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The Blow Job That Made Movie History

Two S.F. filmmakers on why Linda Lovelace would have seen a little bit of herself in Kim Kardashian.

Jeffrey Friedman (left) and Rob Epstein in their Arkansas Street office.
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Friedman (left) and Epstein in their editing studio, watching their new film.
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A photo of Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace and Peter Sarsgaard as Lovelace's controlling husband, Chuck Traynor.
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Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein, arguably San Francisco’s most decorated filmmaking team, recently had their first taste of a certain kind of fame. Lovelace, their Rashomon-like account of the filming of 1972’s X-rated blockbuster Deep Throat, was making a stop on the festival circuit in Berlin. “We were walking the red carpet, and people were screaming our names!” Epstein marvels. “They had color head shots of us—I had no idea where they got them— and they were asking for our autographs. It was surreal!” Never mind that the two men—whose work includes such seminal gay-themed documentaries as The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet, and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt—weren’t sure why the Germans recognized them. After three decades of toiling mostly behind the scenes, getting the star treatment was undeniably fun. “But some people were asking for 12 [autographs],” says Friedman, who turns 62 this month, “and we were wondering what on earth they were going to do with them!”

Another person who might have appreciated the attention was Linda Lovelace, the naïve young star of Deep Throat (played by Amanda Seyfried, the Mamma Mia and Les Misérables ingenue), whose complicated story is at the heart of the duo’s new film (opening August 9). “She was an average young woman who found herself internationally famous at age 22 for doing a sex act,” says Epstein, 58, a New Jersey native who arrived in San Francisco on a Green Tortoise bus (per Wikipedia) in the mid-1970s and almost immediately began making documentaries. “She was the first reality star, and if she’d lived [she died after a car crash in 2002], she’d probably be on Dancing with the Stars.” Lovelace initially embraced her role as spokeswoman for the sexual revolution. Later, though, she recanted that cheerful version of her porn career, claiming that she had been brutalized by her then husband, Chuck Traynor (played in Lovelace by Peter Sarsgaard, in fine creep form). “I think the film will provoke conversation,” Epstein says, “about Linda’s complicity, about the degree of domestic violence in her life.”

Lovelace represents a bit of a shift for Epstein and for Friedman, a film editor by training whose early credits include Raging Bull. They met on The Times of Harvey Milk (Epstein directed, Friedman consulted) and formed their production company, Telling Pictures, in 1987 (they are creative but not romantic partners). While they’ve gained respect—and two Oscars, five Emmys, and three Peabodys— for their documentary projects, they’re relishing the new freedom that comes with telling scripted stories, like 2010’s Howl, with James Franco as a young Allen Ginsberg. They don’t seem to mind the challenges that accompany this new territory, such as Lovelace’s crazy-compressed shooting schedule: a mere 25 days. “Howl was only 14 days,” Friedman says, “so this felt kind of luxurious.” Earlier this spring, we talked with the filmmakers in their loftlike offices in lower Potrero Hill, surrounded by a quarter century’s worth of comfortable clutter—and a shelf full of gleaming gold statues.

Q: It occurs to me that Lovelace might be your first nongay feature film. Is that really true?
A: Rob Epstein: [Blank look] Uh, I guess it is! We just don’t even think in those terms. I know that sounds disingenuous at best, but it’s true.

Why branch out with Linda Lovelace, of all people?
Jeffrey Friedman: We’re fascinated by historical figures—people who impacted the culture. Linda represented a very specific moment in our culture, when we were figuring out our sexuality. She was very much a part of that and, ultimately, a victim of it. She came out the other end through feminism. It’s also a story of somebody standing up for who she is and coming out to the world. She was trying to define herself on her own terms, and that’s something we can relate to.

First she was famous for her talents at giving oral sex, and then she was famous for being famous.
RE: Right, and she resented it when that didn’t work anymore. She was very bitter about the fact that other people were still cashing in on her name when she couldn’t anymore. We struggled with an approach for a while, because we didn’t want to write something else about her that was exploitative. We wanted to do right by Linda.

So, confession time: When did you first see Deep Throat? What did you think?
RE: I saw it in college, at a midnight show. I thought it was campy, and I probably didn’t watch the whole thing—I was probably too stoned. It’s a pretty bad film, but what it did that hadn’t been done before in porn was to have the semblance of a narrative. And the plot was this woman trying to find sexual gratification, which in some sense was a feminist message, though undermined by the fact that her means of finding gratification was just to pleasure men. It’s a bit of a paradox.
JF: I didn’t watch it until we started thinking about making this film. It’s a bizarre artifact—the plot that they string together between sex scenes is almost old-school burlesque routines. It’s very bizarre to jump from that to hardcore sex, but that is what made it palatable to audiences of the time. And, of course, it had a star who is not a typical porn actress in her looks or demeanor. Linda was very natural—she really was like the girl next door.

It’s stunning to know that Deep Throat was one of the highest-grossing independent films of all time.
RE: It made $600 million, and Linda was paid $1,250—which she never got. Her husband, Chuck [Traynor], took it all.

Why did she make the movie? Was she too innocent at the time to say no? Did her Svengali-like husband make her do it?
JF: She was young, from a religious family. So yes, it’s quite possible that she didn’t know what she was getting into. She was hoping that it would become a stepping-stone to a legitimate acting career.
RE: It was an escape for her, a door opening to another world. For young working-class women at that time, options were very limited, and this seemed like a viable option in terms of finding another life. But how much of her doing porn was of her own volition cannot be known.
JF: We tell the story in a couple of different ways, based on the way that she told it over the years. The first telling was the fun telling. It was glamorous, and everyone was having a good time. Then we show the dark side. She actually wrote four memoirs. The first two were exploitation books that we assume Chuck [really] wrote. Then, when she got out of the relationship and out of porn, she wrote an autobiography with a Newsday reporter.
RE: For that book, they made her take a polygraph test.