Laurie Lynd’s feature length documentary Killing Patient Zero is a compelling, detailed exploration of how a French Canadian flight attendant, Gaëtan Dugas, came to be branded by the media as ‘Patient Zero’ and was widely blamed for the initial spread of AIDS among gay men in the USA. Based on Richard A. McKay’s book Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, the film had its world premiere at Hot Docs 2019 in Canada.
Following Killing Patient Zero’s United States premiere in November at New York’s DOC NYC, The Queer Review’s Editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with the documentary’s director Laurie Lynd. Lynd’s second short film, RSVP saw him cited by B. Ruby Rich in her seminal 1992 Sight & Sound article as one of the filmmakers of New Queer Cinema. He made the narrative feature Breakfast with Scot and has directed episodes of major TV shows such as Noah’s Arc, Queer As Folk and more recently six episodes of Schitt’s Creek.
The Queer Review’s James Kleinmann: How did your involvement as director come about and what were your own impressions of the Patient Zero story before you started work on the film?
Laurie Lynd: “Well, it’s interesting because what’s unusual for me about this film is that I was hired to direct it after my producer had optioned the book. I do feel like there’s kismet in it for me though. I lived in New York from 1982 to 1986, I went to the grad film programme at NYU, so I was in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis. I realised in hindsight while I was here in New York I went to a meeting at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, GMHC, and I made a gay-themed musical as my NYU thesis called Together and Apart that was at the New Directors film festival. I shot that in 1984 and finished it in 1985 and I had a character in it who had gone back in the closet and married a woman. It’s his ex-lover meeting up with him and his wife and I didn’t even mentioned HIV and it’s 1984. In hindsight I’m amazed that I didn’t include any mention of it. I think I had blinkers on and as a lot of people who I’ve talked to have said you just didn’t let it in. It was just so overwhelming. I mean one of the ways I realised how much I had blinkers on is that I’m such an avid theatregoer and I lived here when Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart had its premiere at the Public with Brad Davis and I didn’t go. I’m still baffled that I didn’t go, but I think it’s because I didn’t want to know.”
“When I went back to Canada I read And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts in 1988 and that’s what woke me up. It caused me to write one of my first short films, RSVP, which is a meditation on grief and loss and involves a Jessye Norman performance of an opera aria by Hector Berlioz. Band had a huge impact on me, and I wasn’t wise enough to question the Patient Zero story at the time. I totally bought it. And my friend John Grayson, who’s a filmmaker and in Killing Patient Zero, made Zero Patients which is aan agitprop musical about the Patient Zero story in 1993. And Michael Callen, who with Richard Berkowitz literally invented safe sex, appears in Zero Patients. It was filmed months before he died. So in 1993 when John was doing this film, that’s when I was like ‘Oh, right this is bullshit! This Patient Zero thing is bullshit’.”
“When I met producer Corey Russell about doing this film I was just blown away that I had a chance to revisit And The Band Played On and the Patient Zero story, because it feels like something I would have developed myself and it’s been a real honour to tell this story. I lived through it, so it’s made me so angry again. I still can’t believe the homophobia of those times and the fact that homophobia is resurfacing in so many parts of the world is just devastating.”
Something that I mentioned in my review of Killing Patient Zero that I think has a big impact in the film is the sequence using the audio from the White House press briefing of October 15th 1985. It’s where Lester Kinsolving became the first White House correspondent to publicly ask the administration about HIV/AIDS. The official response is a homophobic joke and there’s repeated laughter from the press pool. Why did you feel it was important that it was included? It also made me think about how it might be handled today by a government mouthpiece in this current US administration.
“I agree. That was Probably the most chilling thing that I found in researching the film. I hadn’t heard that before and I was just gobsmacked by that. It really was the single most shocking thing that I learned and I knew it would end up being a centrepiece moment in the film because it just crystallises the homophobia. And the other thing that I hadn’t realised is that Reagan was very good friends with Rock Hudson and the hypocrisy of that. And it wasn’t just Reagan, he was just a reflection of America at that time, it was that whole attitude. I’ll never understand the hatred, I’ll never understand why people give a shit about what other people do in their bedrooms. I thought I already knew everything about all this, but I hadn’t even realised that it was a ten year incubation period until I did the film. I wasn’t that informed and I’m just one of the lucky ones. I’m negative and I had unprotected sex in New York in the 1980s. And it’s just such a lottery who got it and who didn’t, or who gets it and who doesn’t.”
Why do you think it was important to contextualise Gaëtan Dugas’ story, rather than squarely focus on him and just assume that your audience is well informed about the rest?
“I thought it was essential that the audience understand why people behaved the way they did, because I find so many people judge the behaviour. One of the things I hope the film conveys is that as gay men we were illegal, we weren’t technically supposed to be having sex, for two thousand years practically. Then it’s OK, sort of, for about eight years and who would stop? And I think a straight audience would have no conception of what that would feel like, that you would not be able to express your sexuality, and then you can, and now you can’t again. And I also feel like at the time gay sexuality was judged so differently. It was something I mentioned to all my subjects, you know, I think if a straight man says ‘I slept with 250 women this year’ people go ‘oh, you, dog! Wow, what a man, what a stud!’ But when it’s a gay man saying that it’s gross, there’s something wrong about it. As Priscilla Wald says in the film, gay men are said to “indulge” in sex. Even Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien, who is a dermatologist in New York who was at the forefront of the battle, and as it turns out a closeted gay men, is quoted as saying gay men “indulge” in sex. He called Gaëtan Typhoid Mary and things like that.”
“In making the film I’m not just preaching to the choir. I wanted an eighteen year-old straight kid to be able to watch this film and get it. He or she won’t have a clue about our history, and for them to know what we went through, what it cost us, that it was illegal, I think is important. The timing of AIDS is extraordinary. You know, I often say you couldn’t write something like that. I think it was essential to contextualise so that people didn’t judge Gaëtan Dugas’ behaviour, in the way that I think Randy Shilts judged his behaviour. I’m also a big fan of Randy’s and I think that the work he did was extraordinary. My next project is a feature doc on Randy Shilts. I feel like he’s an undersung hero and my line about the whole Patient Zero thing is that he did the wrong thing for the right reason.”
You obviously what to rehabilitate Gaëtan’s name, but not at the expense of demonising Randy Shilts, because it’s complex isn’t it.
“Yes, I’ve had people say that they’ve come to see the film expecting that Randy would be the villain of the piece and they’re surprised that he isn’t. But I don’t feel like there are any villains except the indifference of the mainstream institutions and the press.”
How important for you was it to get that line in there that the editor of And The Band Played On Michael Denneny says about Randy Shilts being uncomfortable feeding Gaëtan’s name, and the Patient Zero aspect of the book, to the right wing New York Post, which led to the headline ‘The Man Who Gave Us AIDS’?
“It was very important to me to get that in there. It’s interesting, because with documentaries or with any film, you’re shaping your story. There are things that I could have included that would’ve made Randy look worse or Gaëtan look worse, but I don’t think that’s the truth of it. In the film I talk about internalised homophobia, which is something I personally feel steeped in unfortunately. I think it’s taken a huge toll of my life, I don’t think I’ll ever fully get over it and I want people to understand the cost of prejudice to the individual. I do think Randy exhibited it, even though he vehemently denied it in his lifetime. I think his depiction of Gaëtan, as someone says in the film, is like his worst nightmare version of himself. Everyone says that Randy lived up to his name, he was at the bathhouses all of the time, he was very adventurous, he just happened to be someone who was very cagey and smart and stopped having indiscriminate sex as soon as this was on the horizon. As with so many of the men that we’ve lost, I ask myself what would Randy have been like as an older man, what would he be like now? He would recognise internalised homophobia for one thing and it would be extraordinary to see him writing about Trump and the world today. Randy is very controversial within the gay community for various reasons, which is why I think a documentary celebrating him and examining his controversy will be very interesting.”
Michael Denneny’s detailed description of how the Patient Zero Story was fed to the New York Post felt like a really significant moment in Killing Patient Zero, it’s riveting. Was that how it felt when you were getting it on tape in the interview with him?
“Yes, it was one of those things where I knew that story going in and I was waiting and hoping I’d get him to say it. It’s essential to understanding what happened. I loved that he said it was ‘cultural judo’; using the strength of your enemy for your own gain. And it was a calculated thing and he’s said since that he would still do the same thing. He’s very sorry for what Gaëtan’s family went through, but it did achieve the greater good of getting the book read.”
What about the depiction of Gaëtan in the HBO adaptation of And The Band Played On? Did you go back and watch that when you were making Killing Patient Zero?
“I watched the film when it first came out and I think it’s just dreadful in terms of filmmaking. Apparently it was originally conceived as a mini-series, but it’s two and half hours and it’s just terrible. You can’t tell that story in two and half hours. It’s just so unengaging and unmoving which I find extraordinary for such an incredible story. And the depiction of Gaëtan, in the movie is ridiculous. I mean, he doesn’t even have a Québécois accent, he has some weird faux France French accent and it’s interesting that they step back from villainising Gaëtan in the movie. I believe that came from Randy. I think he was feeling circumspect about it and did not want him to be villainised.”
Was Gaëtan’s family approached about contributing and having their say in the film?
“Yes, we did approached Gaetan’s family. We have French Canadian partners on the film and they worked tirelessly and finally found one of his sisters who was going to speak to us, but then decided not to in the end. As you know, I say in the film that the family has maintained a principled silence this whole time and I have a lot of respect for that. I worry that the film of course has brought it all up again for them, but I hope the greater good of rehabilitating his name is being served. We sent them a link to the film and we know it was watched. We haven’t had any comments or reactions, but we didn’t hear anything negative either, so I’m relieved about that.”
How about Gaëtan’s friends, did they have any reticence at all about contributing? I imagine that they might have been cautious about the film’s agenda.
“It was actually very hard to find people who would speak about Gaëtan and I’m only speculating, but I think that having seen him so burned in the media there was an understandable reluctance, even though they know it’s a sympathetic ear. I had to be quite persuasive to get Ray Redford to participate and it wasn’t in any way embarrassment or shame about Gaëtan, I think it’s more a case of fatigue about the story and all the wrong it did.”
“Ray was very glad that he did particulate in the end. One thing I want to say about the Dugas family is that Ray Redford was Gaëtan’s boyfriend from 1972 to 1975 and when Ray went to visit the family in rural Quebec in 1973 or 74, Gaëtan and Ray slept in the same bedroom. They celebrated their flamboyant son and that’s extraordinary for a Catholic family in a small town back then, amazing.”
It’s an interesting insight that he was open with his family about his sexuality as young man.
“Yes, I think think it partly shows why he was such a confident charismatic man, having come from such a loving family.”
What about some of the other contributors, like Fran Lebowitz, why did you want her to be involved? Everything she says is pretty amazing isn’t it.
“Oh, I know! I was so thrilled when she said yes, I couldn’t believe it because I’ve been a fan of hers since the 1970s. I read her books when I was in high school. She doesn’t have a cellphone or a computer, so you have to go through her assistant. So I wrote her a letter saying how much I admired her. In that Martin Scorsese documentary about her, Public Speaking, she says something that I hadn’t heard anyone say before, that not only did we lose a generation of artists with the AIDS crisis, but we also lost an entire audience. So I asked her if she would participate in Killing Patient Zero and said ‘let’s face it, it’s a dark story, it’d be great to have some laughs in here’. I feel like it’s quite a coup to have gotten her and she’s an extraordinary interview because she’s so smart. You can see her laugh, because she knows what she’s about to say, so she laughs at the joke that she’s about to make. She’s thinking that far ahead! There’s gold in what we had to leave out just for time. I admire her so much. The main thing that I wanted her to say was that line about ‘we’ve lost a whole audience’, I asked her three times and she never went there and I suspect it’s because she’s so smart she knows she’s said that in another film already.”
Someone else said it in Killing Patient Zero though didn’t they, so you still got it in there. Then you have the brilliant B. Ruby Rich too.
“I have an interesting past with B. Ruby Rich because I’m one of the filmmakers she discusses in her Sight & Sound article on New Queer Cinema in 1992. It was because of my short RSVP, which as I mentioned I wrote because of And The Band Played On. I was delighted to get her. Like Fran, she’s so articulate and funny and wise and there’s so much from her that I wanted to include. Our first cut was nineteen hours long!”
“One of the things that I love about the film is that it was effortless to make it a good mix of men and women, like Priscilla Wald too and Gaëtan’s Air Canada colleague, Gaetane Urevig. To hear an older straight woman talking in such a blasé way about gay sexuality, I think is so refreshing, it’s so ordinary, as it should be.”
I suppose it goes back to what you were saying about internalised homophobia, the fact that it means so much to us to have that acceptance.
“Yes and back then there were the “innocent victims” of AIDS. Gay men were therefore guilty of something because they got it through sexual contact.”
The idea of AIDS being a punishment from God was widespread wasn’t it.
“Yes, it was mainstream.”
You mentioned your short film RSVP earlier which you made back in the 1980s and I wondered how that and maybe this Killing Patient Zero too, have helped you articulate your own feelings on the AIDS crisis?
“It was an honour to tell this story because it shocks me that young people don’t know this, that a holocaust was allowed to happen to gay men 36 years ago. It made me so angry again, because although we have AIDS memorials and candlelight marches I feel like we’ve gotten so puritanical on the left, and in some ways I feel like people dismiss older gay white men or older gay men period, as if we have it all, but we don’t and probably won’t for generations and generations. In a way, in making this film, I felt like I as able to get a lot off my chest, the cost of prejudice on individual lives. I hope this film will have a long life because in some ways I feel like it’s the greatest statement I’ve been able to make in my film career about how I feel about being gay in North America.”
What did you make of the link that one of your contributors makes in the film between the reaction to the AIDS crisis and marriage equality and other rights we have now, that are unfortunately in danger.
“I feel like there is a direct link, I mean not everyone would say that, but I feel like there must be. I said this to B. Ruby Rich and she didn’t agree. I feel like there must be some collective guilt and reckoning about what was done to gay men and that it may have helped people sympathise. To me, it’s one of the strangest things in life, terrible things often give rise to good things and with the AIDS epidemic, as is said in the film, it took thousands upon thousands of gay men to die to have America wake up to the fact that we are part of this culture.”
“It’s an interesting time in the arts because we’re in a bubble. Yes, in Toronto, or in New York, it’s easy and fine to be gay, but in small town Ontario, I could still get called fag, I could still get beaten up for holding my partner’s hand. I still have to think twice when a repair man comes into my house whether I say my partner, or my roommate. I think people aren’t as smart as they should about how much it’s still not easy, and I angry about that.”
I think it might be different for younger gay men, but I can’t hold my husband’s hand for very long without worrying about what might happen, whatever city I’m in.
“My partner Eric is a psychotherapist and he often says straight people don’t realise they’ve never had to think about their sexuality, never had to think about it.”
Do you mind if I ask you about Schitt’s Creek?
“Not at all!”
We’re big Schitt’s Creek fans of at The Queer Review. You directed six episodes of season five didn’t you? Including the amazing opening episode of season with Catherine O’Hara on the movie set in Bosnia, ‘The Crowening’.
“I did six episodes, yes. I mean what a gift to get to work on that show! I think it’s an extraordinary show. I mean, oh my God to work with Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, who are lovely people. It was a hoot to do, as you can imagine.”
“As I director, you don’t often get such good writing to work with and such gifted performers. That cast, wow! I’m particularly blown away by Annie Murphy who plays Alexis. I think she’s extraordinary. To get that character like that, but to make her completely believable too. That’s something I admire the most about the show, the tone, that we all pull off, where it’s big, but it’s real. The thing that surprised me about the show, which is partly why I I’ve it so much, is the heart in it. It’s this very funny, jaded comedy, but it’s got such compassion in it too, which I think is part of its strength. I also love that the gay sexuality in it is so effortless.”
“It was an honour to work on that show and it’s probably the best credit I’ve got so far, because it’s seen all over the world. I was just in Australia with Killing Patient Zero and people wanted to know about Schitt’s Creek, which is very cool. I also admire that they’re going out on top. This is the last season that they just filmed. I was thrilled that I got to do the engagement episode too, called ‘The Hike’. Dan Levy is brilliant, he’s going to go into the stratosphere now I think because he’s got a deal with ABC and I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more from him.”
Do you have a favourite LGBTQ film, something that’s resonated with you over the years?
“Maurice. That’s the first that comes to mind. And The Times of Harvey Milk. And more recently I really liked a Canadian film called Giant Little Ones. And then there’s Rocketman. I just watched it for a second time and I think it’s become my favourite gay film.”
And talking of E. M. Forster’s Maurice, it’s referenced in Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance based on Howard’s End which you’ve just seen on Broadway haven’t you?
“Howard’s End is my partner’s favourite book. I read it this year for the first time. I’d seen the film of course, but I’m very glad I had read Howard’s End before I saw The Inheritance.”
You saw both parts of the play in one day didn’t you?
“Yes, I’ve been wanting to see The Inheritance ever since I first heard about it and I’ve been saying to friends that I think it’s required viewing for gay men of my age, particularly those work in the arts. I was thrilled to be able to see it with the original cast, I think five of the lead characters created the roles in England. It’s an extraordinary production. It’s still resonating a few days later and I want to read the play now because I liked it so much, I want to take it in even more. I’m really glad that we’re having this conversation in society, that’s were remembering more and The Inheritance is a perfect example of us beginning to acknowledge the loss and not just think it’s all done and wrapped up and in the past.”
Maurice is referenced in the play isn’t it, why does the film adaptation of Maurice appeal to you?
“I love period films and I’m a bit of an Anglophile, so there’s something that speaks to me about that. I’m quite a romantic and I find that film very romantic. I love that it has a happy ending, that it isn’t a tragic ending. I think that’s so important, because so that happens so often in gay films. You can count the number of straight actors who’ve won academy awards for playing gay characters who die. I think we’re still a long way from mainstream. I still feel like we’re the sassy best friend or we’re the tragic hero, there’s not a lot of ordinary depictions of gay men.”
Well, that’s what good about Schitt’s Creek isn’t it, especially David’s partner, his now fiancé, Patrick.
“Yes! And looking back, my second feature Breakfast With Scot, is a gay family comedy about two uptight gay guys, one’s a sportscaster, who ends up with temporary custody of this little boy who’s a total sissy. It’s a comedy about how they try to straighten out this kid, teach him hockey, etcetera, and of course in the end they learn that we should all just be ourselves. I’m very proud of that film because its politics are quite subversive, but it’s all wrapped up in a glossy Hollywood romantic comedy package. The author Michael Downing said it was the first time that he’d seen himself depicted on screen as a gay man, because they’re just men who happen to be gay.”
Killing Patient Zero is streaming in Canada on Crave.
Laurie Lynd’s Killing Patient Zero had its world premiere Hot Docs and its US premiere at DOC NYC. For more details about the film head here and for more on filmmaker Laurie Lynd visit his official website here.