Shows like FX’s Pose and HBO’s It’s A Sin have brought the stories from the AIDS epidemic era to a new generation. The dramatization of that time has inspired new discussions and a cinematic sadness regarding that time. Coupled with the death count and social effects of COVID, our LGBTQ youth are getting a taste of the fragility of our circle and a small glimpse at what life was like.
This week marks the premiere of Yes I Am – The Ric Weiland Story, telling a real story of not only the AIDS epidemic, but also our community’s struggle with mental illness, in a visceral mix of scrapbooks and historical pictures, personal memoirs, and intimate interviews. Ric Weiland helped focus and organize Microsoft’s early successes, making him extremely wealthy and influential from an early age. He lived a double life, living the life of the party-going and free-loving gay man in the 80s as well as a tech genius working alongside Bill Gates to create the Microsoft empire. His success and wealth were to be the source of Ric’s biggest unhappiness. He felt unworthy of his wealth and was inspired to develop a world of philanthropy for himself as well as inspire a revolution of corporate giving towards the needs of the LGBTQ community, which we still benefit from to this day. During his life, he donated more than $20 million to fund more than 60 non-profit organizations. His efforts to establish representation and resources for the LGBTQ community still have a profound impact today. The film’s title draws itself from Ric’s personalized license plate – YES I AM – just in case anyone was wondering about his sexuality.
As much wealth as he accumulated, he would lose so much. Watching his circle of friends succumb to the AIDS epidemic would scathe him emotionally and physically. His financial strength grew conversely to what was happening around him, his community needed help financially and medically, they were left alone to suffer this disease. Ric was diagnosed with HIV and would slip into depression and a state of self-doubt and a sense of unworthiness that no one could help him get through.
His life came to a tragic end, his loved ones still visibly emotionally scarred. His legacy left behind continues to have huge effects in the world of technology, gay rights, HIV/AIDS research funding, corporate policies on sexual orientation, and more. This film celebrates his life and puts the spotlight on the mental affliction in our community that often remains unspoken about.
The film is expertly created by Seattle filmmaker Aaron Bear, whose award-winning feature-length documentary Finding Kim is regarded as one of the truest tellings of a transgender person’s life. The film does not read as your standard documentary, it is an emotional rollercoaster narrated by Zachary Quinto with heartbreaking interviews from Ric’s circle, including Bill Gates.
We chatted with Aaron about filmmaking, chatting with Bill Gates, and why this film is so important:
1) What are the biggest obstacles (besides financing) for independent LGBTQ filmmakers today?
The largest obstacles for LGBTQ filmmakers are getting festivals and distributors to think outside of the box that LGBTQ film is a niche category. Also, I won’t name names, but I’ve already faced some blatant discrimination with certain festivals not wanting to program because they had “conservative” donors.
2) What is your creative process when starting work on a new film? Where do you begin?
I always start by looking at how I personally connect to the project. Can I tell this story in an authentic and true way? Does it speak to me? From there I start digging as though I’m cracking open a cold case. I look at the history of the subject. Has a story like this been told before? If so, how am I telling this in a different and important way? What are the challenges I’m up against? How much access will I have? After a bit of budget is secured, I dive into drafting scripts, setting up interviews, and securing locations. From there, I typically get a trustworthy team together and begin shooting.
3) Do you remember the first film you saw in the theater that affected/inspired you?
I grew up in the ’80s in Dayton Ohio. My parents would take me to the Dixie Drive-in (I think it’s still there) every Saturday night. One of my earliest memories is going to see Back To The Future and being completely mesmerized. Some of the other films that I saw in the theatre that had an influence on me… Elvira – Mistress of The Dark. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Death Becomes Her. Nightmare On Elm Street. Pink Flamingos. Nowhere by Gregg Arraki.
4) How did making Finding Kim affect your filmmaking for the next project?
How much time do you have? haha. Finding Kim informed me what was important to me as a filmmaker. It really changed my life and made me realize I wanted to prioritize filmmaking. I was working soulless corporate jobs making commercials and I thought…is this is? Making that film cracked open the door for me on an emotional level that I never knew was within me. Telling the stories of survivors speaks to me and even though Ric Weiland is no longer with us, his legacy will live on forever. Finding Kim also informed me on the importance of who I work with and how that is as equally important as the film.
5) How did you get involved in Yes I Am? What was the draw for you to this story?
I was approached by Michael Failla after a screening of my first film Finding Kim at the Seattle International Film Festival. I’ve always been attached to stories of survival and impactful change. I took almost a year of research, diving into his life and legacy. Ric is a queer pioneer on so many levels. That is what spoke to me and informed me of how I wanted to tell this story. There were a few stumbling blocks at the beginning of other people who wanted to be involved that wanted to straight-wash his life and impact on the queer community. I’m glad I stuck to my intuition.
6) Microsoft, finances, and philanthropy are not the sexiest subjects when put down on paper, the film is so much more – but how did you pitch the film to get it made/distributed?
I know right? Pitching the film was mostly getting the rights and approval from Ric’s friends and colleagues. Since Ric was such a private person, there was a significant amount of establishing trust. Ric’s life and story spoke to me and the more I made this film the more of a direct impact Ric had on my own life. I was always very honest with Ric’s friends and colleagues about why I was making this film and how much this could help change or impact someone else’s life.
7) If the audience could walk away with just one thing from Ric’s story, what would you want that to be?
Death is not the end.
8) What aspect of Ric’s life surprised you the most?
The fact that Ric didn’t want or even care about the accolades of his giving. So many people operate from a place of ego and wanting to be noticed. Ric didn’t come from either of those places. It made me even more curious about how his brain functioned and his motivation behind his giving.
9) Why is Ric’s story so important?
Ric’s story is uncommon, to say the least. A queer man, out and proud since the ’70s. He gives away millions of dollars and doesn’t want any recognition. That alone is important. For me, however, his story has inspired me on how I carry myself in this life and makes one think of what’s truly important in life. Ric’s story is one that is ever-lasting and can inspire everyone from all walks of life. We could all take a page out of the Ric Weiland philanthropic playbook.
10) How did you collaborate with Zachary Quinto for the narration – what was your creative process with him?
I had made a list of my favorite out and gay actors. I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing to get someone who is out and proud to read Ric’s diaries. Zach was at the top of my list. I wrote him a personal letter, from the heart that detailed why I thought he was right to narrate the film. He said yes and then it happened very quickly. I flew down to Los Angeles from Seattle. Zachary had it dialed in from the first second. The tone of this isn’t an easy one. It’s a delicate balance of understanding queerness, depression, & success. I am forever grateful to Zachary Quinto.
11) How did you get Bill Gates on board? What was it like filming with him?
I honestly didn’t think I would get to interview Bill. I went through many channels trying to ask him and finally, I found someone who worked directly with him. Bill was excited to speak about Ric because it took him back to a time before money and fame. He was speaking about an old friend and I think that shines through in his interview. I had also had Paul Allen slated to interview, but he passed two weeks before our interview.
12) What can the new generation of gays learn from the AIDS epidemic?
It’s interesting. I recently watched “It’s A Sin” on HBO and read an interview with one of the out 21-year-old gay actors on the show. They asked him a question about how much he knew of the AIDS epidemic and his answer was…”nothing.” He knew nothing of the AIDS epidemic, which was staggering news to me. Also, it was very telling. We cannot let this information and history fall through the cracks because medicine and technology are so advanced. We are living in a very parallel time to AIDS and HIV but a virus that affects everyone, however a lot of the old stigmas arise. The new generation of gay folk can carry the torch of education and history because of Ric’s accomplishments and legacy.
13) What is it like pouring through all of the images, pictures, and Ric’s journals? It must have been a mental wild ride.
Making a documentary is an emotional journey. Very high highs and emotional lows. You are excited to be making a film but this is also about someone’s life. Even though I never got to meet Ric, I was connected to him and will be forever now. His images and journals have been inspiring to me and how I actually carry myself in this world. Again, I ask myself…what is important to me and what do I want to say in this life. I shed a lot of tears making this film, but also made some very close friends because of Ric.
14) Why do you think gay men are so afraid to talk about mental health?
We are survivors. I think there is a thing that comes along with being a survivor of sorts that makes one think they don’t need any additional help. It’s the “I made it this far without help, why would. I need it now” sort of mentality. Making this film made me look at my own mental health for the very first time. I started seeing a therapist and really diving into the why of myself. Ric brought that all to the surface to me. Being self-aware can only help the world become a better place. Operating from a place of ego or discrediting mental health is dangerous.
15) What do you think the future of filmmaking will look like, post-COVID?
I’m as curious as you are. I have read everything from it’s just going to be big-budget Hollywood films only to more access to BIPOC and LGBTQ filmmakers. I want to believe that the new stories with folks who have never had access to filmmaking before will surface because COVID has been a big revealer of who people actually are.
16) With our current boom in LGBTQ representation and out performers, what do you think LGBTQ storytelling in film will look like in the future?
The future of LGBTQ filmmaking will continue to innovate and break down walls. We had a bit of a dip there and now you are starting to see shows again like “It’s A Sin” & movies like Call Me By Your Name. My next project is a tv series in pre-production called “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” It’s a story about a young gay man who is kicked out of his house and finds his chosen family in downtown Milwaukee in 1989 as he navigates his newly found life and finding his way.
17) Rick had Yes I Am on his license plate – what would you have on yours?
In tribute to Back To The Future – “OUTATIME”
Trailer for Yes I Am:
Check out our podcast chat with Aaron HERE
The film premieres at the Provincetown Film Festival from June 16 – June 26, 2021.
Last modified: June 14, 2021