis — would become history.
“Sadly, the reason I wrote it has not changed,” Brown said in a recent phone interview. “Actually, things have gotten significantly worse recently.”
Brown’s “Pushing Dead,” a dark comedy that has had a long and interesting gestation period, is one of the titles that will play at the 14th annual Damn These Heels Film Festival, Utah’s showcase of LGBTQ-related movies. The festival runs Friday through Sunday, July 14-16, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City. “Pushing Dead” screens at 12:15 p.m. on the festival’s final day.
“They would call me every six months or so,” he said. “[I thought,] at some point, they’re going to stop calling me, so I’d better write the feature.”
It took just over a month to write a first draft for “Pushing Dead,” which centers on Dan, a San Francisco writer who has lived with being HIV-positive for many years. When his mother sends him a $100 check as a birthday present, Dan deposits the check in his bank account — raising his bank balance high enough above the poverty line that he loses his state-subsidized health insurance. The movie follows, with droll and absurdist humor, Dan’s struggles with staying healthy without insurance.
Brown, who at 50 has been HIV-positive since he was 18, said little of Dan’s story is autobiographical.
“I was kind of writing about concerns, my fears, over anything that was actually going on,” he said, adding that he set out to write about “the basic idea of settling into a relationship, with whatever crap you’re dealing with.”
One part that was based on Brown’s experience is the way AIDS and HIV have faded in the public imagination since the virus started infecting and killing people — mostly gay men — in the 1980s.
Brown cites a line Dan says: “It used to be this thing, with marches and red ribbons. … Now it’s about as exciting as having Pepsi.”
“That was one of the lines that made its way in there, over the years,” Brown said. “Yes, it’s more manageable, so it’s not in the media all the time. But it is still a huge problem. It’s kind of frustrating.”
Brown took the script to Sundance’s January Screenwriters Lab in 2000 and the institute’s Filmmakers Lab the next June. At the June lab, one of Brown’s advisers was the writer-director Richard LaGravenese, whose 1998 comedy-drama “Living Out Loud,” with Holly Hunter and Danny DeVito, was “tonally similar” to “Pushing Dead,” Brown said.
At the end of the lab, LaGravenese told Brown he wanted to help “Pushing Dead” get made. “He told me he wanted to be a part of the movie,” Brown said. LaGravenese not only became one of the film’s producers, but also has a cameo role as a mugger.
Getting “Pushing Dead” into production was a series of stops and starts. “We had a deal in the works, and then at the last minute it fell apart. That happened three times with us,” Brown said, adding that he feared friends would shake their heads at “poor Tom and his imaginary movie.”
In the summer of 2015, he and his producers were able to get the movie rolling at last. Even then, it almost fell apart again when one of the lead actors dropped out. (Brown is too polite to identify the actor.)
The production soldiered on, with strong actors in the lead roles: James Roday (“Psych”) as Dan; Robin Weigert (“Deadwood”) as Paula, Dan’s roommate and the sister of his deceased boyfriend; Danny Glover as Bob, the crotchety owner of a bar where Dan works as a bouncer and poetry-slam emcee; Khandi Alexander (“Treme”) as Dot, Bob’s fiery wife; and British actor Tom Riley (“Da Vinci’s Demons”) as Mike, with whom Dan launches a tentative romance.
The movie premiered last year at the Frameline Film Festival, in Brown’s hometown of San Francisco, and won the Audience Award — the first of several honors the movie has received at regional and LGBTQ festivals around the country.
The time it has taken him to make “Pushing Dead” has also been enough time for his character’s health-care worries to become headline news again. Efforts by Republicans in Congress to dismantle the Affordable Care Act have made the movie surprisingly timely.
Author: SEAN P. MEANS