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Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman Revisit the Making of Their 1989 Landmark AIDS Doc “Common Threads”

It’s been 30 years since the release of the Oscar-winning documentary “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt,” but directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman remember when they decided to make the film like it was yesterday.

The two were at the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights when they saw the massive quilt displayed on the National Mall.

“We were just stunned and awed by the scale of the quilt and the intimacy of it,” Epstein tells Variety. “I’d never seen anything like that. We were with our friend [fellow filmmaker] Peter Adair and he said, ‘Somebody has to make a film about this. Jeffrey and I ran with that and ran back to San Francisco and met with the Names Project folks and started delving into all the material.”

They began reading more than 2,000 letters that were written by panel makers to find stories to highlight in the film of five people memorialized in the quilt.

“We narrowed it down to 200 people whose stories we thought looked promising and we wanted to look at the diversity of the population that was being effected,” Friedman said. “We did phone interviews with these 200 people and narrowed it down to about 50 or 60 and we did video interviews of those people and that’s how we narrowed it down to the final five.”

The non-fiction film tells the stories of Gay Games founder Dr. Tom Waddell, a young hemophiliac named David Mandell Jr., intravenous drug user Robert Perryman, film historian Vito Russo’s partner Jeffrey Sevcik and landscape architect David C. Campbell, whose lover U.S. Navy commander Tracy Torrey died of AIDS during the making of the film.

It was the early days of the AIDS epidemic and so much still wasn’t known. “It was heartbreaking,” Epstein said, adding, “We clearly had no idea where we were in the scope of the epidemic. We didn’t know we were at the tip of the iceberg. We had no sense of that at the time.”

From left: Winners Robert Epstein and Bill Couturie, Documentary (Feature) (COMMON THREADS: STORIES FROM THE QUILT), pose with their statuettes and with director Jeffrey Friedman backstage at the 1989 (62nd) Academy Awards ceremony.
CREDIT: Courtesy of AMPAS

The 79-minute doc went on to win the Academy Award for best documentary feature. To mark its 30th anniversary, 56 panels of the quilt will be on display at the Academy in Beverly Hills on July 20 and July 21 ahead of the premiere of a 2K digital restoration of the film on July 22. The restoration was completed through a partnership with Academy Film Archive, Milestone Film & Video and Outfest UCLA Legacy Project, Outfest and UCLA Film & Television Archive.

A discussion with Epstein and Freidman along with producer Bill Couturié and executive producer Howard Rosenman will take place after the premiere screening. The program is the first collaboration between the Academy and Outfest.

An HIV diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it once was. With proper treatment, HIV is now considered a manageable condition.

“We thought everybody was going to die and keep dying,” Epstein said.

Friedman added, “It was way too early. Things were just getting worse and worse at that point.”

But then Epstein pointed out, “The final words of the film were from Vito Russo. He’s in voiceover and says, ‘Someday, this will be over and behind us.’ We’re not quite there yet, but we’re certainly in a different place than we were then.”

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