CHRIS MASON JOHNSON
Chris Mason Johnson began his career as a dancer in ballet and modern companies throughout the U.S. and Europe, including the Frankfurt Ballet and White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Since his transition to film he has worked as Head of Development at Open City Films; as Script Editor and Analyst for Miramax, Dimension, Disney, ABC Family and Fine Line; and has taught dance at UCLA as well as screenwriting and film production at Amherst College.
After making several short films that played at festivals nationwide, Chris co-wrote (with Ishmael Chawla), directed and produced (with Aina Abiodun) his first feature film, The New Twenty (2009), which won multiple festival awards, was purchased for broadcast by MTV Logo; for DVD/Internet by Warner Home Video, Wolfe Video and Netflix; and had a limited theatrical release to strong reviews: “A sleek and accomplished debut film... The strong ensemble of young actors create fully defined personas, thanks in large part to their director's willingness to observe the characters in private, take-a-breath moments. He’s got something, this guy.” (LA Weekly). "An impressive feature debut. Smart and stylish. Fine acting. Excellent cinematography.” (Box Office Magazine).
Chris’s second feature, Test, which he wrote, directed, produced and edited (with Christopher Branca) received production grants from the Horizons Foundation and the San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation; premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival; went on to win two Grand Jury Awards at Outfest in Los Angeles (U.S. Narrative Feature and Screenwriting); had its European premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama section); and received glowing praise from critics: "If there was ever a contemporary film that illuminates why queer cinema still matters, this is it." (Film Comment)
The mainstream ballet and modern dance world is built around an aesthetic of male-female romantic tension, much like Hollywood. If a male dancer appears less than manly it threatens that aesthetic, and sissies are shunned. For young gay men like Frankie in TEST, this is a confusing and painful dynamic that overlaps with homophobia even if it’s not the same thing.
But for Frankie the picture is much bleaker than trouble at work. The darkest subtext of the early AIDS crisis conveyed a clear message: gay men deserve to be sick and deserve to die. Sissies weren’t just shunned, they were disposable.
Against this backdrop of effeminaphobia at work and violent homophobic scapegoating outside of it, Frankie struggles to understand what’s happening around him and maybe to him. Even though he knows better, it all feels like a punishment. And when peers like roommate Tyler step back into the closet and pull the door shut, it’s hard to know what to do.
Most of the depictions of the early AIDS crisis have focused on out gay men who were older (30 and up) than my protagonists Frankie and Todd. Many of these older men formed support groups in the face of the epidemic, and some of their stories have been told in both fictional features and a recent wave of great documentaries (How to Survive a Plague, We Were Here). I felt the time was right for a different story: of very young, isolated, frightened men who were part of a gay yet tacitly closeted dance culture, and who suffered those early years in silence.
Review: THE NEW TWENTY
LA WEEKLY, Chuck Wilson
May 14, 2009
In his sleek and accomplished debut film, writer-director Chris Mason Johnson tracks the lives and loves of a cadre of 29-year-old Manhattan college friends who betray themselves and each other by abusing the Big Three — sex, money, drugs. At the center is Andrew (Ryan Locke), a lean, blond alpha-dog investment banker whose beautiful Asian fiancé (Nicole Bilderback) may be his match in the world of business. Among those circling this golden couple are Ben (Colin Fickes), who's gay, overweight and addicted to online sex sites (there's a great moment when a trick comes over to Ben's apartment and the two men reject each other on sight), as well as the drug-addicted Felix (Thomas Sadoski) and commitment-phobic Tony (Andrew Wei Lin). We have been here many times before (see 1966's The Group), but Johnson and co-writer Ishmael Chawla have a light touch that keeps things from turning overly melodramatic — no vases get thrown. Supported by veteran New York actors such as Terry Serpico and Bill Sage, the strong ensemble of young actors create fully defined personas, thanks in large part to their director's willingness to linger after a dramatic peak and observe the characters in private, take-a-breath moments. He's got something, this guy, and I'd hate to see a movie this ethnically and sexually diverse fade away. After all, for better or worse, every generation deserves its own St. Elmo's Fire.
Andrew Wei Lin and Bill Sage in THE NEW TWENTY