Arthur “Artie” J. Bressan Jr.’s Buddies, written, shot and released in 1985, was the first narrative feature film to deal with AIDS. It follows a volunteer ‘buddy’ David (David Schachter) as he begins to visit a man with AIDS, Robert (Geoff Edholm), in his hospital room and the impact that they have on one another’s lives. It was a desperate hour for the gay community and the film, with its moving, intimate story, was an urgent call for people to start talking about AIDS, take action and to treat those who were dying with dignity. Shot on 16mm film, following Bressan’s death from an AIDS-related illness just two years after it was made, Buddies fell out of circulation for many years. Rediscovered, it has now been restored thanks to the persistence of LGBTQ film historian Jenni Olson and Artie’s sister Roe Bressan. December 9th 2019 sees Buddies released for the first time ever in the UK on DVD, Bluray and VOD.
Ahead of its UK release The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with one of the film’s lead actors, David Schachter, in New York. Schachter recalls the making of Buddies, how it led to his own AIDS activism, what it was like to be a gay man living in New York in 1985 and his memories of Artie.
The Queer Review’s James Kleinmann: Last June you watched the restored version of Buddies in New York. What was it like seeing it again, had it been quite a while since you’d last seen it?
David Schachter: “It had been thirty three years since we shot the film and it had probably been about twenty five years since I’d seen it. So it was moving and sad and profound to see it again. I felt really proud to be part of this historical artefact which captured a very specific moment in time.”
How did you and Artie first meet? Can you tell us a bit about what he was like?
“Artie and I met in 1979, we were cruising each other on Christophe Street. We remained really good friend and colleagues after that. We followed each others careers and stayed in each other’s lives. He was a brilliant, funny, intelligent, musical guy. He was a big guy, a big bear. He loved to whistle and he loved to sing and he had this really beautiful tenor voice. We would walk down the street together and he would whistle really loudly, or he would sing really loudly, and I was a little embarrassed, but also thrilled to be in the company someone who felt so comfortable in their own skin. He had a photographic memory and so the things that he had at his fingertips were really astounding. He cared very much, really deeply actually, for his friends and he cared about the community deeply as well.”
You worked with him on a film before Buddies didn’t you, Abuse, but although your name is listed on IMDB, I don’t think you made the final cut did you?
“Yes! That’s right. In the early 80s Artie asked me if I could get a group of my NYU friends to be in a scene for a film that he was making called Abuse. It was for one of the opening scenes in the film and so the six of us traipsed down to a movie theatre to shoot it and then we ended up on the cutting room floor!”
What kind of acting work were you doing before Buddies came along? Had you graduated from NYU by then?
“I had a BFA in drama from NYU. While I was there I studied with the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute for four years. Then after I graduated it was mostly stage work, Off and Off-Off-Broadway. A lot of extra work, I was a regular extra on Saturday Night Live and As The World Turns. And then Buddies was my first and only film.”
What are you memories of Artie first mentioning the film to you and you getting involved in it?
“It all happened really quickly. In February of 1985 he called me and said ‘I want to make a film about AIDS and I want it to be a really small film, it’s going to focus on a person with AIDS and his buddy. Would you be invested in playing the buddy?’ And I said ‘sure’. He was living in New York at that time, but he went to San Fransisco to both raise some money for the film and to write the script. Then on April 1st he called me and said ‘I’m back in New York come on over’. So it was less than two months. I read the script and I met Geoff Edholm, who plays Robert Willow. Then a couple of weeks later we rehearsed for two weeks in Artie’s apartment. We shot the film in nine days in May. Artie edited it in his living room that summer and it had its world premiere in September at the Castro Theatre.”
So it was all pretty fast.
“It was guerrilla filmmaking. Artie didn’t want to waste any time, he wanted this film out quickly and that’s what he did.”
Could you talk a little bit more that sense of urgency, that you shared as well I imagine, in getting the film out there? What was the atmosphere like at that time among gay men regarding AIDS?
“In 1985 AIDS was present in the zeitgeist of the gay community, but there were no drugs, there wasn’t even a test to determine if HIV, or as it was then called, HTLV-3. It was shortly after we stopped using the terms GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) as the illness was first called, and started calling it ARC or AIDS-related complex.”
“It was a petty bleak time and there was not a lot of hope on the horizon at all. Larry Kramer and five other men in New York City had founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) already. He had yet to found ACT UP, which I believe was a year after Buddies came out, so 1986. The world was just starting to mobilise, and the President of the United States at that time Ronald Reagan had not even uttered a single word about AIDS in any context, a policy speech or anything.”
“The way people found out that they had HIV was that they got really sick and died. There were telltale signs like weight loss, Kaposi’s sarcoma, KS, on the face and thrush. Artie had a lot of friends who were sick and dying. Neither, Artie, Geoff nor I knew that any of the three of us had the virus at the time of making the film.”
“It is a political film, but it is also a love story from my perspective. And he really just thought we cannot waste anymore time, we need to get this film out, I want it out, basically. There was an urgency and frankly the was an urgency in our community to do something.”
What did you remember about the reaction to the film, were you there for the premiere at the Castro Theatre in San Fransisco?
“Yes, that was astounding. I don’t know if you have ever been inside the theatre, but it’s a cathedral, it’s Art Deco and they show silent films with a live organ. The screen is just enormous! And it was a packed house that night, it was a benefit for the Shanti Project which was an AIDS services organisation in San Fransisco. Artie and his friends were all there. It was the only thing like it and everybody came out, it was quite amazing. The mainstream press was mixed in their response, they were mostly kind and the gay press was really moved and thought finally they were seeing themselves represented in a particular light, by these two characters just living their lives.”
“You think about the gay characters in the movies at that time, when Arthur Hiller’s Making Love came out with Harry Hamlin it was astonishing to see two very straight actors with a reputation playing gay men, and not in the way William Hurt did four years later in Kiss of the Spider Woman. The Making Love charters weren’t effeminate men who dressed as women. In a lot of our growing up the images that we saw were not necessarily representative of the spectrum of the community, it was stereotypes.”
There was also some stage work in New York dealing with gay men and AIDS at the time wasn’t there?
“Yes, in 1985 there were two plays on in New York The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s play, and William Hoffman’s As Is. Artie was in a cadre of storytellers who really wanted these stories to be told at this time and had the wherewithal and the creativity and the balls to do it frankly.”
After the premiere Buddies went on to open in some cinemas across the country. Did you feel it have an impact on people as it went wider? Was there also a sense that some gay men didn’t want to be confronted with AIDS at the cinema, they wanted some escapism because the times were so bleak?
“I think so. In 1985 there was a lot of disinformation and misinformation, and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for help except for volunteers. We were abandoned by the government, we were abandoned by our family and friends and loved ones, not all of us, but the future was bleak. So I’m not quite sure that everybody wanted to see this by going to the movies, perhaps some people wanted escapism. Some people go to the movies and the theatre for different things, that’s why there’s a variety. The audience for Buddies was limited, not only because of how the story was told and the low budget, but because it played at mostly art house theatres and at benefits, so in the States anyway it didn’t have a release at the local mall.”
You mention volunteers, the buddy programme that you character is part of was based on something that was happening at the time wasn’t it?
“Yes, GMHC was founded in 1981 at the early onset of GRID. These were mostly gay men were coming down with this really bizarre cancer and illness with other symptoms and were being abandoned. There was fear everywhere because people didn’t know how it was transmitted. There was just not enough research. As is humankind’s want to jump to assumptions about how things are happening, there was a whole movement who thought that AIDS was God’s revenge on gay men, which was actually quite powerful at the time.”
It’s amazing how widespread that idea was, when I was a child growing up in England that idea was all around me, it was what so many people thought. And it’s something that’s brought into Buddies through your character’s job. He’s researching different perspectives on the AIDS crisis for a book and places some newspaper articles on Robert’s hospital bed.
“Jenni Olson refers to my character David in Buddies as both the Everyman and the straw man. So the Everyman is sort of the person who doesn’t know a lot and you see this world though his eyes and through his journal notes, you enter the world of the film with him. The straw man in this case is one who sets up various arguments and perspectives and they get to be knocked down. So the polemics are built into the dialogue and built into the book that David is working on and the articles that he’s sharing with Robert, but I think Artie had an intent to present those and for it not to be so heavy handed.”
It seems like David hasn’t thought too deeply about the situation before he enters Robert’s hospital room.
“He’s starts as a cipher, he’s sort of a nonentity, he’s sort of a larva. Artie and I talked about the arc of the character and both agreed, not only is this a love story, but it’s also a coming of age story, it’s about the arc of the character. And David is coming of age in a way that neither of us wanted to be graceful. The image he gave me was that it was like Pinocchio becoming a real boy. He wanted it a little stiff and uncomfortable until the end when he becomes more fully realised. It’s the making of an activist basically, from somebody who had a good heart but that was about it.”
Artie’s sister Roe and Jenni Olson are working together to get Artie’s films restored and back into circulation and Buddies was the first film they’ve done this with. What do you think about them doing that?
“Artie made adult gay films, he made a couple of documentaries and he made a couple of narrative features. I think maybe nine or ten films to his name. After many years these films were rediscovered, literally the reels were found and they were all in bad shape. I don’t know how she did it but Jenni, who’s a queer historian who had had admired Artie’s work from early on, figured out a way to save them and started with Buddies. So it was Buddies first, then Gay USA was the second, which was just released this year in the US on Bluray and DVD. And they’ve just premiered the restoration of Forbidden Letters, one of Artie’s adult films.”
There’s some footage of both of those films in Buddies isn’t there, which your character is showing Robert on a VCR in the hospital?
“Yes that’s right, there’s footage in Buddies from two of Artie’s previous films, Gay USA and Forbidden Letters. Artie’s adult films were filled with love, they really were. They had narratives to them. He loved sex and he loved portraying sex and he also knew that it was more than that. He really infused his sensibility into those films.”
“There were no videos back then really, so in Buddies when David brings the VCR into Robert’s hospital room, this was a novelty, this was not an everyday occurrence.”
Where did you shoot the hospital room scenes?
“We shot them in a loft in Tribeca. Basically Artie built a hospital room. He put in a hospital bed, he put down the flooring, he rented an IV drip. It was Artie’s friend’s loft. We shot all of the hospital scenes there in three days in chronological order. All of them were shot in one or two takes. I think there’s maybe one scene that we did where we had three takes, but everything else was one or two.”
I like the technique of us not seeing anyone else on screen apart from the two men pretty much throughout the entire film.
What do you like about it?
It’s very effective, there’s no distraction, it’s just the two of them. Even though we do see things outside of that room, it really just becomes about the interaction between the two men in that hospital room and the journey it’s taking them on. I do like the beach scene too and other things that happen outside the hospital room. The photographs as well, we’re taken back to the past through those aren’t we, and there’s some fantasy. I don’t think I can remember another film where that happens, where it’s taking place over several days and we hear other people occasionally like David’s mother on the phone, but we don’t see anyone else for more or less the entire film, where it’s so focused just on just two characters.
“I think you hit the nail on the head. Artie didn’t want to be distracted, he didn’t want the audience to be distracted by anything other than the story of these two men.But there were other things going on. If we were stuck in the hospital room for the entire time it might get even more claustrophobic than it is. I actually think that the claustrophobia is part of what Artie tried to engage the audience in, sort of closing in on both the pain and vitality of Robert and the uncertainty of David, his motives and what he’s learning about himself and the world. It is only at the end of the film where you actually see David on the street surrounded by other people, in the final scene where he’s exposed. It’s intimate up until the very end.”
When he’s outside the White House with his placard. What impact did being in the film have on you. I don’t think you acted much afterwards is that right? Did you get involved in activism?
“Well, I was hoping that the film would change my life. And it did, just not in the ways that I had anticipated frankly. So after the film, both Geoff and Artie were committed to gay work only and I wanted a broader career. I was good, but I wasn’t great and I wasn’t very smart about the business. I continued acting for three years after the film. I did some regional theatre and I was getting auditions for Broadway shows and national tours and a soap, but I wasn’t getting them. My skin actually started to get thinner as oppose to thicker. I was getting into my late twenties and the world shifted. More and more of my friends and colleagues were becoming sick and were dying including Artie. Getting that callback just seemed less important.”
“I was a waiter while I was acting and that allowed me to have a very flexible work schedule. In 1988 I decided to volunteer for GMHC. My first few months there I was an office volunteer and I would run errands or do whatever they needed me to do, run the copy machine, I would stand in line at the social security office. With my theatre background when they started doing some large scale fundraising events, they asked if I would be intersected in joining a steering committee for an event that they were doing at BAM. That experience then led them to offer me a position as a community organiser on their AIDS Walk New York office, and their Dance-A-Thon which was the largest AIDS fundraiser in the world at the time. I did that for four years. So life imitated art in a way that was surprising and unexpected.”
This is the first time that Buddies has been available on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray in the U.K., 34 years after it was made, why did you think it would be worth people going back to rewatch it or seeing it for the first time?
“It’s a tough question, James. Actually I don’t know what anyone would want to watch it. So, let me imagine why. It is both an artistic and an historical artefact of a time in New York and a time in gay life which is standing in for sort of everything else and the story is told in, I believe on some level, an optimistic way. Artie ultimately was optimistic, his favourite director was Frank Capra, I think ultimately he wanted to and he did believe in the goodness in people. It is a story of both incredible sadness, but also of triumph I believe. It’s amazing that it’s also a really low budget film, the official numbers say it was made for $27,000 dollars, but Artie told me it was actually $19,000. That’s for everything, everything. The sound quality is horrible in places, even with the amazing restoration that, there are just flaws in the original film itself. So lower your expectations folks! Do not expect high quality anything. That’s the key to happiness by the way, lowered expectations. I’m convinced of it. So anyone who is interested in gay history might be interested in this, and anyone who is interested in how history repeats itself and where we find ourselves today I think should also be interested too.”
“At NYU I’m the Associate Dean at the graduate school of Public Service. Our students want to be leaders in the non-profit and government space, they are the altruists of the world. They are the Davids of the world in some sense and I see in them this desire to come together and mobilise and stand up for those that are marginalised. It is amazing in this world in 1985, in 1965 and in 1945, ad infinitum, how easy it is for governments and swathes of people to marginalise others. That’s what it felt like in 1985 to be a member of the gay community. It was to be completely forgotten by the government and made to feel unworthy, and that sense that somehow we deserved what we were getting. You can fill in the blanks into many other demographics in 2019, and we’re doing the same shit over and over again.”
“Artie’s sister Roe says love won out. Can love continue to win? The progress that we have made is extraordinary. Who would have thunk it, right?”
But as you say there is hope at the end of Buddies. David is standing there with his placard outside the White House. It’s funny I was at a screening of David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague in London about seven years ago and there was a discussion afterwards and someone asked Sarah Schulman what she thought it would take for us to mobilise like that again, like ACT UP in the 80s. She said they’ll be something. It seemed like we were quite innocent then, not so many years ago, not knowing what was to come.
“The rise of hyper-partisanship and nationalism and populism it all comes around, right. The scary thing is that it never goes away. It’s just allowed to reemerge and have voice. I’m not as hopeful as Artie was. We’re living in bleak times now too, but it’s bleak differently depending on what your demographic is. As a white gay middle class man I don’t have the same challenges that I did 35 years ago when Buddies was made, that’s clear, but others do. How easy it is to demonise and vilify, I don’t get it. The personal becomes political, right and I think Buddies ultimately makes that case.”
By James Kleinmann
On December 9th 2019 Peccadillo Pictures will be re-releasing Arthur J Bressan’s Buddies, newly restored and available for the first time in the UK on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD.
From December 6th 2019 Buddies will screen at London’s ICA, for more information and to purchase tickets head here.
There will also be a screening at HOME Cinema, Manchester on December 18th introduced by Dr Monica Pearl, Lecturer in 20th Century American Literature at the University of Manchester, who will also lead a post-screening discussion about the film after the screening. Limited tickets are available here.
For more on The Bressan Project, devoted to the preservation and promotion of the films of Arthur J. Bressan, Jr., visit thebressanproject.com.