Filming Curtis

When I was a teenager, I took a poetry workshop in Brookline, Massachusetts with Barbara Helfgott Hyett, a wonderful teacher and poet. One day as we leafed through a book of photographs of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley, I was struck by this simple, yet elegant definition of beauty: “A snowflake is beautiful because of its strength and stability.” This clear statement still resonates with me today as I discover that it applies as much to the structure of a film as it does to the structure of a snowflake.

I took this to heart and mind when I made Curtis, the documentary short I worked on for three years about Curtis Wheeler, an African American artist living with AIDS in New York.

“Make ’em want more,” is what veteran editor Jean Tsien advised me after seeing a rough cut of Curtis. What she means is: tell enough of the story so that it is complete, but don’t overstay your welcome. Your beginning should capture your audience and immediately transition into the conflict that is central to the film.

Curtis Wheeler felt utterly alone at Rivington House, a New York City healthcare facility for AIDS patients. For many, Rivington House is a wonderful, life-saving place. Many of the residents have nowhere else to go. Curtis certainly wasn’t well enough to live on his own, but he didn’t fit into an institutional environment—his natural curiosity, need for intellectual stimulation, and his artistic nature were not served by the activities offered at Rivington.

Taking stock of Curtis’s malaise, I realized that his story isn’t only about AIDS as much as it is about seeing how an artist deals with being deprived of his environment, especially since Curtis’s home was literally his palette. Curtis used the living room in his Washington Heights townhouse to express his love of Renaissance art by painting murals on the floors, walls and ceilings. One felt awestruck upon entering Curtis’s space; his home was his temple. The central questions for my film, therefore, became: Will Curtis return home? Will he paint again? What brings meaning to our lives?

As an African American gay man in his 50s, Curtis had seen a great deal of resistance from others about who he was. In spite of that or perhaps because of it, he left home for Europe where he pursued an academic and artistic life. He once told me how he snuck into a tool shed at Chartres Cathedral to stay overnight, study the art, and be alone in that holy place. I wanted to make sure that Curtis’s personality, his stubborn will to live and his need to express himself came across in the film.

But first, I had to get to know him and earn his trust. Not every filmmaker believes in spending time with his or her subject before shooting. My impression is that it’s not mandatory, but it helped me in the making of Curtis. Filming another human being is participating in that person’s life, especially at a time of an impasse. Bearing witness to suffering or joy is an act of strength. People have dignity by nature and I learned the strange and unknowable line not to cross as I spent time with Curtis, listening to him and sharing with him who I am. This is how Curtis and I became friends and how he also became my mentor.

About a year into the making of the film, I shot a scene of Curtis playing Bingo at Rivington House, an activity he loathed. Later, I interviewed him about his experience for over an hour. We had a great time laughing about the intellectual challenges of playing Bingo. “Do you think government leaders play Bingo during stressful situations? I do,” Curtis said, rolling his eyes. The stuff I actually ended up using in the film was culled from the last five minutes of the tape. Curtis synthesized everything funny he had said and expressed it in a 30-second, brilliant diatribe against having his entertainment reduced to playing Bingo and living in a nursing home. This became the unexpected beginning of the film.

It also became emblematic of the way Curtis and I worked together. Because Curtis had a performer’s flair and a teacher’s instinct, his content was always thought-through. But when I asked him to repeat himself, he invariably became more focused and succinct.

Curtis had a difficult time, and so did I. It was tough to watch him go blind. He was amazing as he kept trying to read his beloved art books and wrestled with his desire to continue to paint. His blindness, more than anything else, nearly sapped him of the hope to regain his independence. AIDS attacks in so many ways, allowing other diseases to saddle the body.

One of the reasons why I chose to make Curtis a short film is because death is boring. It’s a banal and stale thing, not worth documenting. As a child I witnessed the deaths of many close family members with a sense of powerlessness about the process. What you do while you are still alive is what interests me. Why bother to make life meaningful, when you know you are going to die anyway? Watch Curtis and you’ll see.

I put together a 40-minute rough-cut of the film, which my editor, Alex Berger and I compared to his initial, hour-long version. The two of us spent days arguing and synthesizing these two cuts, taking our favorite bits from each and creating a new, leaner 39-minute film. Both of us sacrificed scenes we felt strongly about, but we made a much better film this way.

Jean Tsien’s editorial advice sunk in deep during screenings with Alex, particularly at moments when we both wished a scene to be interesting that simply wasn’t. You can’t root for a scene; it just has to be good.

We were practical—our shooting schedule was dictated by Curtis’s health, his dialysis appointments, and the many crises that landed him in and out of the hospital. Several times, we thought we had lost him. Once, he was so ill that he had his last rites performed. But Curtis kept rallying. He was determined to finish the film. During one of Curtis’s many hospital stays, I asked his best friend, Don Yorty if I could film them together. Knowing how important this film was to Curtis, Don readily agreed. The result turned out to be one of the most moving scenes in the film. Before he died, Curtis told me that the scene with Don was one of his favorites. It is no accident that Curtis hung on until he completed the film and when he finally let go, Don Yorty was at his side reading him a poem.

Throughout the shoot, I was lucky to have the consistent help of two individuals who were my sound crew: Nicole Opper and Adam Morrow, talented filmmakers in their own right. On more than one occasion I relied on their invaluable advice that went way beyond recording sound. One of the best scenes from Curtis is the result of this collaboration. Nicole Opper and Curtis had become friends. As she was recording sound, he told the story of why he painted. “Sometimes art is a medicine in itself,” Curtis confided as I kept filming. I was too exhausted to pay close attention, but luckily, Nicole listened and kept recording. I managed to get a few good shots that we ended up using, but without Nicole’s concentration on content, that shoot would have been lost.

Later, during an all-night editing session, Alex took this audio cut and transformed it into one of the central scenes of the film. I was fast asleep from exhaustion, while Alex spliced-in shots of Curtis painting the floor of his home as he spoke. What comes through is that despite blindness, an emaciated body, and the specter of death, Curtis was an artist to his very core. Following this scene are shots of Curtis’s legs, which were in serious decay. One of the most disturbing, yet powerful scenes shows him in the hospital, unraveling a bandage on his arm and peeling off a band-aid. Curtis felt strongly about seeing the ugliness of the disease. Somehow we both felt that it was beautiful as well.

The purpose of a documentary is to awaken people from their inability to see and feel and to empathize with other human beings and their situations. It is both the reason why documentaries are great but also why they are often ignored. I know from personal experience. When AIDS comes up, I see people’s eyes glaze over. They have already made a snap judgment about the film, without seeing it. It’s natural, of course. AIDS is a tough subject. As a result, I had to grow a thick skin and look at the bright side: a lot of people love Curtis and his story. There have been many films about AIDS, but there is only one Curtis—just as there was only one Curtis Wheeler.

Now that Curtis is complete and has had a successful run at Sundance, Tribeca, and many other film festivals, I am continuing to work on outreach to high schools across the country to promote AIDS awareness, tolerance towards gays and to use Curtis’s story to show what life can be like when lived deeply, intentionally and spiritually.

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