Rob Epstein (left) and Jeffrey Friedman take a breather while filming 'Howl.'

Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Michael Fox November 3, 2011

With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s dramatic nonfiction filmmaking paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman long ago entered the portals of the pantheon of American moviemakers for their pioneering contributions to gay identity and history. Honored by Sundance, Oscar, Emmy and Peabody, the San Francisco filmmakers have received the highest accolades for their deeply moral, difference-making body of work. Oddly enough, though, they have never been properly or even peripherally credited for one of their signal accomplishments, namely their impact on contemporary documentaries.

When the duo embarked on their respective careers in the 1970s, the public definition of documentaries was still “educational films.” A handful of works made that decade began to challenge the prevailing assumption that credible nonfiction was dogmatic, impersonal, bland and boring. Friedman, who cut his chops as a film and television editor in New York, and Epstein, who was introduced to documentary by the quietly impassioned San Francisco filmmaker Peter Adair, rejected that dry bones attitude, and the attendant ghettoization of docs.

When they started collaborating in the mid-’80s, they carefully crafted their films with riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs. Those movies, beginning with the Academy Award-winning Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), were intended to move—and move audiences—in the same unforgettable way as dramatic fiction films. Note well that character-driven, drama-driven films have become the dominant approach in American documentary in the ensuing two decades.

“We’ve always thought of our documentary films as narrative films,” Epstein told an interviewer in 2010 when their portrait of a critical period in Allen Ginsberg’s life, Howl, was released. “So when people say this is our first narrative film, we have to hedge a bit because we’ve considered all our films to be narrative.”

The seeds for Common Threads can be found in the revelatory Word Is Out (1977), the first doc to give voice to gays and lesbians. Produced by the Mariposa Film Group, comprised of Adair, Lucy Massie Phenix, Veronica Selver, Andrew Brown, Nancy Adair and Epstein (who originally came aboard as a production assistant and soon became a full-fledged member), Word Is Out allowed 26 well-chosen queer folks to relate their ordinary yet profoundly touching experiences.

Their brave act of public exposure—the film received a prime-time broadcast—made it possible (if not always easier) for literally thousands of gay men and women to come out to their families and co-workers. A line can be drawn from Word Is Out to an outspoken camera storeowner-cum-San Francisco Supervisor named Harvey Milk, who implored gays and lesbians to declare their homosexuality and erase the stigma.

Milk’s call to action was provoked by a 1978 California proposition, the Briggs Initiative, aimed at ousting openly queer teachers from public schools. The ballot measure had triggered a heated battle over gay rights, and Epstein and another filmmaker named Richard Schmiechen were inspired to embark on a documentary.

The Briggs Initiative was defeated, but the film was set aside when Milk was murdered in City Hall only three weeks later. Epstein and Schmiechen grieved, regrouped and refocused. With Jeffrey Friedman onboard as a consultant and ace editor Deborah Hoffmann at the flatbed, they rebounded with the powerhouse doc The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), which won the Academy Award in an era when Hollywood gays and lesbians had little power or visibility.

It’s worth noting that director Gus van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black drew heavily on The Times of Harvey Milk for their 2008 biopic, Milk. The point is not to denigrate the latter film but to highlight the underappreciated fact that Epstein and Friedman have always aimed their films about gay history and the gay experience to the next generation of change agents: younger moviegoers.

The duo got together and formed Telling Pictures in 1987, shortly after Friedman finished editing Faces of the Enemy for Bill Jersey (who shared his directing credit). Friedman and Epstein’s first joint foray, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, used the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt as the disarming entry point for a collection of family profiles that made Americans understand that there was no such thing as a “deserving” AIDS victim. The film was recognized with the Academy Award for Best Documentary, not least for its ability to transform the attitudes of great numbers of mainstream viewers.

Widely recognized as the country’s premier gay filmmakers—a description they understandably bridled against—Friedman and Epstein were the natural people to adapt Vito Russo’s groundbreaking study of the evolution of gay stereotypes in Hollywood movies, The Celluloid Closet (1995). With a budget of $1.5 million to accommodate the licensing of hundreds of clips, the filmmakers availed themselves of Tinseltown’s now-out-of-the-closet queer execs for various forms of assistance, from money to rare footage.

Reaching further back into history to fill in the perennially missing chapter in the expanding library of documentaries about the Holocaust, the duo next examined the lives of homosexuals in Germany before and during the Third Reich. An unsettlingly beautiful work, Paragraph 175 (2000) received the jury prize for directing at Sundance.

Epstein and Friedman spent a chunk of the ’00s pushing into television, making some headway with nonfiction segments for Crime & Punishment (NBC), America Undercover and Real Sex (both HBO). They made no secret of their desire to direct fiction, but their ambitions ran headlong into a difficult financing climate for independent films that took risks.

When Allen Ginsberg’s estate approached them about making a film marking the 50th anniversary of Howl, Friedman and Epstein originally envisioned a nonfiction documentary film. But that idea began to melt away, even as they delved into the brouhaha and obscenity trial that followed the publication of the epic poem by City Lights’ Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Inspired by Ginsberg’s outspokenness in the middle of the buttoned-down ’50s, the filmmakers tracked their creative impulses into uncharted realms. They commissioned animation to accompany the reading of the entire poem and cast James Franco as Ginsberg, in part to make the film—and the young queer poet’s New York world—more inviting for next-generation filmgoers.

“We didn’t want it to be a film about older people looking back on their younger selves,” Friedman told an interviewer when Howl came out. “We really wanted it to be about younger people in the moment of their vibrancy, and for the story to live in the present tense.”

The film reflected the dominant concerns that had always defined Epstein and Friedman, to engage 20-somethings and to push themselves creatively into new territory.

Howl landed about where we expected—not where we had hoped, but about where we had expected,” Epstein confided to an interviewer. “We knew it was an experimental film. We were really pushing the envelope in terms of form, and that’s what we were interested in doing, really sort of transitioning from documentary to scripted narrative and using a lot of documentary techniques with the narrative.”

Epstein and Friedman, now in production on Lovelace, about the star of ’70s porn hit Deep Throat, surely deserve to be recognized as Essential SF honorees for their several great documentaries, and the artful, witty and subtle ways they spread tolerance and advanced the cause of gay rights. But this award can also be seen as a hat tip to their willingness to step out on the skinny branches, rather than try to repeat past successes. It’s an homage to genuine artists.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.

  • Oct 19, 2011

    Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

    Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.