Pride Month 2021
& Jeffrey Friedman
Originally published during Sundance Film Festival 2018
Filmed and edited in intimate vérité style, this work follows visionary medical practitioners who are working on the cutting edge of life and death -- and dedicated to changing our thinking about both.
You were first at Sundance in 1985 Winning the Special Jury Prize for The Times of Harvey Milk, what was that experience like for you?
Rob Epstein: Sundance 1985 provided me my first experience meeting other filmmakers from across the country, some of whom were already legends and inspirations for me like DA Pennebaker, Barbara Kopple and Frederick Wiseman, all three of whom were on the doc jury that year.
It was an amazing moment in the history of early independent cinema: the Coen Brothers were there with Blood Simple; Jim Jarmusch with Stranger Than Paradise -- and I, a neophyte, was there with The Times of Harvey Milk. We all hung out in a large meeting space on Main Street, day and night. Back then there were only a handful of venues so you really got to see everything. The overwhelming sense was that it was this was going to be a film festival for filmmakers; documentaries and features were on equal footing. Both of these things are still true, it’s just that the scale is just so much different now.
Do you still get nerves ahead of premiering a new film at the festival?
RE: Yes, it’s always still nerve-wracking. You just can’t predict any of it.
Jeffrey Friedman: Feeling an audience respond to a film is always exciting. After working on something for so long, it’s like seeing it for the first time. If it works, it’s very rewarding. (If it doesn’t, not so much.)
Tell me a little bit about End Game, how did the film come about?
JF: Producer Bill Hirsch brought the idea to us. He had already developed relationships with Zen Hospice Project (ZHP) and with the palliative care unit at UCSF Medical Centre. We were wary at first -- until we met BJ Miller, who was at that time the public face of ZHP. He had a compelling personal story, and he was a strong, sympathetic -- not to mention camera-ready -- subject. We were intrigued by the idea of building a film around him.
RE: We spent the better part of a year meeting with folks at UCSF Medical Center and Zen Hospice Project -- different levels of administrators and practitioners. Once we earned their trust and got the green light, we jumped in.
JF: We started by spending time at ZHP, and all our preconceptions were overturned. It was situated in a beautiful classic San Francisco Victorian, filled with warm, loving, joyous life -- the diametric opposite of what we dreaded it would be. We realized if we could capture this paradox on film we would have something really special.
What was the most challenging aspect of bringing End Game to life?
JF: Making a film about a difficult subject that would not scare away an audience, that wouldn’t be oppressive to watch. As always, we were on the lookout for moments of levity. Humour often saves the day.
RE: Wanting to do right by the people in our film who trusted us at the most vulnerable juncture of life -- dealing with death.
Have you always had a passion for film?
RE: Since my first day working as a production assistant, at age 19, on a documentary I felt very connected to in terms of subject matter, I knew this was what I wanted to do. It sounds cliche, but it’s true.
Who have been your biggest film inspirations?
JF: The French New Wave and Thin Blue Line both helped me realize that the distinction between scripted narrative and documentary is not that rigid. It’s always about capturing spontaneous moments of truth.
RE: Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County was a film that made me feel something for folks I otherwise would never had any exposure to. Alan & Susan Raymond’s An American Family -- watching that as a teen ager in suburban New Jersey made me realize three things: I could move to a city and make a life for myself; I could be gay; and film can have the power of truth.
How did Telling Pictures come about?
JF: Rob and I were traveling across country and stopped in Washington DC where we met up with Peter Adair and other filmmaking family from San Francisco, who were all in town for the first massive gay rights march on Washington, and to see the first unfolding of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. It was all overwhelming. Peter said, “Someone should make a film about this.” Rob and I decided to try working together on this idea. We rented cheap office space in San Francisco (those were the days!) and set up an office. A corporate branding friend offered to help us come up with a name. We sat in a cafe with a dictionary, free associating words and searching for synonyms. Somehow we got to Telling Pictures. We liked the many resonances of the name. Our first film was Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. When that won the Oscar, it put Telling Pictures on the map.
Co-directing a film like this must be hard, how do you both manage the collaborative process on your projects?
RE: We’ve been co-directing for decades now so the benefits and challenges are second nature to us at this point. Having worked together for so many years, we’ve learned how to constructively and productively argue our way through to solve creative problems. And we can still make each us other laugh, which helps a lot.
As for this particular project, it’s the first time we shot together ourselves, so that was a new challenge, and a necessary one for this kind of intimate film.
JF: For the film to work, we knew we had to get intimate moments with people going through some of the most intense experiences imaginable. We decided to shoot the film ourselves. Rob learned the Sony FS7, and I learned production sound recording. This was the first time we worked this way. Being our own crew on vérité scenes allowed us as directors to have more immediate, unmediated relationships to the people and events we were filming.
"Find a really good entertainment lawyer that hopefully you will work with for the duration of your career."
You’ve both won Academy Awards for your documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, did this add any new pressure on how you worked on future projects?
JF: No. It did help us get meetings, though.
How much has your approach to filmmaking changed since your debut film?
JF: It’s gotten looser. Maybe riskier. We always try to challenge ourselves to try something new, and not repeat ourselves or get into a rut formally, but that’s more to keep ourselves interested.
Do you have any advice you would offer any up and coming filmmakers?
JF: Know what your film is about before you start filming -- then be open to realizing that it’s actually about something else altogether. Learn a marketable craft to fall back on when directing work slows down.
RE: Find a really good entertainment lawyer that hopefully you will work with for the duration of your career.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from your work?
RE: Our main intention with the film was to think about how we individually and as a culture can change the paradigm around death and dying. End Game presents some model practitioners who are doing just that.
JF: More broadly, we always want viewers to empathise with people in situations, and from backgrounds, that are unfamiliar to them -- to experience our common humanity. Mortality is one thing we all have in common.