"In some ways everything's changed, and it's a new world for gays and lesbians," says gay documentary filmmaker Rob Epstein. "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 filmmaking partner 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, during a lunchtime interview with him and Epstein, who is in Los Angeles fulfilling his duties as member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' documentary committee. "I guess ours is the first."
Epstein (age 55) and Friedman (59) have both the easy rapport of a long-married couple, and renewed energy from Howl, their very first dramatic feature, which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival to mixed reviews. Having previously 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 Ginsberg and the Beats appears to be a perfect fit. But their usual approach of combining archival footage with newly shot interviews wouldn't work this time.
"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.
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."
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"Working with actors is like driving a car," notes Epstein. "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," says Epstein. "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 [was] working with Peter Adair on Word Is Out," Epstein 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," says Epstein. 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," says Epstein. "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 gentlemen callers."