How to Make a Powerful AIDS Documentary: Talking to the Team Behind ‘How To Survive a Plague’

How to Make a Powerful AIDS Documentary: Talking to the Team Behind 'How To Survive a Plague'
How Make Powerful AIDS Documentary: Talking the Team Behind 'How Survive Plague'

This weekend — after a hugely successful run on the festival circuit — “How To Survive a Plague” is hitting theaters.

A chronicle of AIDS activism in New York, the film shows how a group of men and women fought against a homophobic establishment to help bring life-saving drugs to America. It’s a remarkable part of American history that too few are aware of, and one that comes to theaters exactly 25 years after ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) — the activist group at the core of “Plague” — held its first demonstration.

Shortly after the film’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Indiewire sat down with three New Yorkers pivotal to the film’s existence: Director David France, producer Howard Gertler and Peter Staley, one of the primary protagonists in the film’s narrative.

A longtime journalist, France made his first foray into filmmaking with “Plague,” but he began covering AIDS “before it was even called AIDS,” he says. After starting in the gay presses, he moved into the mainstream, working for the New York Times and New York magazine, among others. He started making “Plague” roughly three years ago, and it came largely out of a growing concern that all the writing and film work and thinking about AIDS had taken place before AIDS activism started.

“If the plague years can be divided in half,” he says, “the first half is 1981-1986 or so, and that’s where so much work came from. That’s where ‘The Normal Heart’ is. That’s where ‘Angels in America’ is. That’s where ‘And The Band Played On’ is. It’s all about this mystery disease coming and killing us.”

As France explains, the second half of the “plague years” was about response and how activists combatted the crisis. But very little media has depicted this part of the story. Why?

“I think the reason is that when the good drugs came in 1996, AIDS suddenly became a non-story,” France says. “Newspapers stopped writing about it. It was over. And the idea of going back and revisiting that was made impossible by media empires.”

France decided to make the impossible possible, so he started by writing a script and then sought out the footage that told that story. He discovered a remarkable amount of video and film  — some 700 hours of usable footage (and thousands of hours more that they couldn’t use ) — and started crafting what would become “How To Survive a Plague.”

After some intial work, France teamed up with Gertler, who had previously produced John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” and Bobcat Goldthwait’s “World’s Greatest Dad.” But this was his first documentary, and Gertler says that he had two strong thoughts when France presented his footage. 

“The first was that this is footage is like gold, and this movie has to be made,” Gertler says. “And the second was that I couldn’t believe I didn’t know this story. I realized that I’m a gay man in his mid-thirties living in New York who didn’t know this story, and that there’s a whole lot of other people out there who didn’t know it either who need to know it.”

Someone who most certainly knew it was Peter Staley, who came to New York in 1983 when he was hired by JP Morgan as a bond trader. He found out he was HIV positive two years later, but at the time he did not know any other HIV-positive people — until he discovered ACT UP. On his way to work, Staley was handed a flyer for one of ACT UP’s very first protests, which would occur on Wall Street. The protests caused an uproar at Staley’s work, and he vividly remembered his mentor saying to him: “Everyone with AIDS deserves to die because they take it up the butt.”

Completely in the closet, Staley said nothing. But when he went home that night, the protest was the lead story on the news and Staley decided that was “power he wanted to be involved with.” So he attended the next meeting and from that point forward was a key player in ACT UP’s mission.

A consistent presence in “Plague,” both through stirring archival footage (Staley’s powerful protest speeches won’t leave a dry eye in the house) and in contemporary interviews, Staley also notes that it wasn’t just the media that refused to look back.

“The gay community kind of pushed away and didn’t want to revisit that era either,” he says. “Even AIDS activists that continued working on this rarely went back there emotionally. There was a layer of pain involved that made everybody avoid it. And I think that’s one of the primary reasons there hasn’t been any retrospective look back on that period. But now’s the time.”

Twenty-five years after Staley took that flyer on Wall Street, filmgoers can make good on his suggestion and discover a story critical to their history. “How To Survive a Plague” is being released in select theaters and on demand via Sundance Selects this Friday, Sept. 21.

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