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‘Doc or drama, the storytelling is much the same – you have characters, structure,’ says Rob Epstein, right, with Jeffrey Friedman. (Victoria Will/The Associated Press)
‘Doc or drama, the storytelling is much the same – you have characters, structure,’ says Rob Epstein, right, with Jeffrey Friedman. (Victoria Will/The Associated Press)

Lovelace directors find quasi-feminist undercurrents in Deep Throat Add to ...

Together and separately, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have made some of the most important documentaries about the leading civil-rights issues of our time, including The Times of Harvey Milk, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt and The Celluloid Closet. They’ve won two Oscars and five Emmys, and made significant contributions in the struggle for gay rights. So, it’s a bit of a surprise that their latest film, Lovelace, which opened in select cities yesterday, is a movie about a movie about … a blow job.

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To be fair, it was the blow job heard ’round the world. The 1972 film Deep Throat was the first pornographic feature to become a mainstream sensation (even the secret informant in the Watergate scandal was known by the moniker). Its singularly talented star, Linda Lovelace, introduced curious but inexperienced North Americans to the wonders of oral sex. As Deep Throat’s hype grew, Lovelace became a proto-reality star, and then a punchline, a casualty of the nascent celebrity culture. She eventually changed her last name to Marciano and herself into a champion of women’s rights. (Amanda Seyfried plays her in Lovelace, with Peter Sarsgaard as her abusive husband.)

When I interviewed Epstein and Friedman in June at the Provincetown International Film Festival, they had many good reasons for being attracted to this story: They saw a correlation between the exploitation of Lovelace’s naiveté, and how teenagers today (not to mention a certain New York mayoral candidate) make the same mistake by overexposing themselves on social media. They were attracted to the quasi-feminist undercurrents in Deep Throat, about a woman’s right to have pleasure during sex, “which was a new idea in the public sphere then,” Friedman says.

But what really grabbed the duo was realizing that, in the ways Lovelace told and then changed her own story over the years, their movie could be a lively meditation on the elusive nature of truth – which is the same subject that propels their documentaries. “Linda’s narrative changed so radically,” Friedman says. “It was Rashomon, but from one person’s perspective.”

Epstein and Friedman’s paths to becoming directing partners are dramatic in their own right. Epstein, 58 – he’s the one with the firm voice, the denim blue eyes and the small goatee – grew up in suburban New Jersey. In 1975, in college in western Massachusetts, he wanted to come out as gay, and to work in the arts, but he didn’t know how to do either. So he dropped out, went to New York, and hopped on the Grey Rabbit to San Francisco.

“It was a hippie bus,” Epstein says. “They took out all the seats, filled it with foam rubber and covered that with Indian bedspreads. For $65, you left Greenwich Village, smoked pot for five days, and landed at the Greyhound station in the Mission District.”

He arrived with a backpack, $150 “and, for some reason, an umbrella.” Within six months, he was taking film classes, and soon met Nancy Adair, who was involved in making a seminal documentary about gay life, Word is Out. “That was my film school,” Epstein says. Soon after that, gay politician Harvey Milk was murdered, and he began working on The Times of Harvey Milk.

“I was out in the streets when Milk was killed. I was out in the streets calling attention to AIDS. I was in the streets a lot,” Epstein says. “If I let myself revisit my own history, what I witnessed and lived through, it’s a lot of trauma, and maybe that’s why I don’t – why I stay constantly consumed by what we’re working on in the moment. But that’s also what drives the work: It’s cathartic.”

Friedman, 62 – he’s the one with the raspier voice and the brown eyes – grew up in Manhattan, “a precocious, sissy, arty kid,” he says. His mother, an off-Broadway actress, worked at Café LaMama, “so I got to hang out with all these downtown people and drag queens.” At the age of 9, he was taking acting classes and stealing his mother’s Backstage magazines, looking for roles. At 12, he played parts in two off-Broadway shows. Then a film-editor cousin invited Friedman to hang out in the editing room. He started helping out, and became an accomplished apprentice and assistant editor, eventually working on Raging Bull and The Exorcist.

“Apprentice and assistant editing is very different from editing; it’s clerical work, logging code and edge numbers, keeping track of little pieces of film,” Friedman says, and then laughs: “It was about having good handwriting. It feels so 19th century now. But I learned a lot along the way.”

Friedman and Epstein teamed up on 1989’s Common Threads and have been co-directors, co-writers and co-producers ever since.

Lovelace is their second fiction film; their first, Howl, was also based on a true story. In fact, it started as a documentary: Allen Ginsberg’s estate asked them to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his infamous poem. “We weren’t able to find a form we thought did justice to the poem, which was such a revolutionary piece of art in its time,” Friedman says. So they decided to do a scripted narrative, but lift the text verbatim from transcribed interviews, court documents and the poem itself. It proved to be the transition from documentary to drama they had been looking for.

“It’s like working in oil versus pastel,” Epstein says. “Doc or drama, the storytelling is much the same – you have characters, structure, mood.”

They plan to keep doing both. Their most recent doc, The Battle of Amfar, also premiered at the Provincetown International Film Festival, and they’re developing a movie about Anita Bryant, starring Uma Thurman. “We do really well with wigs,” Epstein cracks.

Watching The Battle of Amfar, which chronicles how Elizabeth Taylor and scientist Mathilde Krim forced the U.S. government to acknowledge AIDS, I was struck by how much anger and sorrow runs through Epstein and Friedman’s documentaries. Does that ever wear them down? “You have an emotional reaction the first time something happens, or the first time you see a piece of footage,” Friedman says. “Then, you try to remember that emotional reaction, because it’s never going to be the same. You try to figure out a way build to that in the film, so when the audience sees it, it becomes emotional again.”

There’s nothing like a simulated blowjob, however, to crack a cast and crew up. For a scene in which Lovelace has to show potential movie investors what she can do, “everybody was having to hold back hysterical laughter,” Epstein remembers. “It looked so real and so comical. Amanda had to cover her face with her hair because she was laughing so hard.”

“Remember, people hadn’t seen extreme fellatio before, especially straight people,” Friedman adds. “That was our biggest challenge for a modern audience – ‘What’s the big whoop?’ We had to show them what the big whoop was.” Mission accomplished.

Follow on Twitter: @JoSchneller

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