A First-Time Oscar Nominee's Take on Awards Season (Guest Column)

Journalist to Oscar Nominee Illustration - H 2013
Illustration by: Douglas Jones

Journalist to Oscar Nominee Illustration - H 2013

Former Newsweek senior editor David France recounts the bizarre journey from print journalist to feted filmmaker with his documentary "How to Survive a Plague."

This story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The furthest thing from my mind when I started work on my first documentary -- How to Survive a Plague, about AIDS activist group ACT UP -- was that it would lead me to a chair six feet from Daniel Craig. As an investigative reporter, I'm more comfortable with court documents and manuscripts.

But there we were at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. And the woman next to him -- oh my God, Rachel Weisz. They were fully inflated, animated and pointing, then leaping to their feet. I stared at them both. It never occurred to me that they might be able to see me back. I swear, even when Daniel leaned toward me and said, in that Dolby voice, "I'm a huge fan of your film," I had to point to my chest and ask, "Mine?"

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What a strange journey these few months have been. I started my journalism career nearly 30 years ago, writing early stories as HIV began stalking my community. It has been my mission to keep alive the memories of those who died and tell stories of those who didn't -- to give witness to a community's triumphs and legacy.

In 2009, I decided to tell the story of ACT UP as a documentary. When I began looking for vintage footage, if you had asked me what my wildest dreams for the project were, I would have answered, "Completion." It's daunting work for anyone, much less a 49-year-old novice: raising money, recruiting a team, learning the language of cinema. It took 14 months to carve out a film from the 700-plus hours of archival footage shot by the activists themselves, offering a candid look at their war.

I was lucky enough to screen at Sundance 2012 in the company of Peter Staley, the central figure in my film, whose activism has saved millions of lives -- in my world a superstar but until then largely unknown.

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Our journey sometimes has been bittersweet. One of the protagonists, Spencer Cox, avoided seeing the film for many months. I think he resisted for the same reasons Holocaust survivors avoid films about the camps. When he relented, he told me the experience began a course of healing. He asked, sweetly, if he could walk the red carpets with me, but AIDS caught up with him. He died in December at 44 -- a heartbreaking reminder that the epidemic continues to claim 18,000 Americans a year, twice as many as those who die in gun homicides.

I've been thinking of Spencer during awards season: Gothams, DGA, Spirits -- the yellow brick road toward the Oscars. Nothing can prepare a weathered reporter for an Academy Award nomination -- let alone getting my first stylist to "dress me." Having my picture taken "senior class-style" at the Nominees Luncheon was surreal. There I was, laughing with Sally Field about her children and telling Tony Kushner how much a recently departed friend of mine would have loved to meet him. Frank Marshall was the afternoon's DJ. "Do you do weddings and bar mitzvahs, too?" someone called out. "It's the only way they would let me in!" he replied. This is the life I'm living. Of all the tales I've gathered, the one I wish I could have shared with Spencer was about Daniel Craig, who actually said to me, "I need to give you a hug." Rachel Weisz had to pry my hands loose. A friend later wondered, "What did Daniel Craig smell like?"

I realized then that I never inhaled the entire time.

David France is a freelance writer and author of Our Fathers and New York Times best-seller The Confession.