What made you want to tell the story of Vito Russo?
When I was coming out, one of the first things I did was read as much as I could get my hands on about gay and lesbian history, and being in film school at the time, one of the books that jumped out at me was Russo's The Celluloid Closet. That turned me on to a slew of movies I hadn't heard of before, and helped me look at movies I'd already seen in a new light. Vito's personality jumped off those pages and I found him to be hilarious and incisive and it empowered me. He died in 1990 and a couple years after that, I read that Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman would be making a documentary based on the book. Epstein's 'The Times of Harvey Milk' is my favorite documentary—so I called him up to see if I could come out to San Francisco to work on it, and he said yes. HBO then came on board and I got my first job in the movie business as an apprentice editor.
How long ago was this?
This was in the mid-90s. This story has been brewing for a really long time. Working on the film version of 'The Celluloid Closet' was when I really got to know Vito, as both the activist and the man. Even though he'd passed away a few years earlier, his spirit informed the making of that movie. I had access to all of his research materials and the interviews he did. Most importantly, we had all these interviews that Rob and Jeffrey did with Vito himself, shedding light on his entire life—growing up before Stonewall, his involvement in the gay rights movement, the 10-year journey of writing the Celluloid Closet and ultimately how the AIDS crisis touched his own life personally. Vito's always been a beacon for me, and five or six years ago, I was worried that his legacy might be forgotten. I decided I wanted to tell his story and the story of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement.
Vito says in the film that he never felt any guilt about who he was, even growing up—"I always knew they were full of sh*t and that I was right." Where did he get that preternatural confidence?
He was growing up in the late '50s and '60s and that was a time in our history when gay people were being persecuted, shamed and driven out of their families, even thrown in jail. If you weren't Truman Capote, it was impossible to be openly gay. Vito didn't internalize that message, even though it was being reinforced in every part of the culture. He rose above it and knew there was nothing wrong with him. Part of it is that he had a family that supported him and parents that loved him no matter what. He was also really tough. He grew up on the mean streets of Harlem before moving to Jersey, so he had to be tough, and he learned to defend himself with words.
Vito held a gay engagement ceremony back in 1971; what would he have made of the progress of gay marriage in this country?
I don't want to speak for him, but I'm sure he'd be supportive of the marriage movement, though I don't know how he'd feel about the military. We've lost a lot of our outsider status, which is certainly a good thing. But I know that he'd want to hold on to some of the traditions that might be going by the wayside. We had to develop a whole secret language with which to recognize each other in the days before Stonewall. Those codes and symbols had a unifying effect on the community. There was a sense that we had to count on ourselves and build a strong community; the institutions that Vito helped to build in the early days were lifesavers when the AIDS epidemic came along. They had already built a network of support for one another to rely on when we couldn't count on the government or the medical community or sometimes even our own families—we were there for each other.