In the final part of a series related to LGBT themes in comic book/superhero stories we have a conversation with Elias Ribeiro and Kristian Johns about Dying, And Other Superpowers. Ribeiro is responsible for bringing the short film adaptation of Johns’s short story to the big screens, you can read our review HERE. In keeping with the theme of this series we talked to them about the origins and production of the short as well as LGBT representation in the superhero genre.
Dan: How did Dying, and other Superpowers come about? Firstly, Kristian what inspired the story ? And Elias, how did the movie production come about?
Kristian: I loved the TV show ‘Heroes’, and the standout character for me was the junkie who could only paint the future when he was high. It was an interesting dichotomy – he had this amazing gift, but had to hurt himself to use it. When I got the opportunity to be included in Paul Burston’s anthology, I knew I wanted to create an HIV positive character, but without all the associated clichés. Most HIV+ characters are painted as tragic victims or fuckups. I wanted Josh to be a hero for something other than having HIV, but also to demonstrate the impact the disease had on him using his abilities. Being HIV positive myself, I know it can limit me in some respects, but it’s also turned me into a better person. At the end of the story you’re left wondering if Josh’s story would have been different had he not had his powers limited by his condition.
Elias: I had just spent 2 years working on commission for Playboy TV and it was a turning point for me when they screened one of the productions at the 2010 Berlin Porn Film Fest. I was really not happy with what I was doing and needed to reconnect with my creativity. I flew to London the following day and decided I was going to make a short film and move back into art house filmmaking, where I had started my career. I stumbled upon a video of Kristian reading his short story on his Facebook page, and contacted him right away. I had been corresponding with Jamie, the screen-writer and we spoke about collaborating. I sent him the short story and a week later we had the first draft of the screenplay, two other weeks and the film was in the can.
D: Kristian, how did it feel handing your work over to someone else? Was it humbling that someone wanted to turn your words into live action?
Kristian: It was great! I loved how Jamie Pohotsky (the screenwriter) took elements of the story I had only alluded to and turned them into whole scenes. For instance, Josh’s birthday, the sex scene with Stuart. It blew my mind to see real people acting out the dialogue and put faces to character names. I wasn’t precious about it – I wouldn’t know the first thing about making a film, but by the same token, Elias consulted me on every aspect of the casting, the script, the direction, the editing, etc. to make sure he was faithful to the story. The cast and crew were great to work with and I never had any doubt that the final piece would be great.
D: Elias, the short is less dark than the original story, the ending is a bit more upbeat and it works really well. Was that to make the story fit within timeframe and budget requirements for a short film, or to open up the possibility of more stories in this universe? Or a little of both?
Elias: A little of both for sure. I wanted to turn this project around in 3 weeks, and I was funding the basic costs of the film myself, I pulled in a lot of favours and we made magic happen, so we could never have afforded to stick to the original ending. When I read Kristian’s story I thought it had this whimsical and very human tone and addressing such delicate and serious issue. It is almost fun to watch such a sad story, and that is what I love about Dying, And Other Superpowers. It was important to me that the audience left with a message of hope, with a drive to keep on moving on!
D: Are you comic book/superhero fans? Do you have any favourites?
Elias: I was as a child. I was always more attracted to the human drama behind DAOS, to me Josh doesn’t really have superpowers, my favourite superhero was the girl with the cape from Dungeons and Dragons (Mom should have known!).
Kristian: I’m a massive comic book fan, and I grew up reading X Men and Spider-Man, which was obviously a huge influence on DAOS.
D: What do you think it is about superheroes and the idea of having powers and abilities that seems to fascinate so many people?
Kristian: As humans we can feel limited in our everyday lives, either through fear or by physical ability. We feel powerless when we watch the news and see violence, crime and war. Wouldn’t it be great if we could remove that fear or limitation and fly around the world saving lives and doing good in the world? Who wouldn’t want to be labelled a hero?
As a gay man, reading comics was my first glimpse of the male form. Superheroes were all bulging muscles and tight clothing, and although I perhaps hadn’t recognised my sexuality for what it was, I knew there was something attractive about these drawings, even if I didn’t know why.
Elias: Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we just had a magic trick to solve our problems instead of going through the pain of dealing with them?
I just read Kristian’s answer, being another gay man, I’m sure I was always attracted to the male super hero forms too! And still am!
D: Were either of you aware of the various LGBT characters in comic books, have you read any of them?
Elias: I was not.
Kristian: Yes, I was a big fan of Marvel’s Northstar when he came out in the early to mid-90s, and now DC seem to be following suit with outing the original Green Lantern. I think it’s great to see the comic book powerhouses recognising their gay fanbase and reflecting the diversity in the ‘real world’ by having gay characters.
D: The dynamic between Josh having HIV and also having superpowers is very interesting, what’s the relationship there – did he have powers and the stress of the situation helped them to present themselves, or are they a side effect of the virus, some sort of symbiotic mutation between his body and the virus?
Kristian: I address that in the book to a certain degree, as this is a conversation Josh has with Ellie. I think I prefer the former explanation. The last thing I want is people thinking HIV will give them superpowers. What’s interesting is that you’re left wondering that question, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which explanation you opt for. The fact is that even if it was a mutation brought on by the HIV, it’s the virus that limits his abilities and ultimately forces him to sacrifice his own life for the greater good. It’s not his superpowers that make him a hero, it’s his humanity.
Elias: Kristian and I don’t see eye to eye on this one. My interpretation has always been that his ‘superpowers’ were his coping mechanism with the illness. They never actually existed.
D: HIV is a manageable condition now, would say it’s safe to say that the story stands as an allegory, albeit exaggerated with superpowers, for the message that having HIV doesn’t stop you from being who you want to be or doing what you want to do?
Kristian: It would be a very different story if he didn’t have the HIV to limit him. It’s not a fun illness to have and it does limit you in some ways, but certainly for me, it’s made me a better person. We are constantly presented with choices in our lives – we can run away from responsibility or we can face it and try to learn from it and be a better person. Much as I’d love him to be a role model for HIV+ people, I didn’t create Josh to be a template for how to live life with HIV. His character journey is very much about dealing with the consequences of his actions, and how he becomes a better person as a result.
Elias: After reading Kristian’s short story, that is exactly how I felt, that like everything else in life it is important to move on. Not allow challenges to immobilize you. To have faith and work hard for recovery, better days. I hope the film carries that message without banalising the very serious HIV still is to humanity.
D: Kristian, I know you’re working on a prequel to Dying, and Elias there are plans for a feature length movie – can you tell us what we can expect in the future from these characters?
Kristian: Elias and I are working hard to get funding to make the full version of DAOS and in the meantime, I’m writing a linear prequel to DAOS called ‘The Beginner’s Guide to saving The World’. It picks up from where Josh finishes his narrative in DAOS and before Ellie picks up the story. It’s clear that by the time Josh gets on that ill-fated tube train, he has developed his abilities quite significantly, and BGSW will focus on that story.
Elias: We are meeting in London during the festival to discuss where to take the story on the feature version, Kristian, Jamie and I, so we will have to give you more details after we meet.
D: In expanding the universe will you introduce more characters with superpowers, and super villains as well? Or will it remain more grounded?
Kristian: Josh will meet people like him, all with their own special abilities, but all suffering in some way as a result, so yes, there will be antagonists and protagonists, each with unique abilities. I always wanted to do more around Josh’s story and his ‘world’ so although you will learn a lot about Josh and his backstory, you’ll meet a few more characters as well. It’s a bit more high-octane than DAOS, but still focusing on the characters’ humanity and the choices they make, etc.
I’ve got time travellers, mind-manipulators and teleporters, you name it! It’s a lot of fun to write. A bit like X:Men, just with a lot more ‘issues’.
We’d like to thank Elias and Kristian for taking the time to answer our questions. Dying, And Other Superpowers is currently showing on the festival circuit and is screening in competition as part of the Soho Rushes International Film Festival at 18:30 on July 14, you can find out more information about that and book tickets HERE. You can also check out the trailer for the movie HERE.