BY Dan Avery
March 23 2009 12:00 AM ET
In out director Chris Mason Johnson's feature debut, The New Twenty, a group of old college friends are quickly approaching the big 3-0. They're still close, but it's becoming apparent their lives are splintering off in different directions: Julie and her investment banker fiancé, Andrew, are the power couple. Julie's gay brother, Tony, is also a success but still lives with straight party boy Felix, who hides a serious drug habit from his friends. On the periphery of this close-knit gang is Ben, a gay sad-sack type who has yet to make his mark professionally or romantically. When crass older venture capitalist Louie comes on the scene, inviting Andrew to team up on a new enterprise, the group's already tenuous dynamic is threatened. At the film's crux is the question, Can friendship last forever, or do we inevitably drift away from those we hold dear?
Johnson began his career as a dancer with the Frankfurt Ballet and Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project, but he hung up his dance belt to study film and acting, first at Amherst College and then at New York's HB Studio and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. The winner of the best debut feature at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, The New Twenty hits theaters in New York's Quad Cinema Friday, March 20, with a DVD release in June and a broadcast on Logo in the fall. As he gears up for the big premiere, Johnson spoke with Advocate.com about the ties that bind and whether we've entered a post-gay world of gay-straight friendships.
You started out as a dancer. How did you segue into film?I've always had this twin love of performance and film. But in dance you're basically mute, and I really wanted a voice. Studying acting actually taught me a lot about directing. In independent films, where you can't just keep reshooting because you're on a tight budget, getting a good performance from your cast is so important.
Is The New Twenty based on your own experiences or more of a general commentary on late-20-somethings?It's a personal story in some ways, but it's definitely not literal. The original concept for the film was a bachelor party that got out of control, which was something I experienced. But as the script grew, it became more of its own creation. The choices I made in my late 20s were very different from these characters'. The film shows how not all friendships last forever, which is something we all experience but is rarely portrayed realistically in film.
It also depicts the growing reality of gays and straights intermingling.In the younger generation, there's definitely more of a mix -- even between gay and straight men. It's just not a big deal anymore to have a circle of friends with some gays and some straights. But in film and TV that circle of friends is usually all straight. Because to make one character gay introduces a plot element that can only go a certain number of ways: He's either the Eve Arden best friend type or he's struggling in the closet or dying from AIDS. It segregates that character, and I wanted to show that this generation is much more integrated. I didn't want to follow those predictable story lines. Tony is in a serodiscordant relationship, and it definitely throws him for a loop, but ultimately he gets to go off into the sunset with his [HIV+ boyfriend] Robert.