Robert Scheer SI Podcast SI: Democracy & Media

Sarah Pillsbury: The Struggle of Making a Film About AIDS in the 1990s

Robert Scheer speaks with the producer of many films including "Desperately Seeking Susan" and the HBO film about the AIDS crisis, "And the Band Played On."
The film producer discusses her career in entertainment and her Los Angeles foundation.

Sarah Pillsbury has produced many films including Desperately Seeking Susan and the HBO film about the AIDS crisis, And the Band Played On. She is also a founder of Liberty Hill, a foundation that supports grassroots community organizing. Pillsbury recounts what inspired the two very different career paths she has taken. She says she thought making Desperately Seeking Susan in the 1980s would quickly lead to many more female-helmed films — which did not pan out, and she discusses the struggle making a film about AIDS in the early 1990s.

Photo by Christopher Ho


Sarah Pillsbury – filmmaker and community organizer – @libertyhill

Robert Scheer

Joshua ScheerRebecca Mooney

RS: Welcome to Scheer Intelligence. My guest today is Sarah Pillsbury. Thanks for joining us.

SP: Well, thank you, Bob.

RS: You know, I read an article–you’re from Minnesota originally, and I read an article saying that you admit to having been bought with a brand name. You actually are a Pillsbury Doughboy person, right? 

SP: Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons I ended up out here. Like my siblings, you know, wanting to get out from under the shade of the family tree.

RS: Yeah, but you love Minnesota–

SP: I love Minnesota, and I’m actually looking to go back there and do some teaching part time. I just love Minnesota.

RS: And you went back and did some voter registration–

SP: Yeah, I went back there both to raise money for my film company–I was, I’d won an Oscar for a dramatic short, and knew at least enough that just trying to go and make a feature wasn’t a good idea, but I should start a company. So with the name Pillsbury, being Sally and George’s daughter, I got a lot of meetings, and eventually enough cash to start a company. And then I went back, and working with the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, I helped my brother start Nonprofit Vote, which is the sort of largest, most respected organization providing nonpartisan but, you know, critical materials to its nonprofits to help them engage their clients and communities.

RS: OK, let me just set the stage here. What I’m trying to do with these podcasts is interview what I call American originals. You know, we got this crazy-quilt of culture and religion and background and so forth, and yet we produce an amazing array of interesting, idiosyncratic people. And you come out of kind of what could be considered at least a Midwestern ruling-class family, and then you went off to Yale; you studied movie-making, you studied Africa. And I’ve known you for years. You went on to have a very successful career in the film industry; I mean, I remember when I first arrived in L.A., soon after, Desperately Seeking Susan with Madonna was a very much talked-about film; you’ve made others with your partner, Midge Sanford, your film partner. And so you really had the American dream; you were, you know, born to an old family and then you came out here, the new industry of movies and so forth, and you conquered that world. You did very well, you won an Oscar for a short and so forth; you’ve been nominated for things; you won an Emmy for a very important movie, And the Band Played on, which was really the story of AIDS based on Randy Shilts’s book. Which I happened to watch again last night, and I just think it’s marvelous filmmaking, and it’s a story that I covered for the L.A. Times, the original response to AIDS and the indifference of Reagan and all sorts of other people to deal with the crisis, and they couldn’t even get an electron microscope in at the CDC and everything. And you captured that whole tension, the whole issue, issues involved with it. And in addition, then, you didn’t just stop with this Hollywood business, but you began, and were one of the original cosponsors of, what I consider to be one of the best local organizing do-gooder charity operations, Liberty Hill. And what is terrific about it, and really relevant now–I want to talk about your film life, and I want to talk about integrity in the world of Hollywood–but what is great about Liberty Hill at a time when we’re arguing about gentrification, we’re talking about the life of the cities, we have this massive homeless population–you are committed to raising money and supporting community organizers within Los Angeles; you didn’t become supranational, or that sort of thing. And it had a lot to do with nitty-gritty organizing, small–do I have that correct?

SP: Yeah. I mean, we’re operating on the principle that real change happens from the ground up–I mean, obviously, legislation can be extremely important but it doesn’t mean a thing, you know, if there aren’t people on the ground making sure, well, first of all helping get that legislation passed. You know, remember the great FDR line where someone came in, people came in with a proposal and he said, “Great idea. Now make me do it.” So Liberty Hill, you know, supports those people that make them do it, and then holds elected officials accountable to follow through and make sure that whatever regulation or law that’s in effect is also enforced.

RS: You know, there’s an interesting quote, because I interpreted it that one of the people who made him do it was Eleanor Roosevelt, his wife.

SP: Yeah.

RS: And one of the things that happened, there was a terrific one-woman play I saw recently about the woman that Eleanor Roosevelt was supposed to be, rumored to be having an affair with, or was in love with. And the interesting thing is, she was a social worker, and Eleanor Roosevelt got her husband to send this woman around the country to see how the social welfare stuff that was done in response to the Great Depression was really working in different communities. And recognizing it could all be lost between Washington and Seattle, or some other place.

SP: Well, it’s very important to not only see what’s happening in the grassroots, but also understand what’s happening locally. We were asked to expand, and instead helped San Diego, some people in San Diego start their own foundations; same with Santa Barbara. It’s really important. I mean, statewide efforts are obviously important, but in a state like California I think it was particularly critical that we had an urban strategy. You remember the day, back, we used to say that we only funded in the 213 area code [Laughs]. But there’s also, I mean we had a lot of learning. For example, trying to put together our first community funding board. We had trouble finding African American activists. Now, there was one good reason for that; it’s because many of them had been killed, because the Panthers had been really squashed by the LAPD. But the other reason was that we weren’t going to the churches. And we didn’t understand the culture. And now, fortunately, for example, we work closely with black philanthropists with Uplifting Change, because so many of them were giving so much to their church, which is great; but we wanted them to join with us in terms of the efforts of black Angelenos who are really making a difference, like with our Brothers, Sons, Selves coalition.

RS: You know, I’m going to stick with this. I was going to go first to the movies and movies that you worked on, and Hollywood stories, and then end up with Liberty Hill. But as long as we’re there, I want to, I’m trying to get a guest in, I think I’ll have her in a few weeks, Brenda Shockley, who is now working with the mayor on homeless problems.

SP: Right.

RS: And she’s been active in the community for–

SP: So Brenda was probably around, and we didn’t find Brenda. You know? We found Brenda later, but there were a lot of people who it took a while to find. And I can’t claim to be, you know, a humble person, but I have to give credit more to Mary Jo von Mach, our first E.D., as well as Michele Prichard, who followed her, who had a really kind of quiet, subtle way of making things work. And the Irvine Foundation, I forget who was running it at the time, said about Michele, you know, it’s not that Liberty Hill has become more mainstream; it’s that Michele Prichard has moved the stream.

RS: Wow.

SP: Basically in ‘92, you know, that’s when we really started to get people’s attention, because you know, wow–the Watts Riots, how long ago had that been? What were people doing? And suddenly ‘92 the, you know, whatever you want to call it–uprising, civil unrest, riots, you know, no one was funding there. But we were. So we, that’s when we really grew and when we got money, both from Comic Relief and also started working in conjunction with the other foundations, which we do, you know, very much; we’re very strong partners with Weintraub and with the California Endowment.

RS: OK. So let me now throw cold water on this.

SP: Yeah.

RS: Because I live downtown, and I’ve lived there for, you know, 15 years or so. Actually went there early seventies, when there wasn’t much of a downtown Los Angeles. And now my life is centered down there, and I teach at USC, which is also, as opposed to UCLA, is plugged into more of the reality of the inner city. And I find it incredibly depressing. And some of these old organizations are still there; the Weintraub Foundation, and the Midnight Shelter, and they’re doing good work, they’re taking care of people. But I think in my time here, going back to 1976 when I first went to work for the L.A. Times, I’ve never seen the poverty that we have now in Los Angeles.

SP: Well it’s just, it’s–I mean, certainly, we started Liberty Hill 40 years ago, and I mean, you know, I say we joke, but it’s obviously not funny–you know, we thought we were going to change the world by now, right? We didn’t think that there would be this increasing divide between the rich and the poor. Ah, and you know, it speaks to the excitement of this city that so many people want to live here, but we don’t have enough housing for people. And we have too many fights about things that really are symptomatic as opposed to what our real problems are. So, like, this fight that’s going on in Boyle Heights about a coffee shop that’s going up, because of gentrification; I don’t always agree with Steve Lopez, but things change. Things change, you know? People have to realize that this is a, that’s one of the exciting things about Los Angeles, is it changes all the time. One of the reasons I’m still so involved with Liberty Hill is I think we try to be responsive. But I think that Weingart, for example; you may have a feeling about them based on the fact that they were more a service-oriented foundation before, but with Fred Ali they have become certainly much more of an advocacy organization, and are really empowering their grantees. That you know, it’s just–we used to say, and I-we’ve kind of dropped our old motto of “Change, not Charity,” because we’ve come to see that social services are often the best way to reach people. That unless people have a place to live, and have some food in their stomach, they can’t entertain notions of social and economic justice; their lives are just hard, and they’re trying to get from day to day. And so you really, you know, we value that though we aren’t among those that fund social service, we really recognize the value of those organizations to bring people together and to get them across the threshold into civic engagement.

RS: Yeah, and there’s no question groups like Chrysalis Foundation and others that get people clean clothes and help them prepare resumes, and get jobs, and–for decades now have done very good work.

SP: I think the upsetting thing, though, on this issue, Bob, is the fact that so many people just don’t understand that the city of L.A. is like a piece of Swiss cheese laid down on top of the county. You know, and that it’s–I just remember getting frustrated when people were talking about all the wonderful things happening in San Francisco; well, that’s a city and a county that’s, you know, contiguous. And it’s different when you’re operating there. But now I feel like the city and the county are really working together to solve these problems. And I think we’re going to see some real excitement, and I think that we’re very happy now that Liberty Hill has grown, that back then we used to be really clear–you know, we’ve got a mission, we share your mission but we don’t have an agenda. Now that we’re an older foundation, we’re working more shoulder-to-shoulder with activists who, with campaigns, we share the agenda; it’s not that it’s our agenda, but.

RS: So let me trace your trajectory now, which I’m going to sort of do in reverse order. You had this privileged background; you went to Yale; you decided to study filmmaking. And this was the early seventies, right?

SP: Yeah, well, what happened is I actually didn’t know what I was doing. I was one of those women blindsided by feminism; I didn’t really have any, you know, particular ambition. And the beginning of my sophomore year, paging through the course catalog, I came across African History. And who knows? I mean, part of me thinks I grew up in the whitest place on Earth, and I was sort of attracted to a place where most people were black. Maybe I was attracted because when I was a little kid, you know, I remembered Ghana becoming–and Kenya becoming independent. And what kid in America doesn’t know the Fourth of July and independence from a colonial power? So there was something that must have sparked my imagination, but I went to Kenya and I found out that the Third World was a lot different than I thought. But one of the things that happened, it sounds silly, but the only thing I really missed about being in the United States was going to the movies. And then you marry that with the fact that, of course, I was of the age when I knew everything, and I was convinced I would come back and make documentaries, you know, telling people about the real United States, and telling people about the real Africa. Believe it or not, I was at, like, probably some Roger Corman movie, and then ran a–I swear to God, they ran a short beforehand about Sam Yorty. And there I am in Nairobi, and I’m watching–

RS: He’s the former mayor of Los Angeles.

SP: The former mayor, and I’m watching this, and I didn’t know a lot about Los Angeles, but I knew that this was just some piece of publicity that somehow had gotten into the distribution system and had landed in this, you know, maybe even in a drive-in in Nairobi. And you know, one of the things I remember being excited about was, you know, that Tom Bradley was rising here in L.A. And I thought, you know, things hadn’t changed in America; we thought, you know, we were all involved in what we thought was a revolution, and that didn’t happen. I mean, as Michele Prichard would say, the Reagan revolution happened, but not the revolution we thought about. And so what was going on, and I felt very strongly, don’t ask me what this essay’s about, but I read an essay that said L.A. was on the edge of history, and in my, you know, that youthful sense, I thought: I want to live on the edge of history. And I have. I came out here and, working with Liberty Hill, you know, I feel like I’ve had a front-row seat–well, not exactly front row. I guess this is being maybe a little modest, but I say that what I did is I stuck around and I stayed out of the way, because Liberty Hill just happened to attract–there wasn’t people funding the stuff we were doing, and it attracted a lot of those people. But back to your question. So I got interested in film, and I really came out here, really, to do the film. But my brother George had started Haymarket; Adam Hochschild, who started Mother Jones, knew a few, knew Win McCormack and a little gaggle of people came together. And there was just a lot of interest in our doing this, and fortunately Mary Jo von Mach was here, because I did not want to spend all of my time starting this foundation, and yet even in Los Angeles, having a name like Pillsbury, I was a target. So the foundation, to some extent, was set up so donors could feel like they were doing something responsible, you know, and then–I gave it the office. [Laughs] I gave to Liberty Hill. But I also really loved movies, and finally dropped, you know, decided maybe I could be pretty politically correct without doing documentaries. Because at the end of the day, I just loved telling stories.

RS: [omission] I’m speaking to Sarah Pillsbury, and where we broke the conversation was, OK, we’ve gone through–I don’t want to cheapen it by saying “do-gooder” work, but Liberty Hill, that I think of your connection with it, has really been, for my money, the most impressive local funding, organizing activity that I know of in the country. I just, I’m sure there are other examples; I don’t know about them. But it really has involved supporting people doing nitty-gritty work and actually having results. What makes it even more interesting, again, for this American originals series–you came from Minnesota, you’d been at an elite school but you’d studied about Africa, you’d studied about filmmaking after Yale. And when you came out here, you had an incredible, incredibly successful streak–that’s how I first encountered you–in this incredibly corrupting, tough business of movie-making. And you were making movies that one thought didn’t have that much of a chance. And you and your partner, and you formed a company and had remarkable success. And could you take us through–was Desperately Seeking Susan the first big–?

SP: That was our first big movie. And it was not an overtly political film, but for example, one time as we were kind of knocking around the plot and just trying to give it sort of more a sort of stronger trajectory, some–there happened to be, it was a rare occurrence, a man in the room. Because most of the people involved with making that movie were women. And he suggested a male character who would help, and we all just turned at him and said: This is not a movie where women are saved by a man. In fact, it’s actually a very unusual construct; we didn’t realize this at the time, it’s sort of one of these things where film studies comes in and tells you what you’ve done. Which is that, you know, All About Eve, for example, is an example of a movie like Desperately Seeking, where a woman objectifies another woman. We also made a movie later called–

RS: You should explain to people, it’s–

SP: Well, basically, there’s a bored housewife who doesn’t quite know how bored she is, except for she’d probably be on Twitter or Facebook or something, but back then, she was reading the classifieds. And she would read about this exciting woman named Susan, and hence the title Desperately Seeking Susan. And one day she decides to go when Susan is going to meet with her boyfriend, and a case of mistaken identity ensues, and she gets on an adventure that changes her life. And you know, it’s one of those things where the movie has really had legs–

RS: Well, it’s a huge cult film. 

SP: –partly because, you know, we didn’t–we thought there’d be just, like, a whole bunch of feminist comedies after that movie. [Laughs] But also Susan Seidelman and our wonderful crew just really captured the eighties in a super fun way. 

RS: How did you get Madonna involved?

SP: Wow–I didn’t even know who she was. You know, if it was up to me we might have cast Ellen Barkin, who was a spectacular actress. But Susan Seidelman knew her because she was in New York, and then Madonna was going around to clubs with her boombox, and playing. And you know, she did a really good screen test. I mean, she screen tested, and she just really had this kind of punk Mae West thing going on, that was just–she was really exciting. And she played, you know, well off of Rosanna Arquette, who was really in our mind the top young actress at that time. Anyway, we just –it was not always a lot of fun to make, but in retrospect [Laughs], it became a lot of fun as it progressed. Because we all were able to, you know, [be] happy with the results and to forgive each other for the things we said to each other at different times, and recognize that you know, movies don’t always have to be a great, big happy family to get it done.

RS: Yeah. Well, that’s how I first heard about you, and I thought, wow. You know, this is really, to break into this movie, and commercial movie world–I mean, that was not your intention, but you certainly became a prominent figure in the Hollywood film industry. That’s, when I was working at the L.A. Times that’s how I learned about you. And you made it a whole series of movies. And we’re going to run out of time, but as I said at the beginning, I watched And the Band Played On, which is a really definitive story of the AIDS crisis. 

SP: Well, we were very lucky there. Because we had, based both on Desperately Seeking Susan and then River’s Edge and Eight Men Out, and other things, we were talking with HBO, wanted to do some work with them, and then suddenly got a phone call. And interestingly enough, it was on December 1st, the Day Without Art. They were two weeks into shooting–

RS: Of what year?

SP: Day Without Art. This would have been–gosh, I think it was ‘91.

RS: Yeah, so it’s actually a decade after the AIDS crisis first hits.

SP: Yeah. But it was, but still, when that movie aired–I mean, I hadn’t done television before. I talked to friends in television the next morning, and to think that more people saw that movie than had probably seen all of our other movies at any time. But so many people didn’t know anything, didn’t know what that movie told them about AIDS. And you know, HBO took a lot of flak about their being homophobic. And I’m not saying that some people weren’t, but the fact is is that we had to cut some stuff out of that movie that we didn’t want to cut out, but in the end of the day, television’s different than movies, and you can’t have them flip the channel. We couldn’t have them flip the channel and say, man, they’re gay, they screw around, they deserve to die. So we cut out, you know, some stuff about, there was a theory that poppers caused AIDS. So we had to lay–and that was Randy Shilts who wanted to do it just as much as anybody else, because he wanted that message to get out. 

RS: OK, but we should explain. The basic book–I mean, the book was written by Randy Shilts, who himself died from AIDS. And I knew him; he was a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, an incredible writer. He was really the person who did more to develop an understanding about AIDS and the human cost of this crisis. And the book is–

SP: The book is encyclopedic. And we did not cover and did not go into the whole New York story, which is covered quite beautifully in the documentary How to Survive a Plague. But those, you know, the ACT UP people–we knew that they were going to be–so we kept our story more with the CDC and with the San Francisco people. And Roger Spottiswoode just managed to attract an extraordinary cast. I’m just going to shoot myself, I can’t remember the writer. But it was just a beautifully done film. But Roger really–it’s hard to convey that stuff. He made those CDC people just talk like they were back in a forties movie [snaps fingers] to just keep the–to keep it, because that stuff could be deadly. But it really, it plays, to me it plays sort of like a medical thriller. And a political thriller that really lets, really brings across the pain of, you know, here are these people, and they’re finally coming out; they finally think they can be themselves, and then they’re told you can’t go to bath houses. That’s bad enough, but then to realize that they’ve got a whole government that doesn’t care whether they live or die. And Torie Osborn, who was one of our executive directors, remembers so well just how politicized the LGBT community became. You know, and it’s one of those things, a lot of people were activists–they didn’t want to be activists! They wanted to live their lives! You know? They wanted to just go to the park. But life, suddenly you’re in the maelstrom, and you have to go to the front lines. And that’s what that community did.

RS: Well, that’s why I’m so high on this movie. Because I was covering AIDS for the L.A. Times at that time. And you know, people forget; there’s one issue that we’ve made very rapid progress on, and it’s the treatment of gays. We haven’t solved the problem, but we know the Civil Rights Movement has made a rapid advance in social acceptance and improvement. But I remember at the time, there were maybe one or two people inside the whole L.A. Times who would identify as gay. And you know there was an estrangement. When I went out to cover AIDS Project L.A., and I would write about it and I would go down to the CDC, there wasn’t an interest in the building. The L.A. Times, you know, once they were convinced that it was not going to cross over, that it was just going to be people on drugs and just–you know, to use that phrase–and people who were gay, then the coverage changed. It wasn’t until Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and–

SP: Well, the thing about that movement, if you think about it, is that you know, you don’t just suddenly find out that your brother is black. Right? Because your brother isn’t black, because you’re a white guy. But the LGBT community lives in every house, in every family, in every community. You know, they are not segregated in that way. And so, my parents were very liberal Republicans, and they took after their old friend George Bush, the first. When he started to be anti-gay, he said: You do not know who, you do not know who your supporters are, and you do not know what their lives are like. And my sister is a lesbian, and my uncle’s son was gay, and they hosted this–like imagine the California club, they hosted this big event for all of the executive directors of all the LGBT organizations in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. It was a friend raiser. You know, but just to get–those kind of things, I think, happened all over the country. That’s what we hope people can feel about everybody. I mean, I like to think that even in this big city, and in this whole world, that we can think of ourselves as living in a small town. And that when you see someone who you don’t know, you go, well, maybe he’s the nephew of that teacher you had in second grade. That maybe to think of all the people that you run into anywhere, think of it as that, maybe just that one degree of separation. You know? And anyway, I think that that would, that we would go a long way if we could see people like that.

RS: That’s it for Scheer Intelligence. But I want to thank our guest, Sarah Pillsbury, for having been able to move into two worlds that don’t seem to have much in contact: Hollywood, and you’ve been incredibly successful not just commercially, but you’ve taken really complex themes and dealt with them brilliantly as a producer. And by the way, one of the things about And the Band Played On is how many famous actors volunteered, or what, cooperated to play roles in this film, which was a statement in itself. And at the same time, you’ve devoted a great deal of energy through Liberty Hill Foundation to helping the totally underrepresented and uncovered community here in Los Angeles.

SP: Yeah, well, to he who much is given. And the fact is is that, you know, you grow up–growing up as a Pillsbury, the truth is, I like to give myself the credit that I was born on third base but I ran to home, OK? But who thinks they can do something like start a foundation? You know, you have to be very–you have to have been around people who did big things, you know, to think that you can do such good things. 

RS: And you did big things. So I want to thank you, Sarah Pillsbury, and I want to thank our producers, Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney, and our engineers here at KCRW, Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. Listen again next week.