HBO’S Gay Series Stops Shooting After A Letter

After just two weekends of filming, HBO has pulled the plug on a planned documentary about five gay men sharing

After just two weekends of filming, HBO has pulled the plug on a planned documentary about five gay men sharing a summer house in Fire Island’s Pines community. According to the subjects of the film, HBO executive vice president of original programming Sheila Nevins halted production on the project-which was being helmed by the Emmy-winning directors of The Celluloid Closet -because she felt that negative community reaction to the project had prevented the filmmakers from getting access to Fire Island’s “real” gay social scene.

The summer-house residents said they had also been told that Ms. Nevins received a disconcerting letter from a University of Pennsylvania law-school dean who vacations on Fire Island.. Though they hadn’t seen the letter, the documentary subjects said they were told the dean had expressed concern that the documentary might accidentally “out” gay residents who were not open about their sexuality. Several of the men said they were told the letter had threatened the network and its publicly traded parent company, AOL Time Warner-already being scrutinized by shareholders, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the financial press-with lawsuits.

The letter in question was written by Gary Clinton, dean of students at Penn’s Law School, and his partner Don Millinger, who is the special counsel for the Guggenheim Museum. The Transom obtained a copy of the letter, in which Mr. Clinton and Mr. Millinger expressed their concern that the film crew was not properly notifying residents that they were being filmed. “Showing up in this project could result in an ‘outing’ which in turn could lead to job termination, family rejection, loss of child custody or other serious repercussions,” the letter read in part. It did not include any threats of legal action, and both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Millinger said that by the second weekend of filming, the situation had been rectified. Signs were posted all over areas where the cameras were filming ,and all parties were satisfied.

A spokeswoman for HBO confirmed that the Fire Island documentary had been canceled out of respect for the privacy of the community. She also confirmed that Mr. Clinton’s and Mr. Millinger’s letter was part of the community response that led to the network’s decision.

The decision to cut short a project, which sources estimated was budgeted for $1 million, only one-third of the way through filming is unusual-and despite the pay-cable network’s official explanation, the housemates harbor at least one other theory about the show’s demise. Ms. Nevins has earned a reputation as an executive with a taste for the salacious (see Real Sex and Taxicab Confessions ). as well as a nose for quality reality programming, and at a time when the envelope-pushing Queer as Folk continues to earn attention for rival Showtime and ABC’s “reality miniseries” The Hamptons seemed to prove only that Long Island’s East End is as vacuous as Christie Brinkley, some of the documentary subjects wonder whether it was actually a lack of sensational material that was at the root of HBO’s decision.

“There’s a question about whether they wanted something less wholesome than what we were giving them,” said Robert Kushner, who was one of the aborted documentary’s subjects. “HBO is saying ‘not enough access,’ but that might be a thinly veiled way of saying that they didn’t get the red meat they wanted, that it wasn’t sensational enough to justify a million dollars. So much for the thinking man’s channel.” The HBO spokeswoman denied that this was the case.

The documentary, which was still referred to only as the “Fire Island Project,” was directed and produced by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman of San Francisco’s Telling Pictures. Messrs. Epstein and Friedman had worked with HBO and Ms. Nevins in the past on the Oscar-winning Common Threads : Stories from the Quilt . They also directed the 1984 critical hit The Times Of Harvey Milk , which chronicled the career and murder of San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official, and 1995’s The Celluloid Closet , which tracked the history of Hollywood’s on-screen treatment of homosexuality. A spokesman for Messrs. Epstein and Friedman said the directors were traveling and could not be reached by press time.

The housemates first heard of the Fire Island Project through its producer, Jeffrey Dupre, at the beginning of 2002. Mr. Dupre was friends with Trevor Yoder, a 35-year-old attorney and chief executive of software company Connectrix Systems, who had been sharing a house in Fire Island with Mr. Kushner, his 37-year-old writer boyfriend and six other friends for the past four years.

“It was clear from the beginning who we were,” said Mr. Kushner. “We are not a drug house. We don’t do that. And we’re in our mid-30’s, so it’s not like we’re a sexually promiscuous bunch. And two of us have been in a relationship for eight years.”

Despite their relatively tame habits, the housemates were initially nervous about the exploitation potential of the documentary. “It was our understanding that HBO had control over final editing,” said Mr. Kushner. “Even if we trusted the filmmakers, we knew what could happen in editing. They could have shot something that didn’t have to do with us, and put a shot of us alongside someone doing drugs or shots of the Meat Rack.” The Meat Rack is an area of dunes between the Pines and the Cherry Grove area of Fire Island where, Mr. Kushner said, “sex has been known to happen.”

Four of the original eight housemates were apprehensive enough that they dropped out of the project before contracts were signed. Sources said that one, a senior official at AOL Time Warner, the company that owns HBO, refused to consider the project. An attorney, an investment banker and a developer at one of Manhattan’s largest real-estate firms also dropped out.

In early May, Mr. Yoder, Mr. Kushner and the two remaining housemates-35-year-old online pharmaceutical-manufacturing consultant Matthew Betmaleck and 29-year-old e-commerce technology expert Matthew Kelleher-attempted to quell some of their fears by insisting on a clause in their contracts that dealt with the sexual content of the show.

Though the men declined to show The Transom copies of these contracts, they all agreed that the clause specified what kinds of sexual acts the cameras would have access to. They insisted that no full erections could be featured in the documentary, and that cameras could not shoot specific sexual acts.

“Not that we were planning on doing any of that anyway,” explained Mr. Yoder. “But we just wanted it in there as a protective measure, because we didn’t want anything to be sensationalized.

“Quite honestly,” he continued, “this is where Sheila Nevins started to get nervous. They said that they had never had to negotiate a clause like that before.”

Mr. Kushner added, “HBO was very grumpy about it. The filmmakers had a fight with them at that point about whether to keep the project going.” The pay-cable network’s reaction at this point is what led the housemates to suspect that HBO wanted less talk and more action.

HBO eventually caved in on the clause, and the four men-along with Joshua Glazer, a 25-year-old fund-raiser recruited to fill out the now-anemic house-signed their contracts and went for a dinner at Nobu with the directors and producers.

But when filming began on Memorial Day weekend, the cast and directors found that the Pines community was not in favor of the project. Cameras were banned from the Pavilion, the most heavily trafficked gay club in the Pines, as well as the site of the weekend-afternoon “Low Tea” and daily evening “High Tea” cocktail parties that are mainstays of the Fire Island gay social scene.

“John Whyte, who owns the Pavilion, said he didn’t want the publicity,” said Mr. Kushner. “He said he didn’t need any more business. And I guess the idea of having cameras in there was troubling. Like they could pick up on whatever was happening inside.”

Messrs. Epstein and Friedman were left to shoot a cocktail party thrown at the summer house’s pool, a night out in the neighboring community of Cherry Grove, and the annual July 4 “Invasion of the Pines,” in which hundreds of drag queens arrive via ferry on the Pines boardwalk and proudly introduce themselves to spectators. The filmmakers also shot more footage of group meals and walks on the beach.

“They focused a lot on me and [my boyfriend] Eric,” said Mr. Glazer. Eric Hyett, who has dated Mr. Glazer for one year, was not a member of the share house but visited on the first weekend of filming. “I guess it was interesting that we were a loving gay couple,” Mr. Glazer continued. “They shot us going to the grocery store and at a cocktail party. Even Eric at some point was like, ‘We’re kind of boring.'”

But the negative reaction of the Pines community was bothering the housemates.

“There was resentment about this project coming from everywhere,” said Mr. Glazer, who explained that suspicions about the project were especially high after the Bravo network aired a British-produced documentary about a gay share house on Fire Island which depicted the community as salacious, promiscuous and drug-addled.

“People just immediately assumed that this would be about drugs and sex and debauchery. They weren’t assuming that it could have a higher purpose,” Mr. Yoder said. “This was an opportunity to show how special our summers are: great friends, the family environment of our house-maybe it could be a chance for people to see something to aspire to.”

But then there’s also the possibility that HBO wasn’t looking for aspiration, but ass. “Fire Island has a pretty radical reputation from the past,” said Mr. Yoder. “And possibly they were salivating over the concept of getting this wild stuff. But we were very, very clear with them that that’s not who we are.”

Whatever HBO’s feelings about the documentary, all of the housemates were expecting to see Messrs. Epstein and Friedman on Friday, July 19, when they were scheduled to arrive for their third weekend of filming. They never showed.

The next morning, Messrs. Epstein and Friedman did show up at the house-to explain why the project had been unceremoniously dumped. According to the men, they said that they had been very pleased with the material they had, but that Ms. Nevins simply didn’t feel that it was “inside” enough. They also told the house about the impact of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Millinger’s letter to Ms. Nevins.

When contacted by The Transom, Mr. Clinton was surprised to hear that his letter had been cited in HBO’s decision to cancel the show. He said that the last time Mr. Millinger saw Mr. Dupre on the beach, the two men had embraced, and added, “What’s heartbreaking about this is that this was a potentially a very good documentary. I would hate to think that anything I did had something to do with its demise. We just wanted them to give people the chance to walk away.” Reached by phone, Mr. Millinger said the implication that the letter had anything to do with the snuffing of the project was “totally spurious,” adding that “maybe there wasn’t enough ‘access.’ Or maybe there wasn’t enough sex and drugs, and they couldn’t say that in public.”

Since Mr. Epstein and Mr. Friedman visited, the housemates said they haven’t heard a word from HBO. Clearly, they are disappointed that their 15 minutes of fame have been dashed. “I went through five months of negotiations and time and effort and money, and I think they pulled the plug way too early,” said Mr. Yoder.

Bubba Hubba

Bill Clinton feels Elizabeth Hurley’s pain. Steve Bing’s, too. On July 26, Mr. Clinton and his three bodyguards were the last passengers to get on the 7 p.m. shuttle from Reagan National to LaGuardia. Once seated in the front row, one member of the security detail reached into a seat pocket next to him and pulled out a copy of the Harper’s Bazaar with Elizabeth Hurley cradling her infant son Damian on the cover.

“Excuse me, but that magazine’s mine!” said a black woman in her 20’s.

“Well, is it O.K. if the President takes a look at it?” said the security guard, motioning to Mr. Clinton, who was in the seat next to him.

The surprised passenger immediately conceded, and when Mr. Clinton was finished reading the fashion magazine, he returned it to its owner, who promptly asked the Horndog in Chief if he had enjoyed the reading material.

“Well, it’s such an unfortunate situation,” Mr. Clinton told the woman. “Both of them are very close friends of mine. It’s too bad.” He was referring to Ms. Hurley’s much-publicized battle with Mr. Bing over Damian’s paternity-DNA tests have since confirmed Mr. Bing as the father-which was rehashed in the magazine. “That’s why I wanted to see it,” said Mr. Clinton.

-Alexandra Wolfe

White Knight

As the music-industry legends filed into the New School’s Tishman Auditorium on July 23 for a memorial ceremony honoring late music journalist and Billboard editor in chief Timothy White, the prevailing mood was one of lingering shock. Mr. White was only 50 years old when he suffered a fatal heart attack while riding the elevator to his office at 770 Broadway on June 27.

Sony Music Entertainment chairman Tommy Mottola, who last year had been coaxed by Mr. White into giving a rare interview, shared his reminiscences, as did musical artist Billy Joel. Phoebe Snow sang a stirring rendition of “Danny Boy.” And Mr. White’s young son, Alexander, dressed in a navy blue blazer and bow tie-the business uniform favored by his father-sang a verse of Paul McCartney’s “This One,” leaving the crowd visibly moved.

But the affair also had its lighter moments. Bill Flanagan, senior vice president at VH1 and formerly Mr. White’s editor at the late Musician magazine (where this writer was also once employed), recalled an assignment he’d given Mr. White in the winter of 1986. “We were having a slow month,” he said, “and couldn’t find anything to put on the cover. Then I heard James Brown was coming to Radio City, and I thought, ‘We’ve never done a story on him; this is our chance to get the definitive James Brown interview.'”

Reaching Mr. Brown proved difficult. As Mr. Flanagan explained, “All kinds of people said they were his manager, but nobody actually was-and I hope I don’t get my legs broken for saying this, but his record company at the time was a record company in the same way that Vito Corleone ran an olive-oil business.”

In a pinch, Mr. Flanagan turned to Mr. White, who talked himself into Mr. Brown’s dressing room at Radio City, but was eventually accosted by a member of Mr. Brown’s inner circle who, Mr. Flanagan said, “has since gone on to an illustrious career”: the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Mr. Sharpton, angered that the interview had not been cleared with him, fetched two hulking bodyguards-“guys who’d been kicked out of the Nation of Islam for being too mean,” in Mr. Flanagan’s words-and ordered them to remove Mr. White.

At this point, according to Mr. Flanagan, Mr. White stood up and shouted dramatically, “Wait a second, wait a second! Mr. James Brown is talking here. He’s giving an exclusive magazine interview, and no one interrupts Mr. James Brown.”

According to Mr. Flanagan, Mr. Brown paused for a moment, then nodded his head and said, “That’s right.” Mr. Sharpton stormed off, and the interview proceeded. It ran as Musician ‘s cover story in April 1986.

Mr. Sharpton did not return calls for comment.

-Mac Randall

Catcher of the Rye

For years now, Fink’s has meant good bread to the loyal (if narrow-minded) denizens of the Viand Coffee Shop on Madison Avenue and 61st Street, not to mention other fine greasy spoons on the island of Manhattan. But the bread brand’s reputation took a quick turn for the worse when it asked another purveyor to fill some of its orders after a malfunction at the bakery.

Viand customers, especially one discerning and temperamental diner in well-worn chinos and a blue Oxford shirt, first noticed the difference on July 29 when their turkey sandwiches-best in the city, youbetcha- arrived at lunch. Instead of the pillowy, oval Challah-like slices of rye that are usually served at the Viand, diners found thin, square excuses for Soylent Green framing their midday meals. After loud shouts of ” Malaka! ” and ” Holy moly! ” were heard near the Viand, the Powers That Be instructed The Transom to get to the bottom of the scandal. ( Observer reporter Ron Rosenbaum was baking scones and not able to investigate.)

Turns out the Viand’s owners were already on the case. “The bread they’ve been bringing has changed,” said one Viand employee, who requested anonymity-no doubt out of fear for his self-respect. The employee added that six customers noticed the switch right out of the oven on July 29. By mid-morning on July 30, two customers had lodged complaints, “and we haven’t even gotten to the lunch-hour rush,” said the employee.

So what’s the deal? According to a representative at Long Island City– based New York Baking Company, which produces Fink’s breads, a broken bread machine forced the company to ask Riverton, N.J.–based Pechter’s to handle some of its orders for a couple of days. At press time, Pechter’s could not be reached for comment.

Since then, the New York Baking Company representative said the bakery has received approximately 50 complaints. “[The customers] just liked our rye bread better,” he said.

Rest easy, gentle canned-tuna eaters of Gotham: Starting July 31, Fink’s rye will be Fink’s rye once again.

-Lucas Hanft

The Transom Also Hears …

If you want a sign of Disney’s confidence in M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming nail-biter Signs , look no further than the goodie bag that the studio handed out to guests at its July 29 premiere party at the Metropolitan Club. After ogling the film’s co-stars, Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix, as well as Bruce Willis, departing guests were not handed the usual bag loaded with the kind of free crap-Jeroboams of designer perfume, CD soundtracks and protein bars-that’s supposed to mollify New Yorkers who have just wasted four hours on a crappy movie and party. Instead, they were given a slim, crudely shrink-wrapped package that included a large sheet of heavy aluminum foil and a greeting-card-sized manual called The Signs Survival Guide . The manual shows in great detail how to fashion the foil into a Hershey Kiss–like hat-à la a scene in the movie, which is a hybrid of War of the Worlds , Night of the Living Dead and Ghost -to keep aliens “from reading your mind.”

-Frank DiGiacomo

… Pregnancy hasn’t altered Sarah Jessica Parker’s fitness regimen. On the afternoon of July 28, a cloudy day in the Hamptons, Ms. Parker was spotted cycling near the corner of Sag and Ocean roads in Bridgehampton, a tight T-shirt showing off her round belly, a pair of teeny-tiny shorts showing off her lean legs. Husband Matthew Broderick, looking sweaty and a little lost, led the way.

-Elisabeth Franck

HBO’S Gay Series Stops Shooting After A Letter