Exclusive Interview: Jeffrey Friedman on his Oscar-winning decades-long filmmaking partnership with Rob Epstein

This Pride Month the Criterion Channel is showcasing the Oscar-winning work of filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman with the eight film collection, Pride and Protest. In 1977, Friedman, who was working as an assistant editor in New York, was struck by the power of queer filmmakers putting queer lives on screen when he encountered the groundbreaking documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, which Epstein had co-directed. The film made such an impact on Friedman that when he moved to California he sought out those who’d made it, leading to a meeting with Epstein which resulted in a decades-long and still ongoing creative collaboration between the two men.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman behind the scenes on Where Are We? Our Trip Through America (1992). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Forming their San Francisco-based production company Telling Pictures in 1987, among their collaborations is the Academy Award-winning AIDS documentary, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt; the Emmy-nominated, Peabody-winning documentary The Celluloid Closet, a study of queer images in Hollywood movies based on Vito Russo’s book; the Teddy-winning Paragraph 175 which examines the persecution of gay men in Germany under its titular sodomy law; and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-nominated Howl, which recreates the 1957 obscenity trial following the publication of Ginsberg’s poem. The collection on Criterion Channel also features 1992’s Where Are We? Our Trip Through America, which saw the filmmakers take a road trip through an America unknown to them, seeking to find some common ground with those they encountered at a time of sharp divisions in the country over LGBTQ issues and the Gulf War. The AIDS Show, which Epstein co-directed with his mentor Peter Adair in 1986, a drama/documentary hybrid based on San Francisco’s long-running Theatre Rhinoceros stage production of the same name, and Epstein’s Oscar-winning The Times of Harvey Milk complete the films now showing on Criterion.

In 2018, the San Francisco Film Society honoured Friedman and Epstein with the George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award in recognition of their distinguished service to cinema. Together they have built a rich body of work chronicling and examining queer lives over the last century, many of the films are landmark, seminal works which not only form an integral part of cinema history but have helped to shape our perception of ourselves and our place in the world, while creating meaningful LGBTQ visibility.

Jeffrey Friedman. Photo credit: Don Holtz.

Reflecting on crafting his collaborations with Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: what does it mean to you to have these films collected by Criterion and showcased on Criterion Channel this Pride Month?

Jeffrey Friedman: “It’s a huge honour. I’ve always had tremendous respect for Criterion and for them to do a retrospective like this is very meaningful, especially at this point in my career, looking back and seeing what Rob and I have managed to accomplish. It means a lot to both of us.”

Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

You started out in your film career in the early 70s as an apprentice editor working on the likes of Friedkin’s The Exorcist and as an assistant editor on Scorsese’s Raging Bull with Thelma Schoonmaker, going on to edit some of your own films such as The Celluloid Closet and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. How has your experience as an editor informed your work in other areas of filmmaking such as directing?

“Editing is a great place to learn about the whole process of filmmaking because you’re putting the film together, but you’re also seeing what the possibilities are, as well as what possibilities may have been missed in shooting. It’s a pivotal point in the process and it was a great education for me, that was my film school. Moving from editing to directing required learning some new skills, but coming from editing really gave me a perspective on what would be needed to create an effective narrative.”

Donald Hackett in Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

The first film in the Pride and Protest collection on the Criterion Channel is Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives. It’s from 1977, so before you began working with Rob Epstein, but what can you remember about your reaction to the film when you first saw it, what kind of impact did it have on you?

“I was a young assistant editor working in New York City in the mainstream film industry, working on documentaries and feature films and feeling rather alienated from the whole film world, which at that time I perceived as very macho and explicitly homophobic. It was a job that I was good at but I felt disconnected from most of the material that the films were dealing with. In 1977, a friend of mine dragged me to a movie theater to see a documentary that he thought it was necessary for me to see, Word Is Out.”

Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

“That film really opened my eyes and kind of blew my mind. It was the first documentary made by gay people about the gay experience. It was a really well-made film and it impressed me that there were such talented, committed filmmakers doing work that reflected my life and my experience. I made a mental note that when I got to the West Coast I was going to connect with the people who’d made it, and that’s what I did a few years later. When I moved to San Francisco I had the name of one of the filmmakers, Veronica Selver, and we went for a drink together and she introduced me to Rob Epstein who had also worked on the film. So that’s how I met Rob, that’s how our friendship began and that evolved into our working relationship.”

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

You then became involved with the making of The Times of Harvey Milk, which is also part of the collection on the Criterion Channel. In what capacity were you working on that film and why was it something that you wanted to help get made?

“I was essentially a volunteer, a friend of the film. I was working on another feature film as an associate editor, Never Cry Wolf, when Rob was working on The Times of Harvey Milk. We were good friends, so I offered my expertise wherever it was useful. There are a lot of photographs in the film and I had some experience designing moves on still photos, so photo animation is how I helped practically. I also looked at rough cuts with Rob and editor Debbie Hoffmann and gave my thoughts and suggestions. I was one of a number of people from the community who wanted to see this film get made. It felt like a story that needed to be told. It was what was happening in the world around us, which seemed very important to us at the time and I think in retrospect it was a really important moment.”

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Was Harvey Milk’s story known widely across the country at that point?

“No, it wasn’t. I moved to San Francisco after Harvey was killed, but before Dan White went on trial. Living in New York as a young gay man I had read stories in The New York Times about the events in San Francisco, so I knew that there was a gay politician who had been murdered, along with the mayor, but it wasn’t something that registered as a big deal at the time. It felt like it was a part of that general craziness that was happening on the West Coast, around the same time as the Jonestown suicide massacre. That was my perception of it at the time.”

The AIDS Show (1986). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Before you made Common Threads with Rob he co-directed The AIDS Show, which again is on the Criterion Channel as part of this collection. I know you saw the live theatrical production, why did that feel like it was an important thing to document early on in the AIDS crisis?

The AIDS Show on stage was for us in San Francisco the first time that gay people, specifically gay men mostly, were putting a name to what was going on around us and talking about it in a way that was really difficult. We knew AIDS was happening and we were terrified of it. We all responded differently, but my experience—and what I observed in the gay men who I knew at the time—was that it was almost too terrifying to talk about. We didn’t know what it was and we didn’t know how it was spread. We didn’t know if we were all infected and we didn’t know if we were all going to die. Then I saw The AIDS Show at Theatre Rhinoceros and here were people having conversations about it that many of us wanted to have, but were too afraid to and didn’t have the language to.”

The AIDS Show (1986). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

“If my memory serves correctly, I told Rob and Peter Adair that they should see the show and that might have been the inception of the film. The AIDS Show film was an attempt to document this phenomenon that was happening in the community and to further the conversation that we were all trying to have.”

Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

You continued that conversation with your first film with Rob as co-directors, writers, producers, and editors on 1989’s Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. Why did you want to approach the AIDS crisis in that way with the documentary?

“Rob and I saw the first unfolding of the quilt in 1987. We were in Washington DC with some filmmaker friends including Peter Adair, who was the mastermind behind Word Is Out and with whom Rob had made The AIDS Show. We were all on the quilt together at the same time and it was such an overwhelming experience. The quilt was an amazing phenomenon when it was displayed out on the National Mall in Washington DC. It was at once monumental in size—when we first saw it there were 2,000 panels, it went on as far as you could see—and at the same time it was so intimate and poignant because each panel was made by somebody who had lost somebody they’d loved and it was remembering that person. So it was a really emotional and powerful thing to experience and we were all experiencing it together. At one point, Peter said, ‘Somebody needs to make a movie about this’, and Rob and I had already talked about collaborating on a movie together, so we decided to take up the challenge.”

Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

“We went back to San Francisco and met with the NAMES Project’s Cleve Jones and Mike Smith, who had conceived the concept of the quilt and made it happen. They liked the idea of a film being made and supported us in developing it. Rob and I spent the next year trying to figure out how to make a narrative documentary out of a quilt. The NAMES Project had asked people who’d made quilt panels to write letters about the person they were memorializing, so we went through the files of letters that had arrived with the quilt panels. At one point there were 2,000 letters that we read through with our co-writer Cindy Ruskin, who had already been working on a book about the quilt. The three of us read through them all and winnowed it down to about 200 that we thought had potential as cinematic stories. We did pre-interviews by phone with those 200 people and then did a further winnowing down to about 60 people who we interviewed on videotape. From those 60, we chose five stories that we decided to tell as a way of personalizing, in a universal way, the stories that the quilt represented.”

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman in Where Are We? Our Trip Through America (1992). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Next came 1992’s Where Are We? Our Trip Through America, which again you co-directed with Rob. What was the impetus for that film?

Where Are We? was something we came up with as a response to a request for proposals from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The theme was rediscovering America and we came up with the idea of doing a road trip through the country, meeting people from backgrounds different from ours. We were both gay men who came from the East Coast and lived on the West Coast and we knew that there was this big country in the middle whose lives we were not that familiar with, and who we felt had experiences which were socially and culturally different from ours. We thought it would be interesting to take a trip through this unknown land, unknown to us anyway, to discover what the differences really were and what we had in common.”

Where Are We? Our Trip Through America (1992). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

“The big challenge was whether we could make a meaningful connection with people that we met randomly as we were on our journey. We would drive into a town and we’d all get out of the van—there were only five of us because it was a very small crew—and we would look around and we’d find someplace interesting, like a barber shop or a luncheonette, and we would just go in and ask people if they minded talking to us on camera. We found that people were very open to talking with us.”

Where Are We? Our Trip Through America (1992). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

“It was a different kind of filmmaking from Common Threads or Rob’s previous films which were very much premeditated and thought-out beforehand. With those previous films, we had a general idea of what the structure of the film was going to be, what the stories were going to be, and how they were going to fit into the overall structure. With Where Are We? it was a much more loose and improvisational process, and it felt very freeing and very terrifying. All films are terrifying in their own way, but this one was terrifying because we had no idea if we were going to get enough material to construct a coherent narrative. It was a fun adventure and eye-opening in many ways. It’s a film that I’ve enjoyed going back to and looking at because it is a snapshot of what was going on in the United States at a certain moment, but it does have real resonance for what’s going on today. You can really see the seeds of our fractured culture back in 1991 when we made the film.”

The Celluloid Closet (1995). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Let’s talk about The Celluloid Closet. I know that you and Rob were friends with Vito Russo, and attended his lecture clip shows. How did you go about translating both that in-person event, which was very much infused with his personality, and his book into documentary form?

“Vito would travel around showing film clips and talking about them and the book developed out of that. He was determined that there should be a documentary based on it and he came to us for help and advice, which we gladly gave. As we were helping him to develop it we got more interested in it and began to see how it could work as a film. Vito’s personality, as you pointed out, was so much a part of his clip shows and his book that we really felt that we should use that to develop the film, but Vito was already getting sick.”

The Celluloid Closet (1995). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

“By the time we had finished making Common Threads, Vito’s health was deteriorating and it was clear to him that he might not be around for the making of The Celluloid Closet, so he encouraged us to come up with an approach that didn’t rely on his personality, so that’s what we did. We started working with producer Michael Lumpkin and began with the research that Vito had done. Then we broadened it beyond that and brought it up to the present, because his book was published in 1981 so it’d already been out for 10 years or so when we started working on the film.”

The Celluloid Closet (1995). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

“Vito gave us a lot of guidance. He thought the film should be entertaining. He loved movies, even as they frustrated him and broke his heart. That all came from a really deep love of the medium. He was very clear that he thought that the movie version of The Celluloid Closet should draw people in with the entertainment value of 100 years of movie clips, and that the accumulation of stereotypical queer images would speak for itself. So that was the guiding principle that we used in making the film.”

The Celluloid Closet (1995). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

When it came to making your next film with Rob, Paragraph 175, there was some crossover in the time periods that you were dealing with in The Celluloid Closet, though obviously in a different country. Having just made The Celluloid Closet, did you see any parallels or connections with the way that queer people are depicted or our access to seeing those images and how powerful that can be?

“The only explicit parallel that I thought about was that the early 1930s was a particularly fucked up time. 1934 was the year of the production code in the United States, so it was the year that images of gay people had to go underground and become very coded, while the previous year in Europe saw the rise of fascism and the Nazis especially, which also drove gay people and gay culture underground. Something that I came to understand in the making of Paragraph 175 was that just as we see in The Celluloid Closet that there had been a plethora of queer imagery—that was stereotyped, but kind of in a good-natured way—in the United States before the production code, similarly in Weimar Germany in the 1920s there was this really thriving gay and lesbian culture that was driven underground by the Nazis. Then it became something much more dire, mostly for gay men, who were arrested under Paragraph 175, the German sodomy law.”

Paragraph 175 (2000). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
Paragraph 175 (2000). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

“Many of these men after the war lived with a real sense of shame and didn’t talk about their experiences and remained closeted. Klaus Müller, the historian in Paragraph 175, who brought the subject to Rob and me, had been doing research on these men for years before we first met him in Amsterdam. He told us that he’d been researching this older generation of German gay people, and being German himself, he was researching his own past. He told us that he’d found some queer survivors of Nazi persecution who he thought would be willing to speak openly on film for the first time. The men had hardly spoken about their experiences to anybody except Klaus. One of them, Heinz F, had never talked to anybody at all about it until we filmed him. The interviews are really powerful as a result of that. These are things they had wanted to talk about for 50 years but had been repressing them.”

Howl (2010). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

The last film in the collection on the Criterion Channel is Howl. Why did you think that hybrid documentary/scripted narrative structure would be a good approach for the subject of Allen Ginsberg’s poem?

“We actually started making it as a documentary about the poem. We did a few interviews with people who were involved, like the publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Orlovsky, Allen’s lover at the time, but we were struggling to find a way to capture the youthful energy that inspired the poem and that the poem embodies. It’s very much the expression of a young poet bursting with creativity, and it was really challenging to evoke that talking to people in their 80s, remembering something that happened 50 years ago. We decided that we needed to recreate that moment and to find a way of bringing it to life. That gave us the idea of using the documentary material that we had, which included interviews that Allen Ginsberg had given over the course of his career, as well as using the transcript of the obscenity trial, and the poem itself. We used that material to create a present tense telling of the story which we could imbue with that youthful, sexual energy that the poem describes.”

Howl (2010). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

When I studied the poem I had a copy of that beautiful illustrated edition with artwork by Eric Drooker which you incorporate in the film.

“Yes, that book was an inspiration for the animated portion of the film. We got in touch with Eric Drooker who had collaborated with Ginsburg on it, and has since gone on to be a celebrated artist and creator of many New Yorker covers. We met with him in the Bay Area where he was living and where Rob and I live, and we floated the idea of him doing an animated version of the poem. At first he thought it was hilarious, then he started to get inspired by it and became the art director and creator of the imagery for the animated sections of the poem in the film.”

Amanda Seyfried in Lovelace (2013). Photo credit: Dale Robinette/RADiUS-TWC.

How directly did Howl, which includes scripted narrative elements, lead to Lovelace, your first entirely scripted narrative feature?

Lovelace was a job that we were hired as directors on, but we had really enjoyed working with actors on Howl and it was something that we’d always been aiming for, to broaden from strictly documentaries into scripted narrative. When the possibility of Lovelace came along, we showed them a rough cut of Howl and that helped us get the job, so to that extent there’s is a continuous thread from Howl to Lovelace. We also came up with a fresh take on telling the story that the producers liked. Lovelace is of course based on a true story, so in a sense we were drawing on our documentary roots, but it was a completely scripted narrative film and that was tremendously exciting creatively and technically for us. It’s always great to be challenged creatively after working in the same general mode of storytelling for several decades, it’s great to be learning new skills and being challenged in new ways.”

Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, featured in The Celluloid Closet (1995). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

One last question for you, what’s your favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

“What immediately comes to mind is the John Schlesinger film, Sunday Bloody Sunday, which I think is because I’m currently reading Glenn Frankel’s book about the making of Midnight Cowboy. Or maybe it should be Cabaret. I’m trying to think of a film where I first saw queer desire portrayed with complexity and honesty. Certainly Word Is Out was a huge influence on me. So I guess I’ll go with Word Is Out, Cabaret, My Beautiful Laundrette, and Sunday Bloody Sunday. As soon as I think of one I start thinking of dozens of others, so it’s impossible to pick just one!”

By James Kleinmann

The eight film collection, Pride and Protest The Films of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is currently playing on the Criterion Channel.

Pride and Protest The Films of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

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