A few years ago playwright Craig Lucas had a hot calling card in Hollywood. ''I'd had a play [Blue Window] that was a success in Los Angeles, so for about two seconds all the studio development people wanted to meet me,'' he says. ''They asked what I wanted to do next, and, naive me, I said I wanted to make a movie about people with AIDS.'' The studio smiles froze in place, the welcome mats were folded up, and Lucas returned empty-handed to Manhattan.
Now the smiles are thawing. Thanks to the collective social conscience of a dedicated cast and crew, and to the commitment of some movie industry mavericks, Longtime Companion, Lucas' first screenplay and the first major feature film about gay men and AIDS, opened last week to admiring reviews. Although it remains to be seen how the movie will fare against the summer's blockbusters, the story of the odds it overcame to be a contender should at least sweeten its appeal.
In a movie market where mutant turtles and men in bat suits represent the Holy Grail, it isn't surprising that a film about a contemporary plague did not ignite a bidding war. According to Hollywood marketing wisdom, a film like Longtime Companion (a euphemism in newspaper obituaries for lovers of gay men and women) is a long shot barely worth a meeting. It's not just about AIDS. It's about upper- and middle-class gay men with AIDS instead of the more popular theme, innocent children who are infected with tainted blood transfusions. The shudders from potential financers constituted a West Coast tremor that could have been mistaken for a shift in the San Andreas Fault.
Enter Lindsay Law, executive producer for American Playhouse, public TV's drama anthology series, and the movie's first white knight. Lucas and Norman René, who has directed all of Lucas' plays in the past 10 years (including the current Broadway hit Prelude to a Kiss), had worked with Law on the TV version of Blue Window. In January 1987 Law asked the team what they'd like to do next. Lucas watched ''the blood fall from Lindsay's face'' when he mentioned his AIDS project. ''But amazingly enough he called back a couple of weeks later and said, 'Why not?'''
The coming months would provide innumerable reasons why not. For starters, ''nobody wanted to invest in this movie,'' Lucas says. ''Nobody.'' Nonetheless, Lucas went off to write the script. The first draft was set in Vermont and titled Carolina Moon. Seventy pages later, Lucas realized he didn't know anything about Vermont. He called Law to tell him he had to start over. ''American Playhouse basically said, 'Here are the keys to the car, stay out as late as you want, Mom and Dad are fine,''' Lucas says. He started again, this time basing the story in Manhattan and Fire Island, a popular gay summer retreat.
To familiarize himself with the day-to-day details of coping with AIDS, Lucas, who has had two ex-lovers die of the disease, became a counselor at the Gay Men's Health Crisis, an AIDS outreach program in New York. He joined a support group for other counselors and consulted with them about his screenplay. ''For the first time I felt a real responsibility while I was writing,'' Lucas says. ''It could have been paralyzing.'' But it wasn't, and by September 1988 Lucas had a script.
Law thought it was good. Along with the movie's producer, Stan Wlodkowski, who also had worked on Blue Window, he began making calls to film companies, looking for cofinancing for the estimated $3 million production. The big studios weren't interested. Neither were the independents. Not Miramax (sex, lies and videotape), not New Line (Nightmare on Elm Street), not Avenue (Sweetie). Even Orion's chief, Arthur Krim, didn't want the film for his Orion Classics label, although his wife, Mathilde, is a well-respected AIDS crusader in New York. ''He [wrote back] that he was dedicating his time to convincing people that AIDS is not a gay disease,'' Lucas says. ''I'm looking forward to his feature on drug users in Harlem.''
The prevailing feeling was that a gay movie about a gay disease didn't stand a chance. ''People said it wasn't a commercial subject,'' Wlodkowski remembers. ''Or, 'We like the script but we could never finance it.''' Besides, there were no Names. ''Let us know when you get Tom Hanks,'' Lucas says, recapping another line of response. ''Then we'll talk.''
The producers sent the script to William Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Ed Harris, James Spader, and Kiefer Sutherland, among others. They sent it to Holly Hunter for the only female character of note. No bites. ''We couldn't get the Names, so we couldn't get any money,'' Wlodkowski says. As the process dragged on, the casting directors joked that the movie should be renamed Longtime.
Resigned to the fact that stars were an unlikely financial lure, Wlodkowski went back to his calculator and came up with a worst-case low-budget scenario: $1.5 million. ''Sure,'' Lucas remembers saying through clenched teeth. ''We can do it for that.'' And after Law, via American Playhouse, put up the entire sum, they did.
By mid-April a string of well-regarded but lesser-known actors had signed up for the movie. ''Here we sit in 1990, and there's yet to be a feature film about AIDS,'' says Bruce Davison, who gives an outstanding performance as David, a man who cares for his AIDS-stricken lover at home. ''I just had to do it.'' Davison, perhaps best known for playing Willard in the 1971 movie by that name, joins an ensemble cast that includes Campbell Scott (son of George C. and Colleen Dewhurst, and recently seen in TV's The Kennedys of Massachussetts); Dermot Mulroney (Young Guns), Patrick Cassidy (TV's Dirty Dancing), Stephen Caffrey (All My Children), Mark Lamos (artistic director of the Tony Award-winning Hartford Stage Company), and Mary Louise Parker, who costars in Prelude to a Kiss. One actor died of AIDS before filming began. Another, with a small role, has died since.
Longtime Companion is the story of the effect of AIDS on a group of friends and lovers over eight years. It opens in 1981 with the characters reading a New York Times story announcing the discovery of a rare form of cancer in 41 men in California and New York. ''The cause is unknown,'' the article says, ''and there is as yet no evidence of contagion.''
The movie's depiction of the emotional and physical toll the disease takes, on both its victims and those around them, is devastating. But its strength lies in its unexpected bursts of humor and anger. As they deal with overwhelming tragedy, the characterizations deftly avoid cliche and sketch a tribute to the nature of human resilience. Ultimately, Longtime Companion manages to be hopeful. It is no more a story about AIDS than Terms of Endearment is a story about cancer. ''Craig has a way of imbuing his scenes with a magical color that's very dark,'' says Parker, who plays Lisa, a close friend of the other characters. ''You laugh, but it hurts. It's like seeing a skeleton with a cape and a rubber nose.''
One such scene has Parker and Scott laughing hysterically in a closet as they pick out funeral attire for a friend. It's an image pulled from Lucas' own experience as an AIDS counselor. When one of his clients died, he ''was sent with one of the man's friends to pick out clothes for his cremation, and we found these high-heeled beaded shoes and gowns. Although we were really upset, we howled thinking of the reaction at the funeral home when we told them that this is what he wanted to be remembered in.''
Longtime Companion's cast is predominantly straight. ''As for playing a gay man, I just used my imagination,'' Mulroney says. It was, the actors say, a nonissue. ''Once you decide to do it, you just do it,'' Scott says. Occasionally, René had to rein in the acting, but for the most part the men were quick studies. ''These guys, a lot of whom had just had their first babies, would sit and hold hands during rehearsals and lean against one another,'' Lucas says. ''It was too cute for words.'' During shooting, girlfriends tended to show up on days that called for their boyfriends to kiss other men. ''Or there would be a lot of talk about wives,'' René says. ''Maybe it was subconscious. But it happened all the time.''
René and Lucas were consistently looking toward a mainstream audience. As a result, the movie is not sexually explicit. ''It's probably more shocking,'' the director adds, ''to see intimacy between two men than it is to see sex between two men.'' The grislier aspects of AIDS' physical symptoms were also downplayed. Davison's character matter-of-factly changes the diapers of his dying lover, played by Mark Lamos. But Lamos looks less ravaged than originally planned because, René says, ''we didn't want to be grotesque. This isn't a horror movie.''
The 34-day shoot had the usual quota of problems. ''It seemed like God should be on our side,'' Parker remembers. ''But so many things went wrong.'' After the cast and crew arrived on Fire Island, it rained on and off for 10 days. A scratch on the negative of an expensive final scene called for reshooting with 300 extras after two actors had returned to California, one of whom had shaved a beard for another role.
Despite the meager budget, there were some financial rays of sunshine. Irwin Young of DuArt Film Labs donated $40,000 worth of film processing. ''Basically,'' says Wlodkowski, ''he lost money on developing our movie.'' Panavision waived a $50,000 camera rental fee. Johnson & Johnson gave 50 cartons of medical supplies for hospital scenes. Adolph Coors Company, Anheuser-Busch, and The Coca Cola Company offered refreshments. The Screen Actors Guild helped out with extras. ''A lot of people really opened their doors,'' Wlodkowski says. Some opened them just a crack, though. ''A lot of companies didn't want their product on-screen,'' Wlodkowski says. ''The subtext, of course, is, 'We don't want our products associated with gay men and AIDS.'''
For several months after Longtime Companion was finished in October 1989, distributors apparently had a similar concern. The same studios that did not want to make the film also did not want to distribute it. ''Just about everyone said they liked it,'' Wlodkowski recalls. ''And that although they couldn't take it, we'd have no problem getting a distributor. Of course, if they all had said that, the movie never would have been seen.''
Enter Tom Rothman, head of worldwide production at the Samuel Goldwyn Company. Rothman had worked with Law as an entertainment lawyer in New York. So when he heard about Longtime Companion, he ''paid attention because I know Lindsay has good taste.'' Rothman screened the movie at his office. ''You never get a picture where there is a unanimity of opinion,'' he says. ''But this was an exception. Every person in the company felt strongly that this was a good movie.'' The crucial question remained: ''But could we sell it?''
After mulling it over, Goldwyn was still not ready to commit, and Companion's collaborators were still stuck with a movie that had nowhere to show. Bruce Davison, along with actor Richard Dreyfuss, put up the money for a screening in L.A. to draw attention and a distributor. The audience reception was good, but the dotted line was still unsigned. Soon after, in early January, Law held a screening in New York, ostensibly for the cast and crew. But he also invited everyone he could find who was, however tangentially, related to the film community. ''If anybody here likes the movie,'' Law told the audience, ''tell somebody preferably somebody higher in your company.''