Near the beginning of the remarkable new HBO film Cinema Verite, Santa Barbara, Calif., businessman Bill Loud, played by a terrific Tim Robbins, proclaims, “We’re like the West Coast version of the Kennedys.” Loud, though a chronic philanderer, doesn’t seem to realize the irony in those words when he decides to allow producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) and his camera crew, Alan and Susan Raymond, to document the life of his family. The film follows the Louds in front of and off camera as the 1973 PBS series An American Family changes their lives forever. The documentary would not only introduce a new television genre — the reality show — but also former Advocate columnist Lance Loud, the first openly gay man most viewers had ever seen on the small screen.
The series captured the early-’70s zeitgeist as 10 million viewers tuned in each week to watch the family slowly disintegrate in front of the cameras. Bill hid his affairs with other women from wife Pat (a sensational Diane Lane), but she eventually found him out, then awkwardly asked him for a divorce and demanded he move out of their house, all as the cameras rolled. But perhaps the program’s most lasting impact came from the couple’s flamboyant son Lance (Thomas Dekker, perfectly cast). Lance was accepted by his family as their coolest member, but Pat was roundly criticized when the series aired for being so supportive of her gay son at a time when homosexuality was rarely represented on television. Married Academy Award-–nominated filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor) have fashioned the story of what happened to the Louds into a timely cautionary tale that will premiere on HBO Saturday night. Springer Berman and Pulcini discuss their already acclaimed new film, the legacy of television’s first nonscripted series, and the importance of the late gay pioneer Lance Loud.
The Advocate: You’re both probably too young to have really been aware of the series, but do you have any memories of it from its original airing?
Shari Springer Berman: Well, actually neither one of us watched it because we were too young, but I do remember hearing about the Loud family. And I remember it specifically because I thought it was a funny name — you know, the Loud family. And then when we started making documentaries and really immersed ourselves in watching as many of these great landmark documentaries as we could, like Salesman and Grey Gardens and Don’t Look Back, we actually wanted to see American Family and realized that it wasn’t available. So we actually never got to see it until we signed on to direct this movie, and then it was a really bad bootleg DVD version that you could barely hear and you could barely see. When we actually started talking to the Raymonds, they said, “Let us send you a better version of the movie.”
What do you see as the impact the show that had on viewers in the early ’70s?
Robert Pulcini: It was the first time anything like this had ever been done. And I think it was the first time television discovered this voyeuristic quality that watching reality could attract so many viewers. I mean no one involved in this project had any idea that it would become the ratings phenomenon that it was and cultural phenomenon.
Springer Berman: It was a huge cultural phenomenon and everybody was talking about it, but it wasn’t necessarily in a positive way. People were really offended and upset by the whole concept of letting cameras into your home, and it seems like there was a different relationship with privacy in the early ’70s than we have now. Because now, nobody would think twice about that, and in the early ’70s, it was really looked down upon to air any dirty laundry in public. And then on top of that, Lance and Pat were really attacked. I mean the things that were written, even in The New York Times. It was shocking how homophobic it was against Lance and against Pat for accepting Lance.
When I told people that we were making this movie, so many gay men of a certain age said to me, “Oh, my God, that show changed my life. That gave me the courage to come out to my family or to live my life in a certain way.” So I think it had a huge impact in the gay community, but there was a lot of backlash against Lance and Pat.
What do you see as the full effect that Lance being openly gay had on viewers of that era?
Springer Berman: Before we finished the film, we [had] little screenings for friends, and family, and other filmmakers. So many people said to us, “Why didn’t you include the scene where Lance comes out?” And we were like, “Because he doesn’t. There isn’t that scene in the documentary.” And I had people say to me, “But I remember it. I watched it.” Totally convinced that there’s a scene you know where Lance actually comes out. And I’m like, “No, believe me. I watched this documentary from beginning to end several times.”
He doesn’t really ever sit down and have that conversation. It seems as if he had that conversation prior to the documentary and that he was just being Lance. But the fact that so many people believed that he came out and so many people were moved and inspired by it is just — I think he was a huge pioneer. He was someone who was very committed to being Lance Loud, who he was. He didn’t change his persona. He wasn’t afraid; he was incredibly brave. He is credited as being the first openly gay person on television. And from what I hear from people that I’ve spoken to, it was incredibly important in the gay rights movement and gave a lot of people confidence and courage. It gave mothers of gay sons and daughters the confidence to support them the way Pat did and to, you know, love them. I think it was a very, very important cultural touchstone.
I really liked how your film depicts Lance’s siblings as thinking his eccentricities make him much more interesting than they are.
Springer Berman: Well, it’s totally there in the documentary.
Pulcini: And it’s totally there if you actually meet the siblings today. You know they were very proud of him.
Springer Berman: They all thought that Lance was hysterical and funny, which apparently he was. I wasn’t lucky enough to meet him, but I feel like I know him because I’ve spent so much time reading his writing and looking at the movie. And he seems like he was just a magnetic, brilliant, talented guy. And I think the kids were not ashamed of him. They were not embarrassed. They were proud of him, and they thought he was fun and funny and charming, and it seemed like they looked up to him.
I get the impression that Bill Loud might have been in denial that Lance was gay. Is that true?
Pulcini: I don’t know if he was in denial. I think he thought maybe he would change, but the one thing about Bill is, he always loved him, and I think Lance really loved Bill. And you know I think in interviews — even on Dick Cavett — Lance talks about how much he loves his father. They loved each other. They just did not see the world the same way at all.
Springer Berman: Bill was very conservative. He was a man of his [time] — maybe sexually he was of the ’70s, but politically he was of a different time. Bill says, “I didn’t understand his lifestyle.” I think it was not just the fact that he was gay, but also the fact that he was part of this sort of underground — they called it underground. That was the word that they always used. He was part of the underground. But it was the Warhol kind of cutting edge. Those were the people Lance hung with in New York, and I think Bill just didn’t get it. He didn’t get it, he didn’t understand it, and I think it took him a long time to really, you know, accept that Lance was going to be different.
Pulcini: Bill writes Lance this really eloquent letter in the documentary. It’s this beautiful scene where Lance is riding a bike through the hills of Santa Barbara, and you are hearing Bill’s letter to Lance. And you can really feel the closeness there. And then years later Bill was interviewed when Lance is dying and he breaks down in tears and says, “I didn’t do enough. I didn’t understand enough. You know, I was so wrong in the way I saw things.” And it’s very, very moving.
How did you decide to cast Thomas Dekker as Lance?
Pulcini: It was actually quite difficult because Lance is so idiosyncratic. That was the hardest role to cast, and he’s also someone who lends himself to imitation. He has a very specific way of talking and acting, and we saw a lot of people who could imitate him, but there just wasn’t that energy that Thomas brought to it. Thomas is kind of bursting with creative energy the way Lance was. He’s a Renaissance guy. He is directing his own movie now, and he writes music, and you know, he is this really talented young actor, and he just had that kind of same energy that Lance had.
Has the Loud family seen the finished film?
Pulcini: Yes, they did. They had a screening for them.
What was their reaction?
Pulcini: Well, you know, we didn’t hear a word. They didn’t react.
Springer Berman: It was just very nerve-racking.
Pulcini: It was just silence. And then we got word that they wanted to come to the premiere, so we took that as a good sign. We didn’t actually meet them until the premiere. And we had a little cocktail party before the premiere where we could spend time with them, and for us they were kind of mythological at that point. So it was very exciting. And from what I could glean from the whole thing, it’s very hard for them to sit through the movie. It brings up a lot of just an unpleasant — the whole thing was so unpleasant, and especially hard on Pat. I mean, there’s so many wide-ranging emotions she has when watching it, but I think generally they really appreciated the film, and I think they could see it had a lot of sympathy for them and told their story.
Springer Berman: They were lovely at the premiere, and they were very happy and positive, so it made my night. It made me happy.
Bill and Pat got back together after Lance died. Is that correct?
Springer Berman: Yes, they live together.
Pulcini: Yes, they came together to the premiere. They are probably still fighting and drinking and getting along.
Springer Berman: But they are companions. They live together, they take care of each other, they are both on the older side now, and they look great, and it’s kind of remarkable.
Finally, what do you both see as the continued appeal of reality programs?
Pulcini: I think it’s part of — the Louds were kind of viewed as this attractive, wealthy — you know, they were tan and slim and enviable. And people love to feel superior to people like that, and so I think that’s why they were so attacked. You know, you love to watch it, but you love to attack them, and I don’t think that’s changed that much. You see all these kinds of wealthy families or “real housewives” that — I don’t think people watch them because they want to say “I love them.” I think they watch them because they want to see how empty their lives are and how pathetic they are. And they love the moments of conflict, and it’s a strange relationship audiences have with reality television, you know. And I don’t think it’s changed all that much when you really look at what’s popular right now.