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|WINDY CITY TIMES (WCT): The making of Word Is Out has such a serendipitous quality to it – this
accidental collective that somehow made this groundbreaking movie. When I read your essay about
the filming that you wrote back in the late 70s it reminded me of how popular encounter groups were
at the time – life inside a bubble so to speak. Can you talk about the experience?
ROB EPSTEIN (RE): None of us had any perspective on it while we were going through it which is
probably why it was successful. Nancy Adair (Peter’s sister) was really the only one who had any
experience in structuring a communication process so she really helped set up this kind of fail safe
communication system that we relied on called “pass the rattle.” Whenever we got into any kind of
conflict situation we could depend on this system where we would go around in a circle and we each
would have an opportunity to talk uninterruptedly and then we’d go around and get each response.
It just built in a process that you knew you would always have an opportunity to be heard. Because
that was the stop gap measure we always felt that kind of trust with each other and the rest was
pretty organic – it was that group of people at that particular time and that particular project and I
don’t think it could ever be recreated in any other way. It was serendipitous.
WCT: In looking back, it was exceptional for the time.
RE: Yes, it was pretty exceptional for the time when there wasn’t really any kind of precedent for gay
men and women to work together in that way and the fact that there was such age disparity between
us was pretty remarkable. But everybody respected the value of that – that we did each bring
something so different to the table.
WCT: Peter Adair’s vision had to also have been so inspiring. What was he like to be around?
RE: His vision, his spirit and personality were key to the whole mix and success of it. Peter was first
a great friend and he was a great teacher in that he was a great enabler. He basically handed me a
camera at 19 and said, “Here’s how you use it, go off and find some stories” and he did that with
every aspect of the production so Peter was my film school. He really trained me as a filmmaker and
a producer. And he was just a lot of fun – he had a great sense of humor, very perverse and there
were a lot of laughs and tears, too. As a man he had great access to his emotions which was
something that I wasn’t at first very comfortable with but I learned a lot from him. He was a real role
model for me as a gay man in a lot of ways and that was certainly one.
WCT: When you answered the ad – that fateful ad – had you planned on getting into filmmaking?
RE: No. I had just started thinking about it. I was in college on the east coast and I had taken a
leave of absence basically to come out because at that point in the time I thought that was what I
had to do. So I got on a bus from New York to San Francisco and started a new life for myself at 19.
I started taking some introductory film classes and doing my own Super 8 projects at the same time
as I answered that ad so it kind of happened simultaneously.
WCT: When you watch the film now over 30 years later what stands out about it for you?
RE: It’s got a lot of heart. I think there’s something so authentic about the film that feels eternal.
It’s interesting, because the things that are dated are somewhat minor – the music in the film, the
feminist folk singer, the gay male troupe – but I find it completely charming and so of the period and
the superficial stuff like the hairstyles and clothing. But otherwise, the people are speaking their own
truths, which is everlasting and primal.
WCT: The film does seem to represent so many aspects of gay culture then and now and it really
resonates. I’m just curious if you think a new generation caught up in “Glee” and Lady Gaga will
watch the movie. How do you get their attention?
RE: The smart ones will discover it if they haven’t already. I think it’s all important for us to know
what preceded us and to understand who opened what doors and this is really the first generation of
people that were coming out publicly. The people in the film by being in it were very brave because
that hadn’t really been done before in that public a way. It’s because of that that everything else
started to change in the culture. We started to represent it ourselves and that’s one of the moments
when it started to happen. I think younger people will learn a lot and the film is also very
WCT: If you could recreate the experience of the directing collective – are there certain filmmakers
you would call on?
RE: It’s interesting because I work in a collaborative directorial relationship now. I work with a
producing-directing partner so I suppose I take a little bit of that in my collaboration with Jeffrey
Friedman, my filmmaking partner. But I think it would have to be younger people doing something
of this particular moment and it would look very different from what that moment was. I don’t think I
could describe that or even define that.
WCT: I understand that The Times of Harvey Milk is also being restored.
RE: It is. Criterion is releasing the film at the beginning of 2011. We’re just deciding what
additional material we’ll be adding to the extras on the Criterion release. We’ve already done the HD
master and it looks amazing.
WCT: I’m so psyched for that one as well. Did you participate in the recent Harvey Milk Day?
RE: I was traveling and was out of the state so I didn’t. I was in Canada with Howl.
WCT: Is it conceivable to you that one day we’ll have a national holiday to honor Harvey?
RE: Boy! Yeah, I suppose that’s conceivable. We just thought about a state holiday but why not. I
always thought if he were alive it would have been Obama-Milk so perhaps this will be at the head of
WCT: We just lost Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg’s lover. Can you talk a little bit about directing
James Franco in Howl, the biopic of Ginsberg which is headed to Chicago this fall?
RE: Directing James was great – it was a really wonderful adventure and collaboration. James came
onboard before we actually had producers. He read the screenplay and we offered him the part and
we had the luxury of working with him for about a year’s time as the screenplay was evolving and
talking about the character of Allen that he’d be playing and the meaning behind a lot of the texts.
So by the time we got on set he was totally immersed in the material and prepared for it so the
physicalization of the character of Ginsberg was kind of the last layer of it all because he had done all
that super foundational work beforehand. He’s brilliant in the film. He’s really proud of it; we’re
really proud of it and I think people will be really, really surprised by his performance.
WCT: As a film enthusiast, a film critic and as a gay man, your films have been so influential for me
and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to thank you.
RE: Thank you!