Exclusive Q&A with “Killing Patient Zero” Director Laurie Lynd

Gaétan Dugas, the Canadian flight attendant was dubbed “Patient Zero” in Randy Shilts groundbreaking book on the AIDS Epidemic, And the Band Played On In her engaging documentary, director Laurie Lynd (Schitt’s Creek; Breakfast with Scot, Frameline34) explodes the myth of the man who brought AIDS to America. Ironically, Gaétan  went out of his way to help CDC researchers solve the riddle of the disease that wasn’t wasn’t yet called AIDS. Lynd expertly delves into the most terrifying time in Queer History and emerges with a terrific documentary that is part loving portrait of this vilified man, part health crisis procedural, and part archeological dig.

Gary Carnivele conducted the interview with Director Laurie Lynd via email.

Gary Carnivele: Congratulations on the film and having it shown as part of Frameline.  It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in years and such an important story about Gaetan Dugas and how he became known as AIDS Patient Zero.

Laurie Lynd: Thank you so much for your kind words about the film – they mean a lot.

GC: To begin with, what prompted you to create the film? 

LL: The idea for the film came from my producer, Corey Russell, who optioned Richard McKay’s terrific book, Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic.  When Corey approached me about this material, I was thrilled by the idea of clearing Gaétan Dugas’ name, and also — to revisit And the Band Played On: a book that had a tremendous impact on me when I first read it in the late 1980’s.

I also wanted to make this film because of having lived through the times it depicts, having experienced some (though mercifully not the worst) of the horrors of the AIDS years, and because I have long wanted to mark the costs of homophobia on my generation of queer men and women. 

I was first made aware of Gaétan Dugas, the so-called ‘Patient Zero,’ when I read Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played Onin the late 1980’s, after I’d moved back to Toronto.  Prior to that, I had lived in New York City, from 1982-1986, i.e. at the height of the worst of the AIDS years, and even though I went to fundraisers at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), I think I had blinkers on for much of that time. It was reading Shilts’ (mostly) masterful book that fully woke me up to the prejudice and hatred that was inhibiting greater, quicker progress on the treatment of AIDS. It helped to inspire me to make one of my first short films, RSVP, in 1990.

And, of course, it was in reading Shilts’ book that I first encountered Gaétan Dugas/aka ‘Patient Zero.’ I freely admit now that when I first read the book, I totally bought into the ‘Patient Zero’ story and Shilts’ version of Dugas. 

With hindsight, I recognize that my reaction was in no small part due to my as yet unacknowledged internalized homophobia, as well as Shilts’ persuasive (and subtly, unintentionally, homophobic) writing, in which we can clearly see that he created ‘good’ ‘respectable’ gays vs. ‘bad,’ prodigiously sexual gays, i.e. Dugas. 

I don’t believe Shilts’ version of Gaétan Dugas as he is portrayed in the book – but that was based on what Shilts knew at the time. Had Shilts written the book today, I think he would have written Dugas very differently. 

I understand Shilts and Michael Denneny’s “doing the wrong thing for the right reason” – and yes, using the Patient Zero myth to promote Band destroyed one man’s legacy and perpetuated the stereotype of gay men as careless, promiscuous, hedonists, but I believe that that PR stunt propelled And the Band Played On to the bestseller lists, where it belonged, where it needed to be to help wake North America up to the cost of the homophobia of the Reagan administration. 

Internalized homophobia has been a key theme for me as a filmmaker, which I’ve been able to explore in three films so far: my short, The Fairy Who Didn’t Want To Be a Fairy Anymore, the feature, Breakfast with Scot, and of course, now, in Killing Patient Zero.

I had the great good fortune to meet and work with John Greyson in 1991, when I produced his short film, The Making of ‘Monsters’ at the Canadian Film Centre (CFC). Knowing John and then, of course, seeing his incredible 1993 film, Zero Patience, totally woke me up to the ridiculousness of the whole ‘Patient Zero’ story and to the homophobia behind the need to assign blame for this disease.

GC: For me, the documentary is most importantly a portrait of Gaeton and his willingness to be interviewed and studied in those early days of the epidemic when so many were understandably weary to work with health officials.  Tell us about Gaeton and what you learned about him that surprised you.

LL: I think the most important thing I learned about Gaétan was his kindness – I heard story after story about his kindness and consideration as a friend – which helped to dispel the version of him created by Randy Shilts in Band.

GC: The other aspect of the film is this detailed procedural that shows the audience how city health officials went about contact tracing and other scientific methods to understand how AIDS was experiencing such rapid spread in those early days.  What was the extent of your research and how did it help shape the structure of the film?

LL: In so many ways, my primary research was done for me by Richard McKay’s wonderful book, on which the film is based: Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic. It was also essential for me to re-read (and re-read) And the Band Played On. And I was greatly helped by my archival researcher as well. In so many ways, though, the biggest task was researching and choosing whom to interview – I remember the moment when I thought, why not ask Fran Lebowitz? She might say yes, and to my ever-lasting delight, she did!

GC: You and your team do an expert job of setting the stage that truly brings the audience right back there decades ago when the LGBT Community was at the onset of what would prove to be our biggest challenge.  Tell us about some of the folks who you looked to help you put us smack dab in the middle of what was a terrifying and tumultuous time.

LL: In many ways, I didn’t need to look further than my own experience: having been out as a gay man from around 1978 onwards, I witnessed first hand those heady times – and it was essential for me to give a contemporary audience both a sense of what that was like – and why it was important. It’s so easy for people to judge the so-called promiscuity of those days, but they forget that this was the first time in history, the 1970’s, when gay men could finally have sexual relationships without fear of society’s damnation (for the most part, or at least with less fear than we had in the past). We were barely a decade into the gay liberation movement when AIDS hit.

GC: The attention to detail in “Killing Patient Zero” is stunning and really delves into the complicated situations that surrounded Gaetan, specifically the research, writing and publication of Randy Shilts’ “And the Band Played.”  It was the first book written about the AIDS Crisis and while so much about the book is important, for many there are issues about the book and the exposure of Gaetan that almost mute the book’s impact.  How did you go about presenting all sides in such an effective manner?

LL: First, thank you for appreciating what I was trying to do: to present all sides of this story. My motto for this film was (and is) “I’m not blaming anyone.” It was so important to me that Randy Shilts not emerge as the villain of the piece – yes, it was a terrible thing that was done to Gaétan’s posthumous reputation, and I’m so glad I’ve been able to help correct that damage; but Randy’s work, And the Band Played On is a brilliant book that had a huge impact on mainstream awareness of AIDS. 

And of course, similarly, I did not want to blame Gaétan for his continued sexual activity in the face of the growing epidemic. Gaétan died before the HIV virus had been discovered! Doctors had been trying to ‘cure’ us of our homosexuality for decades and decades – why would we believe them now, when we finally have a chance to have unfettered sexual lives? 

I think documentary filmmakers have a unique opportunity to educate their audience. I believe tough, challenging information can more easily be digested when it’s served up in a compelling, entertaining way. 

It’s for that reason that I also feel one has a moral obligation to be as truthful and accurate as possible when presenting true stories – and not to distort an interview subject’s words, which is so easy to do if one were to go down that rabbit hole. 

GC: It is wonderful that you were able to speak to a number of folks that were friends and even a lover of Gaetan’s, but were unable to get his family involved.  Was this a big set-back or disappointment to you and, if so, how did you overcome that?  If you had been able to include Gaetan’s family members what would you have asked them to participate?

LL: We nearly had a Dugas family member participate in the film, but in the end, she decided not to. And as I say in the film, I think of the family’s silence as a principled stand, one that I deeply respect. 

It was a great disappointment, at first, as I had thought this was a chance for the family to tell their side of the story and what those terrible times were like for them. (Thank god it wasn’t in the age of social media – the family would have suffered even more!) But I subsequently realized their participation wasn’t essential – I don’t think they would have known Gaétan’s life as a gay man the way his friends and colleagues did. 

It remains a concern of mine that the film will re-kindle, for Dugas’ family and friends, the difficult time when the ‘patient zero’ story was first erroneously circulated in 1987. My fervent hope is that the greater good, in rehabilitating his name, will justify the story’s re-emergence.

We sent a link to the finished film to the Dugas family, and we know that it was watched several times – but we never heard their response. 

GC: I’ll resist slipping in a spoiler, because I think everyone needs to see this film and experience it’s many revelations, but which of those revelations had the most impact on you and your team as filmmakers and on the project itself?

LL: While I thought I knew most of the story of the AIDS epidemic, having lived through it – there were definitely major revelations I hadn’t anticipated. We won’t detail the typographic/misreading of a phrase that played such a crucial part in creating the patient zero myth, but I was stunned when I learned that. The other thing that comes to mind is the shocking heartlessness in the White House Press Room – at a time when 600 gay men were dead and dying of this new plague, the Press Secretary was laughing and joking about it!!! It enrages me.

GC: You’ve had films presented by Frameline in the past, but this year a pandemic has forced the world’s biggest LGBT Film Festival to go virtual.  What are your feelings about having to present and promote “Killing Patient Zero” as the world struggles to survive COVID-19?

LL: Killing Patient Zero was filmed a year before the Covid crisis, so it wasn’t in my mind while making the film. Subsequently, the timeliness of the film is something that saddens me – that we are still making some of the same mistakes we made during the AIDS Epidemic. 

I think the greatest lesson from the AIDS epidemic is the cost of bias, of prejudice and ignorance — the fact that The New York Times did something like 5 articles (according to Michael Denneny’s interview, the editor of Band) during the first 6 years of the epidemic reveals how prejudice against homosexuals limited what could have been early, life-saving mainstream attention paid to the emerging plague. 

The lesson is one of not letting bias/prejudice inform what’s considered news — something I fear that can never be fully learned, and in some ways, is more deeply entrenched in our society now where ‘everybody’s a journalist,’ and much of what ends up being disseminated by non-legacy media is pure bias. 

I think the other great parallel between the AIDS Epidemic and the Covid Epidemic we’re in is that human beings still seem to need to blame someone for whatever ill we are facing.

While I can understand gay men’s initial reluctance to use condoms in the early days of the AIDS Epidemic, for reasons explored in the film, the current parallel, i.e. the controversy around wearing masks, is confounding to me.

I will never understand resistance to doing something that might help my fellow citizens. It is for this reason I wear a mask, to protect them, not me. (And I’m delighted to wear a mask featuring an image of Barbra Streisand from Funny Girl, accompanied by the words, “Hello Gorgeous!” 

Selfishly, I have to say that it saddens me not to be able to be at Frameline in person: I think some of the greatest moments in my career have been in attending Frameline and seeing my work screened in the glorious Castro cinema.

But I’m so thrilled to be getting the film out there as it is a story that needs to be told.  My hope is for Killing Patient Zero to be seen by as broad an audience as possible. We forget our history so quickly now, and I’m stunned by young people (even young LGBTQ+ people) who don’t know about the shocking homophobia of only decades ago. 

And to that end – the film has just been acquired by SUNDANCE NOW, the streaming channel – and will be available in the U.S. and the U.K. It is already on streaming platforms in Australia and Canada.

GC: What do you hope the audience takes away from “Killing Patient Zero?”

LL: I hope audiences will remember the cost of prejudice, and the cost of not caring for one’s fellow human beings… the cost is inestimable.

What are you presently working on?

LL: I had originally conceived of Killing Patient Zero as a dual biography of both Gaétan Dugas and Randy Shilts. In fact, we interviewed a number of friends and colleagues of Shilts’, footage that didn’t make it into the final film.

And so,  I’m excited to say, my next project is a feature documentary on Randy Shilts: Openly Gay Reporter.

GC: Laurie, thank you for creating such an important and beautiful film about a man who was vilified – certainly to a greater extent than the many who faced scorn – during such a terrifying time for our community.   I wish you the very best with this film and future endeavors.  Thank you for your time.

This digital screening is available to view between 12:01am Thursday, September 17 and 11:59pm Sunday, September 27. We suggest watching it at 4:00pm Sunday, September 20followed by the Q&A. Go to Frameline.org