In the mid-1980's, author and film historian Vito Russo began talking with filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman about making a film version of his landmark book The Celluloid Closet. At the time Russo was the national publicist for Epstein's Academy Award-winning film "The Times Of Harvey Milk." The first proposal for the movie "The Celluloid Closet" was written by Russo in 1986. A decade later, Epstein and Friedman have brought "The Celluloid Closet" to the screen.
Vito Russo conceived the idea for his book in the early 1970's while working as an archivist in the film department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He conducted archival research at the Museum, at Eastman House in Rochester, New York, at the American Film Institute, the British Film Institute, the Library of Congress, the National Archive, and the NY State Archive. First published by Harper & Row in 1981, The Celluloid Closet was the first book to chronicle the depiction of gay and lesbian characters in popular films, including the innovative use of historical reviews and censors' comments to reflect contemporary beliefs and assumptions about homosexuality. (The book was reissued in 1987 with a new chapter on films of the 1980's.)
In 1987, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman became partners and formed their company Telling Pictures. Although "The Celluloid Closet" was intended to be one of their first projects, a more pressing subject presented itself and the filmmakers went on to make their Academy Award winning feature documentary "Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt" for Home Box Office. "Common Threads" documented the first decade of AIDS in America through the stories of six people who had been affected by the epidemic -- one of whom was Vito Russo.
In 1991, Vito Russo died of an AIDS related illness. Soon after, Channel 4 in England approached Epstein and Friedman, having heard that they had acquired the rights to Russo's book. They offered development money to help get the project off the ground, to write a treatment, and most importantly to determine if it would even be possible to obtain the movie clips from studios.
With initial start up money, Michael Lumpkin, for 12 years the director of the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, came on board as co-producer of the film. Lumpkin began researching hundreds of potential movies to be included in The Celluloid Closet, and determined who controlled the rights for each of them. Longtime Epstein and Friedman collaborator Sharon Wood was hired to write the first outline and treatment. Editor Arnold Glassman ("Visions Of Light") helped give shape to the project by using his enclyopedic knowledge of film to narrow down the movie clips from hundreds of possibilities to the final group of 120 films that would be part of "The Celluloid Closet."
At this point, the filmmakers approached Howard Rosenman ("Father Of The Bride"), a prominent Hollywood producer and president of motion pictures at Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, and Executive Producer of "Common Threads." Rosenman enthusiastically volunteered his services, and thanks to his industry connections was able to convince every major Hollywood studio to cooperate with the project. (The deals were finalized by Telling Pictures' attorney John Sloss and his associate Jodi Peikoff.)
Rosenman was also instrumental in convincing such busy professionals as Shirley MacLaine, Tom Hanks and Gore Vidal to discuss their work on camera in "The Celluloid Closet."
Once the cooperation of the studios was assured, the filmmakers set about raising the full budget for the movie through grass roots fundraising efforts, foundation support, and foreign television sales. Lily Tomlin spearheaded a direct mail fundraising campaign for the project in honor of her friend Vito Russo. Tomlin also headlined a successful benefit at San Francisco's landmark movie palace, the Castro Theatre, which also featured Robin Williams, Harvey Fierstein, Lypsinka and comedian/actor Marga Gomez. Shortly thereafter, three individuals offered significant support to the project, Steve Tisch, James Hormel and Hugh Hefner. Further funding came from the Paul Robeson Fund, the California Council for the Humanities, the Chicago Resource Center, and through the efforts of associate producers Michael Ehrenzweig and Wendy Braitman, ZDF/arte, a German-French cable enterprise.
Still, after years of developing the project, by May of 1994 only half the budget had been raised. Lily Tomlin contacted Michael Fuchs, chairman of HBO, on behalf of the project. Epstein, Friedman, Tomlin, and Rosenman flew to New York for a meeting with Fuchs and HBO Vice President Sheila Nevins, and at that meeting HBO committed to supply the remainder of the budget. The project was now officially a "go." Production began one month later.
Using the book as a starting point, Epstein and Friedman determined that the focus of the film should be mainstream Hollywood films. They pre-interviewed dozens of directors, writers, actors and critics before selecting those who appear on camera. The interviews, art directed by Scott Chambliss and photographed by Nancy Schreiber, were shot on sound stages in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.
As the project gained momentum and a profile, a number of talented industry professionals agreed to participate. Since the film was an epic Hollywood story, the directors wanted a classic Hollywood score to support it. Composer Carter Burwell ("Rob Roy," "Miller's Crossing," "The Hudsucker Proxy") composed, arranged and conducted an original orchestral score for the film, which was recorded in April, 1995 at the Sony scoring stage -- the old MGM stage where scores for such films as "Gone With The Wind" had been recorded. Others who offered their services include k. d. lang, who recorded a vocal for the end credits (a reprise of the Doris Day song "Secret Love," that appears earlier in the film); Juan Gatti, title designer for Pedro Almodovar, who created the main title design and special graphics for the film; and author Armistead Maupin ("Tales Of The City") who wrote the final narration text for the film.
"The Celluloid Closet" will benefit Hollywood Supports, the entertainment industry organization that provides AIDS education and workshops on sexual orientation in the workplace. Proceeds from the film will fund a special project at Hollywood Supports in Vito Russo's name. In a similar arrangement, the filmmakers donated their share of proceeds from Common Threads to the NAMES Project Foundation, earning the foundation over $250,000 in revenues to support their AIDS awareness and community fundraising efforts.