The Queerty Interview

Rob Epstein & Jeffery Friedman on their Ronstadt biopic (and who will beat Trump)

Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman 

We don’t just get to interview two Oscar winners every day.

Still, on a sunny day during the Provincetown Film Festival, we got to do just that. Even better: the Oscar alums are Rob Epstein & Jeffery Friedman, the directors of queer documentary classics like The Celluloid Closet, The Times of Harvey Milk, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt and Paragraph 175, as well as the narrative features Howl about Allen Ginsberg and Lovelace about porn star Linda Lovelace.

This year they release a personal if slightly less queer documentary Linda Rondstat: Sound of My Voice. The film pays tribute to the iconic singer of 70s and 80s hits like “You’re No Good,” “It’s So Easy,” and “Don’t Know Much,” telling her life story, that of her varied career and her subsequent retirement due to Parkinson’s Disease.

We found time with Epstein & Friedman on a shaded patio during an epic festival garden party where the three of us spotted John Cameron Mitchell, Judith Light, John Waters, and Christine Vachon all mingling among the crowd.

Linda Ronstadt: Sound of My Voice went on to win the Best Documentary prize at the Provincetown Film Festival, and will air on CNN later this year.

I saw the new film yesterday and just loved it. You guys always do films that are gifts to the community. You’re like our historians. But Linda, she’s not someone I thought of as a gay icon, or as having a gay following. What was the appeal of doing a film about her?

JF: It was a story about empowerment. That was something we take to heart. I was just a fan and never thought about her much. But after reading her book and hearing her speak about her own life, we were impressed with her story. She’s a woman who really made her own choices and directed her own career at a time when few women were able to do that in a male-dominated world.

RE: It’s great.

JF: If there’s a common thread to our LGBTQ themed work—not that I’m looking for it—but that would be a way in.

Even in your narrative work, you deal with characters who forge their own path. How reluctant was she to get the biopic treatment, particularly now that’s she’s become even more private because of her illness?

RE: She’s always been private. I mean she was reluctant, more because she thought it was futile.

JF: Yeah, she was more dismissive. She didn’t anyone would want to see it. Why would anyone want to fund it? Why would you want to do this? And that’s just more to do with her nature. She’s not one to look back. She’s not at all sentimental about her own life or experience. She’s very much in the here and now. So I think it was more coming from that perspective than being protective. It wasn’t about protecting anything.

RE: And maybe in a way, because she’s starting to be forgotten. People under—let’s say 30, maybe under 40—don’t know her.

JF: Did you know anything about her?

I knew she did a guest spot on The Simpsons.

RE: And the Muppets?

And The Muppet Show, where she sings a song I want to be played at my funeral. It’s interesting you say she’s starting to be forgotten, because given the level of talent and given how multifaceted her career was in terms of style, in terms of her ability, in terms of her number of hits, it’s really tragic that she’s not thought of in the same breath as Tina Turner or Grace Slick or Joplin.

RE: They’re being forgotten too. People know what happened last week. There’s too much information, and nobody knows any history, which I guess is part of what our mission is. But that’s a big part of the culture. And also, memory is creating culture. There’s no way to create culture without knowing the culture that came right before you.

So comparing this to some of your earlier, more elegiac and overtly queer work, how would you say your interests have changed over the years?

JF: For me, they haven’t changed. There’s never been really any grand agenda or any grand plan. It’s really what strikes us in the moment. And that moment usually takes years to come to fruition, so we have to do something we can live with for a while. But just from a gay perspective, I think people are always surprised when we’re doing something that’s not so specifically LGBTQ-themed. But nothing has ever been a conscious decision one way or the other.

RE: Is Lovelace a queer movie?

It’s interesting that both you guys and Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato [who directed the Lovelace-themed documentary Inside Deep Throat], who are also out-gay filmmakers who tend to focus on LGBTQ themes, made her the subject of films.

JF: She gives good blow jobs?

[Laughter]

Ronstadt

Well, there is that. She was also very sex-positive, at least at the beginning of her career. She was a woman who embraced her sexuality. Whether or not that was true, or whether or not she wanted to be associated with that later on, that’s a different issue. So call her queerish interest.

RE: I like that.

JF: All our work tends to come out queerish. How could it not? That’s an element of our sensibility.

So ok. You guys have been at this 40 years…

JF: I stopped counting.

RE: Working together for more than 30 years. But we’ve been working in film for 40-ish.

So at least a third of a lifetime.

RE: Oh God, is that a third of a lifetime?

Yes, that’s a third of a lifetime. That’s a Saturn return.

[Laughter]

The point is you’ve been at this a while. Orson Welles used to say every artist should have that one thing to present to his maker to prove he deserves to go on into the afterlife. That one thing that becomes his legacy, the source of his pride. For the two of you, who have such a varied career, what is that?

JF: I feel like by other people will that be determined. Certainly, in terms of what I hear, The Times of Harvey Milk, because Harvey Milk lives in that film.

RE: For me, I guess The Celluloid Closet. Or, even though it’s less known, Paragraph 175 because it brought something long overlooked so much public attention, and helped change the law in Germany.

That’s fantastic.

RE: But Celluloid Closet in terms of touching people.

I’ll tell you I’ve shown that movie to people, and they tell me it changes their life. It shows how we mimic the movies without even realizing it, and how that affects our self-image too.

RE: Yeah, that’s why.

Incidentally, do you guys have anyone you like for 2020?

RE: Stay tuned.

JF: I have a prediction of what the ticket is going to be.

Do you want to share it?

JF: It’s going to be Biden-Harris.

That’s not terrible. I like the idea of Buttigieg-Harris.

RE: Or Warren-Buttigieg. That’d be a great change.

Linda Ronstadt: Sound of My Voice continues to play film festivals and airs on CNN later this year.