If you look back to the 1980s for the portrayal of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on mainstream screens everywhere, you will be staring into a void.
Hollywood, like the ruling political administration at the time, ignored the crisis as it grew during that decade — and certainly didn’t know what to do with it once ignorance was no longer an option. It wasn’t until Rock Hudson, once a glittering false pillar of masculinity, collapsed in the summer of 1985 and died that fall of complications from AIDS that the movie industry was finally forced to react at all.
That same year, just months before Hudson’s death, porn filmmaker-turned-activist filmmaker Arthur J. Bressan Jr. released the first narrative film devoted to the gay plague, which the likes of Reagan and Thatcher otherwise preferred to keep out of legislation and politics.
Bressan died two years later of his own complications from AIDS, but Buddies remains a small-budget time capsule of how gay narrators try to approach the subject of death happening around and with them. Admittedly, it’s a no-budget offering centered on an AIDS patient in New York recovering in a hospital bed (Geoff, played by Robert Willow, who was HIV-positive during the production) who is assigned a “buddy” (David, played by David Schacter) to provide company in his final hours. David is in a mostly monogamous relationship, which leaves him profoundly naive about the destructive power of AIDS. Meanwhile, Jeff succumbs to lesions from Karposhi’s sarcoma, grieving a lost lover who left him after the disease became too intrusive a reality in their relationship.
There was some recognition of AIDS in Hollywood — which “Friends” was decidedly not a part of — in 1994 when Tom Hanks won an Oscar for best actor for playing a gay man dying of the disease in Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia.” But here was a straight actor playing that role, directed by a straight director, in a movie about a gay man who had to be saved by another straight man, the personal injury lawyer for Hanks’ character, played by Denzel Washington. (Hanks has since said he won’t star in the film today.)
Buddies tells a different story. It was made by a gay director who cast gay men in the lead roles. Until then, Bressan had been making adult movies — one of which, “Passing Strangers,” actually plays on “Friends” on a TV screen in Jeff’s hospital room as he experiences what may be his final orgasm — but with everyone dying around him, “Buddies” marked an opportunity to speak. (Until then, only the made-for-TV An Early Frost, starring Aidan Quinn, even touched on the subject, albeit in a glossy cable package.)
While Robert Willow and Arthur Bressan died shortly after the film’s brief run in art houses and festivals in the early fall of 1985, star David Schachter, now associate dean for student affairs at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, was unharmed. from AIDS. Here, he shares his story about making Buddies with IndieWire.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: Since it was really the first theatrical film to deal with AIDS, do you still get contacted often about “Buddies” even 40 years later?
David Schachter: It’s actually had a bit of a resurgence since it was restored in 2018. I’ve done a few interviews. It’s always so weird for me to relive that period. And it’s a great honor for me to be part of an artifact that captures a certain moment in time. Terrible time in America. So with a bit of pride and also a lot of poignancy and sadness I made a few of them.
Arthur died in 1987, two years after Buddies made a brief appearance in arthouse theaters and festivals. What was your relationship with it and how did you get involved?
In 1979, I was finishing my first year of college at New York University. I was a drama major and we used to walk past each other, we might as well have been on Christopher Street. We came home and had a pretty hot summer and then things cooled off in the fall and we stayed very close friends after that. I was an actor. He was mostly a pornographer.
In the early 1980s, he was making a film called Abuse, which was one of his first non-adult narrative films, and he asked me if I could get a bunch of my friends from NYU to act as students in a film class. which I did and ended up on the editing room floor. But in 1985, Artie called me in February and said, “I’m going to make a movie about AIDS, and I want to know if you’d be interested in playing the friend of the person with AIDS in the movie.” I got the script, read it twice, met Jeff , we rehearsed in Artie’s apartment for two weeks. We shot the film in nine days. All hospital scenes in chronological order. Artie installed it in his living room and it premiered at the Castro Theater in San Francisco on September 12th.
What was your reaction to the release of the film? There was certainly fervor at the time about it being the first independent film about AIDS.
It was my first time in San Francisco…it was sold out [at the Castro Theatre], and it was a pretty wild reception. Artie spoke at the premiere and he spoke very honestly about the devastation that the disease has done to the community and the misinformation and the misinformation and how so many of his friends and lovers and colleagues are just dealing with symptoms and dying.
At the time, the urgency was pretty incredible. At the time the movie came out, there was no HIV test. The only way to know you have it is to have symptoms. You’ve had thrush on your tongue, night sweats, you might have Kaposi’s sarcoma, and maybe you’ve lost a lot of weight and that’s it. The need for healing, awareness, compassion was something Artie felt was urgent and he really wanted to make the film and get it out very quickly.
After San Francisco, he played at the Film Forum in New York. In general, the straight press was kind of kind, if not completely understanding of the film, and the gay press was much more welcoming and appreciative and frankly devastated by what they were seeing on film.
Before “Buddies” there was a made-for-TV feature, “An Early Frost,” which perhaps put AIDS in a more palatable package for the general public.
It was incredibly well received by critics and I think it was very popular with viewers, but it was a more sanitized version of the crisis and there was a lot of focus on the impact on the main characters coming out and then coming out with AIDS had on the family, the parents, in contrast from focusing on a much more gay-specific perspective.
I was born in 1990, so when I came out, my parents were still like, “Well, you’re going to get AIDS and you’re going to die.” Because that’s what the media and politicians were telling them.
Politics and bigotry were also quite evident. There were leaders of the Christian Right and the Moral Majority claiming that AIDS was God’s vengeance against homosexuals. There were many people who believed this and got information from there. It was quite offensive and not unusual for gay men in general, let alone those with HIV/AIDS, to be stigmatized. In 1985, President Reagan had yet to mention AIDS once in a political speech. So all the information and care that was going on was from the common people.
How did you react to the news of Rock Hudson’s illness and death? He died shortly after the release of Buddies.
Rock Hudson passed out in a Paris hotel lobby during the summer when Artie was editing Buddies. Rock Hudson was a handsome man, and in his photos you could see the ravages AIDS had wreaked on his body. It was an unfortunate way for him to go out. He certainly didn’t do it of his own accord. There were kissing clauses after this happened, especially in TV series and late-night soaps, where many people put “no kissing” clauses in their contracts for fear of contracting the virus that way. It does not necessarily open doors or floodgates for care or concern. definitely [his death] are not perceived that way by the vast majority of people.
How would you characterize the photos of “Buddies”?
It was pretty intense. You know, I call it guerilla films. We shot the entire film in nine days. We shot all the hospital scenes over three days in chronological order, and you know, it was on 16mm film. We mostly did one or two takes. We didn’t get to see dailies or spikes or anything like that. It was just like, shoot, boom, done.
Jeff and I, having known each other before and through this process, became very close and had to really trust each other to take care of each other. Not only in the shots, but also between the shots. And it was much harder for Jeff than it was for me. Neither Jeff nor Artie knew they were HIV positive at the time or that they would become infected. Jeff shared with me that he hoped by taking the part he would be spared, and Artie said he named the character I play David with the idea of me, as he called him, sentencing me to good health. It’s very intense.