It is the politically correct entertainment event of the season, and VIPs from all over — Mercedes Ruehl, Keith Hernandez, Don Johnson, Donna Karan, Regis Philbin, Joan Rivers, Steve Guttenberg, Lanford Wilson, Barbara Walters — have stretch-limoed to Long Island’s East Hampton Cinema for the occasion. After the customary air-smooching and vamping for the photographers, they file inside for a private screening of HBO’s new AIDS epic, And the Band Played On.
Two hours later, they stagger out looking as if they’ve just attended a Power Funeral.
”I’m holding it together because we’re in a crowd,” says actress Swoosie Kurtz, who has a small role in the film. ”But I’ll probably crash in a few hours. This movie is like a bomb going off. It’s like a flood of cold water being poured on you. It’s an experience.”
It has also been one of the most notoriously embattled TV productions in recent memory. The $8 million, made-for-cable docudrama (it debuts Sept. 11 at 8 p.m.), starring Matthew Modine, Richard Gere, Lily Tomlin, and a celeb-packed cast of hundreds, has been a combat zone of ”creative differences” from the start, encompassing two networks, four directors, and 22 rewrites. The hostilities have included accusations of censorship, allegations of falsifying history, and charges of homophobia — all of which at one point exploded into a fax feud so fierce that even Roseanne might have waved a white flag.
”I thought it would be an easier movie to make,” allows HBO’s CEO, Michael Fuchs, a few days after the screening. ”There’s so much lip service paid to AIDS in Hollywood, so many red ribbons at award shows. I have to say there was at least a little hypocrisy involved here.”
Based on the 1987 best-seller by longtime San Francisco journalist Randy Shilts (whose latest book, Conduct Unbecoming, deals with homosexuals in the military), Band is a sprawling survey of the early years of the AIDS epidemic. It traces how the disease was first observed in 1981, how French and American scientists fought over who would get credit for discovering the virus, and how Washington, D.C., budget crunchers slowed the fight against the plague. Modine stars as the movie’s main character, Dr. Don Francis, based on the epidemiologist who worked at the Centers for Disease Control in the 1980s; Gere plays a gay choreographer who becomes an early casualty; and Tomlin is a San Francisco public-health worker. Other notable appearances: Phil Collins, Steve Martin, Anjelica Huston, Sir Ian McKellen, Glenne Headly, Charles Martin Smith, and Alan Alda.
The Peacock Chickens Out
Originally, in 1987, Band was to be an NBC miniseries. But script problems and the network’s second thoughts kept the project on ice for a couple of years. Then, after ABC’s 1990 AIDS-themed movie, Rock Hudson, bombed in the ratings and cost more than $1 million in advertising pullouts, NBC bailed out on the project.
”I tried five times to find out why NBC dropped it,” says Aaron Spelling (Beverly Hills, 90210), Band‘s executive producer. ”I guess they thought a show about AIDS was too controversial for TV, which is nuts. We did a story about AIDS on Melrose Place, for chrissake.” (An NBC spokesman responds, ”We were reluctant to alter the story for network TV.”)
Spelling then successfully pitched the project to HBO, which had been experimenting with such risqué programming as the topless sitcom Dream On and the pedophilia-in-the-priesthood movie Judgment. HBO hired screenwriter Arnold Schulman (A Chorus Line) and started fishing around for a director. First choice was Joel Schumacher (Falling Down), but he wanted to make Band a documentary. Second up was Richard Pearce (Leap of Faith), but he wanted to take all the gay characters out of the movie. Finally, HBO hired a director who seemed just right: Roger Spottiswoode, the chain-smoking Brit who made the Mel Gibson CIA romp Air America. It turned out to be a decision both parties would soon regret.
Getting in Gere
Finding a director was easy compared with finding a big-name actor. ”In Hollywood,” says Shilts, ”AIDS is spelled G-A-Y. There’s incredible trepidation. A lot of agents are very paranoid about having a client do an AIDS film.”
Eventually, in September 1992, Spottiswoode and Shilts cooked up a scheme to snare a star. They flew to San Francisco and waylaid Gere outside an AIDS benefit. ”We desperately needed someone like Richard to get the movie going,” says Spottiswoode.
”They told me that they couldn’t get anyone to do the film,” recalls Gere. ”So I told them to send a script to my agent. They were like, ‘Well, we just happen to have a copy right here.”’ Within a week Gere had signed on. Within several weeks so had Whoopi Goldberg (who later came down with pneumonia and was replaced by Tomlin). Within a few months, the same TV movie that was once a Hollywood hot potato had become the coolest cameo ticket since The Player.
Canned in Cannes Screenwriter Schulman, meanwhile, was churning out rewrite after rewrite. Ultimately, he hit on a formula that remade Shilts’ sweeping investigative report into a medical thriller — a sort of real-life Andromeda Strain. But when filming began in November 1992, not everyone was wild about how Band had been adapted for the screen.
”I wrote my book to decrease homophobia, not to increase it,” says Shilts, who disclosed last February that he has AIDS. ”There was a scene in the beginning with a drag queen, then a scene in an ultrapromiscuous bathhouse, then a scene in a gay porno shop. After seeing all that, viewers would think, ‘These gay guys got what they deserved!”’
HBO agreed and asked Spottiswoode to shoot some additional, more positive material — a suggestion that made the director bristle, although he complied, shooting a new scene in which a gay activist explains to a health official and an AIDS researcher that while lots of gay men go to the bathhouses, ”most are in a relationship or want to be in a relationship.” What really had Spottiswoode steaming, though, was HBO’s refusal to let him show a working cut of the film at last April’s Cannes Film Festival. ”Two days before the screening, they sent a policeman to take the movie from me,” he fumes. ”I’ve never worked with a studio like that before.”
”We just didn’t feel the film was ready to be screened,” explains Fuchs. Spelling agrees: ”The whole point of the film was to explain what AIDS is and maybe lessen homophobia. It wasn’t to win awards at Cannes. And who cares about the awards anyway?”
Spottiswoode apparently did (in some circles, a Cannes award is as good as an Oscar), and he responded with a two-page fax to HBO that was leaked to the press. Accusing the network of meddling and ”arbitrary and censorious behavior,” Spottiswoode wrote, ”A film dealing with an enormously sensitive subject has become hopelessly politicized by a studio that appears to be terrified of its contents and now seeks to bowdlerize them.”
Robert Cooper, HBO Pictures senior vice president, volleyed back with a letter of his own: ”I regret that your experience was unpleasant, but HBO is ultimately responsible for what we put on…even if this means upsetting the director.”
Even Modine launched a missive, firing off a note to Fuchs (which also promptly turned up in the newspapers) haranguing about historical revisionism and the dangers of bending to the forces of political correctness. ”It was more of a general warning,” Modine says now. ”I don’t think I even mentioned Band by name. It was a letter saying that it’s very dangerous to pander to any political group.”
The upshot: HBO hired documentary director Bill Couturie (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt) to edit in additional footage and take over some of the post- production process. Spottiswoode had little to do with the completion of the movie, although his name still appears as the sole director on the final cut.
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
A week after the glitzy East Hampton screening — and three weeks before the film airs on HBO — only a few behind-the-scenes fires are still smoldering.
”It’s not exactly the movie I would have made,” says Shilts, ”but I’m not really unhappy with it. When I hear other authors talk about their movie experiences, I realize that I was blessed.”
”I think [Spottiswoode] did a terrific job on what he shot,” says Fuchs. ”Although I do think he went a little far in sabotaging a movie about a very important subject.”
”The main thing is we’ve made a very special film,” says Spelling. ”All this other backstage stuff is really very unimportant.”
As for Spottiswoode, he’s reserving judgment on that. ”Do me a favor?” he asks, a bit embarrassed. ”Could you send me a tape of the film? HBO won’t give me one. I don’t think they want me talking about it until after it’s aired.”
— Additional reporting by Jessica Shaw