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Director Chris Mason Johnson highlights the new reality of gay-straight relations in his coming-of-age drama The New Twenty.

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 fiance, 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 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.

There's this moment of homoerotic tension when Louie and Andrew first meet in the sauna at their gym, and Louie comments on how gay men hook up in steam rooms. What were you trying to say with that scene?I wasn't suggesting that Louie is closeted -- that would be too predictable. But there is an air of homoeroticism around straight male relationships. And the cruising scene was a way to show how the older generation of straight men, which Louie represents, are disgusted by it. By any sign of homosexuality, really. Someone younger, like Andrew, is more comfortable in both worlds. It's not his thing, but he's not repulsed. Also, when Tony meets Robert at the gym, he assumes they're going to hook up. But Robert says, "I'm not here to cruise." I wanted to show that gay men don't necessarily fit those stereotypes.

What is proper steam-room etiquette, anyway?I don't pretend to be an expert [ laughs ]. It happens -- in some places it's out in the open. Could be 10 guys groping, or maybe just two. Other times it's more discreet. But a lot of people feel like, I just want to go to the gym to work out!

The term "post-gay" gets tossed around a lot. Does this group of friends represent a post-gay reality?I think its like saying America is post-race because we have an African-American president. It's obviously not a literal statement. We're not beyond homophobia, but there has been a major shift. It wouldn't have been possible to have a mix of gay-straights even the 1980s. But even in this group, Tony gets the brunt of homophobia and Ben is the clown.

Let's talk about Ryan Locke, who plays Andrew. He's so hot it's almost distracting.He's definitely the subject of the viewer's gaze. I wanted to create this object of desire for everyone in the group -- male, female, gay, straight. He's the hot alpha male, and usually in movies that guy is the good guy. But Andrew could go either way -- he hurts his friends; he makes some terrible choices. It some ways, it's the passive characters like Ben that are more likable.

Speaking of Ben, is he out or what? He spends his nights cruising chat rooms but never talks about being gay.He's in the glass closet, which is a very complicated reality. His friends know the deal, but it's not OK to talk about yet. He knows he can't be actively gay -- talking about men or whatever -- and still be accepted in that male clan.

Usually gay characters in film are gorgeous and oversexed, but Ben is overweight and kind of pathetic.A lot gay films pander to the audience: "Here's a bunch of really hot gay guys having hot sex." Ben is real. I've always felt somewhat alienated from mainstream gay culture, which can be very hostile. There's a lot of rejection, and I think Ben captures that. But yet he doesn't do much to change his situation.

Which character do you identify with most?People at screenings always ask me that. [ Laughs ] I suppose in my daily life I'd be closest to Tony, but emotionally I feel a connection with Ben. I also identify with Julie, who's that person always managing the personalities around her.

There's some hints of St. Elmo's Fire in the movie -- the seemingly perfect couple, the druggie, the slacker. Was that a conscious homage?I did watch a lot of those "group of friends" movies like St. Elmo's Fire and The Big Chill, but I felt they were so false. I was refuting that utopian Friends narrative. I was more inspired by Fellini's I Vitelloni, which addresses the issue beautifully. But [ The New Twenty ] developed organically; it wasn't a conscious homage or a parody.

The movie's title is a play on the belief that "30 is the new 20." What does that phrase mean to you?I think it's a reflection of our culture's youth obsession in both positive and negative ways. Some of that is good: If 60-year-olds are doing yoga and living life to the fullest, more power to them. But it also reflects a delayed maturity. People leaving home later, getting married later, holding on to friends longer. The trappings of adulthood came so much earlier in previous generations. We might see a return to that with the current economic collapse. It's harder to "play" at life in a crisis, be it a war or a depression.

Many of the characters are real go-getters in the world of finance. Did the banking crisis and Wall Street collapse last fall date the movie?No. We started filming in early 2008, when there was already a sense that something was coming. I always intended to suggest the idea that we've climbed too high and now the party's over. It's set in 2006, so it's sort of the last hurrah. We all know what's coming.

It's very Weimar-era Germany. You're working on another film now, Skirt . Is it lighter in tone or equally intense?Definitely lighter. It's a broad romantic comedy about gay marriage I'm working on with another writer, Kate Stayman-London. The focus is on a love triangle between two women and a man. And I can tell you it doesn't have a cop-out hetero ending.

Any casting ideas?I would love to see Ryan Reynolds as the male lead. He can do no wrong -- I truly believe he's our generation's Cary Grant.

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