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They Found Out How Tough a Sell AIDS Really Is : ‘Longtime Companion’ made it to the screen, but only after Hollywood had closed the doors on a now-famous creative team

It wasn’t as if writer Craig Lucas and director Norman Rene didn’t have enough to be nervous about as they paced around the lobby of the Helen Hayes Theater. After all, they were merely in the process of achieving that rare show business high--a play opening on Broadway and a motion picture going into national release within weeks of each other. And not just any motion picture either. But one that carries with it the burden of being the first theatrical movie with wide distribution about the AIDS epidemic.

For the last 10 years, the pair has lived through the countless trials common to lives in the theater--the struggle to get produced and the feeling of putting yourself on the line. And for the last two years they have been through hoops trying to convince someone--anyone--in Hollywood to distribute “Longtime Companion,” their unusually frank movie about AIDS, set in the upscale, gay, white subculture of Manhattan. It premiered here last week, and will open in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Francisco on Friday.

Now, suddenly, everything is happening very fast. It was only February when “Prelude to a Kiss” opened Off Broadway, a few weeks later when Hollywood bidders clamored to buy the film rights, and a sale to 20th Century Fox for an estimated $1 million was announced in March. Lucas will write the screenplay and Rene will direct. On top of that, the show would move uptown to Broadway.

The speed at which the romantic-fable “Prelude” sold to a major Hollywood studio stands in stark contrast to the more than two years it took for “Longtime Companion” to make it to the nation’s screens. Not to mention the better part of a decade that it took for any movie about AIDS to make it, period.

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And “Longtime Companion” didn’t get where it is by the usual studio route. It was finally made by a Hollywood “outsider,” the PBS series “American Playhouse” and picked up for theatrical distribution by the independent Samuel Goldwyn Co.

Having lived through all that, what was the reason for their new bout of nerves?

As they entered the lobby of the Helen Hayes, where previews of “Prelude” had just begun the day before, the smell of smoke was heavy in the air from an electrical fire early in the morning. The theater staff informed them all the costumes had been destroyed or damaged. The dressing rooms were a wreck.

And yet, as tradition demands, the show would go on that night. While Lucas and Rene paced about the aisles of the empty theater, the management made temporary arrangements for dressing rooms. Neighboring theaters along 44th Street chipped in to help with cleaning and replacing costumes.

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“It’s always something . . . ,” moaned Lucas, 39, the boyish appearing and usually precise-with-words playwright.

“Now we can call it, ‘the hottest show in town,’ ” cracked Rene, also 39, who has directed the first productions of all of Lucas’ plays.

As it turned out, they didn’t need to call “Prelude to a Kiss” anything. New York Times theater critic Frank Rich did it for them when the play officially opened May 1: “a wonderful play, a comic and affecting fairy tale for and about adults.” Another week later, it received a Tony nomination for best play.

A dream reception, to be sure. One opening down.

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Now about that movie about AIDS . . . .

The reception for “Longtime Companion” wasn’t nearly as warm as that for “Prelude to a Kiss,” at least not at first. When Lucas and Rene first proposed it to Lindsay Law, producer of the PBS series “American Playhouse,” it was after they had adapted Lucas’ 1984 play, “Blue Window,” for Law’s series.

“It was my first experience directing with a camera and I had a great time,” Rene said, thinking back to a dinner he and Lucas had with Law had in winter 1987. “Law asked what we would like to do next.”

After a few weeks, Rene said they went back to the producer with news of their proposed AIDS movie. “We laid this bomb on Lindsay . . . he sort of blanched. I think his first thought was, ‘Who will fund this movie?’

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“A week or two later he asked if we had any other ideas. We sort of said, Noooo , we don’t think so . . . . “He finally said, ‘OK, we’ll do it.’ ”

It was the last “OK” the creative team would hear until more than two years later, when Goldwyn agreed to distribute the completed movie. In the meantime, they heard plenty of “no’s” to the script from all the usual independent film companies that American Playhouse usually deals with, Law said, during an interview at his Midtown offices. Previous “Playhouse” feature film forays have been “Bloodhounds of Broadway” and “Stand and Deliver,” so it wasn’t as if Law was seeking something unusual--except that this time the subject matter was different.

“Various companies would say, look, if you would put five big names in this, if you end up with the Brat Pack in this movie, and on and on and on like that . . . " then perhaps they would give a commitment, Law said.

Months passed. In the end, “American Playhouse” took the unusual move and committed more than it normally ever would to produce the picture. Rene finally was able to cast the piece as an ensemble. Among the actors are: Stephen Caffrey, Patrick Cassidy, Brian Cousins, Bruce Davison, John Dossett, Mark Lamos, Dermot Mulroney, Brad O’Hare, Michael Schoeffling and Campbell Scott. Actress Mary-Louise Parker, who also is in the film, is currently co-starring on Broadway opposite Tim Hutton in “Prelude to a Kiss.”

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“Longtime Companion” begins like a mystery. The story opens on the day in June 1981 when the New York Times first published a report about a rare disease--perhaps a cancer--that had afflicted a number of gay men in the city. The movie then tells how 11 individuals, some friends, some lovers, react to the news report--at first with disbelief and unconcern as they go about their lives in Manhattan or in the perennial party atmosphere of upscale Fire Island. The film then revisits the same group of people one day each year, through 1989.

As the years pass, their lives grow more connected to AIDS. First a friend dies. Then a lover is overcome with fear that he has “it.” A year later, another is diagnosed and eventually becomes ill.

The epidemic causes great changes in lifestyle. The Fire Island all-night partying and “doing” drugs give way to “safe sex.” Volunteer work with AIDS organizations becomes part of the daily routine. A successful TV writer, with the help of his lover, is able to disguise an AIDS-related mental disorder from his producers, but only for a time. A young actor, who plays a gay character on a TV soap opera, is denied a job because his employers say they can’t obtain production insurance for him.

Not everyone in the cast lives to the end, but those who do have experienced growth in their own way through the loss of a friend or lover.

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“I just decided to trace my experience during the last 10 years, which is why the movie is about the class it’s about and the people I know,” said Lucas. “Usually as a writer I try to throw my imagination away from myself and write about people who are not about me. But these are people who inhabit a world that I know.

“I didn’t know where to start. So I spent time working as a volunteer with people with AIDS before I started writing.” Both Lucas and Rene say they have lost close friends to the disease.

Said Rene: “It was important to us that the characters be real. That they just be people. That the issue in the movie is not their gayness. But by simply portraying them as people with real intimacies between each other, it would be the best way to depict a subculture.”

“Longtime Companion,” which will initially play in 19 major cities around the U.S., then expand if audience reaction warrants, will eventually air on “American Playhouse” sometime next season. On Monday, it will screen at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the “Un Certain Regard” section, a non-competetive series that features new filmmakers. And Lucas and Rene are there, of course, and probably pacing.

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There is a rapport between writer and director that comes from working together for 10 years, whether on shows at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (his “Blue Window,” “Three Postcards” and “Prelude to a Kiss” all opened there) or at theaters in New York. They first teamed up because a man they had both dated introduced them.

As both Lucas and Rene spoke during an interview, their words tended to overlap, one supporting the other’s thoughts.

Talking about “Longtime Companion,” Rene said he believes general audiences will find identification with the characters. “The experiences that these people are going through are universal. Death is something that happens to . . . “

” . . . all of us,” finished Lucas.

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” . . . about people coping with death at an age when most people don’t experience death,” added Rene, referring to statistics showing most deaths from AIDS are among gay men in their late 20s to early 40s.

Rene was very deliberate with his words as he described what he was aiming for. “Part of this movie is to say that gay people are not different from heterosexuals. (Gays) have their day-to-day intimacies and feelings about one another--which I think people still don’t understand in this country . . . that two men or two women can feel the same way about one another as a man and a woman. And I think people are somewhat surprised and shocked by that.

“And I think that’s probably the scariest thing for a lot of people in the movie is that those relationships aren’t very different from their own.”

For Lucas, it was the presentation of the characters that mattered most. “Gay people have historically been presented, even in recent years, as exotic creatures, as extremely feminine men, in drag, as promiscuous or as having anonymous sex. All of those things have been dramatized because that allows people to go: ‘Oh, they’re over there.’ ”

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Then he slowed his pace to dead serious: “But it was important to Norman and me that we say: ‘No, they’re right here .’

“We’re a very onanistic society,” Lucas suddenly declared. “That means we like to look at our own belly buttons.

“Well, I have not written a lot of gay characters before. But when it came to this story, I decided that it was time to look at my own belly button.”

The reaction to “Longtime Companion” within the gay community, as well as from general audiences during advance screenings largely has been mixed to positive. The film won the audience favorite award at the Sundance United States Film Festival last January.

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In Los Angeles, the movie will be used as a fund-raiser for the AIDS Hospice Foundation, the American Foundation for AIDS Research and KCET, at a special benefit Monday at the Cineplex Odeon Century Plaza Cinemas.

Time Magazine reviewer Richard Corliss called it “a splendidly bitchy comedy . . . Also a soap opera, a horror movie and a how-to manual on coping with a catastrophe . . . . The film is a juggling act--of characters, attitudes and moods--that never loses its balance.”

In Entertainment Weekly, critic Owen Gleiberman saw “Longtime Companion” as a “courageous and deeply affecting drama.” He noted that it “unabashedly confines itself to the upscale fringes of gay life . . . .You’re always aware you’re watching a staged-and-acted drama rather than real life.” Nevertheless, he said, viewers will be “carried along by the pungent urgency of its writing, and by the fact that AIDS is treated here with such disarming frankness and intelligence.”

And in a recent issue of the gay newsmagazine, The Advocate, film reviewer Vito Russo said, “it’s not a perfect film,” but nevertheless called it “a courageous and powerful statement, and it’s something of a miracle that it got financed and distributed at all.”

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In his review, Russo, author of “The Celluloid Closet,” an authoritative study of the depiction of homosexuals in film, refuted certain criticisms that he said have been directed at the film from some in the gay community. “Virtually all the characters are white, handsome, and upscale professionals--and rightly so, because this is exactly the population first identified with this disease . . . " he wrote in answer to those who feel the film does not cover the full scope of the epidemic.

Lucas and Rene seemed astounded at the criticism.

“Not comprehensive?” wondered Lucas. “The movie doesn’t make any claims to be comprehensive. That’s like saying ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’ is only about white alcoholics--where are the black alcoholics in the movie?

“It’s a tremendous presumption to tell artists that they should write about more than they know. It’s like saying about ‘Hamlet’ that it’s about royalty and complaining that you don’t learn about the people who work in the kitchen.”

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Lucas said he believes “Longtime Companion” bears a burden to be everything to all people, “because this is the only movie. There’s such an onus on it to speak for everyone. As if this movie must be the statement about people with AIDS.

“Some people have said, ‘Why aren’t there women and children with AIDS or IV drug users with AIDS in the movie?’ It’s not about that. No work of art can bear the full political responsibility of any ‘issue.’ It has to be first and foremost aesthetically whole. I would hope that, if nothing else, this movie opens the door for many, many more projects, for all of the rest of the stories that need to told.”

Neither Lucas or Rene flinched when asked why anyone would want to see a movie about a disease that has killed thousands, attacked countless thousands of others, and whose very mention is often met with silence or hostility.

The question prompted a typical Lucas--Rene volley.

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Lucas has basically put his faith in people. “People are interested in other people. If they are not frightened, and if they are not made to feel guilty, or be punished . . . .”

And, added Lucas: People “ are curious. They do want to know. The movie isn’t preachy, or political, although I think it has a social conscience.”

“For people who have experienced death, it’s a common thread,” Rene said.

“The movie presents a crisis. It’s about how people cope and make their life better within that . . . . You face the situation instead of running from it.”

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“Why do people go to see ‘Platoon’? " asked Lucas. “You know going in it’s going to be upsetting. It was very important to Norman and to me that we not make people more afraid with this movie. We wanted to make them feel some sort of common humanity.”


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