Frameline 40 Q&A With “Pushing Dead” Director Tom E. Brown

When a struggling writer, HIV positive for 20+ years, accidentally deposits a $100 birthday check, he is dropped from his health plan for earning too much. In this new era of sort-of universal care, can he take on a helpless bureaucracy or come up with $3000 a month to buy meds on his own?  “Pushing Dead” is Tom E. Brown’s first feature film and it is one of Frameline 40’s Spotlight Films, with three screenings, including one at the Castro Theater Saturday, June 18 at 6:30 p.m. and another at the Victoria Theater Saturday, June 25 at 9:15 p.m.

Pushing Dead

OUTwatch – Wine Country’s LGBTQI Film Festival showed your short film “The Tradesman’s Exit at their Pride Shorts on the River program.  How personal is the subject matter of that short?

Not very personal. I hang out with my ten-year-old nephew a lot, so I thought it would fun to write something featuring grown-ups, but written from a ten-year-old’s perspective–I’m mad at you, so I’m going to break your stuff. I was hoping, even though the film is a little goofy, that people would connect with this guy and feel how satisfying it is for him to get closure. 

Talk about making the leap from short films to your first feature “Pushing Dead?”

It didn’t feel like a huge leap, since I’ve been thinking about this feature for so long. It almost felt like a remake of a film I had made several times before in my head. It was a much bigger crew than I normally work with. That was the biggest difference. Things went very smoothly. I loved it. I can’t wait to do it again.

You attended the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters and Directors Labs to workshop his feature project” Pushing Dead.”  What was that experience like?

Amazing–both labs. They house you, feed you, throw talented folks in the room with you to advise–like Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Tucci, and Richard LaGravenese. It’s jarring to return to real life after the labs. Real life is awful (he typed, chuckling). Richard signed on after the labs as a producer of Pushing Dead and has been with me on this 16-year journey.

Tell me about writing the film’s screenplay. How did the premise of the film come to you?  Did the sub-plots just develop during the writing process?  Are your characters based on real folks?

I was writing about my fears. What if something happens to my insurance? What would I do? These pills cost 6 grand a month. That’s crazy. The characters aren’t based on real people, but there’s definitely a lot of me in there. I think that happens with most writers, you go to something close to you, because you know it’s authentic. I wrote it very quickly, because the Rockefeller Foundation got behind it based on the first few pages, and then the Sundance Institute gave me a deadline of thirty days to get it to them for consideration. I had a real rough outline when I sat down to write and the sub-plots all surfaced during that first draft—surprisingly close to what we shot.

The plot delves into some rather dark places despite much levity.  How are you able to switch back and forth from drama to comedy in such a seamless and organic manner?

For me, that’s what life is like. It’s funny, it’s dark, frequently at the same time. Roday got it, so it was easy for me. He’s a remarkable actor. It’s a lot of fun when you trust your actors and let them go.

I’m thrilled to watch a film that focuses on a longtime survivor of HIV, because I know many. Unfortunately, I knew many who didn’t survive.  Did you feel a sense of gravity and/or a need to present your lead character as a realistic representation of an HIV+ ma – even if there may be no such animal?

I’ve been positive for over thirty years, so I gave Roday the inside scoop. People deal with being HIV+ differently. Once I thought about it as a relationship, this thing HIV and I have, and I made peace with it, that’s when things got easier. HIV and I are hitched, and we need to get along.

I’m also thrilled that this banner year for Frameline is chalk full of character-driven, well-written American indies featuring gay men, which can’t be said of the past few years.  Did you need to resist the temptation to go for the Hollywood brass ring by dumbing down your story and seeking a larger audience?

No, because of the humor and tone, I think this movie is really accessible. I hope it can find a big audience. It’s not going to be for everybody, but I think most will find something they can relate to.

I lived for eight years a few blocks from the intersection featured prominently in “Pushing Dead.”  How important was it for you to feature SF as the specific setting for your film?

It’s a very San Francisco movie. The characters and situations feel very SF to me. I tried to capture the city in a subtle way. I’m happy with how it turned out. Feels real to me.

Your lead, James Roday, is both appealing and poignant as an HIV+ man working through some issues.  Did I mention sexy?.  How did you come to cast him?

He shares a manager with Danny Glover. Danny was attached for many years. The manager sent me Roday’s reel and I knew he was our man. It was such an easy decision. And I think Roday was really into doing something different. I can’t imagine a better “Dan Schauble.”

Not many filmmakers are fortunate enough to cast the likes of Danny Glover, Khandi Alexander, and Robin Weigert in supporting roles?  Talk about working with such accomplished actors?

It’s nuts. They were all really amazing—and I’m not just saying that. I’m honored they signed on to do an AIDS comedy by some silly filmmaker guy that has only done a bunch of shorts. I think good actors like to take risks.

I don’t want to sound ageist – because I’m not spring chicken myself, but what was it like to be named one of the  “25 New Faces of Indie Film” by Filmmaker Magazine in the company of mostly younger artists?

Actually, when they named me that, I was young—or at least younger. I think I was 32. I’m hoping they’ll start a “25 Old Faces” list.

Congratulations on “Pushing Dead’s” inclusion in Frameline40, a prominent slot in the schedule at the Castro Theater and three scheduled screenings.  How does all that feel on your feature?

Frameline and I have a long history, so it makes a lot of sense for us to premiere this film together. They have always been really nice to me and this year is no different. They just added that third screening since our other screenings have filled up. Very excited to have our premiere at the Castro. 

What’s up next for you?

I recently wrote a pilot for an episodic project called TENDERLOIN. I’m hoping to get that off the ground. It’s a comedy about life in my little neighborhood. 

Tom E. Brown’s new movie takes a San Francisco approach. Photo: Michael Noble Jr., The Chronicle