With our career-spanning retrospective now underway through November 5 in the FLC Virtual Cinema, Oscar-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman joined programmer Dan Sullivan to discuss their monumental oeuvre and its historic contributions to LGBTQ+ history. Check out the full transcription below, along with podcast and video.
Dan Sullivan: Let’s talk about the early parts of your career. What brought you to filmmaking, and more specifically, to documentary?
Rob Epstein: I came to documentary by answering a classified ad, back in the days where there were such things as classified ads in the back of a magazine. This was in San Francisco in 1976. I had just landed there from the east coast and was looking to do something in the arts. When I was a kid I painted and then I stopped doing art when I reached puberty, and I decided I wanted to find my way back to it somehow. So I started taking some photography classes and came upon this ad which said they were looking for a production assistant to work on a film about “gay lifestyles.” I answered the ad and was invited to join the early days of the project which then ultimately became the film Word Is Out. Peter Adair was the mastermind behind that project and ultimately there were six of us that collectively worked on it for several years––Veronica Selver, Lucy Massie Phenix, Andrew Brown, Nancy Adair, and Peter Adair. That was my film school. Veronica, Peter, and Lucy were my early teachers and I got to do everything on that film. It was a fully immersive filmmaking experience. Peter became my mentor and close friend, and then eventually we went on to do another film together, The AIDS Show, which is part of this retrospective.
This was all during an iconic and vibrant period in American independent cinema and particularly documentary. What sorts of nonfiction films were you looking at during those early years, and what left an impression on you?
RE: I had a high school teacher in Milburn, New Jersey, in AP European History, who took us into New York to see The Sorrow and the Pity. That film was a real inspiration for Peter in making Word Is Out. It was one of the films that we all looked at together and studied as we were formulating that project, as well as Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, another important film that Dennis [Doros] and Amy [Heller] reissued via Milestone. For me, in the making of The Times of Harvey Milk, I saw Barbara Kopple’s film Harlan County U.S.A at the Castro Theatre and it just opened my eyes to the possibilities of what a documentary could do because it reached me so viscerally. Here I was, this young gay kid, watching a film about Appalachian coal miners in the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and having my whole worldview expanded. Barbara’s film was really an inspiration for me in thinking about how the Harvey Milk story could reach an audience that might not otherwise be seeking it out.
Could we go back to the birth of your creative partnership? How did you two meet and what do you think compelled you two to start making films together?
Jeffrey Friedman: I was working in New York as an assistant film editor on features and documentaries, and the film industry at that time was very straight, pretty homophobic, and the films that I worked on, by and large, felt disconnected from my experience. I loved the movies but just wasn’t feeling connected to the content of the films. A friend of mine dragged me to a theater on the east side of Manhattan to see a documentary he said was really important. This was ’77 and that was Word Is Out. I was blown away, it was really well-made and it was the first film we’d ever seen that was made by queer people about queer people. It spoke to me, and I said, “I want to work with those people.” I knew they were in California, and I was planning to move to San Francisco or Northern California within a year or two, so I asked around and got the name of one of the filmmakers, it was Veronica Selver. When I got to San Francisco, I called her up, we got a drink, and she said, “You should come to a party I’m throwing for one of the other filmmakers this weekend.” That was Rob and that was where we met. We became friends first. Rob was working on The Times of Harvey Milk then, and I was working as an assistant editor on a Carroll Ballard feature called Never Cry Wolf. I offered my services to Rob and helped design the photo animation and consulted on the editing, but as a volunteer consultant. Then we worked together on a film that Rob was producing, a TV documentary that I edited, and we clicked. I think Rob proposed that we make a film together.
Rob, when you began working with Jeffrey, what kind of transformation did your own work undergo?
RE: I think the first real hands-on, rolling-up-our-sleeves work we did together—aside from the animation work he was doing on The Times of Harvey Milk, where we were working with photo animation stands— was when we were having trouble making a sequence work. It was Harvey Milk’s victory at the end of act one. Debbie and I were each working on different reels and we had such little material to work with of actual archival elements that would bring to life that moment of victory when Harvey is finally elected for the first time to the Board of Supervisors after multiple attempts. It was an important dramatic moment, but we didn’t really have the footage for it, we had scraps, and it wasn’t working. Somehow, Jeffrey was able to help us shape it so it played like a moment. I think that was the first time that I remember when we were creatively hashing something out and ended up somewhere new that we were both really excited about. The same thing happened when we worked together on the series We the People. On my episode, I was struggling with getting the story structure working and by working together with Jeffrey, we arrived at something that we were both excited about. So that kind of set the template.
I want to turn to Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. What inspired you to make a film about the quilt project? What was the experience like of spending time with the interviewees and subjects, and how do those memories sit with you now?
RE: Well, there’s something I want to say about The AIDS Show, since that’s part of the retrospective, to help set the scene for what was going on and where we were with the epidemic at that point, and subsequently where we were with Common Threads. So Peter and I did The AIDS Show in ’86, and that was very early in the epidemic. We were at the tip of the iceberg, but we had no idea where we were in relation to the totality of what the full-blown AIDS crisis would eventually become. We did know that friends and loved ones were getting sick and dying, dying quickly, and dying horrible deaths. That was what we, in San Francisco, among our friends, were experiencing, and we knew it was happening elsewhere, but it wasn’t really known experientially what we were going through. Peter and I saw this play and felt it was an attempt to do a kind of cultural representation of the moment, and that’s what The AIDS Show project was about. The AIDS Show was really specific to San Francisco, it was very specific to a moment that had an immediacy to it. Common Threads was a different kind of project. When we saw the quilts and just witnessed their metaphoric power, that opened up a whole other possible way in which we might take on the subject.
Did you see the Theatre Rhinoceros performance, in some way, as analogous to some of the things you wanted to do in cinema? For example the intervention or confrontation with reality that’s bound up in that performance?
RE: The show itself is a series of vignettes and each of the vignettes represents a story and a point of view—a point of view of a mother, a nurse, a hospice worker, a group of friends. So in that sense that’s what we tried to do in our documentary casting. I think what we were trying to capture in the representation of The AIDS Show was the role of the community in this crisis, that we were depending on our own emotional and psychological resources to take care of one another. That’s what was encapsulated in the theater experience.
JF: I think for me the power of that show was that it was expressing things that we were feeling, but we were so terrified. It’s really hard to describe what a scary time it was because we had no idea what the disease was, we didn’t know who had it, when it was going to come for us. There are feelings coming up about COVID-19 and they resonate very much with those feelings. We didn’t know how to talk about it, so the theater production of The AIDS Show was one of the first attempts to articulate something the community was feeling. I think when we made Common Threads it was also very early in the epidemic, but we felt that we weren’t just speaking to the community, it was important to speak to people who were not affected by AIDS. It might have worked for people who were affected, but I think the focus at the time was letting people know what this experience was that some of us in various communities were going through. When we were developing Common Threads, we started with the NAMES Project, the organization that invented, imagined, and manifested the quilt, and we went through all of the letters they had, letters that had been sent in with quilt panels. At that time, there were about 2,000 panels in the quilt, and we read through all those letters with Cindy Ruskin, a writer who had written a coffee table book about the quilt, and of those 2,000 letters, we called about 200 that somehow grabbed our imagination, and then we just kept whittling it down. We were looking to be representative of the epidemic, so we wanted to find representatives of the various communities that were affected without it feeling too schematic or obvious. We eventually narrowed it down to about 60 stories that we then videotaped.
RE: Well, I think we did a round of phone interviews.
JF: Yes, we interviewed about 200 of them, then of those 200 we videotaped 60. This would have been so much easier to do in the internet age, but we had to actually go visit people with video cameras and tape them. From those characters, we whittled it down to the five that we finally followed in the film.
RE: The videotape process was a pre-interview process, it was not the final production. It was just a research process, and that goes back to what we did with The Word Is Out.
JF: And with Harvey Milk, too.
RE: Also with Common Threads, we knew, at a certain point, that HBO was behind the project, so it was going to be reaching a whole other level of audience that we didn’t anticipate. And now we had the opportunity to really make a statement about AIDS at a time when I don’t know if there was another documentary about AIDS that had gotten a mainstream broadcast for a mainstream audience. So that was really important.
Following Common Threads, Where Are We? Our Trip Through America is more diaristic and like a road movie—there’s an Americana element to it. In revisiting it, I was struck by the role of the Gulf War and the way it informs so much of what is going on culturally and socially in the film. Especially after the wars of conquest in the Middle East and so on, people have a different sense of the significance of the Gulf War now. How important was the political climate of the time in your approach to this very personal and exploratory documentary?
JF: Well, we knew we were going from our “blue bubble”—it wasn’t called that at the time—but we knew we were going out into the “red heartland,” as they call it. So we knew that that would be part of the dynamic and it was certainly part of what we were interested in exploring. I think we were looking for points of commonality with people who had different backgrounds and different belief systems from us.
RE: I think the Gulf War was something that we discovered while we were underway and certainly in the material when we were editing. It wasn’t part of the concept when we set out, but when we saw what we had, it was a tonality to the piece. We had two pretty simple conceptual underpinnings. One was going into apart of the country unfamiliar to us and confronting our own preconceptions and preconceptions that people might have about us.That guy says in the diner that he enjoys talking to people from other countries when we identify ourselves as being from California—that’s what it felt like for them and for us. The other is how do you make a momentary connection with a stranger in a passing interaction. That’s what we looked for in each encounter with the nature of our questions. We had some set-piece questions and then just went with intuition at the moment. That was the basic concept and the rest was serendipity and surprise.
JF: It was also very freeing. Common Threads is a structured film, we really planned it out and everything fits in its place. We wanted to do something looser, more improvisatory, with no agenda, and let things happen.
In a way, finding the thread of the Gulf War in the cutting room seems related to something that comes up in the voiceover towards the end of the film, where you’re speculating or worrying that perhaps on this trip you’ve only seen what you wanted to see. And yet, you did see something that no one wants to see: war. Did that come later in the film because it was something that was on your mind?
RE: The voiceover element was something that we added late in the structuring and edit of the film. We felt like we needed to find a way to include ourselves, to both give a sense of the point of view of the filmmakers, and to find a way to have us be more a part of the fabric of the film. It’s also, I have to say, the element of the film that I always felt most self-conscious about because it’s not something we intended to do, not something we wanted to do, but we felt that the film compelled us to do. For years I couldn’t watch the film without cringing because of that, so it was really interesting watching it again for this. I had a very different experience. Right now, it’s feeling like my favorite project of ours because I just saw a whole other resonance in it. For so many different reasons, but mostly for the people we met and encountered and the issues that come up from their experiences, from drug abuse and addiction to the nature of love. Just these deep human subjects that bubble to the surface of these quick and fleeting encounters. I was able to appreciate it in a whole new way and not be taken aback by my own self-consciousness.
Let’s steer towards The Celluloid Closet. Before it was a film, it was Vito Russo’s book, along with lectures and clip shows. Can you talk a bit about how the film grew out of those original texts and sources? It also stands out for the heavy use of archival material. What was the experience like of working with those clips and putting together something new?
JF: That film challenged us for a long time when we were developing it. It really took us a long time to figure out what the form should be.
RE: Originally we were just going to help Vito document his lecture show, we were going to essentially tape Vito doing his live performances.
JF: Right, but Vito wanted it to be a TV series. He thought it would be a PBS series, so we started by helping him develop that idea, and then at some point he just made it clear that we were going to make the movie. He was very sick at that point and knew that he might not see it finished, but he wanted us to make it and he wanted it to get made. He wanted us to figure out a way to make it without him because he was such a charismatic presenter of the information when he did his lectures and clip show presentations. It was “The Vito Show” with clips, and it was very much a community event. I remember going to the Castro Theater and sitting with 1,500 people and everyone just being gripped by Vito’s passion. We had to find a way to somehow translate that. We went through a bunch of different iterations. We started editing with just clips, we collected them from VHS tapes and LaserDiscs at the time, because there was no internet. We taped things off television and we edited a four-hour assembly of clips from 1895 to 1995, and then we couldn’t figure out how to shape that into a narrative. We struggled with different strategies. We tried organizing it by stereotypes because Vito had recognised these different ways queer people were represented in the movies—the sissy, the bull dyke, the psycho killer, the sad queen. That was interesting, but we couldn’t figure out how to make a narrative out of that. We tried doing it chronologically and that just had a “this happened, then this happened, and then this happened” [structure], there was no way to develop a theoretical thread through that. Finally, with our colleague Sharon Wood, whom we worked with on several films, we came up with a structure that married those two ideas. We figured out a way to tell the story chronologically, but by using each era to talk about the stereotype that was predominant in that era. Once we had gotten that figured out, we realized we needed to start talking to people to give context and meaning to the clips, so that’s when we started trying to get people to sit down and be interviewed.
RE: Michael Lumpkin, who was one of the creators of Frameline, the LGBTQ festival in San Francisco, left his position to come work with us and produce the film, and he helped make all that happen.
How did Lily Tomlin come to be involved?
RE: Lily and Vito were good friends, and Vito was also a good friend of ours and wrote a lot of the book in my apartment in San Francisco, so I had heard about Lily through Vito. He always had Lily stories. And Vito was one of those people who would always find ways to connect the disparate people in his life, so at one point we just reached out to Lily. We were having trouble raising money, so we approached Lily and went down and met with her at her house, and she said, “Let’s go to HBO.” And she was able to get the head of HBO on the phone, and we all flew in for a meeting, and HBO came on board. Lily was instrumental to the project all along the way and when it came time for us to decide on a narrator, she seemed like the obvious choice.
Let’s talk about Paragraph 175 before opening up to audience questions. It’s another shift for you guys, this time a shift away from the United States and toward a different period. How did the film come about? I’m especially curious about how you developed relationships with the subjects. It seems like there were a couple moments when people couldn’t bear revisiting the memories they had.
JF: That was a big shift for us. We were making a film about another culture, and not only set in a different period in history, but also in another language that we didn’t understand. For a long time, throughout the making of the film, we were always asking ourselves if we were the right filmmakers to be making this film because it wasn’t our culture, it wasn’t our story, the people we were interviewing were, by and large, non-Jewish Germans who had lived through the Nazi era, and they’d experienced some kind of persecution for being queer, but they were Germans and we were Jewish. It was something that was constantly worrying us. Our producer, Michael Ehrenzweig, who grew up in Austria and was our guide through the German part of our film, kept trying to convince us that we were the right people, that as outsiders we would have a perspective that German filmmakers wouldn’t have, and we ultimately comforted ourselves that that was true. With the ambiguity of dealing with Germans who had lived through the war, we just decided to address that in as direct a way as we could and to include some of that nuance in the film. There’s a great moment when one of the men who’d been imprisoned for being gay, gets released from prison and goes and joins the army, and you can hear Rob sort of stuttering and going, “wha- what?” In little ways like that, we try to acknowledge our ambivalence.
RE: The project came to us through Klaus Müller, the historian in the film. When Jeffrey and I were in Amsterdam with The Celluloid Closet, Klaus delivered a letter to our hotel on a United States Holocaust Memorial letterhead asking for a meeting, and we met with him. We were very impressed with what he had to tell us, which was that he had been collecting these oral histories with gay male survivors of Nazi persecution and that he had a handful that would be willing to tell their stories on camera. That’s how the project came to us.
Let’s turn to the audience questions. What are you both working on now? Has the pandemic affected the work you are doing now or will make?
RE: Well, that’s always our least favorite question because talk is cheap and projects are ephemeral. We’re developing a film on the photographer Peter Hujar. That’s our main project right now.
JF: In terms of COVID, I have no idea. We have to wait and see.
For Rob, how did Harvey Fierstein come to be the narrator of The Times of Harvey Milk?
RE: I knew I wanted to find a voice that had character, that wouldn’t just feel like an omniscient narrator but like it had some subliminal investment in the story. I wanted it to feel like a gay perspective without any of that being literal. Harvey was in Torch Song Trilogy at the time, which was getting attention and he was getting notoriety. We contacted him and got a message on an answering machine—back then we had answering machines—that I’ll never forget: “Harvey Fierstein.” And he said he would do it. I think the first recording with Harvey was in his bedroom in his apartment in Brooklyn, and that was the scratch track for the narration.
JF: Was he the only out gay actor at the time?
RE: Probably the only out gay actor at the time, yeah. Good point.
When you’re working on a documentary, do you find yourself searching for beautiful and interesting aesthetic things, or do you let the documentary absorb things?
RE: That’s an interesting question, a good one. We do try and find some kind of anchoring visual metaphor. With Harvey Milk it was the candlelight march, with The Quilt obviously it was the quilt, with Paragraph 175 it was the train, and I think that came from a very early shoot where we had an interview set up with one of the survivors and at the last minute he said he wasn’t going to do it. That’s actually the scene of Klaus in the phone booth in the film, where he’s trying to convince Carl to let him at least come and visit. We got on the train and filmed from it, and that started to resonate, the idea and symbolism of the train then became a motif.
Considering how determinate these films have been to a lot of people, what are your thoughts on the place of the artist or documentarian and their obligation to confront the political situation? How has that changed over time?
RE: I don’t think it’s something that we think about. We have activist impulses with our subject matter, but that’s not the driving force or intention. There isn’t a specific agenda other than to hopefully create something that takes the audience somewhere in a visceral, experiential way. I think that’s the most politically effective presentation: to try and create an emotionally honest and truthful experience for the audience, however you do that. We’ve often done that through oral histories, through finding wonderful people, and it’s our job as filmmakers to take them back into the retelling of their own experiences, and then collectively formulate a bigger picture presentation that hopefully means something.
JF: I grew up in a political family, so I have this impulse to make things better, and film is what I do. I think everything we do is political, and I want to make films about things that I care about. And I want them to resonate with people and increase their understanding of how the world works and who we are in the world. It’s more of an instinct than a conscious mission.
RE: Some final thank yous. First of all to you, Dan, thank you for this conversation, and to Film at Lincoln Center for doing this retrospective. And to Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, and their company Milestone Films, for the work that they do, resurrecting, restoring, and reissuing films like Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, and now a few of our titles. We’re very grateful for that.