Stephen Kijak spoke with Solzy at the Movies about directing his new HBO documentary, Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed.
I caught up with Kijak over Zoom shortly after the in-person festival concluded. The last time we spoke was on the ground during SXSW in 2018. That was quite the experience especially since I didn’t know it was happening until after landing in Austin. Anyway, this interview experience was very different in that it was over Zoom and more prep time was available.
Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed makes its HBO and Max premiere in connection with Pride Month. It recently held its world premiere during the 2023 Tribeca Festival.
It’s so nice to talk with you again after some five years and change. How are you doing?
Stephen Kijak: I’m good. How are you?
I am doing well.
Stephen Kijak: Good to hear it.
It’s nice to actually have an interview prepared for a difference.
Stephen Kijak: (Laughs) Oh, no, you did great. It was Skynyrd, right?
Stephen Kijak: Everyone just jumped into that at the last minute. That was hilarious.
Yeah. I’m so sorry to hear about Gary’s passing.
Stephen Kijak: Oh, yeah. The last of the Free Birds has left us. I guess Artemis is still kicking but he was one of the originals to really—kind of amazing history.
What was the genesis behind directing a documentary on Rock Hudson?
Stephen Kijak: My producers developed this project that they originally had called The Accidental Activist and while 100% accurate, I really saw the opportunity to kind of broaden it and tell a bigger story that really encompassed his cinematic life, the life of the Hollywood closet, the 50s, and 60s, give it more cultural context. But then also, it was a great way in to look at this star whose disclosure, whether he intended it or not, that not only was he gay but he had AIDS, really changed culture, and change the course of history around HIV AIDS. It’s a moment I think a lot of people have forgotten, especially young people who don’t remember how shocking and horrible those early years of AIDS was in the 80s. An important story all around, I thought.
What surprised you the most about Rock Hudson during the process of making this film?
Stephen Kijak: Well, I think there’s a feeling that you’re in the closet, you’re living this tortured life in the 50s and 60s, and really, it wasn’t the case. I mean, he was living, I think, pretty openly—it was a big open secret. I think he was living relatively openly amongst friends and trusted colleagues. There were a lot of sexy pool parties. He had boyfriends. There just wasn’t the scrutiny that we have today. I think people, especially if you were protected by a studio and by your publicists, you could kind of live this double life and slip in and out of it at will.
What was the most challenging aspect of making the documentary?
Stephen Kijak: Well, he died in 1985 and a lot of his colleagues and friends are either no longer with us or just really, really fucking old so trying to find people to talk to but then what we did, we were able to kind of create this arc of interviews of men who had been in his life, either as lovers or playmates or a wing man, a co-star. We found one of his old best friends, Joe Carberry, who is in his mid 80s now and hosted wild parties at his house. One of his early boyfriends, Lee Garlington, from 1963, who is still with us, living with his husband in New Zealand, just kind of getting them to talk was wonderful and just making that decision to really focus on this sort of generation of guys who take you sort of from pre-Stonewall, pre-gay liberation to the other side of the AIDS crisis, I found that a really great core to explore in the film. You kind of get him through these men because he’s a challenging interview, Rock Hudson. He doesn’t give you much. All those years of repression and control just created a character who was an impossible interview. He gave nothing away. It was very, very hard to kind of pull him out of himself, if that makes sense.
How long was the initial cut?
Stephen Kijak: I usually land them. I can usually land it pretty early. This one just kind of kept sitting there, two-plus hours. It’s a huge story. There was a part of me that wanted to make it a two-part. We did our homework, we just rolled up our sleeves, and chopped away. You do the job. You know what I mean? It’s probably the longest thing I’ve turned in to date but there’s a lot of story there. A lot of story. Yeah. Anyway, that goes down to my brilliant editor, Claire Didier. We’ve done a bunch of stuff together and there’s really nobody better.
Yeah. I saw a number of documentaries at Tribeca and I’m sitting there thinking while watching them that they could easily be two-partners or doc series.
Stephen Kijak: Yeah, yeah. I mean, if I’d had my way—the thing is, there’s so many movies. Just the movies alone. I mean, he made over 65. There’re a lot of films, not all of them great but some very, very good and some brilliant and some are just so camp and weird. I just could have spent hours digging through the filmography alone. Yeah, it’s a challenge. It’s always a challenge.
I imagine the licensing costs would have built up on those clips too.
Stephen Kijak: Well, we budgeted properly. He was a Universal contract player so the majority of the work was at one studio. They were our biggest invoice. But then also, fair use is a documentarian’s best friend, and we did a little bit of that, too.
That also speaks to just how much this industry has changed with everyone working at multiple studios nowadays.
Stephen Kijak: Yeah, well, that whole contract thing was really a thing of the past. We have an interview with Howard McGillin in the film—we couldn’t somehow get it into the cut but Howard was sort of the longest running Phantom on Broadway. He’s kind of a giant in the Broadway world. He was one of the very last of the contract players. By that time, Universal was just placing them in TV shows. It wasn’t even about minting movie stars anymore. But yeah, I mean, that’s the thing, right? You get signed up to studio and they did absolutely everything for you. Your house, your food, your clothes, hair, everything, taught you how to act, they taught you how to be, essentially, and they had a whole team of people spinning this alternate reality for the public about your life and it wasn’t just Rock. It wasn’t just covering up gay actors. It was everybody. Everyone had this sort of false narrative being created for them. Very different time. I mean, in a way. I mean, granted, now I think people have to work ten times harder to protect their private lives. But I’m sure there’s still Rock Hudson’s out there. We all know it’s true.
I know you touched on some of them but is there anything else that you tried to keep in the film but couldn’t because of pacing, etc.?
Stephen Kijak: Hopefully, down the road, you’ll get to meet some other characters who didn’t quite make the cut, a couple old neighbors of Rock’s, two gentlemen who I think should have their own film, Alan Shayne and Norman Sunshine, who are a gay couple who have been together since the 50s in New York, who are still together today. It’s an incredible story. They actually have a book called Double Life. It’s a memoir and a story of their lives together. They’re just hilarious. They were Rock’s neighbors in the Hills. Their house burned down and they had really never met him but he got them on the phone and insisted that they move into his house while he was in New York, until they could kind of rebuild. They just spoke of his generosity and what a great person he was and how generous he had been to them and really saved them at a time of need.
Norman had remembered when he was a teenager, his dad took him to the country club somewhere here in LA and his dad was golfing. Norman decides to take a steam and there’s Rock Hudson, fully nude, sitting in the steam toom. You know what I mean? He was just like, oh my G-d, I just almost died right there and I’m [REDACTED]. I’m kind of feeling my sexuality and there’s Rock Hudson, nude, saying Hello, young man. How are you? You know like, what?!? Some great memories and crazy stories. Maybe we shouldn’t say Norman was [REDACTED]. That’s probably a no-no. There wasn’t anything going on, right, but they had these fantastic kind of anecdotes to share. But, alas, something’s must be sacrificed.
How honored were you to premiere the film at Tribeca?
Stephen Kijak: It was great. I love it there. I mean, Frédéric Boyer, who’s the head of the fest, had been a fan and a a real supporter. He had programmed my Rolling Stones film in Cannes back in 2010. We’d always been in touch and Tribeca’s supported my work over the years. So yeah, it was great. It was a great place to launch. We had a lot of fun.
How collaborative was HBO as a partner?
Stephen Kijak: One of the best, honestly. I had not made a film with HBO documentary films. I was thrilled. We loved it. We had such a great experience—so supportive. A very constructive and supportive studio. So yeah, fantastic.
What do you hope people take away from watching the film?
Stephen Kijak: Well, I feel like he’s one of those 50s stars that has been a bit forgotten. Everyone remembers James Dean and Marilyn Monroe died these young, early tragic deaths, and have kind of emerged as the icons of their age. Rock was really, along with Elizabeth Taylor, one of the biggest stars of the day. Not only a great movie star of the Golden Age, but what happened in the 80s, I think a lot of people may just remember him as, quote, that star who died of AIDS, but not only the impact that that had, I think, has also been a little bit lost. I’d love people to kind of revisit and reevaluate him as an actor. There’s so much great stuff to discover across all those films. It’s just a reappraisal of a man’s life and legacy.
Thank you so much and it was so nice getting to talk with you again.
Stephen Kijak: Likewise. Hopefully, I’ll see you again sometime.
HBO will air Rock Hudson: All that Heaven Allowed on June 28, 2023 at 9 PM ET/PT. The film will also be available to stream on Max.
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