It takes someone who really knows the material and has a true passion for the subject matter in order to make a film that is as engaging, articulate, and thoughtfully crafted as the documentary, Vito. Weaving together incredible archival footage with interviews of friends and family members, director Jeffrey Schwarz managed to create a fascinating portrait of the charismatic gay activist, Vito Russo, while framing his story with a chronology of gay history from the Stonewall riots to the AIDS epidemic. Russo, one of the founders of the LGBT movement, spent most of his adult life fighting for gay rights and as cultural warrior who wrote the seminal book The Celluloid Closet, a text that documented how gays were being (mis)represented in the movies, what those images were teaching audiences and how negative portrayals were at the root of society’s homophobia. His contributions to queer rights, history and cinema are nothing short of inspiring.
Vito screened in the historic Orpheum Theater on the opening night of the Outfest Film Festival last week and premieres on HBO this Monday, July 23. The superbly crafted documentary was also a labor of love for editor, Philip Harrison. Having worked on both documentary projects and independent narrative feature projects, Harrison enjoyed working with such amazing archival footage and felt a huge responsibility in telling the story of Vito Russo. I spoke with Harrison about his editorial process on the film.
Congratulations on such an incredible portrait. I’m really glad this document of history and Vito’s work is out there. How did you come to work on the project?
I’d known Jeffery for a long time, and have worked with him for the last 10 years at his company Automat Pictures, they do documentary and DVD supplemental materials. We started working together when he made his first feature, Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story, and asked me to edit it. I went to college with Jeffery and remember him telling me about Vito Russo and The Celluloid Closet 20 years ago, so I knew it had been on his mind for a long time. We would talk about it off and on, and while he was doing all the interviews, it was always exciting to hear what was happening and how the production was coming together. Then he asked me to edit the movie, and I was thrilled to be a part of the project.
How long was the editing process?
We started in April, 2010, when I came on for about a month. He had most of the interviews locked for the film except for a few holdouts. Like all documentaries, trying to figure out how to get it made, was a big part of it. We decided we were going to make a 20-minute promo version of the movie to use to get attention and hopefully get funding, so we spent about a month cutting the promo. The funding started to happen and I began cutting in September, 2010. It took six months to get our first cut, which was 2:45 minutes long, then it took about two more months to have screenings, get notes, and come to our final cut. Once we locked picture in early June 2011, we moved into composing and graphics. Jeffrey kept me on as the Associate Producer and I was the go-to person for our graphics designer, Scott Grossman and composer, Miriam Cutler. We spent a couple more months putting it all together before our premiere at the NY Film Festival in October, 2011. Our online and sound mix came right down to the wire. Once I started cutting the movie full time, I was on it for a year until we were ready to go to the festival.
Did Jeffrey write a script and then bring it to you?
When Jeffrey had learned about Vito Russo in college, around that same time, a documentary version of Vito’s book, The Celluloid Closet, was being produced by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman in San Francisco. Jeffrey had heard about this and really wanted to be involved, and I’m not sure what the process was, but he got an internship on The Celluloid Closet and then became one of the assistant editors on the project. There were a lot of interviews that they had done with Vito for their other film, Common Threads. There was also all of Vito’s original writing, so much research was there already that he could really immerse himself in. I think Jeffrey was inspired by Vito at the time. So he really kept it in his mind, that Vito would make a great subject of a feature-legnth documentary. Over a 4-5 year period, he started interviewing all of the subjects of the film and was very researched and prepared. Once all the interviews were together (there were about 58 total), Jeffrey cut a first pass of the material and went through the material to narrow down things he didn’t want to use for the movie and then categorized it by subject and themes that he thought would be important. I think all along he had a vision for the film being sort of a chronological story.
Yes, it seems very chaptered.
Vito really covered this huge chapter of LGBT activism history, and Jeffrey felt from the beginning that there would be a power moving through that history and having it build through the course of Vito’s life. By the time I came on, the interviews were probably narrowed down to 30-40 hours, and were organized into subject categories when he turned it over to me. Having cut the smaller version in the spring, I had a really good sense of what Jeffrey was going for at that point. Basically, I went through all the interviews and started creating, what we called a ‘radio play’, and structured the film as if it were all just audio interviews.
That’s so interesting, because it did feel like one audio interview was really driving the narrative of the film.
We were so lucky to have all that material of Vito — it’s amazing how much he left behind. There’s one point very early on in the movie where he talks about his response to what the truth of what his community was telling him as a kid. He very clearly said, “I never believed what they were saying about gay people, I always knew they were full of shit.” And I thought, ‘this perfect sound byte’ and knew it was going to nest right into the story beautifully.
He exuded so much confidence and had such an evolved way of thinking about sexuality at such a young age. When I was a programmer with the Rochester Lesbian & Gay Film Festival ages ago, his book “The Celluloid Closet” was a seminal text for me in terms of curating films from the Eastman House Archive, and really understanding the history of queer cinema. I have very personal connection to Vito and to the movie.
I have to say, during the editing of it, I couldn’t help but have that in the back of your head — just knowing how many people had a personal connection to Vito. I know Jeffrey did, and I felt a huge responsibility to do him justice and really go into the details, and do the work that needed to be done to create as good a portrait as possible.
Once Jeffrey did a first pass, did he set a road map for you?
Jeffrey’s a really good interviewer, so when you watch his interviews, you’re really clear at what material he’s trying to get at and what are the important pieces. I jumped into the categorized material and started to structure the film. It took three months to just get a structure with the Vito interview material and then with all the storyteller interview material. I would make a pass and show Jeffrey and get feedback, and then make changes based on that. It was pretty straightforward. Once we were done creating the structure with all the interview material, there was the second half of the process, which was going through all of the archival material. We had hours and hours and hours of archival material related to New York, gay history, politics, and any possible related subject matter. While I was getting the structure together, I had my assistant editor, Geri Atos, go through all of the archival material and organize it based on subject matter. We also had hundreds of photographs from Vito’s life that needed to be categorized. Once we got through that first stage, then we leaped into cutting the movie. The first radio play felt like our script, and now we were going to use the archival footage to bring it to life visually. In a way, that’s the large creative part, because you’re figuring out ways to visually bring things to life.
Here’s a techie questions — it’s obvious that you had all kinds of formats, as an editor, what do you do to have to work with all of the formats?
My understanding of it is, basically is when material would come in, it was transferred to DV tape so that we would have a point of reference with timecode and source that would make things easy for us to digitize later on, whether it was beta or ¾ tapes from an archival house, digital files, or a VHS movie that Jeffrey had. Eventually when we got to a locked cut, we went through the process of going back to the master at the archival house, or transferring the new masters with the help of Digital By Design in Los Angeles. They do really high quality HD conversions and are a huge resource for independent filmmakers. We then had digital restoration people clean up the footage to make things look as good as possible for our final version.
What was the biggest challenge working on the film?
The biggest challenge was just the massiveness and detail of it all. If you see the current film, you can see how much detail is in there, how much story gets told, how many visuals there are, and to get all of that stuff into storytelling well, is the trickiest part. That’s just about always going back to story, always just trying to be intuitive, and always trying to get back to what’s the most important thing, what’s the story element, the emotional pieces. But it’s challenging when you have so much material.
Do you have any advice for indie filmmakers working in documentary?
You absolutely have to be organized. I’ve seen other documentary films who have wanted feedback, and a lot of the time people don’t necessarily do all that organizational work where you really get things lined up and figure out what you’re trying to do. You weigh things out, and make sure you have all of your elements ready for when you’ll need them in the editing room. I think it’s easy to get lost in terms of what you’re doing unless you’re really willing to put in the time to do the organizational work. When you’re doing it, it can seem frustrating because you probably want to get right to cutting the movie. But for me, it’s invaluable because it means that it’s less likely you’re going to get lost in terms of what you’re trying to do, and it makes it easier to be really clear about what the story is.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.