The gay community should express gratitude to Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.
Together, these two gay directors have brought us a slew of documentaries that have significantly raised the profile and importance of gay historical figures and the impact of Our People on the mainstream artistic culture. In addition to The Celluloid Closet and Paragraph 175, they've won documentary Oscars for The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.
Now these two are making their narrative film debut with Howl, which tracks the creation of queer icon Allen Ginsberg's groundbreaking poem "Howl," it's publication in 1955 and the obscenity trial that followed in 1957. The film, artistic and passionate, represents another important moment in queer cinematic history ( not to mention a galvanizing performance by its star, James Franco ) . In person, the duo ( once partners, now each happily coupled with another ) crackles with enthusiasm for this latest project.
Windy City Times: You must be a tad nervousthis being your first narrative, the movie's difficult subject matter and its G-A-Y theme ( which isn't always so easy to get financed ) and which sometimes has a hard time finding audiences.
Rob Epstein: Gay was the easiest partin a sense.
Jeffrey Friedman: We've made a lot of gay themed movies in the past so that the bigger challenges were formal challenges. They were how to tell a story about a moment in our culture that was impacted by this small group of sexy, young poets who were out there rebelling and trying to create a new art form.
WCT: After years of doing gay historical documentaries, what made you take the leap into narrative?
Rob Epstein: A confluence of factors. First of all, we long wanted to work in scripted, dramatic form working with actors and also, it didn't feel like such a departure to us because we always think of our documentaries as narrative films and have approached them in that manner. But mostly, with this story we wanted it within the present tense. We didn't want older men looking back on their younger selves. We really wanted those younger selves to live in the movie and make it about that golden moment when they were in their creative and sexual prime.
Jeffrey Friedman: This is a project that we started working on about eight years ago when we got a call from the Allen Ginsberg estate. Bob Rosenthal, who had been Allen's secretary for 30 years, called and wanted to do something for the 50th anniversary of "Howl." So we started thinking about "Howl" as the subject for a film and started trying to figure out ways of approaching it. Then the creative challenges really engaged us but also, it's place as a milestone in the culture that really began all the cultural ferment that I experienced in my life growing up in the '60s, '70s and '80s. It felt like it all began in this small group of counterculture writers in the '50s.
WCT: How early in the process did James Franco get involved?
Jeffrey Friedman: The script wasn't finished but it was pretty close and we showed it to Gus Van Sant, who was in San Francisco shooting Milk.
Rob Epstein: But that first draft that James saw didn't yet have the performative element of the poem and it was in one of those rehearsalsthat we videotaped for our own internal screen test purposesJames reading the poem and it was such a performance that we knew that had to be part of the film.
WCT: Was he at the top of the list for the part?
Rob Epstein: Yeah.
Jeffrey Friedman: Yeah, absolutely. Once Gus suggested him. We didn't know his work that well, but Gus was working with him and knew that he was a serious artist and poet and writer and student of literature.
Rob Epstein: And great actor.
Jeffrey Friedman: He's done some really amazing performancesespecially his James Dean TV biopic, where I think it's easy to be under impressed by his physical similarity to Dean but when you look closely at the performance he's so emotionally deep.
WCT: How did this compare with working on one of your documentaries?
Jeffrey Friedman: It was a dream! We got to create worlds with the most talented people in the business. We had an amazing crew and an amazing cast.
Rob Epstein: And everybody was there for the right reasons and everybody was having fun doing it. It felt like one of those projects that felt like it came along at the right time. And it was a fast-moving train14 days.
WCT: I'm assuming after working together for so long you have a creative shorthand in your documentary work. How did that translate with live actors?
Rob Epstein: We just had faith that it would work and it did. I think the actors responded to us as a collective entity and also two distinct personalities.
WCT: Will there be documentary material included on the DVD?
Jeffrey Friedman: Yes, research interviews and other things for sure that we did in preparing the film.
WCT: Two movies for the price of one! [ Laughs ]
Jeffrey Friedman: Yesand there will be an audio version of James Franco reading the entire poem.
WCT: I love that the movie ties together artistic and sexual freedomgay sexuality, in particularbut here we are 55 years later and these battles are still going on. What do you two have to say to young queer artists just starting out? Because, let's face it: You're both trailblazers for our community.
Jeffrey Friedman: Don't be afraiddon't let them beat you down.
Rob Epstein: And speak your truth. What young people have to say in 10 years into the 21st century is going to be very different than what I might have had to say coming of age in the 1970s, so I'm really curious to see what are the things that they're interested in.