Filmmaker Vincent Gagliostro is a relative newcomer when it comes to making movies. He is, however, no stranger to activism nor the many questions about identity he deftly grapples with in his film After Louie.
After building a career as one of the most sought-after art directors in the New York fashion world of the seventies and eighties, he became enraged (like so many other gay men and their allies) at the indifference with which his city and country were meeting the AIDS crisis – so he put his impressive skill set to work for ACT UP, creating for them a host of now-iconic graphics as well as actively organizing and participating in demonstrations. He was, in New York, Art Director of Los Angeles Blade Publisher and Editor Troy Masters’ QW Magazine, the nation’s first glossy LGBT news magazine.
Subsequently, his career in commercial art continued to expand and evolve, and after moving to Paris in 2005 (with his partner, Richard Nahem) he experienced a sort of artistic rebirth which has yielded several installations at Galerie NEC and the blossoming of an interest in filmmaking.
The memories of his experiences on the front lines of protests have never left him, though, and now, three decades later, they lie at the heart of his latest movie project: “After Louie,” which premiered earlier this year at London’s BFI Flame Film Festival with three sold-out screenings.
Directed and co-written by Gagliostro, “After Louie” tells the story of a fifty-something former AIDS activist, Sam, who is struggling to make a film which expresses his still-potent feelings of outrage to a world that no longer seems to care.
“After Louie” confronts the lingering pain left by the AIDS epidemic among its survivors. Why this subject, and why now?
Two self-imposed questions sparked the making of my film. What happened to us/me? And, how does one generation connect to the next? There is a tense generational tension in the gay male community today.
A divide, so to speak, between two generations of gay men coming to this so-called “post AIDS” society from opposite ends who just aren’t getting each other—those of us who lived through the eye of the storm of the 1980s and early 90s and those who entered into a sexual life with HIV no longer a death sentence..
The film the character of “Sam” is making, at first glance, situates the AIDS crisis in the past; he is paying homage to those whom he has lost (specifically one of his activist comrades in arms, William Wilson); but- and a BIG BUT- is he looking for closure or looking to reactivate the activism of the past into the future? He is struggling with the past, mourning, and closure, but not-as his friends suggest he do– trying to get over it, to move on. Move on to what? That’s where we meet Sam. It’s like he says to his gallerist, “Rhona” as she looks for new paintings, he is “trying to get back to doing something important again.” Jean-Luc Godard once remarked, “It is not a matter of making political films, but rather making films politically.” This freed the telling of the narrative for me.
At one point in the process of writing I found myself, along with much of my immediate community, reeling from the death of our friend Spencer Cox, it hit us all like a brick. Peter Staley put it so eloquently in his eulogy, titled, Grief is a Sword— “While many of us, through luck or circumstance, have landed on our feet, all of us in some way have unprocessed grief, or guilt, or an overwhelming sense of abandonment from a community that turned its back on us, and increasingly stigmatized us, all in an attempt to pretend that AIDS wasn’t its problem anymore. That is Spencer’s call to action, and we should take it on.”
It was time to start talking to each other again, time to tell the truth. And for myself, the only way to do this was to keep it personal. Many of my friends thought I was making a documentary. That seemed limiting. Selective memory seemed a more potent way to get at the truth.
The central character, Sam, has a biographical background that parallels your own in many ways. How much of what we see in the film is autobiographical?
I have to laugh a bit here. Talk about a generation gap- sitting with my co-writer Anthony Johnston, he commented on how so much of this film is “so meta”, I excused myself to the toilet, to look up what that meant on my phone. When I returned I enthusiastically agreed.
Well, Sam’s visit with his gallerist, Rhona, is lifted from my visit with my gallerist. Surprisingly it turned out to be one of the hardest scenes to write. Who knows?
Sam’s circle of friends Jeffrey, Maggie, William are very much spooled from mine. I was always telling Anthony, wait till you meet the real “Jeffrey.”
The scene you mentioned, with Rhona, actually sparked my next question. Sam is also making a movie about AIDS, and is met with resistance from those around him. Does this reflect your own experience in making the movie, and did such feedback have an influence over the ultimate direction it took?
To some extent, yes. When one sets out to tell a story around/about a friend with mutual friends, in this case, my friend William Wilson and his short story, “After Louie,” ownership issues surface. I was scolded by a very close mutual friend for “using” William. This had a big influence on the direction I ultimately took. There is an explosion that occurs over Chinese take out at the apartment of Jeffrey and his husband Mateo, along with Maggie and her husband Mark. Jeffrey, egged on by Mateo finally tells Sam how he feels about his “using Sam”. This leads to an emotional indictment of Sam, his white-male privilege, and a questioning of what good his art does.
“Who needs another AIDS movie?” Braeden [a much-younger man with whom Sam becomes involved] asks later on in the film.
So, yes, the resistance I was met with handed me a big hand mirror to reflect in. I hope I have done so responsibly and truthfully.
The film explores the “gay generation gap” you mentioned earlier as a sort of secondary theme. Did you make a conscious effort to bring a younger perspective to the issues you were portraying?
This prompted my desire to find a co-writer half my age, which I found in the crazy genius of Anthony Johnston.
What began to happen as Anthony and I wrote together is that I was able to create a distance between myself and “my story” and the film really took it’s shape through the story of Anthony and myself, a generation apart, navigating THAT terrain.
What do you hope the film will accomplish, in terms of its effect on LGBTQI culture?
Accomplish? Inspire perhaps. Even better, provoke. I have had many conversations with young kids, who often express what they think they have missed. It’s not what they’ve missed, it’s what I fear they will never experience the benefits of — the great gay sexual revolution, the wit and spirit of gay life back then that I often reply.
Without asking you to define the film’s “message,” what do you want the audience to take away from “After Louie?”
Actually what I would like them to take away is to be like the generation before that could not be put down, to get that one cannot be put down. I think today kids are looking for some kind of protection, and the bad news is that nothing will protect: not marriage equality, not LGBTQ organizations, certainly, especially today NOT Trump and his swamp government. We forget too often that our sexuality can topple governments. Jeez, I sound like “Sam”, quelle surprise!
I am a dreamer, always was and always will be. I hope as one leaves the film, those of my generation are inspired to dream again, and that the next generation is inspired to simply dream.
“After Louie” stars Alan Cumming and Zachary Booth, as well as co-writer Anthony Johnston, Justin Vivian Bond, Patrick Breen, Sarita Choudhury, Wilson Cruz, David Drake, Everett Quinton, and the legendary Joey Arias. It will be screened at numerous international film festivals throughout 2017.