TCM celebrates legendary documentary filmmakers on June 28

June 24, 2021 | MK Scott
TCM celebrates legendary documentary filmmakers on June 28

When I first saw The Celluloid Closet in the late '90s, I was blown away. It was a perfect documentary from start to finish, directed by a team of Gay directors, Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein. I so much wanted to meet them!

And now, 20-plus years later, I got the chance to interview them.

(Editor's note: The interview with Friedman and Epstein below is followed by an interview with Hollywood insider Dave Karger.)

MK Scott: I'm excited to talk to you... You two are one of the first documentary filmmakers to make it in the mainstream, and now TCM is giving you your own night to share some of your best work. What was your feeling when they had first approached you on that?

MK Rob Epstein: Excited, thrilled, honored. It's great. I think all but one of these films have never been on TCM before. And it's really a wonderful treat to have them collate it, curate it, and present it as an evening of our films. And we had the opportunity [to work] with TCM a number of years ago on a film called And the Oscar Goes To.

MK Scott: I saw that. That was fabulous. It was a really, really good piece.

MK Jeffrey Friedman: Thanks. It's fun to be working with them on this side as well.

MK Scott: For nearly 35 years you have brought to the screen a variety of stories, from Harvey Milk and the Holocaust to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and finally, one of my favorites, The Celluloid Closet. Which one impacted you the most?

JF: That's like asking if you have a favorite child, right? Like most parents do have a favorite child, they just never admit it. (laugh)

...Now there's so much distance between us and most of these films... it's like being reacquainted with, you know, an old friend, a family member that you've had a long history with and hadn't seen for a while. So I just tend to get just completely absorbed in the film and the experience of making the film.

RE: Thinking of them all together playing in the course of a night, or the retrospective that we've had, I'm more impressed by how many films we've made. You know, we've been at this for a long time, and each one of these films took years to make. And all of our energy and creativity and, you know, just our lives were immersed in these subjects. So seeing them collected this way impresses me just with how long we've been at this.

MK Scott: Speaking of The Celluloid Closet, you got a chance to interview a lot of major, major people, from Gore Vidal to Quentin Crisp to Shirley MacLaine. Was there any interview that intimidated you at all?

RE: Gore Vidal was pretty intimidating.

JE: Arthur Laurents was pretty intimidating. Shirley MacLaine was intimidating until she got to the set. Then she was a total pussycat, Well, you see why people are stars when they [have] such charismatic magnetism.

MK Scott: Probably one of the most serious films I had ever seen was Paragraph 175. I thought it was a beautiful, beautiful film. Were there any particular stories from that that touched you the most?

RE: They were all touching. You know, those were personal stories of these men who had gone through this horrendous period, the Nazi era, and were victimized by the Nazis. Most of them had never talked about it.

One in particular, Heinz F., had really never told his story to anybody until he gave an interview for our film. And there were people who just found it too painful. There's one person in there, near the beginning of the film, who just says he doesn't want to talk about it anymore. Because it was just such a painful period in his life. He wants to forget about it and move on at age 93 or something.

So, yeah, I mean, I found them all touching. They were beautiful, they're beautiful men. It was very special to hear their stories.

JF: One of the most touching moments in the making of that film was actually at the premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, when two of the men met for the first time - two of the surviving men - one of whom was German and the other was French. And the French guy had said that he never expected to set foot on German soil again. And there they were on stage, holding hands to a standing ovation at the Berlin Film Festival. That was a very moving moment.

MK Scott: How have documentaries changed in the last 30-plus years?

JF: Oh, in so many ways. I think the genre lines are getting a lot blurrier... people are using aspects of dramatic filmmaking, and animation. I think the vocabulary of the documentary has certainly broadened, and that's changed the form.

...When I started out, with Word Is Out, those films were more premeditated.... I think the form just continues to evolve.

MK Scott: I once interviewed Jeffrey Schwartz, and I know you know him from when you were in the Vito documentary.

RE: Right. He worked on The Celluloid Closet.

MK Scott: And actually his style is actually very similar to yours. So I'm sure he was very influenced by you.

JF: Well, he actually... when he graduated college, he came to San Francisco to intern with us, and that's how he ended up being assistant editor on The Celluloid Closet.

MK Scott: Oh my gosh. And then like two, three years ago, [in] State of Pride, you talked to different kinds of people in the community, but they were all in the Deep South, or they were in small towns. And I thought that was actually pretty moving as well.

RE: Yeah, that was a commissioned film with YouTube. We worked with Raymond Braun on that. And it was interesting to see how much has changed and how much hasn't... how some of the struggles that people are going through back when we were coming out, young people are still going through in different parts of the country.

MK Scott: So now you have a Grammy [for Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice], you have two Oscars, you have an Emmy. All you need now is a Tony, and then you're an EGOT.

JF: Yes. We'll have to figure out which of our films would work as a musical theater adaptation.

MK Scott: My last question. Would you ever consider doing a sequel to The Celluloid Closet, but focusing on films from the last 25 years?

JF: Well, Jeffrey Schwartz is actually developing an idea. We've been working with him, supporting him in developing an idea that would be along those lines.

RE: Hopefully that will happen one day. A little chat with a Hollywood Insider
I also had a chance to chat with Hollywood insider Dave Karger, one of my favorite entertainment journalists, whom I have interviewed three times. You have seen him around Oscar time on Access Hollywood or the Today show, or as one of the hosts of Tuner Classic Movies. Talking to Karger was like catching up with an old friend.

MK Scott: Okay, so TCM is doing a special night with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Was this your idea?

Dave Karger: I can take partial credit for this. So the TCM programmers wanted to do a night of LGBTQ-themed documentaries. And they sent me the list of movies that they were planning on airing, and it was Harvey Milk, Common Threads, and Word Is Out.

I was looking over the list, and I said, these are all Rob Epstein and/or Jeffrey Friedman movies. We should get them to co-host with me. So the talent department said, Oh, that's an interesting idea. So they got onboard and were able to get Rob and Jeffrey onboard.

I really pushed for programming to include The Celluloid Closet, because that's a film that I watched right when I started my career. I had just started at Entertainment Weekly. [It] came out in early 1996 in theaters [and] I remember... just being so affected by it. It just caused me to look at films in such a different way.

So it's a movie that we've never shown on TCM before, but it's such a natural fit for our TCM audience. So I'm so glad that we're showing that one too, and it was a thrill to have Rob and Jeffrey on the network with me for the whole night.

MKS: In a few words, what do you think of The Celluloid Closet?

DK: I think The Celluloid Closet is one of the most purely entertaining documentaries that I've ever seen. And because of just the way they pace the movies and edit the movie, plus Lily Tomlin's very wry narration, I think it's a must-see for any movie fan, particularly a classic movie fan, because it helps you understand what the Hays production code really did to films for the 35 years that it was in effect. And it helps you see, you know, how far we've come as far as LGBTQ representation [where] film is concerned.

MKS: I could not agree more. I told them when I spoke to them yesterday [that] everything about it was just so perfect, with Lily Tomlin's narration as well as K.D. Lang's rendition of Secret Love.

DK: Don't you love that at the end, to hear that Doris Day?

MKS: Very much. Regarding Paragraph 175, what do you think of that film?

DK: That was so eye-opening. I had never seen that one until just a couple of weeks ago, when I was preparing to talk to them. And it's a very different film for them, because it's an international story. Most of the films that they do [deal] with more domestic issues.

And just in talking to them, [it was interesting to learn] about Klaus Müller, the Nazi-era historian who we see interviewing all of these survivors in the film. This man approached Rob and Jeffrey to get them onboard to direct a documentary in relation to the work that he was doing. It just speaks to how groundbreaking and influential and in demand these two filmmakers are, that people were coming out of the woodwork trying to get them onboard to do documentaries with them.

So it's a fascinating film. It's heartbreaking to hear from some of these survivors who are just unable to talk to anyone about what they had experienced during the Nazi era as gay men. It's very sad. But absolutely worth your time.

MKS: What did you think of The Times of Harvey Milk?

DK: That's a film that we've shown several times on TCM. And I've even introduced it before.

Here's the weird story behind this, for me, very personally: That was the first movie that I can personally recall seeing win an Oscar. I was 11 years old. I don't know why I was watching the Oscars in 1985, but I was, and I remember seeing a movie called The Times of Harvey Milk win for Best Documentary.

Of course I didn't know who Harvey Milk was. I didn't realize the significance of an LGBTQ-themed movie winning an Oscar, because that had essentially never happened before. I think it's such a brilliantly made documentary, because it tells the fascinating story of Harvey Milk and his shocking death, but it also puts him in a larger context of what was going on in the early '80s in San Francisco, [and also] all over the country, with the gay movement.

It's a hard movie to watch at times, but's exceptionally well done and so deserving of the Oscar win.

MKS: And I think it actually set the stage for Lance Black to put together the screenplay for Milk.

DK: I think you can make the argument that without that documentary, there would have been no narrative films directed by Gus Van Sant and starring John Patton. I think one really did lead to the other.

MKS: I completely agree. And also, I had forgot that they had directed Howl, about Allen Ginsberg.

DK: Yeah, it's interesting, I mean Rob and Jeffrey are probably best known for their LBGTQ-themed documentaries, but they've also branched out into these other worlds with narrative film. They co-directed the Allen Ginsberg film Howl, they directed a [biopic] about Linda Lovelace, and then they've also done non-LBGTQ themed [films] too. They had a really fascinating short documentary called End Game about end-of-life care. And one of my favorite things they've ever done, just from a year and a half ago, is a great documentary about Linda Ronstadt called The Sound of My Voice, which won a Grammy. So they're just such impressive guys and everything they do just seems to be exceptional.

MKS: Well, I just told them that if they ever decide that, okay, we're going to do something on Broadway, then they could win a Tony and actually be an EGOT.

DK: Oh, my god, wouldn't that be great? That's right. They've got the Emmy, they've got the Oscar. Well, technically - and it's kind of dorky - but technically Jeffrey does not have an Oscar. Rob has two, but Jeffrey was not technically eligible to personally win the Oscar. When Common Threads did win, Jeffrey was onstage with Rob, but only Rob and the producer of the film won the Oscar. I think the rules were such that only one director and one producer could win. So sadly, Jeffrey does not have an Oscar, but Rob has two.

MKS: Well, Rob did say that he's perfectly fine being an EGO.

DK: (laugh) Well, if you watch - that's very funny - if you watch our interview on... Monday the 28th, you'll see in the back corner of the frame is an Oscar and a Grammy that they've won, that Rob has won.

MKS: Amazing. Of course, as an Oscar insider, I'm sure you were a big fan of their TCM documentary, And the Oscar Goes To.

DK: You know, it's so great that we have this history with them.

And it's fun because, you know, I think they even remarked on the fact that they were a little bit less comfortable being on that side of the interview. Usually they're the ones doing the interviewing... But even with their discomfort they still did a fantastic job of answering all of my questions. And they had great memories for all of the wonderful films they've worked on.

MKS: What do you think Rob and Jeff's legacy is for documentary filmmaking?

DK: I think it's twofold. I think on one hand they were groundbreaking as far as bringing LBGTQ-themed films to the attention of the Academy and thereby to, you know, the larger film-going public, with things like Harvey Milk and Common Threads.

But then I think they've never been people to rest on their laurels, literally. They're always looking for something new and provocative to explore. And I think they will go down in history as two of the preeminent documentarians and perhaps the most acclaimed gay documentarians.

MKS: Absolutely. I mentioned to them that Jeffrey Schwartz, whom I interviewed when he did the Divine documentary, has a very similar style, which I realized before they mentioned that Jeffrey was actually an assistant editor for Celluloid Closet.

DK: Well, there you go. So they're obviously even helping to foster a whole next generation of wonderful filmmakers.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will be celebrating Pride Month with a special night of programming on Monday, June 28, hosted by Dave Karger and featuring the LGBTQ-centric documentaries of Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein, including both the Oscar-winning The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (a TCM premiere.)

(bold indicates a TCM premiere)

8:00 p.m. Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt (1989)

9:30 p.m. The Celluloid Closet (1995)

1:30 p.m. Paragraph 175 (2000)

1:15 a.m. The Times of Harvey Milk (1984).

3:00 a.m. Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977)

5:15 a.m. Before Stonewall (1985)