Filmmaker Tug Yourgrau talks about his motivation for making a movie about human rights and invasions of privacy in today’s political climate, his relationships to the people and places in the film and the influence of Moroccan chicken.
What led you to make THE GREAT PINK SCARE?
I read author Barry Werth’s article, "The Scarlet Professor," in The New Yorker in the late 1990s and recognized the name Newton Arvin, which made a bell ring in my mind. My father taught at Smith College in 1960 when Arvin was arrested; I was about 11 at the time. We’d held a fundraiser in our home for Arvin, I remember looking down the stairs with my two brothers in our pajamas as the people arrived. Arvin was a small, slim, bald man in a dark grey suit. I didn’t know what he’d done; apparently he’d exhibited some human frailty and been jackbooted by the police. Until I read Barry’s article, I hadn’t known any of the particulars. The case Barry described, especially the anger and sense of betrayal of the two surviving professors, Joel Dorius and Ned Spofford, moved me immensely. I wanted to learn more.
What is the significance of the title THE GREAT PINK SCARE? Why did you choose it?
We chose the title to play on the familiar term, "Red Scare." That's because, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, you were, so to speak, better off "Red" than "Pink." As author Barry Werth and others commented, it was bad for your career and reputation to be labeled a "Communist," but it was WORSE to be labeled a homosexual. That label, in the words of Joel Dorius, was considered "social death."
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
The two biggest challenges were getting Dorius and Spofford to speak on camera about their ordeal—the idea terrified them. Barry Werth helped me immensely with that, as with so much else in the making of the film.
The other big problem was getting funds to finish the film. We did get some funds, but we ended up paying for most of it out of our own pockets. We couldn’t have finished it without a lot of unpaid effort by my team, especially my co-producer and fellow director, Dan Miller, and the support of my business partner, Joel Olicker.
THE GREAT PINK SCARE evokes a period described as “sexual McCarthyism.” Do you see links between that era’s invasion of privacy and the legal climate today?
Of course there’s a link. The obscenity laws have been liberalized, and homosexuality is no longer considered a crime/sin/deviance as broadly as back then. But the majority in Congress and the current administration do assert the right to intrude on personal communications—wiretaps, Internet snooping and the backlash against gay marriage and adoptions reasserts some of the stigma of the bad old days.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope the film will do three things:
- Make people more aware of the devastation and trauma that unjust laws and ignorance caused so many gay men and women before Stonewall and gay liberation
- Salute two men and their close friends and supporters for the extraordinary emotional courage they displayed
- Remind us that government does not belong in the bedrooms of consenting adults, and that we must ever be on guard against those who would demonize gays and lesbians
Did Smith College participate in the making of the film, and if so, how?
Smith College was very cooperative for the most part. While the college turned down my requests to interview the then-current president and trustees about the case, the school did make their substantial film and photographic archives available to us for practically no fee. And, their current administration invited us to screen a lengthy segment from our work-in-progress at a major conference on civil liberties in the Cold War that Professors Marilynn Schuster and Dan Horowitz organized in honor of Dorius and Spofford, and which Smith President Carol Christ fully supported.
The film has a “noir-ish” soundtrack that sustains a powerful feeling of tension. What are some other creative choices you made in the telling of this story?
We did, in fact, decide to try to give the film a “noir-ish” feel, in the music and in the look of the minimalist recreations. That kind of a look tied in with the period in which the events happened. Another choice was to let Spofford and Dorius and their former colleague, Daniel Aaron, carry the film, since their interviews were so compelling and powerful.
What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude? Any updates on the people and what they have been doing since then?
Filming began, I believe, in 2002 and concluded in 2005. Joel Dorius died in early 2006.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
That there are so many terrific and important and fascinating stories to tell, and that luckily, that I’m able to support occasional fixes for my “independent film habit” by doing interesting and more profitable commercial TV most of the time.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
We were unable to raise any funds from commercial networks or cable channels. PBS was the only network that gave us funding.
What are your three favorite films?
The Third Man, Tender Mercies and Pulp Fiction
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
Writing plays, directing plays, teaching, doing voice over’s
What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
A really good pinot noir and Moroccan chicken with couscous
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Tell the stories you love, that touch you deeply. And get a day job.
What sparks your creativity?
The discovery of a story with emotional depth, in which you can reveal the deepest feelings of another person or people about an eternal kind of question.
For instance, how does one deal with betrayal? That’s a theme that I feel runs through THE GREAT PINK SCARE: Arvin betrayed Dorius and Spofford, and the law, mainstream psychology and most theologies forced homosexuals to betray themselves.
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