Mar 23, 2017
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Tom Brown: One of the Kindest Directors
by Doniphan Blair
Tom E. Brown, director of "Pushing Dead", Frameline's 2016 Audience Award winner, in front of his San Francisco Tenderloin apartment. photo: D. Blair
DESPITE HIS INITIAL APPEARANCE, A BIT
like an overworked farmer, deeply tanned, in faded plaid, Tom E. Brown soon reveals himself as extremely upbeat, an exemplar of someone living well with HIV, a poster boy for post-AIDS San Francisco, although it is he who makes the posters, as it were, since he is also a hard-working filmmaker.
Indeed, Brown has just completed his freshman feature, “
”, see the trailer
. An “AIDS comedy”, as he calls it, it concerns an HIV-positive writer, who is dropped by his insurance, then his love interest and even his artistic muse, but who maintains his equanimity, grace under fire and close circle of friends. No wonder "Pushing Dead" just won the Audience Award at Frameline, San Francisco's renown LGBT film festival, the oldest such festival, which was held in June.
The writer in the film, Danny, is excellently rendered by James Roday—the lead in “Psych” (2006-14, USA Network)—while his bar-owning boss and friend, Bob, is the masterful Danny Glover, whose panoramic curriculum vitae stretches from “The Color Purple” (1985) and “Mandela” (1987) to “Lethal Weapon” (1987) and enumerable indies, like “The Harimaya Bridge” (2009) or “Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007), a fascinating story of a nation, produced by its own government. Glover is also known for his activism.
“I was still a little star-struck when I met Danny because he is one of my big heroes,” Brown admitted. “But you get over it pretty quickly because you have to work.” And work they did, knocking out “Pushing Dead” in 22 days, with only two reshoots, the car-speeding-through-the-streets scene and an addition to their case worker’s story.
It was not that hard, Brown confessed, aside, of course, from the writing, development and fundraising, which took almost 15 years. “I had so many great people around me, it was almost less work than making a short film. I didn’t haul props and wasn’t responsible for every detail.”
It was not that hard for cast and crew either, since Brown is one of the most genteel and supportive directors you can imagine, with kindness a favorite watch-word.
“That is my philosophy in film and in life: you try to be a kind person,” Brown told me, after we met in front of his apartment building in San Francisco’s colorful and mixed Tenderloin neighborhood—he was holding two ice-cold beers, although he had checked with a mutual friend to make sure I imbibed. We adjourned to a conference room in his basement, since “My dog is not super-friendly,” he explained, “and my place is small,” albeit with high ceilings and lofts.
James Roday, as the lead of 'Pushing Dead', worries about his medical and romantic problems while riding BART. photo: courtesy Tom Brown
“There is only one producer I had to use ‘a tone’ with,” Brown said, after I asked how kindness works while directing, “because he would use that tone with people. I like everyone to be kind on the set. If anyone isn’t, that would be the only thing that would make me upset.”
“The first day I was on set I had to do a bunch of dialogue and I totally lost it,” I was informed by Jerry McDaniel, who played the aforementioned case worker, and welcomed the added scene when Brown decided the story needed it.
“I had just met Danny Glover and then I had do scenes with James Roday,” continued McDaniel, whose day job is carpentry and being the father of FOUR kids, although he does do a lot of acting.
In addition to playing the ex-boyfriend in Brown’s previous film, “Tradesman’s Exit” (2015), about a guy who goes to great lengths to get revenge—or closure, if you prefer, McDaniel starred in the iconoclastic, everyman story, “Everything Strange and New” (2009), the very-Oakland feature directed by Brown’s cinematographer, Frazer Bradshaw.
“Tom was very nice,” McDaniel concluded about his ordeal. “He said, ‘Just break it up [into manageable pieces] and keep it going.' I trusted him. He is very personable on set. The script was part of him and you could feel that.”
In fact, so attentive is Brown to his community on and off set, the latter even includes some of the homeless, prostitutes and thieves of his Tenderloin 'hood. “Even the mugger [in my film] gets a little resolution,” Brown said. “His story is wrapped up—he enjoys the night sky.”
Ironically, the Sundance Institute, where Brown workshopped “Pushing Dead” for almost a decade, recommended editing down or removing entirely his cinematic asides. By streamlining the film to focus more on the star and his story, it would appeal to a larger audience—be more “commercial,” they said. But Brown held firm. “That is what ‘Pushing Dead’ is,” he emphasized, “everyone has their little story.”
James Roday, Tom Brown and the 'Pushing Dead' crew shooting the BART sequences. photo: courtesy Tom Brown
“It’s one of the things that keeps people engaged,” Brown speculated. “After you watch for a while, I don’t think the audience is trying to predict what is going to happen, because there is a lot. They are not questioning what is going to happen; they are kind of in it.”
Getting back to that oxymoron, AIDS comedies: Brown has been doing them since 1997, starting with his short “Don't Run, Johnny”, which poked fun at a man who feels finished after his AIDS diagnosis.
“What I wanted to share was: after years of being positive, there was the point where I settled into a ‘marriage with AIDS,’” Brown said, smiling and taking a long pull on his beer.
“When that happened, life became so much easier. I was no longer hiding. I shared it with TOO MANY people,” Brown said, punctuating his comment with his trademark laugh. “At every opportunity!”
“'Johnny’ only cost $200 to get into the can and ended up in Sundance—surprise, surprise!”
Indeed, “Johnny” was soon followed by “Rubber Gloves” (1998) and “Das Clown” (1999), which concerns an old man and the clown doll he brings to life, another theme Brown resurrects in “Pushing Dead”.
“Those shorts stirred up a lot of festival interest. We probably did 200 film festivals with them,” Brown said.
“Prior to that I was doing a lot of stuff on Public Access [television] and teaching Public Access. We had a show that had a bit of a cult following here and in Connecticut [where he is from] called ‘Chickens and Toys’.”
Since it was live television, however, “I could never see people reacting to it. As soon as I was exposed to the festival thing, I travelled around as much as possible just to watch [my films] with an audience. It is especially important with comedy: you get that satisfying laugh,” he concluded, adding one of his own.
Jerry McDaniel, Oakland's go-to 'everyman' actor, plays a medical case worker with a penchant for after-work fun. photo: courtesy Tom Brown
Although “Pushing Dead” had a budget of a million, not bad for an indie, given filmmakers today are expected to make their first feature for under $250,000, “It was challenging,” Brown said. “Especially since ‘Pushing Dead’ has stars. All the actors worked at the lowest SAG-allowed rate.”
When Danny Glover signed on seven years ago, “That was a huge difference. It does open a lot of doors, makes it a lot easier to get other actors involved.”
“Pushing Dead” looks at a person struggling with longterm AIDS, the pharmaceutical bureaucracies and fears of death that inevitably involves but also the idiosyncrasies of queer culture, where youth is prized and AIDS survivors, not so much.
In addition, “I wanted someone who was dealing with a marriage, and how complicated that can be, as the third story,” Brown noted, which is why he brought in the character played by Glover, an older man who gets kicked out by his wife.
Filmed entirely in San Francisco, “Pushing Dead” was a local production, except for its top half-a-dozen headliners recruited from Hollywood. That is standard practice among local directors in the know—OK, in the budget—since the media megalopolis to the south has such a large talent pool and directing is thought to be 90% casting.
In addition to Roday and Glover, who actually is San Franciscan (born, bred and ongoing residence), Brown went to LA for Danny’s roommate Paula, played by Robin Weigert, who was Calamity Jane in “Deadwood” (2004-2006); Glover’s wife, played by Khandi Alexander, previously in “There's Something About Mary” (1998) and “Treme” (2010); and Tom Riley, Roday’s English pretty boy heart throb, who has a healthy television resume.
Then there’s Beth Lisick, the receptionist at Danny’s clinic, who has been doing a lot of television and shorts of late but is also the author of a well-selling comic memoir “
Everybody into the Pool
As it further happens, Lisick is friends with Frazer Bradshaw and was the wife of McDaniel's character in “Everything Strange and New”. But she recently lit out for Hollywood and only by coincidence Brown’s LA casting director came upon her there, casting her in “Transparent”, the famous Amazon show, with shoot days almost identical to those of “Pushing Dead”.
The number one practice for a functional set and a quality movie is kindness, according to director Tom Brown. photo: D. Blair
“She was acting in that and few hours later she had to jump in a car and come do our thing,” Brown recalled.
The rest of the cast and crew were local, however, and stellar, starting with Frazer Bradshaw, a deft and versatile cinematographer, who created a highly unified and subtly elegant look for “Pushing Dead”.
“We work the same way," Brown said. "We are both very mellow. We like to go off and hide in the corner, have a relaxed lunch—the set is a very high energy place. We like to have it mapped out—mapped is out is Plan B—so we can wing it.”
“Always listen to the people around you! Frequently, they will have a better idea then you do. You give people minimal direction and let them do their thing. That is when it gets exciting, when your actors [or crew] do something different then what you imagined. That’s the fun stuff.”
One time, “I wanted a camera move that showed the passage of time and Frazer came up with a really good one.” Bradshaw also helped produce “Tradesman’s Exit”, bringing in crew, negotiating contracts and donating equipment. “He was a director; James Roday was a director; I knew those guys would have a good way out of scene, if I got stuck.“
“Pushing Dead” also enjoyed the stellar services of its main producer
, who did “Tradesman’s Exit”, "Test" (2014, nominated for an Independent Spirit Award) and “I (Almost) Got Away with It” (2012), and production managed “The Butler's in Love” (2008), by David Arquette, about the locally-famous painting by the late Mark Stock hanging in North Beach's Bix Restaurant.
Especially worth noting, the film features the excellent production design of Nina Ball, which helped conjure a lot of its last millennia style.
“Everything is old school [because] this guy is psychologically stuck, back when he became positive. We tried to make it vague, a little more timeless,” Brown noted, although, in the process, he parses a problem currently confronting many filmmakers. If you feature high-tech accessories, they are out-of-date in a matter of years, if not months.
“Many writers use old typewriters,” Brown elaborated. “So I thought I could get away with this guy having one. The land line allowed me to do a few of the gags,” like the protagonist racing to fix his phone so not to miss a call from a prospective boyfriend.
(Lf-rt) James Roday, Robin Weigert, Khandi Alexander and Danny Glover can finally relax at the end of 'Pushing Dead'. photo: courtesy T. Brown
“Pushing Dead” even references the San Francisco classic, “Bullit” (1968), and its hilly car chase sequence. “That shot always gets a nice welcoming grunt from the audience,” Brown said.
”We shot it with two cameras, a small camera under the ramp [the car flew off] and our main camera on the side. That is our stunt coordinator, fleeing. He thought he ruined the shot but I told him, ‘No, it looks like a pedestrian.”
Of course, that was the reshoot, since they were obliged to redo that scene. “It was disappointing because the car sequence was one of the last things we shot,” recalled Brown. “I was a little fragile because it was [also] the first thing that I wrote. The car wasn’t cooperating for four hours; it became nighttime.”
Adding additional pressure was the large crew the street shoots obliged. Since they did everything by the book—pulling permits, working with the San Francisco Film Commission—the car sequences meant having four cops on motorcycles surrounding the vehicles with sirens blaring as they raced down San Francisco’s Golden Gate Street.
“Like a presidential escort,” Brown remembered. Unfortunately, “That made the sound bad but the guys at Skywalker Sound saved it. We got the independent film deal but that was still expensive—well more then I make in a year,” he said, laughing, louder then usual, and adding, “but that is not that much.”
While “Pushing Dead” eschews the whole over-emotional, gay stereotype thing, Brown doesn’t.
“I was sobbing like a baby when we were shooting the closing poetry [reading in the bar] sequence. As soon as it ended, I started sobbing on one of my producer’s shoulders. It was day two or three [of production] and it hit me: We are actually making the movie!”
Plus “the behind-the-scenes [cinematographer] had just showed up and was filming my little emotional break down. It still makes me tear up because I remember how it triggered me.”
Not to mention, one his producers Richard LaGravenese—director of "Beautiful Creatures" (2013) and "P.S. I Love You" (2007) and scriptwriter of “The Fisher King” (1991) and “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995), who also plays the mugger—was there. “He came [out from New York] when we were shooting the poetry scene. He was so quiet, I thought he didn’t like it. Then I turned to him and… just tears rolling down his face. He had been working on the movie as long as I have.”
Tom Brown is an incredibly ebullient, effusive and generous interviewee. photo: D. Blair
“I brought him into the editing room because, as soon as we started shooting, we started cutting. By the time we were done shooting—24 hours later, there was an assembly edit. Of course, we spent a couple of more months fine tuning.”
“I wanted it to be an AIDS movie that was not an AIDS movie. A gay movie that is not a gay movie. I just wanted it to be accessible to everyone and was hoping you could substitute whatever crap you are dealing with in life with HIV-AIDS,” although Brown doesn’t lay on the symbolism too thick.
“I am really happy not many people are getting my metaphor of the white monkey doll, which runs a little parallel with the lead’s story,” remarked Brown, with a little chortle. Just as the monkey doll did to Paula, when Danny gave it to her, “HIV scared the crap out of him and now he is getting used it, loving it for what it contributed to his life.”
Another aspect of “Pushing Dead”’s classical styling is the television the characters watch, all Brown productions, of course. The Public Access show he used to do was in a talk show format, “but everything around it was fake,” he explained, “fake movie trailers, fake TV stuff, fake commercials.”
In “Pushing Dead”, “We tried to trick the audience and mix in legit stuff. You have Leslie Sbrocco, from ‘Check Please Bay Area’, and KOFY’s ‘Dance Party’ [another Bay Area show] and then you have our fake paddle boat couple. You can’t quite tell if it was real.”
Swiss-Ums, the phony crackers used in the film, for which they made up boxes, banners and an ad campaign, was all too real. “They were awful,” Brown admitted. “Canada makes the cracker we used—very chalky, not good,” although it helped his last scene.
“It was the last night, we were wrapping and something got stuck in Robin [Weigert]’s eye—she was eating the crackers—and set off this big giggle fit,” a little of which made it into the movie.
“There was a lot of improv. Roday loves to improv and he is very skilled at it. Everyone loves to improv and they did. But we kept trimming back to the script, in the end.”
“I like an equal balance given to your story, your actors, your cinematography—your execution. A lot of stuff excites me but what excites me the most is where I am not distracted by the filmmaking—I am impressed with it. Early Albert Brooks, Paul Thomas Anderson, nothing that is jarring, that pulls you out [of the story]. It is hard for me to watch movies with the hand-held movement that people do now.”
Although principal photography was 22 days, then came the special effects, like the bit involving wings. “It was only five seconds or something but very expensive,” Brown remembered. After building them so they would unfold from a backpack, the wings didn’t come out as expected, so they switched to digital, using some wings Tippet Animation in Berkeley had on file. That was cost-effective and “kind of like how I originally imagined,” Brown said.
The wings involved Tabitha Paigen, who plays the spooky little girl and gives a great performance.
There are a lot of little metaphors moshing around in 'Pushing Dead', one being simply spread your wings and fly. photo: D. Blair
“Our local casting director auditioned 15-20 [girls], gave us her top dozen and Frazer and I picked seven or eight. Tabitha clicked. She was perfect for the part and super easy to work with. Probably the most challenging was our night shoot. I could tell all she wanted was to go to bed.”
How about working with kids? “At first I didn’t want [Tabitha] to do anything she didn’t want to,” said Brown, in keeping with his nurturing style of direction. “I take care of a little guy—my godson—who is about the same age.”
“She enjoyed being creepy. We would mention Wednesday Addams if she needed to be reminded to have a poker face. She is a big fan of the Addams Family.”
“Pushing Dead”'s long gestation period involved workshopping for screenwriting at Sundance Labs for a week and then for a month in their filmmaker lab. “They gave it a staged reading—the royal treatment. That reading was very helpful, as was working with actors who are well-known—a hard thing if you haven’t done it before.”
Ed Asner read Glover’s part when “We did the reading, years ago in LA, at the Fairfax Silent Theater, produced by the Sundance Institute. Ed Asner is one of my heroes. Just realizing that people are people is a very helpful. [He] played Danny Glover’s part and Eric Stoltz played James Roday’s.”
“They wanted it to really be Dan’s story, they didn’t want me giving the mugger the screen time I gave him, the girl her screen time. People are trying to help you get it to a bigger audience—and I want to get it to a bigger audience, too—BUT by leaving in the characters. I just thought, ‘All these people get their time and that is the way the movie is!.’”
“That is the good thing about Sundance: You smile; you take everyone’s input; and you discard what you don’t want. You take a couple of things that you know are true but you discard the stuff that is in someone else’s movie.”
“When [a film] is in screenplay form, everyone is imagining their own way they would execute the movie.”
“The institute likes to hook you up with advisors or sometimes they will pull in the receptionist, just to get some [different] eyes on it. Years ago, I would weigh in on somebody’s film. It is usually a young [filmmaker] and older advisor, although Paul Thomas Anderson [my advisor] was younger then me at the time.”
While shooting 'Pushing Dead''s special effects, child actress Tabitha Paigen enjoyed being hoisted in the air by stunt coordinator, Tony Vella. photo: courtesy T. Brown
“The Institute and the Festival are very different. The festival is run in LA, too, but there is a giant wall in between. The Institute has no influence on what plays the Festival. [It seems] they would be watching for your movie but they are really trying not to; there are thousands submitting to the Festival.”
“It is kind of a surreal experience going to the labs. Then, when you return to regular life, it is fucked up. You don’t have the crew and cast. When you are in the mountains, you have Stanley Tucci over here and Paul Thomas Anderson over there—so it is very jarring to come back to real life.”
And the trick for directing as a nice guy? “You just have to figure out the best way to get there,” Brown responded. “And if it is an actor having issues, you have to make them feel comfortable.”
“I’ve done a teeny bit of acting so I have that [experience]. I let actors know that I know how vulnerable they feel. Most actors want to know if they are headed in the right direction and they can trust you. If they truly believe that, they are usually OK.”
And where to from here? “We have a lot of festivals that have an interest but we are trying to be selective. We aren't starting at a usual time [summer being blockbuster season] but, because Frameline had a history with us and we are local, we wanted to have a local debut.”
“And it is hard to beat the Castro,” movie theater, in SF’s still very gay Castro neighborhood. “It was nice to have all my actors—except for Danny who was shooting in Monte Carlo or something—Robin and James and Khandi. They got a standing ovation.”
Danny Glover gets ready for his close up, near the end of 'Pushing Dead'. photo: courtesy T. Brown
“The [Castro] audience is the best. Frameline was the first screening of one of my short films—at the Victoria [Theater], back when I moved here in 1997. It was nice go back.”
Brown had the opportunity to start shooting “Pushing Dead” digitally but he was holding out for celluloid “until Frazer [Bradshaw] convinced me he could make something that looks as engaging as celluloid.” It was shot on a Red Epic.
“There are a lot of perks to shooting digitally. [Nevertheless] celluloid will hang on a long time.”
“The San Francisco Film commission was great and the local cops were really into it. It was pretty easy to shoot in SF—expensive but everyone was really nice. The rebate program was really cool and we got this massive office in the Dog Patch neighborhood. Because it looks like a crappy building, we shot a ton of the movie right there: the hospital stuff, the back room of the bar, the ranger scene.”
“The bar was the Blind Cat [24th Street, San Francisco]. It was a tremendous search to find a bar that had not been hipstered out. They were very accommodating. We made a neon sign [but] the first day one of our grips was carrying a C-stand and it went ‘pop.’ We got it fixed.”
And what’s next for Brown, aside from all that festivaling?
“I wrote something about Tenderloin because there is a lot going on, a lot of inspiring stuff. It is an episodic, so I would like to shoot the pilot. A little about gentrification, it centers around four people who live in the neighborhood but it always includes the homeless.”
“I know a lot of the homeless here. When I moved [to the Tenderloin,] it was a natural. I find that just having social interaction is being kind. I hear that a lot: ‘Thanks for acknowledging me.’ It goes back to ‘Pushing Dead’: everyone has their little story.”
“If you look around the neighborhood, you know everyone has a good story. To be able to involve new characters in an episodic would be exciting for me.”
And with that, and our beers long finished, Brown had to go get his laundry to do in the laundry room next to where we met. He had to get up early the next day and fly down to Hollywood for “Pushing Dead”’s debut there.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Jul 13, 2016 - 07:33 PM