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SF filmmaker surprises with crowd-pleasing HIV comedy ‘Pushing Dead’

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Danny Glover, left, and James Roday appear in “Pushing Dead,” a Frameline festival audience award winner screening at the Roxie. (Courtesy photo)

San Francisco resident Tom E. Brown is the most hard-working and talented filmmaker you’ve likely never heard of.

With six short films under his belt, at age 50, he and San Francisco-based distributor Frameline present his first feature film, “Pushing Dead,” at the Roxie this week, following a sold-out screening at the Castro Theatre in 2016.

“Pushing Dead” is a comedy about a struggling writer and longtime HIV survivor, Dan (“Psych” star James Roday) who is dropped from his healthcare plan after a birthday check he deposits into his bank account shows that he earns too much to qualify.

For three weeks, he either tries to out-reason a capricious healthcare bureaucracy or find a way to pay for overpriced meds, while navigating a gentrifying San Francisco.

Danny Glover, Robin Weigert and Khandi Alexander round out the supporting cast.

“It’s been in the works for a while. It went through the Sundance Labs many years ago, and I stuck with it,” says Brown, who counts Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Tucci and Sally Field as mentors during his time at Sundance Labs. “People thought I was nuts for many years; I was the crazy guy to everybody: ‘Poor Tom and his imaginary movie.’ But now that I’ve made it, I’m now tenacious, they think. So, it was a really long road to get it done.”

Sound mentors and persistence paid off: “Pushing Dead” won an audience award at the Frameline San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival in 2016.

As an HIV survivor of 32 years, Brown’s goal was to write an optimistic film about living, unlike the depressing AIDS-related films focusing on decline and death he watched after he tested positive in 1985.

“AIDS comedies make people nervous. If you don’t know the movie and if you don’t know my previous work, not everybody’s comfortable with that idea of having a comedy about a heavy subject matter,” says Brown, “so, people call it a dark comedy all the time, but it’s really not a dark comedy, it’s just simply a comedy.”

At the same time, the movie doesn’t ignore the trials and tribulations of living with HIV, and it shows how Dan must learn to cope with the illness.

Even though the movie is set in present day, Brown, whose protagonist still uses a typewriter, says he was intentionally a little vague about the period. He adds, “This guy’s kinda stuck in time. He hasn’t quite settled into a healthy relationship with HIV, which is the main reason why I set out to write the movie. It’s just a little something from my HIV survival guide that I wanted to share.”

Most of the film was shot in the Tenderloin, where Brown lives, mentioning how it has a relatively peaceful, mellow vibe compared to other tech-occupied and increasingly gentrified areas of The City.

He also calls the historic and timeless Roxie the perfect place to screen his movie: He says the theater has “a vibe very much like ‘Pushing Dead’ — rough around the edges.”

IF YOU GO
Frameline Encore: Pushing Dead
Where: Roxie, 3117 16th St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 25
Tickets: Free
Contact: www.roxie.com

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