Oscar-Winning Doc Filmmakers on Why They Made Jump to Narrative for 'Lovelace' (Video)
THR's awards analyst recently sat down with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the longtime collaborators who won Oscars for their 1989 film "Common Threads."
Last week I sat down with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the noted Oscar-winning filmmakers, to discuss their latest film, Lovelace, a biopic of Linda Lovelace that RADiUS released in select theaters on Friday. (Highlights can be watched in the video at the top of this post.) The film stars Amanda Seyfried as the title character, alongside Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Noth, Bobby Cannavale, Hank Azaria, Adam Brody, James Franco, Chloe Sevigny and Juno Temple.
Lovelace, who was born Linda Boreman and raised by working-class parents in the Bronx, became a household name at the age of 23 through her appearance in the landmark pornographic film Deep Throat (1972), in which her clitoris is "discovered" in the back of her throat -- and for which she was paid just $1,250, none of which she ever saw (her abusive husband kept it from her), even though the film grossed over $100 million.
Epstein, 58, and Friedman, 61, are best known for their work in documentaries.
Epstein, who is now one of three members of the motion picture Academy's Board of Governors representing its documentary branch, was born in New Jersey and moved out to San Francisco in his early twenties, shortly after acknowledging that he was gay. He hooked up with the Mariposa Film Group, a collective of six young gay filmmakers, and helped to make Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977), the first feature doc about the gay experience in America. He would go on to spend five years making a doc of his own, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), for which he was won, at just 29, the best documentary feature Academy Award. (He became the first person to ever thank his same-sex partner in an Oscars acceptance speech.)
Epstein met Friedman, another gay east coast-to-west coast transplant, in San Francisco through Mariposa, and the two became fast friends. Friedman had been a child actor and eventually became an editing apprentice -- helping out on high-profile docs, such as the Oscar-winning Marjoe (1972), and narratives, such as Raging Bull (1980) -- and eventually worked with on several of Epstein's films, including The Times of Harvey Milk (serving as an animation consultant). The two ultimately decided to try directing films together. Their first co-directing venture, through their new production company Telling Pictures, was Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), a powerful doc that recounts stories of some of the deceased people featured on the AIDS Memorial Quilt that was unfurled in Washington in 1987. It brought Epstein his second Oscar and Friedman his first.
Over the ensuing quarter-century, they would collaborate on numerous other docs for theatrical and/or televised release. A few years ago they decided to attempt narrative features, as well, first with Howl (2010), an Allen Ginsberg biopic starring Franco, and now with Lovelace; both films premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Epstein says they always intended to make docs and narrative films, noting that he and Friedman were working on a narrative script together before they decided to turn their attention to Common Threads, and adding, "Harvey Milk, to me, was a narrative film -- it was creating a story around a character with a three-act structure. All of our documentaries we approached that way. So, to us, conceptually, it didn't seem like such a big leap." Friedman adds that they enjoy working with actors and took great pleasure in attending acting classes to help them to better understand filmmaking from the perspective of actors.
But why a film about Lovelace, of all people? She does, at first glance, seem like a bit of a random subject for any filmmaker or filmmakers, let alone two from the gay community -- but Epstein and Friedman insist that, in the wider-view, it makes more sense. As Epstein puts it, "We have always taken on subjects that are seemingly about what's going on in the margins of the culture as those margins are making their way into the mainstream" -- which pornography certainly is, what with politicians Tweeting nude photos of their anatomy to their constituents, junior high school students sexting with each other and many kids consuming more porn via the Internet before they've even made it through puberty than their parents have seen in their lifetimes.
Moreover, they loved the complexity and drama of Lovelace's character, as written in Andy Bellin's script. She was interesting -- a young woman who had a conservative upbringing but became a porno star. She was enigmatic -- she was in the adult film industry for only 17 days and never made another porno film again after Deep Throat, but she always remained associated with the "genre" and eventually became one of its most outspoken critics. And she was one of her era's most sociologically-significant figures -- she helped to usher in the sexual revolution, which helped to usher in the feminist movement (even if she was never fully embraced by the latter).
During different phases of Lovelace's all-too-short life -- she died in a car accident in 2002 at the age of 53 -- she seemed to be many things, sometimes polar opposites, to many different people. Epstein and Friedman say that they were endlessly fascinated by the question, "Which was the real Linda Lovelace?" Epstein explains, "We came to our own perspective that they're all the real Linda Lovelace, and that people are complex, and they go through changes based on circumstance, and her circumstances changed, and she reacted to them. So we wanted to find a way to tell the story as she presented it."
Doing so, however, would require finding an actress who would be willing to play the part despite its inherent demands of partial nudity and the insinuation of sex acts. "There were a lot of actors that wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole, and their agents wouldn't touch it with a twenty-foot pole," Epstein recalls. "But, you know, ultimately that was just noise around us until we found our Linda. When we met Amanda, we knew that she was exactly right because she was going in for all the right reasons -- she wanted that challenge, she wanted to be fearless and she wanted to stretch her wings dramatically."
They only truly knew that she -- and the film -- had gotten it right when Lovelace's son and daughter (by her second husband) gave it their seal of approval following a private screening that the directors arranged for them shortly before the film's Sundance premiere. "That was really a very emotional screening for all of us," says Friedman. Lovelace's son also attended the film's Los Angeles premiere last weekend.
With Lovelace now in their rearview mirror, Epstein and Friedman plan to continue to jump back-and-forth between docs and narratives. They have completed work on The Battle of Amfar, a 40-minute short follow-up to Common Threads "which sort of takes us from there through a lot of the activism and the research up to the present," Friedman explains, "and largely focuses on Elizabeth Taylor's heroics," adds Epstein. (It will air on HBO in December.) As THR reported last week, they are now at work on a documentary about the Oscars that was commissioned by Turner Classic Movies and the Academy. And, after that, they may focus on a narrative feature about Harvey Milk's nemesis Anita Bryant; Oscar nominee Uma Thurman is attached to play the gay rights opponent.
In the meantime, when asked what they hope audiences will take away from Lovelace, the duo -- two of the most soft-spoken, low-key guys one can find in Hollywood -- seem reluctant to be too specific. "Like all of our movies," Friedman says, "we want people to come out of the movie feeling and thinking about the world around them in maybe a slightly different way."