Just who is interviewing who here?
Director Billy Clift (Baby Jane, Hush Up Sweet Charlotte) and his longtime friend and producer David Millbern (producer of Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte and actor, noted for narrating the show Now What?) have the chatty rapport of an old married couple. They giggle, they banter, and at times they seem less interested in chatting about their new film A Long Road to Freedom than asking questions about Queerty.
The film marks an important point in queer cinema. A sprawling, all-encompassing documentary epic, Clift & Millbern try to cover every element of the LGBTQ rights revolution from its earliest days up to the present moment. With a treasure trove of heroes, icons, artists, and activists, the film uses the framework of the long-running magazine The Advocate as a framework to view LGBTQ history. Laverne Cox narrates, and the film features music from Oscar-winner Melissa Etheridge.
We caught up with the director and the producer one afternoon to chat about the rollout of the movie and its wild production history. A Long Road to Freedom plays in select cinemas with a streaming release pending.
Billy, your films alternate between high camp and heavy duty. How do you go from Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte—and David, I know you also worked on that—to a sprawling documentary covering the entire history of the LGBTQ movement?
BC: It was something…I hadn’t been a director for very long and it was…not just to be a high-camp filmmaker. My goal was to be a filmmaker. When that occurred, I talked to some amazing directors—because I was a hair & make-up artist all my life, and working in the film industry. They said, “find a niche and kick ass with it, and move from there.” So that’s kind of what fell into my lap. My goal was always to grow and expand as a director. I have many different projects that I’ve written and I want to use this as a jumping-off stamp to be more of a serious filmmaker.
So how did the two of you get hooked up? You’ve collaborated on several series & films.
DM: I sat next to Billy because it was the only open seat at a DGA screening.
What was the screening?
DM: I cannot remember, but I do remember sitting next to Billy Clift, and it’s been a love affair ever since. He’s an amazing person. He’s become one of my best friends, and he’s also an amazing talent. So I cherish that moment. Billy, I hope you do too.
BC: I definitely do. It’s very hard to find someone where you actually can kind of kick off of each other, and you have an idea and they jump on the idea and they expand the idea. You can go back and forth. You can easily say, “oh I don’t like that.” And there’s nobody in the way. You just start molding. And the end product, you turn around and go “wow, look what we did.”
DM: There’s no ego involved in our collaboration, David. Just like Billy says. Together, we come up with something that we’re even more satisfied with than the other would have done.
BC: You always know that—and I believe you’re a filmmaker as well—you know that when your blinders start occurring when you’re working on a project that it sometimes becomes so hard to see.
BC: So you definitely need someone to listen to that makes sense. And we work well together, and we have other projects in the early stages together.
Whenever you have any artistic endeavor and you turn it over to someone else it’s important not to have any ego about it. It’s a rare thing you guys have. I can’t tell you how many people get pissy when I’ve said: “you need to try this again.”
DM: Run from those people, David. The end is not going to be pretty.
BC: There are different levels of being a filmmaker. As we “grow up” we expand our understanding of how we behave and listening. Listening is so important.
You use The Advocate as a framework to view the history of LGBTQ rights.
DM: Billy first had the idea of The Black Cat, and wanted to expose that. You can tell that story, Billy. Everyone thinks Stonewall, Stonewall in ‘69—that it’s all about New York. This documentary exposes that it’s not all about New York. In fact, Billy was interested in the Black Cat raids, that happened in ‘67, two years prior. So really, the LGBTQ movement had its roots and its start in Los Angeles, but at the time New York was a big publicity machine, and New York was more “important” than LA. So that’s the story that got out there.
So we wanted to expose that, and Billy had that idea.
BC: I’d heard about The Black Cat, and nobody knew about it. I live around the corner from it now, in Silverlake. I talked to someone, and they just went on and on about it. Nobody knows that there were 300-500 people that got together for a protest. It was a silent protest, but it was. And that had never been heard of, and it never had been done before. Seeing as the police were incredibly brutal that night, I think it gave them a little more spark. What happened was The Advocate was spawned from this. The Advocate grew out of this.
DM: Absolutely. And the fact that they were the only media of note chronicling 50 years of this movement, it was a natural fit.
BC: It just assisted in having that line throughout the film.
DM: They were so wonderful and so appreciative, and opened up their coffers and their archives. We were like kids in a candy store, right Billy?
BC: Yeah. I always imagined it as something chronological because we didn’t have something to say what our basic history was. I know I only hit the top surface; I could have gone a lot deeper. But at least having something…my dream was to have something we could show kids, something to teach people, to open their eyes and learn a little bit about us. Of course, my hope is that people will be sparked to investigate more. [I wanted to] put a whole umbrella over the whole expanse.
DM: You know, Bruce Cohen who’s in the piece…he was sitting right next to me at the premiere. He was like a little boy watching the screen with his eyes all lit up, and he turned to me and said “David, you guys got it right.” For me, hearing that from him, for him to give us that kind of compliment about the realism of this documentary. I was over the moon.
So how long did it take to shoot? You have a litany of icons, activists, figures…
BC: Actually, from beginning to end, about a year and a half.
BC: And you know, in the doc world, that is incredibly short.
DM: It was intense work, David. Michael Gottlieb, who is a cornerstone in the second act of the film when it comes to AIDS, took six months to agree. But we knew we wanted him. He developed the AIDS acronym. We needed him. Same thing with Melissa Etheridge. We only saw her song “The Uprising of Love,” for the end song. That was the only song we saw.
BC: We heard it and were like that’s it. There’s no other song.
DM: There was no other choice. So when she saw the film and said, “Oh my God, I’ll give this song to you guys for free. This is such a beautiful piece of our history…I’ll give you the song for free.” Same with Laverne Cox.
DM: Narration. For free. Everybody donated. Everyone donated their services.
That’s such a beautiful thing. You mentioned Dr. Gottlieb was reluctant to go on camera. Who was most reluctant?
BC: Armistead Maupin [author of Tales of the City] didn’t want to do it.
DM: Oh, that’s right.
BC: Finally, we were actually shooting in San Francisco, and we saw him in the Castro…
DM: Walking down the street with his boyfriend and a dog.
BC: And just said “hey.” And what it was—he was afraid of the doc we were trying to make. And we were able to, in person—and that’s the thing. If they can hear what we’re trying to do, anybody I would have asked…
DM: I think we just charmed him, Billy. We said, “pull over the van!” We got out, we ran up to him and said we are who we are. He said: “I know who you are. My publicist has told you…”
DM: People didn’t understand the gravitas of what we were doing. And I think for the 1,000 people who attended the Motion Picture Academy premiere on July 19…Gloria Allred was another one. She was in tears. She was like “I’m so proud.” And not only do we have those celebs, but we also have those activists, those 80-year-old activists who risked everything—their lives, their livelihood. And I really believe we stand on their shoulders. Hopefully, this film will be one for the ages so that our young people will see. Maybe they can stand on our shoulders too.
I’m still marveling that you got Armistead Maupin through a drive-by interview. So you guys have done a documentary. You’ve done narrative work—features, short films, series. How difficult is it for the two of you to go back and forth from scripted material to a documentary? A lot of documentary directors go on to do scripted films or vice versa, and it’s a disaster.
BC: Interesting. I never thought of that.
DM: Even a documentary, there’s a three-act story structure.
BC: Sure. But I never even thought about [the difficulty]. I just sit there and kind of go into whatever I’m working on, and I let that tell me how to move forward. I love so many different types of film that it just excites me.
DM: Billy’s a little different than I am. I don’t want to do another documentary for quite some time.
BC: I’ve already started another one.
David, I know you also got your start in acting before moving into producing. What’s more satisfying, acting or producing?
DM: Good question, David, good question. As an actor, I’ve done pretty well. I’m proud of my choices. As a producer, you can paint with different colors. You can paint with the music. You can paint with selecting the director. You can paint with shaping the script. You can paint with the edit. You have so many different tools to fill out this tapestry. Whereas, as an actor, you have the script. And if you’re a good actor, you try to bring other elements to it and build that role. But at the end of the day, you are at the mercy of the director and editor. I find with producing, you see one of your projects and are like I’m all over this.
So I’m loving it. I have not given up acting, because I love acting. But producing is a wonderful, wonderful hyphenate for me.
The film also covers the advancement of transgender rights and elements like Black Lives Matter. Do you feel it’s our duty as queer people to stand up for anyone marginalized?
DM: Well, first of all, thank you, because we now know you really did watch the film.
DM: Because that third act is—we call it the “call to action” act.
For the record, yes, I always watch the movie.
BC: I think it’s our duty as human beings to speak to the best of our ability for all, for people who have been marginalized. It affects us all. We need it equal. We need equality for all. We need that to live in a world we want to live in.
DM: And it is the same fight, same rights. Dustin Lance Black says it in the film. We’ve got to be our brother’s keeper. We’ve got to be out for Black Lives Matter. We’ve got to be out for women’s rights. One of the notes we’ve gotten from some of the film festivals we’ve done is how well lesbians are portrayed in this film. Their part in the LGBTQ movement has not been very well documented. This film really steps up and says “sisters, you were there. You were there in the AIDS crisis for us.” This documentary lays out a clear path of resistance that resides in the DNA of the LGBTQ community. It demonstrates that with courage and resilience, we can conquer any foe. As bad as things may seem currently, we have been here before. We hope that this film not only educates but serves as a call to action for a new generation of activists.
BC: That’s really where they showed so much compassion. And it’s not a massive knowledge of how we couldn’t have survived without them.
DM: I’ve never been an activist. I’m not one to carry signs. But through this film, I have learned that it’s good to be an activist and do what you do. Billy and I are filmmakers. We created a piece of film that is our activism, and that will spur other people to get involved. It certainly has spurred me on to honor those older folks, that we stood on their shoulders. Had we not documented their stories, they’d have been lost forever.
Orson Welles used to say that every artist should have one work, that when you die and arrive at the gates of Heaven, you can say “I did this. Let me in.” Is this film that for you guys?
BC: Definitely at this moment in time. I would say it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done for myself or for our community. I didn’t really realize it in the process. It took until we screened it in the spring. After seeing it four times, I felt it. And I had the person behind me pat my should and tell me “thank you.” So especially the older crowd, or for younger people coming up…having an impact on them.
DM: So many straight couple friends of mine were at the premiere and said the same thing: “We kind of had an idea, but we didn’t really know. Now we taste it.”
BC: That’s one thing—one group I really wanted to be able to watch this is the straight community.
DM: That crossover audience. If we can reach out more to them, that just increases the knowledge of our community. For me, to answer your question, I recently had that conversation with my partner. And I said “you know, if I die tomorrow, I know I can feel this documentary…I can be proud.” And I do feel that way. I agree with Billy—up to this point. We’re going to do more.
What’s the next collaboration between the two of you?
DM: We’ve got a show called Now What? We have a show called Underground. Then Billy, tell David about the big feature…
BC: Yeah, we’re doing a Montgomery Clift biopic, and we’re discussing being involved together again in that. We just sent out possibilities for casting to particular people that I would die if they’d do it—to be Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. He was a cousin of mine. My cousin Robert [Clift] has a documentary right now…
Yeah, I interviewed Robert and Hillary [Demmon, Robert’s co-director and wife] actually.
BC: Very cool. As a feature, of course, you have people like Marilyn Monroe and Robert Taylor and James Dean and Marlon Brando as his friends. And that’s what the movie’s about. I will make that.
A Long Road to Freedom plays in select cities. A streaming release is pending.