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Going Through the Hellfire:
An Interview with Arthur Dong

by Carrie Gorringe
Posted 26 September 1997

Carrie Gorringe talks with Arthur Dong about his documentary, Licensed to Kill, which addresses the issue of gay-bashing that leads to murder. Be sure to read the review in our coverage of the 1997 Seattle International Film Festival and visit the official Licensed to Kill website.

CG: The first thing that becomes apparent after you read the information about Licensed to Kill is that there is a personal element to the story behind the film. What exactly happened to you?

AD: I always like to put things into a larger context. In May 1977, my feeling was that the gay civil rights movement was picking up speed and at the same time Anita Bryant became the first mascot of the religious right, pushed by Jerry Falwell. She was actively trying to overturn an ordinance in Dade country that protected the rights of gay and lesbian people in that city. No-one at that time was seriously considering anti-gay violence as an issue on the front burner. Reports weren’t being made about these acts of violence – not that they weren’t happening, just that reports weren’t being made. Organizations weren’t rallying behind the problem; there were no agencies dealing with it because they didn’t realize that it existed. My friend and I were just walking along, three blocks away from my apartment in the Castro area of town. It was the evening, not too late. We were not looking stereotypically gay, we were not in drag, were not in leather, and were not holding hands. We looked just like two people walking down the street. A car came towards us. A creamy Volvo. It stopped within a few feet of us. Out poured four teenaged kids coming towards us on the attack. I can’t specially remember the words they were using, but they were calling us names – my feeling is that they were anti-gay words. They pelted us with eggs and chased us. We ran into the middle of the street and climbed onto and grabbed a car which drove us away. That same night, just a few minutes later, these same kids went half a block away and battered a priest. It was documented in police reports that they were calling the priest, "faggot." That could have been us.

In my research for this project, we tried to find the case files. it was a very strange thing because I love research, I do it a lot, but I’ve never done research on myself. We did find the lawyer and the prosecuting district attorney, but because they were minors at the time, the case was concealed and probably destroyed. We couldn’t find them, mug shots or anything like that. I did, however, find the priest, which was very strange. I talked to him, it was an eerie conversation because we both started remembering what happened that evening in great detail. It was a very strange kind of bonding with the past. It was wonderful. He had actually saved newspaper clippings, some with my name in them, about the case which he sent to me and I used in the film. I had forgotten these details and reading about them twenty years later was kind of strange. That whole part of it, my attack, was not supposed to be in the film. It was never in the plans until the very end when I was working with my music composer. We were taking a break in my back yard sitting around. She asked why I did the film. I explained that twenty years ago I got upset because I was attacked. She asked "What do you mean, attacked, why don’t I know about this." I explained that I don’t talk about it. She told me that I have to put this in the film – the whole idea that you were attacked is why the film exists.

CG: At what point in the healing process did you decide to make License to Kill. What was the motivation? Was it an attempt at self healing, that re-empowerment that happens as you try to regroup and get your integrity back in order?

AD: I made my first film in 1970, which was seven years before the attack. Since then I always believed that the media is a tool for social change and that I can use film to try to correct whatever social problem that I might be passionate about. My feeling is that when I was attacked, my obsession to make a film about it was less about healing and more about correcting a social problem. Of the twenty years I spent researching the topic, who is to say how much was a healing process and how much was researching a topic that I was passionate about? I can say that most of my films, if not all of my films, I find a passion because I want to learn about the topic. I find a passionate to devote five years of fund raising, two years of production, and two years of post-production because I want to learn more about the topic. That is want keeps me going. How much of that passion is on a personal level? I think very much of it is.

CG: So, your approach to this film was no different than with any other topic.

AD: Right. The inspiration for the film came from a personal experience. But after that it became a film that I was working on, and that work took a lot of research. Granted, it took a lot of time for me to get to work on it. I knew immediately that I wanted to do a film on this. In 1982, a tried a few things that didn’t work out. In 1992 I did a half hour short for a TV serious on anti-gay hate crimes. I tried different approaches, but they never satisfied me because I didn’t feel they went to the core of the problem. They were more from the victims or activists point of view. They were more like Band-Aids to the problem rather than getting to the core of what was at the heart of the anti-gay violence.

CG: What did you find in the course of your research was at the heart of the anti-gay violence? Its very easy for people to say that its another extension of the scape-goating that occurs in society, or is there something fairly specific about it?

AD: There is nothing specific – I hope the film shows how complicated the issue really is, there is no one thing that we can point our finger to. In my twenty years of research, I found no clear pattern other than the violence. I know that many audiences are disappointed when they come to the film and walk out confused. They want to come out of the theatre saying "Yes, Pat Robertson, you are our enemy and we are going to attack." It is not as simple as that. Certainly, Pat Robertson is in the stew, but he is only part of the ingredients. It’s actually more convoluted that we want to believe. It is just so much easier if we have a clear cut enemy to attack it, but we don’t. That’s why I latched onto this idea of how to approach it and it really worked for me. I hope that this film starts the discussion on what it is that makes up this recipe of violence towards gay people, but I think that it just touches on it and that it’s just the beginning.

CG: Are these people [the gay-bashers] just simply acting out their frustrations, like the ticking bomb in the closet that just goes off and decides to blow up everything around them?

AD: I think that is one strand. I only have seven people in the film, which just covers seven stories. I think what you are suggesting may apply to one person. I constructed this film with a lot of breathing space and some-built in ambiguity. I want the audience to participate and question what they themselves are thinking in the auditorium. I want them to be not clear about some of the stories being told – there is no real truth because the victim dead and he is the only one who can tell us what really happened. I don’t want the words of these men to represent the truth. I want them to represent the story they want us to hear. In constructing the film, I wanted to have breathing space so that different audience members with their own perceptions would have different interpretations of what is being told here.

CG: One of the words that kept coming up in the interviews was the word "weakness." Every one of these killers seemed to emphasize that they felt that gay men were weaker than they were and thus an easier target. Does this come back to society’s perception of gay people in general?

AD: I that this is a generalization and I can see where the generalization comes from. It is the same generalization I have from other viewers saying that all cases come from child molestation. I think it depends on the viewer’s mind what the viewer is going to see as the prime cause for these crimes. Not all the seven crimes involved child molestation, but often I hear audience reactions of "everybody was molested as a child" But not all the perpetrators were molested as a child. Another reaction I often get is "every situation here dealt with sexual activity." Again, not all them of did. There are people who tune in on the religious aspects, but not every case deals with religion. It think it comes down the individual audience member what they key into, and that I find fascinating. As a film-maker I am very satisfied with the way the film came out because there are these many different layers of interpretation and the way I constructed this film allowed for this. It’s wonderful to have an audience discussion where there are so many different opinions about the same film.

CG: There were seven people in the film. How many people did you contact in pre-production and how many agreed to speak with you.

AD: We wrote letters to forty men. Twenty said yes. We visited ten with camera crews and two without cameras. Of the two we visited without cameras, one was very short with his answers and soft spoken. He would not have worked out in the film. The other was a little too pollyannaish. I felt that he was sincere in his repentance, but he was more the exception than the rule. I thought that he would provide the prefect structure for the film. When he was a kid, he and a few other kids threw a guy over a bridge. He went to reformatory school for a few years and then started lecturing on behalf of the police department on how terrible he was to prevent other kids from doing this. Great story. It has got resolution at the end, an uplifting message, and he came out better for it. It was too easy of a solution for too complicated of a problem. Many documentaries about the gay and lesbian community and the issues important to the community end up in a positive parade or uplifting rally, and that’s going to be the solution. Having been in the trenches for over three decades, I don’t buy it.

CG: What did the gay community think of you making this documentary. There must have been a few who said, "What are you doing? Why are you doing this? Why don’t you let sleeping dogs lie?"

AD: More than one, which is good because I don’t want to create something that just sits there and says, "Oh yeah, cool, that’s going to be the solution." I was criticized about taking the perpetrator’s point of view. Consider the parallel of agencies working on domestic violence in terms of providing help. Some agencies are providing help to the perpetrators in addition to the victims and people are saying "What are you doing?" Of course the victims need help, they need a support network. But if you don’t help the perpetrators, the victims are going to continually being beaten up. We need to go to the source of the problem and deal with it. We need to understand the source and not just say that they’re monsters, even if they are. If we just call them monsters, we don’t deal with the problem. What if we execute one of them? Then, what about the millions of others out there. That was the reason why I took this approach. I felt that it was time to go to the core, to go to the hellfire, and see what was there.

CG: Did you have a standard set of questions that you asked or did you allow the interviewees to direct the interview?

AD: The interview was shaped by the individual man. Whatever they offered me, I accepted and went along with it with my film in mind. There were certain things that I wanted to talk about; their upbringing, educational environment, and religious upbringing. If it didn’t happen to deal with their lives, we skipped it. There were two standard questions that I asked: "What did you think of the title?" and "Why did you do the interview?".

CG: Were there any aspects of their lives that they were uncomfortable discussing?

AD: Jay Johnson hesitated about his relations with white men. I knew that was part of his frustrations in terms of being a gay man, but I really wanted him to talk about the racial dynamics of the community in terms of his experience. He was willing but he hemmed and hawed. So I said "I think I understand what you saying because when I was dating I would go to bars and would want to meet white men also." I told him that I was gay to encourage him to feel comfortable that he could talk about the topic, because I too had that problem.

In terms of the other men, my sexual orientation never came up. I would have told them had they asked. This film was not about me. I did not want them to think that they had to answer my questions one way or the other based on who I was. This was time for them to talk. I didn’t want them to think that "I could provoke him by saying anti-gay stuff" or "I could please him by being sympathetic." I didn’t want them to be swayed one way or the other. However, I was always tempted at the end of each interview to say "by the way, did you know that Angie (my assistant – if you have any sense of gay garb you would know that she was dike) and I are gay?" It never got to that point because I felt that it would have violated the relationship – we were there as professional film-makers doing a story and that was our job.

CG: Did you have any fairly unpleasant moments during the interviews. I remember seeing one of them leaning towards you and saying "gays should deserve to get it," as if he thought were a straight man and would understand how legitimate his reaction was.

AD: It would make a great story if I told you that I was shaking in my boots. But I wasn’t. I put myself in such a place so that I was out there to do a job. If anything, I was elated by the quality of the interview, by the openness of the men to talk about the issues that I wanted them to talk about.

CG: They seemed very eager to talk about what had happened to them.

AD: It went from people like Jeffrey Swinford to Kenneth Jr. French and Jay Johnson. Swinford just looked at it as time away from the cell. I asked him why he wanted to do this. He said, "I never done it before, I was interested to see how people do it." French and Johnson both had very well publicized cases (French’s case was televised on Court TV), but refused all requests for interviews up to this point. They really wanted to talk to somebody and get the story out to the public.

CG: Maybe they thought that you were a more legitimate medium? You weren’t trying to exploit them or sandwich them in between ads.

AD: We told them our purpose and our approach. We explained it very clearly in our introduction letter that we wanted to talk to them and hear from them why they felt that they committed their crime. We were clear that we wanted to talk about the social and religious aspects of their lives and whatever they felt had influenced them in terms of their crime. We were explicit that we were not tabloid journalists and wanted to take a serious look at the issue of anti-gay violence. We were very up front and they responded accordingly.

CG: Going back to Jay Johnson, the idea of this closeted gay person who is terrified of being exposed and is killing gay men to hide his lifestyle. Do you have any comments to make about a gay-basher having an undercurrent of homosexuality in himself and, in acting out, is trying to kill the gay person within themselves?

AD: I think that was happening. He knows it, he was very clear about that. That is what is was trying to do. Talking about sensationalism, I want to be the one to talk to Cunanan.

CG: Actually, I was going to ask about the Versace/Cunanan connection…

AD: When the whole case came up, I was going to call my publicist and say, "Let’s jump in." In 48 Hours, Dan Rather talked about different aspects of the murder with different experts and I was asking, "Why aren’t we there?" This is exactly what I was trying to avoid. Whenever there are stories about gay people being murdered or beaten up, its always sensationalized – there is always the gory sexual HIV aspect of it all. When Dan Rather starting interviewing the psychologist about serial murder, they weren’t aware of how gay people are treated in this country and what the physiological repercussions of this treatment are. I’m not saying this is what Cunanan was going through, but there were no discussions of it and there should have been.

CG: It’s almost as if the gay aspect was suppressed as soon as the media found the serial murder angle.

AD: And then they found the HIV angle, which is totally bogus. I wanted to put out a call saying, "Cunanan, wherever you are, call me," but we’ll never know what was going on. It’s very disappointing in the same way as the Jenny Jones case, which was going on when we were doing production. Everyone said "You’ve got to get the footage in," but that it is not what we are doing here. We are not doing a sensational look at the murders. We are digging underneath the surface and saying "Why?," and asking the real questions. Why isn’t the Jeffrey Dahlmer case talked about? Because that’s not what we are about and I hope that is what people see in the film in terms of its value.

CG: You know what the next topic of discussion will be during the post-screenings: the Versace issue.

AD: I saved the clippings, but for a different reason – for the same reason that I clipped articles on other murders over the last twenty years: to try to understand what is underneath it all. What really works for me in the film is that there is no way that the media can treat it in a sensational manner. So far, in what has been written about it, you cannot avoid the larger social context in which these actions happen. You can’t avoid discussing them because that is what the film is about. For example, the state senator murdered by Jay Johnson, in a tabloid, that would have been the topic of discussion, but it’s hardly even mentioned in the film.

CG: It’s almost like Cunanan may never have been caught had he not killed Versace. I hate to sound cynical, but three people were killed before Versace and no-one cared and then suddenly he murders one of the most famous, openly gay, designers in the world and suddenly everyone cares.

AD: And that not just the FBI and local police, but is also the gay community. We are all victims of celebrity here. Even with Rock Hudson and AIDS, it’s the same thing.

CG: The idea that famous martyrs act as poster children for the whole community?

AD: What happens is that the early murders get linked to this playboy/gigolo thing. Many [gay] people say, "That’s not me, I don’t go picking up people like that so it doesn’t affect me." The thing with anti-gay violence in the film is that a couple of the cases have to do with picking up people in the park. Still, there is denial in the gay community that the park culture exists. The film doesn’t make a judgement on the park culture, but it says that violence can begin in this environments. Many people in the community think that "It won’t happen to me because I don’t go to the parks," as if that excuses you from being aware of it. As a community, we’ve been hit so much from so many directions that we need to see the light. We don’t want to deal with the problems, we don’t want to deal with the ugliness that society has placed upon us due to our sexual orientation, so we go for the fun stuff and try to put blinders on. But the problems are still there.

CG: Is there a contrast between the reception that Licensed to Kill has received in the mainstream media vs. the gay and lesbian community?

AD: On the surface, I haven’t noticed a difference. What I’ve noticed is that my bad reviews (which aren’t very many) came from Bay Area liberal publications. There were three bad reviews. I mean really nasty. I love criticism and every film is not for everybody, I understand that, but there are certain things that are just off the wall.

CG: What was their basic problem with the film?

AD: Their problem was that I did not follow the socialist pattern of analyzing the problem. I did not delve into the past issues as much as they wanted.

CG: From what I’ve read, gay bashing is a problem that transcends race, class, and gender.

AD: I think class issues are stereotypes anyway. I’ll give you an example. William Cross, the man who claims to have been molested as a child. You saw the fishing trophies. I thought, "What an upper-middle class kid, going out fishing, getting trophies, and spending time with athletics." That was my idea of Leave it to Beaver. But I hear other people saying, "He’s such a working class dude." Class is such a stereotyped image. Because I people that have southern accents in the film, immediately they are thought of as working class. And I ask, "What makes you think that he’s working class." The response is, "He lives in the South." It’s the perception thing. Many times, the interpretation of the film tells me more about the viewer than the film.

CG: You tried to talk with female perpetrators and they all refused?

AD: Not female perpetrators, killers of lesbians. They didn’t respond, or turned us down.

CG:. How much film did you shoot over, what was it, six years of production?

AD: Twenty years of research and development. As per production, we were only on the road for two weeks. I shot a total of sixteen or seventeen hours of interviews which were edited down to eighty minutes.

CG: The post-production must have been a nightmare.

AD: No. I think that it was because after twenty years of thinking about it, I just knew what I wanted to do. It’s scary; normally you have different versions, you edit, re-edit, and re-edit. But the very first time I put together the archival material, the structure was just there. If you look at that and then look at the finished product, it’s a different film in many ways, but it’s the same film in terms of its core – structure and stories that are told.

CG: How difficult was it to raise funding for the project?

AD: It was no more difficult than any other film I’ve done. The money came from foundations that were supportive of the issue. I focused the fundraising towards the issue and the funding came from some sources that I found to be very interesting, like the Hugh Hefner Foundation and the Unitarian Universalist Church. I really thought about approaching churches for this issue. I felt that they had to be a part of it. And this one came through.

CG: What is your next project?

AD: This one’s not done. For me, a film is only half done when I finish editing. The other half is creating an audience. The audience has to be nurtured and talked to. It has to be created. I don’t want this film to just get distributed in the normal kind of way. I want to make sure that its gets done my way. Not to say it’s the best way, but, for me, getting people to read about the film is almost as important as getting people to see the film, to counter the way anti-gay violence is traditionally played in the media.

CG: Where does your next tour take you?

AD: The tour that I really want to talk about is the Texas tour. Ever since I started distributing the film in January, I’ve focused on Texas. October 26 is the anniversary of the murder of Thanh Nguyen (who was murdered by Corey Burley) and there are two murders in my film from Texas. There is also a series of murders of gays over the past five years in Texas that hit the national press – articles in USA Today, New York Times, and Vanity Fair and features on Donahue and PrimeTime. So, I’m doing a state-wide tour in October: we’ve lined up screenings in seven different cities, Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, and are trying to get a screening in Tyler, Texas.

Best of luck, Arthur.

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