LA-based, openly gay filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz, 48, makes documentaries. You might have seen his 2015 film Tab Hunter Confidential (now streaming on Netflix).
Schwarz cut his professional teeth working for legendary doc duo Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (who won Oscars for Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt and The Times of Harvey Milk). I met him years ago when I was in film school and spent a semester interning on The Celluloid Closet (1995). Schwarz had the enviable job of listening to and transcribing celebrity interviews with people like Cher, Susan Sarandon and Tony Curtis (who said some pretty gnarly things about working with Marilyn Monroe on the Billy Wilder classic Some Like It Hot).
I published an initial interview with Schwarz back in September about his new documentary The Fabulous Allan Carr, but below are further excerpts from our phone Q&A.
Carr just completed a national and international film festival run this past weekend and Schwarz told me additional distribution on cable and via streaming is being worked out now.
Allan Carr was the flamboyant and legendary entertainment producer responsible for movies like Grease and Can’t Stop the Music, as well as the Broadway smash La Cage Au Folles. Schwarz said he made the film “to celebrate” Carr.
The notorious opening number to the 1989 Oscars he produced basically ended his career. What that homophobia, an excuse to use his gayness against him?
Jeffrey Schwarz: There are a lot of people who didn’t like Allan Carr very much. He was too much, too outrageous, too gay. And the opening number was designed to be over the top, to be camp, to be outrageous and ridiculous. We didn’t talk about this in the movie, but it was inspired by the San Francisco show Beach Blanket Babylon.
The creator of Beach Blanket Babylon was Allan’s creative partner. It’s a gay aesthetic, a gay approach. It’s camp.
It does smack a bit of homophobia to me that people thought it was just too out there and may be disrespectful to Hollywood. But I don’t see it that way at all. It’s such a celebration and a love of Hollywood. I do think homophobia played a role. But I can’t prove that. But that’s my sense.
After that he was really persona non grata. When you have a failure like that nobody wants to associate with you. He went into withdrawal for quite some time after that. He never, with the exception of the 20th anniversary re-release of Grease, which was a big success, he never really had another success.
Do you feel like a producer of a “bad” Oscars show today would be punished similarly?
I don’t know. I think we’ve seen some fumbles over the years but we’re still talking about Allan Carr’s Oscars all these years later. I hope this film redeems it in some sense and people will look back at it and say, “Hey, that was actually pretty bold, and pretty ballsy.”
You’ve made a lot of documentaries. Does your body of work have a theme?
“Be true to yourself” is a theme. “Accept who you are and try to leave a legacy.”
I’m really kind of driven to find stories about people or events in the past that have been marginalized or [are] on the verge of being forgotten. Like Vito Russo. Such a dynamic force, he changed our world.
I make these movies to bring these people, drag them out of their graves, and tell their stories and empower people. I think they are all stories of empowerment.
If you could wave a magic wand and make any project you wanted, it would be?
I would like to do this for the rest of my life. I’d like to make movie after movie after movie. It wouldn’t be one specific project it would just be given the privilege to keep doing what I’m doing.
Who are some of your important influences and why?
Rob Epstein is a major influence. I saw his film The Times of Harvey Milk when I was in college, when I was coming out. And that was one of the first, if not the first documentary I saw about our history. And I am just devastated by it every time I see it. The storytelling, the way the story unfolds, the compassion, the humanity, the anger in the movie is, it’s incredible. And he’s also a trailblazer for being openly gay very early on in his career. He was just always interested in just being true to himself and telling stories about our community. Word is Out is an early film he was involved with and Harvey Milk. So I’d say Rob is probably a real inspiration to me. I got to work for him. My first job was working with him on Celluloid Closet back in the 90s.
Is there any particular message in your film for LGBTQ audiences?
I don’t make the films for the LGBT audience. I make them because I want these stories to be out in the world. But I don’t want them to be limited to an LGBT audience.
All my films have premiered at non-gay festivals. I feel that it’s a way to create empathy and understanding outside our community. Like the Tab Hunter film was a film that talked very explicitly about gay themes to audiences who already loved Tab Hunter. Maybe older people who loved Tab but didn’t know that side of him, so it’s a way for straight audiences to be gently led down this path of understanding. Tab’s story, that was one of the reasons I wanted to do that movie, was to share his story with people of another generation, and younger people who didn’t know his story.