Jennifer Kroot brings a background in underground filmmaking to her documentaries and uses that sensibility to create surprises within her stories. The San Francisco-based filmmaker first caught the eye of writer Armistead Maupin when he saw her documentary To Be Takei, about actor and activist George Takei, and, as Maupin said affectionately and humorously in a recent interview with actor Jonathan Groff, he “sat there seething with envy, that some [other] gay geezer got that [special] treatment, but it turns out she specializes in that.” And two months later, Kroot called up the Tales of the City icon to see if he was interested in a film about him. Which led to her new film (with co-director/editor Bill Weber) The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, premiering on Independent Lens on PBS January 1 at 10:30 pm [check local listings].

Of the documentary, the SF Chronicle‘s David Lewis wrote that the “filmmakers have captured that zest with a joyous filmmaking style of their own: breezy editing, fun ’70s graphics and the use of great archival footage from the city’s past. It’s all great fun, from beginning to end.”

Coincidentally, but serendipitously, Armistead’s memoir, Logical Family, has just arrived, too, and there’s also a new Tales of the City series that Netflix is producing that’s in the works. Here Kroot talked to us about her own introduction to Maupin’s beloved series, growing up in San Francisco, how she came to make this film, and her nerves when working with some of the celebrities who appear in the documentary.

Why did you make this film?

I am a long time fan of Armistead Maupin’s writing, and a Bay Area native. I realized that I could explore the elements of Maupin’s work that makes him such a beloved presence to his fans, and create a love letter to SF. One of Maupin’s biggest themes in his Tales and other books is family, or people searching for family. I wanted to explore this theme in Armistead’s work and personal life and as a reason that people have always come to SF.

Do you remember your own first experience discovering Maupin’s tales? How did it impact you personally? Did it change your perspectives on anything?

Untold Tales filmmaker Jennifer Kroot
Untold Tales filmmaker Jennifer Kroot

I first knew about Tales because my parents and their friends read it in the San Francisco Chronicle when it was a serialized, fictional column in the 1970s and ’80s. I was a child through the beginning of Tales in the newspaper, so I didn’t understand what it was about. I just knew that it was a titillating story for adults. I finally read the novels in the early ’90s when Tales was being made into a miniseries. I was in my 20s and living in SF with gay and straight friends, so it seemed very similar to my own life, but it also documented the Bay Area as I remembered it in the ’70s and ’80s, it really transcended time and felt both pertinent and historical.

After that, I read everything that Armistead wrote. It didn’t change my perspective on anything, but I learned more about San Francisco from Tales. When I meet people who are recent arrivals to SF, I usually suggest that they read [the series] right away, because otherwise I can’t really consider them a San Franciscan.

As you learned more about Maupin’s life and backstory, did anything surprise you?

His story is filled with surprises. I knew a little about his extremely conservative childhood prior to making this film, but when I first talked with Armistead and he described working for the late Senator Jesse Helms, and also being invited to meet President Richard Nixon (for his work as a conservative Vietnam veteran!) I found it shocking.

On a different note, I was more pleasantly surprised by Armistead’s intimate relationship with Rock Hudson. Armistead is like a Zelig character. He’s met everyone and been in the right place at the right time, it seems.

Who do you hope your film impacts the most?

Anyone who feels alienated or alone. People who are trying to find the right “family” or “home” to belong to and connect with. I think Armistead’s idea that people search for a “logical family” (as opposed to biological family) is universal.

There are a lot of recognizable people in your film (Laura Linney, Ian McKellen, writer Neil Gaiman) — were you at all nervous talking to them, or did they put you at ease?

I will admit that I was a bit intimidated by Sir Ian McKellen, but I still had great fun speaking with him. For the most part, they were all super nice and did really put me at ease. I try to be extremely prepared to do these types of interviews, so I’m often thinking more about what I need to discuss with them, rather than thinking about being intimidated. It’s an amazing opportunity to get to chat with these people about something that we’re both incredibly interested in. Everyone really enjoyed talking about their friendships with Armistead.

When I interviewed Sir Ian I asked him if he’d consider smoking marijuana on camera with Armistead, and he declined very clearly. That’s in the deleted scene [available on the DVD]. It was quite intimidating, but I had to ask!

“I think Armistead’s idea that people search for a ‘logical family’ (as opposed to biological family) is universal.”There’s a lot of priceless archival footage in the film, especially of San Francisco back in the day. What struck you about the place then as opposed to now as you sorted through all that film?

I loved looking through all the old footage of San Francisco. It made me realize that the look of SF is still generally the same, mostly because of the natural beauty, the hills, the bridges, and the old Victorians. The people look more different than the place. In the 1970s the people looked innocent and very fun loving. The people in our recent footage look like they’re distracted or in a hurry. There’s certainly more of a creative vibe from the ’70s, but that’s less about SF in general, and more about the time we live in.

It’s refreshing to visit that [past]. It almost feels like time travel to me, when I watch the film. It’s hard to explain, but I now have a feeling, as I live my life in SF, that I feel the presence of the ghosts of San Francisco from various time periods I’ve seen in the footage. It may sound silly, but I like the feeling that I’m part of the continuity of this magical place.

Filmmaker Jennifer Kroot interviews Maupin at steps to the real-life inspiration for Barbary Lane in Tales of the City
Filmmaker Jennifer Kroot interviews Maupin at steps to the real-life inspiration for Barbary Lane in Tales of the City

It’s probably hard to choose from your own film but do you have a favorite scene in Untold Tales

From early on we planned to have a scene where multiple subjects in the film read Armistead’s fictional (and real) coming out letter. The letter is called “Michael’s Letter to Mama.” We have a number of LGBT people reading, as well as Selene Luna, who is a little person. Showing various people reading it really shows how universal it is, and how all people desire to feel understood and loved. It’s a heartwarming scene and hard to get through it without Kleenex, but it’s not sappy or indulgent, just a very intense and real moment.

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

Paris Is Burning, Repo Man, and Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

Gardening (in my own backyard)!