Exclusive interview: Jeffrey Schwarz

“If you were breathing in New York in the 70s and 80s you knew who he was. He was everywhere. His film criticism was everywhere and he was at every movie premiere. He was as much a film scholar and film lover as he was a gay activist and he was able to weave those two passions together in a way that no one had done before.”

Vito Russo was born in New York City in 1946 and died in 1990, also in New York City. He was a prominent LGBT activist, film theorist and author of The Celluloid Closet, which was the basis for the documentary of the same name directed by Rob Epstein, a close friend of Vito, and Jeffrey Friedman.

The book and documentary were revolutionary in exploring the hidden subtext of more than 100 Hollywood movies—from The Maltese Falcon to Spartacus and Rebel Without A Cause to Thelma and Louise and Philadelphia. It was a book that changed Jeffrey Schwarz’s life. “When I read The Celluloid Closet in the early 90s, I was coming out,” he explains. “It combined my two favourite subjects: homosexuality and the movies. The book opened up a whole new world of films that I had already seen but either didn’t notice the hidden gay content or that I needed to see because I was exploring who I was. The movies were a way to learn about my community and learn about this history. Vito made it accessible for people. He made people aware of how images of gay and lesbian people effect the way the larger community views us and the way we view ourselves.”

The book, The Celluloid Closet was so important to Schwarz that when he discovered Epstein and Friedman were producing a documentary, he immediately made contact. As he tells it, “I called them up and said, “I need to work on this movie. I’ll sweep the floors, I’ll do your laundry, I’ll wash your car – I’ll do whatever you need to do”. They invited me to come to San Francisco and intern on the film. They hadn’t gotten full financing yet so I spent a couple years interning. Eventually HBO came on board and Rob and Jeffrey hired me. It was my first job.”

The subject of Vito’s life and work would turn out to be a life-long passion. Around 2006, Schwarz broached the topic of his documentary with Epstein. He then made contact with Vito’s family. “I have a feeling that Vito knew one day somebody would make a documentary about him,” Schwarz says now. “There was an enormous archive. He kept extensive journals and his writing and criticism was kept at the New York Public Library. Rob and Jeffrey had all of the interviews they’d done with Vito and his family kept everything. Most importantly was the voice. I was able to locate some interviews that were done on audiocassette. We got very, very lucky,” the director reflects. “Vito’s voice is weaved throughout the entire film.”


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I spoke with Jeffrey Schwarz from his home in Los Angeles days before the world premiere of his feature documentary, Vito. The director is especially thrilled that the film is premiering in New York. “Vito was a quintessential New Yorker,” he says of the man whose extraordinary life is the subject of the documentary.

 
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