Film Therapy : CalArts Student Makes Movie to Help Deal With Her Father's 'Secret' Death of AIDS

Times Staff Writer

William Bayer didn't tell his daughter that he had AIDS.

She found out anyway and came home from college to be with him. But he didn't want to talk about it. He ordered his doctor to keep quiet. Heidi Bayer discovered that the rest of the family didn't want to talk either. No one did. And then her father died.

So she decided to make a movie.

"People wanted to know why this 22-year-old blonde chick wanted to do a film about AIDS," Bayer said. "Everyone asked. Finally, I told them my father died of AIDS.

"My experience was so frustrating. This film is my way of talking about it."

Bayer is funneling her frustration into a cinematic short story, a 20-minute drama called "A Choir of Angels." On a recent day on an indoor set at CalArts, the film student was running around in striped pants with a rubber chicken tied to her waist. She was trying to find one of her actors for a walk-through. She was trying to find a can of Budweiser that had been on the television set in the last scene. She was sniffling.

"We'd been shooting for five days, I'd been getting four hours sleep a night, and I was fighting a cold," Bayer said. "I couldn't help thinking about my father. I thought I was going to lose it."

She didn't--shooting went so well that it ended two days ahead of schedule. Editing work remains, and the movie cannot be finished until more money is wrangled for film processing. Yet Bayer feels a certain calmness.

"It's really strange, but this has helped me work a lot of things out," she said.

"A Choir of Angels" is not about William Bayer. It is about Don and Jesse, working-class roommates. Their lives change one morning when Maria arrives at their apartment.

Maria is Don's pen pal from Italy, and she is beautiful. Don is shy. Jesse is smitten. There is immediate conflict. And that's just the start of it: Maria has come to America because she has AIDS and her family has disowned her.

This is a common story of AIDS victims who face the illness alone, Bayer said. Some are like Maria, cast out by lovers, friends and family.

Others are like William Bayer, a stockbroker in Denver. He insisted on keeping his affliction a secret, even from his children and his wife, from whom he'd been separated for 10 years.

In their last days, these people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome die among strangers--doctors, nurses and lawyers.

"But this isn't a story about death," Heidi Bayer said. "It's a story about life and living with the disease."

Panavision Loans Camera

Executives at Panavision were impressed. They chose "A Choir of Angels" to be part of their New FilmMakers Program and they loaned Bayer an expensive 16-millimeter camera. She needed a break like that.

Still, the film might never have got started if not for Erika T. Wing.

Wing is Bayer's roommate. She doesn't know anyone who has AIDS and she doesn't get as emotional about the disease as Bayer does. But she believes in what the film has to say.

"Obviously the subject matter is really important," said Wing, a 26-year-old CalArts student.

Wing, who speaks with a North Carolina accent, is an organized person. A notebook is often tucked under one arm. After being interviewed, she reassured a reporter that all pertinent topics had been covered and she recited them.

As producer of "A Choir of Angels," Wing had only $5,500 to work with--most of it money Bayer received after her father's death. So she called movie equipment companies and film labs all over Los Angeles to find the best deals. She persuaded Pepsi-Cola and Hansen Juices to donate refreshments. She got Anheuser-Busch to chip in a few cases of beer for the wrap party. Burbank Studios loaned a backdrop, and Carpeteria sent over a roll of carpeting for the set.

Other CalArts students offered help. One man built the set. Several others acted. Some people from outside the school worked lights.

"It makes me very proud," said Steven Lavine, president of CalArts. "AIDS is a staggeringly big issue. It's wonderful that these students are taking on the hard issues."

No Pain, Deterioration

The issues, for Bayer, took shape in words and gestures. Physical pain and deterioration do not appear in this film.

"After what I saw and what I went through. . . ." she said. "I couldn't show any of that. It's just too ugly."

Nobody, she said, should have to see it.

"What struck us about 'A Choir of Angels' was the theme of AIDS and the way it was dealt with, which we thought was less sensationalistic and more down-to-earth," said Benjamin Bergery of Panavision. "It presents AIDS in a human way."

No matter how many nice things people say about the film, Bayer and Wing still find themselves broke with more work to go. Processing and editing will cost $3,000. Wing has her hand on the telephone.

"It's going to be tough. We'll go around to private people and AIDS research groups. I've got a couple different foundations and health groups in mind," she said. "We're going to try anything we can."

Bayer doesn't think so much about dollars. She thinks about finishing the film and having it shown at student film festivals and "at the Beverly Hills Cineplex and all over the United States, including Canada."

She is glad it's almost done.

"It's so emotional when you're so close to something," she said. "This is the end of my mourning process. No, this is the end of a phase of it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°