Jeffrey Schwarz Tackles the AIDS Crisis in Commitment To Life

Mastering the art of documentary filmmaking takes a lot of falling down and getting back up. Yet, director Jeffrey Schwarz has made a name for himself in the genre for shedding light onto untold histories. He learned from the biggest names in the genre such as Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman, and has been applauded for his continuous work and contribution to the queer community through his films and activism. Commitment to Life is his latest documentary, which tells the story of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. It’s a star-studded feature that reveals how doctors, activists, celebrities, movie stars and media tycoons changed the way the epidemic affects society today. Some of Schwarz’s previous works circling the subject of the queer community include Tab Hunter Confidential (2015), Vito (2011) and I am Divine (2013). He has also produced content on major studio releases for directors such as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Jonathan Demme, Wes Craven, Rob Reiner, Barry Sonnenfeld, Adam Shankman, Paul Verhoeven, Chris Columbus and the Coen Brothers. Schwarz appeared in The Advocate’s “Out 100” in 2013 and was the recipient of the 2015 Frameline Award, which honors those who have made a major contribution to LGBT representation in film, television and the media arts.

FRONTRUNNER sat down with Schwarz to discuss how even a few people can change the world, who fuels fear and hate within society, the importance of educating younger generations, and how Elizabeth Taylor’s “Bitch, do something yourself” line went a very long way. Showgirls, we also talk about Showgirls.

Commitment to Life (2023) Director Jeffrey Schwarz


Why was it important to you to tell the story of Commitment to Life?

Commitment to Life is the story of the fight against HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles. The story tracks from the dark days in the early 1980s until today. It tells the story of the epidemic in one city where important things happened. The film introduces a generation to a lot of people who might not be familiar with them. It’s an incredible group of heroic people, some who are living with HIV/AIDS, doctors, movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, and activists. All these people worked together to change the course of the epidemic.

It’s such an intimate take on the crisis, and there’s so much footage and information that’s not generally available to the public. I’m not only thinking of Elizabeth Taylor’s line, “Bitch, do something yourself”, but safe spaces for the black queer community, conservative Christians’ influence on the epidemic, or how rapidly the Commitment to Life events grew. Do you feel an obligation as a filmmaker to educate the public about misconceptions?

This all happened quite some time ago. The first cases that we now know as HIV, back then were just a mystery. We didn’t even know that it was a virus. People would just start getting sick. There was a group of people in LA whose very close friend started mysteriously getting ill and then dropping dead. In the early days, there was so much fear and misinformation. This group of friends decided to take care of each other. That was the early days of the AIDS project Los Angeles (APLA). This organisation was the focus of our film. They grew and grew, and what does Los Angeles have that many others don’t? The power of celebrities and storytelling. APLA could directly address the stigma of HIV/AIDS and the loneliness that so many people were feeling. They started a buddy system where somebody who had AIDS and was perhaps neglected by their family and friends was provided with someone from APLA. Somebody who essentially helped them with their daily lives. Those acts of small kindness were so beautiful for me to learn about. I heard of APLA, but I didn’t know so much about them.

To this day, they still help thousands of people across the city. They wanted to acknowledge this history because particularly for younger people who were not even born this tends to be forgotten. It’s important to all of us to make sure that these stories and heroic acts are not forgotten. In the US, there are all the attempts to deny the teaching of queer history, even when it comes to talking about HIV/AIDS in schools. So many young people are affected, and the incidents of HIV are still disproportionately present in the African-American community and communities of colour, so it’s important to talk about it and to show how far we have come. We show those early days when there was nothing medically that could have been done, and now we are at a place where the virus can be reduced to an undetectable level. People don’t have to grow up with that fear the way my generation and the one before did.

The subject matter is the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but you address so many other social issues. Let’s take fear as an example. It’s the best tool used to control people. If you impose fear, you will always have the upper hand. Same with wars, relationships, and as seen during the HIV/AIDS crisis. You also highlight how powerful it is to scare individuals instead of informing them. What’s your take on fear?

You can choose fear, or you can choose love, which I think is a quote by Marianne Williamson, who is running for president. In those early days, there was so much fear, and cynically that fear was used to make our community invisible. In those early days, some folks were trying to separate people with HIV/AIDS from society. They put them in camps, and some of those same forces are still with us all around the world. We felt very alone. They wanted to separate us, but we formed coalitions and found allies. For example, the film shows Reverend Steve Pieters, who had AIDS and put himself out there with APLA in the early 1980s to show that there’s nothing to fear. It’s such a beautiful thing he did. He went on a conservative Christian show, and the host was so compassionate towards him. It was so great to see, especially now, when the religious community can be so judgmental and also, were at the time. There are glimmers of beauty, hope, and triumph in the film. I hope! I want people to come away with it feeling that even when things feel hopeless and we have an issue that seems unsolvable, when people come together, they can change the world.

You have decades of experience in the documentary genre, especially with subjects around the queer community. How has the scene changed over the years, and have you seen an improvement in being able to have these films made, financed, and seen?

Making documentaries in the US is not easy. I love learning about our history, and each one of the films I make opens the window to the world that I was not necessarily part of. When I was coming out, all I wanted was to learn about our history, about all the people who came before me, and how they were able to overcome gigantic obstacles. Each film is a way into that history. My first job working in film was with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. I worked on a film called Silent Closet which was about how queer people were represented on film in the early 90s. Rob won an Oscar for The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), and he was the first openly gay person to thank his partner on TV. It was powerful and moving. Rob and Jeffrey later won another Oscar for Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989). People like those guys are pioneers and got me interested in making films. The Times of Harvey Milk changed my life. It’s an incredible story about a person I didn’t know anything about. I would like to keep making these types of films as long as I can.

As someone who works in the film industry, I’m sad to say that homophobia, discrimination, and lack of understanding of the queer community are still very much around. How do you find your group of people who you trust and want to share these experiences with?

I work very independently. See that room back there, that’s where I spend most of my life. Personally, being openly gay had not been a hindrance. In my early years, I worked in the low-budget exploitation movie world in the 1990s. I did encounter some homophobia, but it was mostly just frat boy behaviour. I never experienced anything extremely homophobic or discriminatory, well, at least not that I know of. I was able to carve out a career for myself where I’m making the kind of films that I want to make. I can’t speak for others, but luckily, I have a wonderful community of filmmakers here in LA. Although it’s mostly mainstream entertainment in LA, there still is a thriving documentary community. We all try to support each other.

There’s a line in the film: “The people who have must take care of the people who have not.” This is so beautiful and the simplest form of understanding society and being part of it. Do you ever feel a bit down, that so many people don’t think this way?

I love that you brought that up. That’s from Jeffrey Katzenberg, who is a straight man and one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. Then and now. When APLA was doing the Commitment to Life fundraisers, it was not safe for queer people to be out. David Geffen, a close friend of his came out at a Commitment to Life event. The fact that Jeffrey Katzenberg showed up for David and for the queer community at that time made it safer for other people. He created a space where people could feel safe being themselves. To create safety in numbers is something that the AIDS crisis did because so many people were suffering as the gay community couldn’t hide the way they were able to before. We needed to be open and proud and also proud of the people we loved and took care of. As this film focuses on Hollywood, it was so important that corporations (like them or not) such as Disney helped make it safer for queer people to provide health benefits for spouses. That would not have happened if it wasn’t for the activists on the ground. That kind of activism trickles up. It doesn’t start with the corporations. They are not going to make these changes on their own. It’s going to be activists working hard to tell these companies that we are not going to accept a second-class status. They created enormous changes that today we are benefitting from.

Founder of the Black AIDS Institute, Phill Wilson, mourns the loss of his partner AHF (Aids Healthcare Foundation) co-founder Chris Brownlie.
November 1989


It’s fascinating that the team at APLA managed to find the people who will speak out because even today, it gets complicated, but back then, you could end your career or start it.

We show [that] in the film. Even though there was more safety provided for people with AIDS as the epidemic progressed, still somebody like Brad Davis, a working actor with HIV and AIDS, didn’t feel that he could be open about it. He wanted to continue to work. There was still stigma and discrimination, and if Brad’s health was public he would not have been able to work. He would lose his health insurance, so he had to hide. As we show in the film, he couldn’t come out about his status until after he died. His wife was the one who told the industry and shamed them. That was another step towards change.

How long did it take you to make this film?

This was probably one of the fastest ones because we had the support of APLA. They approached me about the idea of this film at the end of 2019. We began developing it, then Covid-19 hit. I thought it was all going to go away, but they were committed to making this film. We filmed all our interviews in early 2020. It was interesting to look at the early days of COVID-19 and how the fear around its transmission was so similar to the breakout of HIV/AIDS.

I imagine you spent a lot of time looking through archive material. Of course, you could not include everything in the film, but were there stories and knowledge throughout your research that changed or moved you?

There were so many incredible characters. You could make a whole movie about each one of them. This could have been a 22-hour film. I was so grateful to get to know some of these people because I heard about people like Phill Wilson, an activist who has been the centre of AIDS activism in LA for decades. I was so honoured to be able to sit down with him, and that he trusted us to tell his whole story when both his partner and he were diagnosed, and eventually, his partner passed away. When you make a film like this, these people are in your life forever.

Last question: Showgirls?

I hope that will come out next year! I have been working on it for a while. It’s a documentary about the making of probably one of the most notorious and controversial movies ever made. Showgirls was the biggest flop when it came out, but now – years later – it’s a cult film, particularly in the queer community. We interviewed folks who were involved in making the movie, and we hope to release it next year for the film’s 30th anniversary. I was there at the opening night, and as soon as Elizabeth Berkley showed up and did that thing with her tongue, we all went crazy and knew that this would become a classic. We were right.

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