Film Hawk

New documentary’s creative team offers behind-the-screen insight

Bob Hawk. Photos courtesy of facebook.com/film-hawk.

By Hans Pedersen, July 2017 Issue.

Based on the life of producer and film consultant Robert Hawk, the new documentary Film Hawk is now available on tribecashortlist.com.

Hawk has been praised for recognizing impeccable storytelling, and has been credited with making a big impact on independent film. He’s a regular at the Sundance Film Festival, so it’s seemed appropriate that our first encounter occurred while standing in line for the first screening at the 2016 festival, in Park City, Utah. We shared our expectations for the festival while we waited together, and I confessed I was scheduled to interview him midway through the festival.

Five days later, as I was walking into an interview with the documentary’s creative team, he exclaimed effusively, “Oh, we’re old friends aren’t we?!”

Gregarious and charming, Hawk helped jump-start the careers of such actor-directors as Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) and Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen), who both appear in this documentary. He’s also a gay activist who helped director Rob Epstein (Howl, The Celluloid Closet) shape the landmark 1980s film The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.

Echo Magazine caught up with Hawk and the documentary’s two directors, Tai Parquet and JJ Garvine, and here’s what they had to say.

Echo: How did the idea for Film Hawk come about?

Directors Tai Parquet (left) and JJ Garvine.

Garvine: Tai and I made a documentary called Keeping the Peace and Bob was signed on as creative consultant, so he helped us with shaping the story … And as we got to speak with him more … we just knew what a great subject he became. He has such wonderful stories, he has such a great history in independent film, and we just thought this would be a fantastic film. So, we pitched it to him.

Hawk: They initially proposed a short and I said, “What?!!“ to that! But in the back of their minds, they were already thinking about a feature, as it turned out. I got to know the boys and I trusted them. So, I said, I’ll just talk and talk, and these are the people whose careers I helped. If you want to interview some of them, fine. And they did of course … As far as my personal life, I just decided, because I trusted them, that I was going to talk about everything. And, as you know, I do talk about virtually everything – some things not everybody could – and I knew that I could be uncensored. And I trusted them to respect the story. I liked them from the beginning, before they started making the film. But in making the film, we became very close friends. So, it became very easy, even though the whole concept of the documentary about me was weird, because I’m the man behind the curtain. But if you’re going to go for something, go for broke!

Parquet: When we met Bob for the first time in person, we had consulted with him over the phone. That’s how Bob likes to do things. And you already got the sense he was an unfiltered conversationalist. So, as we met him in person, he just had all these wonderful anecdotal tales. I think if you know Bob for five minutes you know that nobody articulates enthusiasm as well as Bob. That’s just something that had to be given wide berth to. Not to mention the fact that through his unheralded role in shaping the careers of different filmmakers. What he’s kind of done is, very subtly, influenced a generation of independent film. I think JJ and I didn’t realize the depth of that going in … Wonderful filmmakers, that for us are just a treasure to meet, let alone to direct, right? And they come in, and they’re not coming in because of JJ and Tai. We’re anonymous filmmakers. That’s part of the story too. He knows Kevin Smith. He knows Barbara Hammer, he knows Rob Epstein. He could go to them [to direct this film], but then would it be a true Bob Hawk documentary? It’s a true Bob Hawk documentary if he goes to anonymous talent and tries to give them a break … So, you look at our documentary, warts and all, that’s the way it’s supposed to be …

Echo: What do you think about LGBTQ-themed films nowadays, compared to 20 years ago? What do you all think has changed?

Hawk: I was here at Sundance when there was the first queer cinema panel. It was a landmark in gay film history. There was Todd Haynes, Christine Vachon as a producer … This was very important in the ’90s, we were coming closer to protease inhibitors, but we were reeling from the AIDS epidemic. It was a death sentence, where we lost so many people. So, there were early films about AIDS, Longtime Companion, Gregg Araki’s The Living End … But that was in the last century. Now, so much has changed. And film, there are still these silly gay romantic comedies, and very frothy. But we are also getting films like Weekend … We are finding more films where being gay is a given … We are getting more of these films where coming out is not the issue. It’s more accepted.

Hawk: And, may I add, I know all the programmers at Sundance. But I would never assume that they would invite me from that … As a matter of fact, they told me they would probably be harder on a film about me because I’m so much a part of the family here. They said they judged it as a film, [and] not because it’s about me … It was so important to me that it wasn’t ‘an easy in.’

Echo: Is it fair to say being gay indirectly led to your career in film?

Hawk: Oh yes. In the film, there’s an important juncture [with the documentary] Word is Out. I was beginning to leave theater, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do … But when gay people from all over the country were migrating [to San Francisco] when Anita Bryant was acting up, I went too. There was an article in The Advocate, a pulp newspaper at the time, this filmmaking collective was travelling around the U.S. to film Word Is Out, interviewing gay people. And, in ’76, I saw there was going to be a ‘work in progress’ of Word Is Out very early in its stages… and that’s how I met Rob Epstein at 19… So, that inspired me. I got to know Rob. I was doing all kinds of jobs. When [Supervisor] Harvey Milk was shot, I encouraged Rob to make The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. It took five years of fundraising. I helped him with writing grant proposals and all that kind of stuff. I got into that film two ways – one I was a gay man who was inspired by a gay film, and the other thing is, as a person of the theater, and having four to six weeks of rehearsal developing a script …

I knew dramaturgy, I know storytelling, and I was beginning to see all these narrative features where it was obvious the script was not developed … So, I thought I could bring everything I learned in theater and help them bring the script to a better place to begin shooting. And, in all this, I was exposed to a lot of queer film. I like all kinds of films, but I was also happy I had gay material to deal with. By the time we went into production of Harvey Milk in ’83, I knew I wanted to be in this world for the rest of my life. And here I am 30 years later, and I’m still in the world of independent film and queer film …

Parquet: Something that we hope gets conveyed, that became very obvious to us, was because of his theater background – and he obviously had the dramaturgy skills – part of his getting into independent film was really a manifestation of his activism, too … When you sit him down and focus on a story, and you see the chronology develop, [you] start realizing a lot of his transference into independent film came straight from his activism as a gay man in San Francisco in the 1970s.

Hawk: In the mid-’70s, when I went out to San Francisco, I was volunteering in gay activism … I was dish washing, I was doing anything in order to allow me to volunteer for gay-positive activism.

Echo: To do the real work for our community?

Hawk: Oh yeah. That’s when I saw Word Is Out. I had not participated in gay film before. Gay theater, yes … my motivation to come to San Francisco was to be an activist.

Echo: What do you think about LGBTQ-themed films nowadays, compared to 20 years ago? What do you all think has changed?

Hawk: I was here at Sundance when there was the first queer cinema panel. It was a landmark in gay film history. There was Todd Haynes, Christine Vachon as a producer … This was very important in the ’90s, we were coming closer to protease inhibitors, but we were reeling from the AIDS epidemic. It was a death sentence, where we lost so many people. So, there were early films about AIDS, Longtime Companion, Gregg Araki’s The Living End … But that was in the last century. Now, so much has changed. And film, there are still these silly gay romantic comedies, and very frothy. But we are also getting films like Weekend ... We are finding more films where being gay is a given … We are getting more of these films where coming out is not the issue. It’s more accepted.