By David Ehrenstein
Sep 22 2010
In some ways, everything's changed and it's a new world for gays and
lesbians," gay documentary filmmaker Rob Epstein says. "On the other
hand, if you're coming out now alone and isolated somewhere without
any support system, it's the same as it ever was." Which is why, in
their latest project, Howl, Epstein and his partner (in cinema and
life), Jeffrey Friedman, chose to explore "a certain historical
moment," namely the mid-1950s, when Allen Ginsberg's seminal work of
the same name shook the status quo as few poems had ever done for its
evocations of revolt, its personal insights, and its acts of anal sex
at which one "screamed with joy."
"Has there ever been a biopic of a poem?" Friedman asks with a
chuckle. "I guess ours is the first." During a lunchtime interview
while in Los Angeles fulfilling their duties as members of the board
of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences'
documentary committee, Epstein and Friedman have the easy rapport of
a long-married couple (they've been together for more than 30 years
in art, and much of that time in life as well) and renewed energy
from Howl, their first dramatic feature, which premiered at this
year's Sundance Film Festival to mixed reviews. Having covered AIDS
(Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt), Hollywood (The Celluloid
Closet), the Holocaust (Paragraph 175), and Harvey Milk (Epstein's
solo effort, The Times of Harvey Milk), the topic of Allen Ginsberg
and the Beats appears to be a perfect fit. But their usual approach
(combining archival footage with newly shot interviews) wouldn't work
"There really isn't that much footage of everybody other than Pull My
Daisy," Friedman notes. And that spirited 1959 short (featuring the
Beats and Delphine Seyrig), wasn't about Ginsberg's poem or its
fallout obscenity trial that's at the heart of Howl. There's no
footage of Ginsberg's famous first reading of the poem at the Six
Gallery in 1955, and there were no cameras in the San Francisco
courtroom in 1957, when fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was put on
trial for publishing "Howl." But everything else necessary for
documentary research was there particularly the trial transcript
and numerous recorded interviews with Ginsberg. So Epstein and
Friedman found themselves going the narrative route, directing James
Franco (Ginsberg), Jon Hamm (defense attorney Jake Ehrlich), David
Strathairn (prosecutor Ralph McIntosh), Bob Balaban (Judge Clayton
Horn), and a host of other notable players in supporting roles.
The Palo Altoborn-and-raised Franco was suggested to the duo by Gus
Van Sant. "The first time we met was on the set of [Van Sant's] Milk.
They were filming the nude scene," Epstein recalls. "It was a closed
set, so we didn't get to see him in the nude. But we met up soon
thereafter. He told us he'd been a fan of the Beats since he was 14.
He began hanging out at the City Lights bookstore, and he went on to
get a degree in American literature. So there was all sorts of
synergy apparent from the get-go. Everybody came on for all the right reasons."
Of their first time directing performers, Friedman says: "Actors are
people who are trained to give you those moments you are always
looking for. So in some ways it felt natural."
"Working with actors is like driving a car," Epstein notes. "Turn the
wheel to the right, and it will steer right." The filmmakers also
added animation to their storytelling mix, turning to artist Eric
Drooker, whose illustrations prove ideal for exploring, say, the
poem's evocation of Ginsberg friend Carl Solomon's shock treatments,
"where you will split the heavens of Long Island and resurrect your
living human Jesus from the superhuman tomb."
As evidenced by just that one line from the poem, "there's something
very fascinating about this period," Epstein says. "It's very
romantic. Right in the middle of the 20th century, amidst all this
kind of conformity and an explosion of consumerism, there was this
movement away from that, and that's really the beginning of the
counterculture: the antiwar movement, the hippies, feminism, gay liberation."
Epstein and Friedman began their filmmaking careers in the wake of it
all. "I started out at 19. My mentorship, working with Peter Adair on
Word Is Out," Friedman says, referring to the groundbreaking 1977
documentary (just recently made available on DVD), which showed gays
and lesbians not as psychotics or sinners, but as real people who
spoke freely of their lives in defiance of church and state.
As for the future, the pair have two projects in development. One is
about Linda Lovelace a biopic, but "not the Lindsay Lohan thing,"
Epstein says. The other is about Tennessee Williams' early years.
"We're trying to isolate a small portion of his life and show how it
was transformed into art," Epstein says. "The period when he finally
got away from his mother, and became the author of The Glass
Menagerie." No, it won't have the best minds of a generation
"destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves
through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix," but
being about Tennessee Williams, the filmmakers say, "it will feature