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July 24, 2012 2PM EST

Q&A with Jeffrey Schwarz

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  • Q

    Please welcome Vito filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz. Jeffrey, how are you feeling after last night’s HBO premiere?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    Great to be here! VITO has been on the film festival circuit for a while, but it's all been leading toward our HBO premiere so I'm thrilled it's finally out there for people to see. Message of love and support have been coming in from all over the country from people who saw VITO and it's been very gratifying and humbling.

  • Q

    your film made me sob. thank you so much for telling this story. when and how did you first learn about vito?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    Thank you - I'm glad that Vito's story resonated with you. I first learned about Vito after reading his book THE CELLULOID CLOSET when I was coming out in the early 90s. He passed away in 1990, so I never got to meet him in person, but after reading his book he became a beacon of inspiration. When I found out that HBO was making a documentary based on Vito's book, I ended up getting a job as an apprentice editor. During that time I had access to Vito's original research materials, and extensive interviews with Vito himself. That's when the idea to make this film was probably born - working on THE CELLULOID CLOSET in the mid 1990s.

  • Q

    What inspired you to take on a film of this nature?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    I was inspired to make a film about Vito when I realized that not many people were aware of his contributions to the LGBT civil rights movement. Making a film about Vito Russo could revitalize his memory and inspire the next generation of activists. It was also a way to tell the story of the gay liberation movement, from the dark days before Stonewall all the way through the AIDS crisis and the formation of ACT UP.

  • Q

    What or who inspired you to become a filmmaker?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    I've always wanted to tell stories, and the kinds of films I make are inspired by people that make a difference in the world. People that are iconoclasts and rebels, and march to their own drummer. One of the films that inspired VITO was Rob Epstein's THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK, and Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's COMMON THREADS, which also featured Vito.

  • Q

    What do you think Vito Russo would make of the current LGBT rights movement?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    My guess is that he would be thrilled with the progress we've made in a relatively short amount of time, but he would probably be the first to say that we have to continue to fight and make a difference. There is still plenty to be angry about and LGBT kids are still being taught to hate themselves. But he knew that change happens very slowly, and that it takes generations for people to get used to difference. We have more straight allies than ever, which is also very important.

  • Q

    Why was The Celluloid Closet such an important instrument for change?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    THE CELLULOID CLOSET showed how LGBT people have been depicted on film, and how these portrayals caused great psychic harm to the community. We were often depicted as psychos, freaks, and victims and this undoubtedly caused many to internalize the messages Hollywood was sending out. Since movies were (and still are) the predominant art form, the way gay people were depicted on film influenced how the larger society viewed us. Vito opened our eyes to this, and connected all the dots.

  • Q

    What challenges did you face when shooting "Vito?"

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    One of the challenges was figuring out how to tell his story without getting too bogged down in history. Our first cut was about 3 hours long, so along with our editor Philip Harrison we needed to focus on Vito's story. If it wasn't something Vito didn't directly experience or have a unique perspective on, it had to go.

  • Q

    What would Vito think about how gay people are represented in film today?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    I'm sure Vito would be very pleased with how we are depicted in film and on television today. We are generally depicted as part of society, as opposed to the "other" or a marginalized community. There are still stereotypes and the occasional fag joke, but there is so much more out there to balance that out. And also LGBT people are making our own films too. Vito was a big champion of telling our own stories.

  • Q

    It was so sad that the film ended with Vito’s death, when he accomplished so much. Did you think of ending it differently?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    Yes, at one point we considered having an epilogue that would talk about the changes in the culture since Vito's death, and all the progress we've made socially, politically, and on the screen. But we felt that it would be much more powerful to end the film with Vito's death, and let the audience really feel the loss. We also wanted to make sure not to date the film, and stay away from where we are specifically in 2012.

  • Q

    What did you learn from "Vito?"

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    The experience of making VITO confirmed what I had already suspected - that many people are not aware of the struggles and sacrifices that people like Vito made for us. I think younger people are hungry to learn our history, and hopefully seeing this film can help them learn about how it's possible that today they can be free. Vito can inspire and encourage anyone who wants to make a difference in the world.

  • Q

    Love the film. Completely inspiring. As a fellow filmmaker, I wonder: was it hard to get the footage from Vito’s public access show?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    Thank you! We were lucky that most of the master tapes from OUR TIME survived and were provided to us by that show's executive producer. We have donated these 3/4" masters to the Outfest Legacy Project so they will be preserved for future historians.

  • Q

    Are there current movies that you think benefited from Vito’s legacy?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    I think all filmmakers and audiences have benefited from Vito's analysis. LGBT characters in movies and on TV are just part of the landscape and it's been totally normalized. We have gay kids falling in love on GLEE and there isn't the outrage that there would have been just a few years ago. And there are so many more prominent people who are out of the closet. Vito's biggest message was visibility, and we are more visible in the culture than we have ever been.

  • Q

    The Celluloid Closet was part of our required reading in film school – how do you think Vito would feel about that?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    He would be thrilled I'm sure! In fact before his death he taught a Celluloid Closet college course at UC Santa Cruz. If you are interested in reading more of Vito's writing, we have just issued a two volume set called OUT SPOKEN: A VITO RUSSO READER. Follow the link below to find out more: http://www.whitecranebooks.org/vito.html

  • Q

    Did you feel like the film was a documentary in two parts – one about Vito and one about the AIDS crisis in the 80’s?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    We followed a mostly chronological structure - Act One was about Vito's growing up before Stonewall, his involvement in the early gay liberation movement, and his emergence as a leader. Act Two focused on The Celluloid Closet, his thesis about our depictions on film, and the struggle to write and publish the book. Act Three was the AIDS crisis, from the early ominous signs of a disaster in the making, through Vito and his partner Jeffrey's illness, and the gay community fighting back with ACT UP.

  • Q

    How did you choose your other interview subjects for the film?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    We interviewed Vito's family, friends, collaborators, and people who were inspired by his work. Happily so much material of Vito himself has survived, so we were able to weave his voice into the film.

  • Q

    I slightly knew Vito and he would have loved the documentary... was there anything you wish you could have added?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    There is so much more to Vito's story - and if you want to know more I would recommend Michael Schiavi's excellent biography CELLULOID ACTIVIST: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF VITO RUSSO.

  • Q

    That's all the time we have for today's Q&A with Jeffrey Schwarz. Thanks so much for joining us, Jeffrey. Any parting words?

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    A
    Jeffrey Schwarz says:

    Thank you everyone for participating. At the Q&A San Francisco Frameline film festival, a young man in the audience said, "I just came out and this is my first gay film festival and getting to know the gay community. Last week I had never heard of Vito Russo, and tonight I have a new hero." That's why we made the film - to inspire the next generation and empower anyone who wants to make a difference in the world. Thank you again and Viva Vito!

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