“Making documentaries is not glamorous, but it’s what I’m put on Earth to do, so I think about Vito in that context—that he was doing what he was put on Earth to do,” notes filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz. “That’s so inspiring for anyone, no matter what your passion is.”
For the late Vito Russo (1946–1990), passion involved advocating for gay rights through a combination of academic study, charismatic persuasion, and personal example. In his short life, Russo wrote the pioneering nonfiction book The Celluloid Closet (1981), which revealed the secret history of gay portrayals in movies; co-founded the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD); helped organize the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP; and participated such pivotal gay-rights moments as the AIDS Memorial Quilt and the infamous Stonewall riots. From the era when he first joined the gay-rights movement, which was then in its infancy, to the time when he was dying of AIDS-related illness, Russo never stopped pushing for greater compassion, dignity, and understanding.
“Vito was so unafraid,” Schwarz notes. “Even when he was facing death, he worked harder than he ever did in his life. He would say to people, ‘If I can go to this demonstration, you can go to this demonstration!’ He didn’t let his illness stop him.”
Schwarz is the producer and director of Vito, the acclaimed feature-length documentary about Russo’s life that premiered last fall at the New York Film Festival and made its broadcast debut on HBO in July. Accompanied by the film’s editor and co-producer, Philip Harrison, who helped Schwarz shape the narrative of Vito, Schwarz recently sat down with Script to discuss the challenges and rewards of nonfiction storytelling.
The director of dozens of documentaries, including the features Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story (2007) and Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon (2008), Schwarz is the founder and CEO of Automat Pictures, a Los Angeles-based production company that makes behind-the-scenes content for Blu-Rays, DVDs, and television. Harrison has worked on numerous projects with Schwarz.
The duo first met while film students at Purchase College, part of the State University of New York system. (Schwarz actually made his first documentary while still in school, creating a short 1993 film about the eccentric showbiz figure Al Lewis—“Grandpa” from the ’60s TV series The Munsters—titled Al Lewis: In the Flesh.) After school, Harrison stayed on the East Coast to work on fiction films while Schwarz headed west to enter the nonfiction world.
By that time, Russo had become one of Schwarz’s heroes.
“Reading The Celluloid Closet was part of my own coming-out process, and I was in film school at the time—reading Vito’s book tied together my love of movies with my interest in gay history and gay politics,” Schwarz recalls. “It was thrilling to get to know this wealth of history and realize that gay people have always been in the movies, from the very, very beginning."
One reason The Celluloid Closet made such an impact was Russo’s meticulous cataloguing of demeaning gay stereotypes in movies—there’s a direct connection between Russo’s revelations and the public demonstrations that surrounded the early-’90s releases of movies including Basic Instinct and The Silence of the Lambs, both of which correlated homosexuality with psychopathic behavior. As Schwarz notes, “Vito and his friends would say, ‘We know a lot of drag queens, but not a lot of them are murderers!’ There’s no question that Vito’s book changed things.”
Schwarz’s connection with Russo grew deeper once Schwarz began his professional life. Hearing that filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were making a documentary-movie adaptation of The Celluloid Closet (the film was released in 1995), Schwarz relocated to San Francisco to intern on the project. Working under the film’s editor, Arnold Glassman, provided an important addendum to Schwarz’s education. “I watched how Arnie took this mountain of material—interviews, film clips—and began to figure out what the story was going to be,” Schwarz says, adding that he’s employed a similar storytelling style for all of his subsequent work.
Harrison praises this content-driven approach for its narrative integrity. “What I love about the style, although it’s very intensive, is that all of the construction happens in the editing room,” he says. “There’s transcripts, of course, but there’s not a lot of ‘writing.’ It’s really about finding the meaning of the images.”
Schwarz continues: “I don’t want to knock anyone else’s work, but there’s a big difference between this style and the more formulaic kind of editing style of a show like Biography. We don’t rely on voiceover, whereas Biography is mostly voiceover peppered with soundbites. In our work, characters guide us through the story.”
Following his work on The Celluloid Closet, Schwarz moved to Los Angeles and started pitching documentary projects, which brought him to the attention of studio executives responsible for commissioning DVD bonus content. Thus began an epic run of projects—Schwarz’s résumé currently boasts 300 titles, with many more in the pipeline. Harrison, who moved to Los Angeles several years after Schwarz, started cutting films for his college friend in 2000, and Vito is their third feature-length collaboration.
Schwarz spent about a year conducting interviews for Vito, in addition to collecting a huge amount of archival footage, so by the time post-production got underway, an enormous amount of material had accumulated. Harrison, who was already on board as the film’s editor, took on the additional role of co-producer to help Schwarz manage the logistics of elements including motion graphics and the film’s musical score.
Schwarz explains how the editing process started. “My first pass was just going through the interviews, selecting what I thought would be useful for Philip, categorizing all of that material into sequences, and starting to break it down by acts,” he says. “We always knew that the film would be three acts. We experimented with structure, but not very much.”
Harrison notes that one of the biggest storytelling challenges was creating a historical backdrop for Russo’s odyssey. “There’s so much history that it was important to tell it as simply as possible just so people wouldn’t get lost in all of it,” Harrison notes. “They have to stay with Vito emotionally through the course of things—so if you were to do too much structurally, flipping things around within the narrative, it would take you away from the emotional throughline.” Eventually, a first cut that ran more than three hours was winnowed down to the 93-minute final product by dropping extraneous contextualization and focusing on Russo’s personal trajectory.
Another challenge, Harrison notes, was correctly portraying Russo’s role in social change. “As much as he was a leader, he was just one of many activists,” Harrison says. “Many of the cast members in Vito are giants in the gay-rights movement, so we were really cognizant of our responsibility to them. But we had to trust our guts that they would be represented in the narrative. Once we started to have screenings, we became more confident that Vito didn’t oversimplify how much of a group process the movement was.”
Schwarz considered it important to convey all facets of his subject. “We had no interest in deifying Vito Russo,” Schwarz remarks. “He was a complicated man. He did not look at himself as a hero, although people in his community did see him that way. He did not want to be a leader. He just wanted to be a doer. And he looked at himself as part of a movement—‘an army of lovers,’ they used to call it. However, he did step to the forefront, because what he was doing no one else had done before. He was talking about how the cultural and the political go hand-in-hand.
“We wanted to talk about how he could be angry, and how that could put some people off,” Schwarz continues. “He could really take people to task for being complacent. We also wanted to present him as a sexual creature. We didn’t want to whitewash the sexual liberation from the gay liberation. He was a very sex-positive, lustful guy, in all the best sense of that.”
Harrison picks up the thread: “In the course of interviews, you get a lot of comments that are just laudatory in nature, and we really avoided that stuff. The audience is going to be able to make their own conclusions based on the storytelling. The fact that Vito did so many things that were historic—we knew that wasn’t going to be lost on anyone.”
While Vito has enjoyed favorable reviews and a splashy festival rollout—the documentary was the opening-night feature at this year’s Outfest—Schwarz acknowledges the obstacles to getting general audiences interested in a movie about a gay-rights activist. “There’s still a segment of the audience that will react in a knee-jerk fashion and will not want to see this movie,” he says. “But at the same time, I made the movie, in a sense, for people who are not comfortable with the subject matter. Like, my mom is completely comfortable with the subject matter, but I wanted to present the movie in such a way that my mom and her friends could see this movie and not be alienated by it.”
“Vito embodied classic American traits,” Harrison adds. “He had strong feelings about his family, he had a romantic side, he was a rebel—a lot of things that gay or straight people respond to. So hopefully people will be attracted to those things that are appealing to everyone, and they’ll realize they have more of a connection with Vito than they thought.”
Both Schwarz and Harrison say that they made Vito for future generations, because the fight for equality is far from over—and because gay people continue to struggle with the same issues of prejudice and stigmatization that Russo explored.
“I’ve always struggled with internalized homophobia, internalized bi-phobia, fears about whether I can accomplish things in life,” Harrison says. “That’s why people like Vito are so important. They really are beacons, because they show that you can do things, you can live your life the same as everyone else, and you can accomplish great things. You can live your life idealistically. For me, that’s very powerful.”