“Last Men Standing” — An Interview with Erin Allday and Judy Walgren
Early this month, the San Francisco Chronicle published Last Men Standing, a compelling, multi-part feature on a group of men who survived the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. The epic work includes a long-form narrative story and detailed profiles of eight survivors written by Erin Allday. Tim Hussin and Erin Brethauer, members of the Chronicle’s multimedia team, created the company’s first feature-length documentary that will premiere April 8th at the Castro Theatre.
What inspired you to pursue this project?
I’m a health writer and I’ve covered HIV/AIDS for about six years. Every now and then, doctors I talked with would bring up the long-term effects of living with HIV, mostly related to premature aging and the toxicity of drugs. But it wasn’t until I heard about the suicide of Jonathan Klein, a long-term survivor, that I thought about doing a story. When I heard about Jonathan, I learned that suicide was not uncommon among long-term survivors. That prompted me to learn more about the issues they were dealing with.
You interviewed 50 men. What was your outreach strategy, how’d you narrow it down to those featured?
I started by contacting agencies that were known for doing AIDS advocacy work and telling them about the story I wanted to do. They were generous about reaching out to their clients and asking who would be interested in talking to me and then things spread a bit by word of mouth. The response was pretty incredible — it was surprisingly easy to find people who wanted to share their stories. In choosing the eight men we eventually profiled, I was looking for a diversity of experiences, mostly. I wanted to profile men who were dealing with the issues that seemed most prevalent and problematic — financial/housing instability, isolation, drug abuse, mental health problems, long-term physical ailments, profound grief, suicide. And, of course, I was looking for people with compelling and ongoing stories who were comfortable talking to me and to our videographers.
What was the most challenging aspect of the project?
Definitely the writing. It was a complex thing weaving so many disconnected stories into one piece that was honest to each man but also formed a cohesive, overarching narrative.
The most rewarding?
Working with the survivors, themselves, was by far the most rewarding part. These men were so generous and so brave. It often wasn’t easy for them to open up… but they held back nothing. They all recognized the value to their greater community in sharing their stories. It was intense but wonderful spending so much time with them and just listening. That is not an experience I will ever forget.
When you pitched the idea how did the editors react?
Audrey Cooper, our editor in chief, was immediately on board. She recognized the importance of the story and that it was a very San Francisco story that we were uniquely positioned to tell. It took a few months to get everything off the ground, but once I got the green light I was given a lot of time and freedom to fully report the story. When our photographers Erin Brethauer and Tim Hussin came on board a month or two later, they were immediately invested in it too, and quickly bonded with the men I’d been interviewing.
Did the scope of the project evolve over time? If so, how?
It evolved in the sense that, at least very early on, we didn’t necessarily know how best to tell this story. I think everyone involved was open to exploring all kinds of possibilities, which is how we ended up with such a multimedia experience: with the text, slideshows with archival images, Russell Yip’s beautiful portraits and of course the documentary. But the basic premise of the project — telling the stories of long-term survivors, where they came from and where they are now — stayed the same over time.
Do you have plans on expanding the project into other communities?
There is no specific plan in place now, but yes, I’d definitely like to expand this to other communities. How and when that will happen remains to be figured out.
How did you feel the morning of publication?
It’s funny, I had two mornings — the day the project went live online (March 2), and the day that the print project was released (March 6). The first morning was the most stressful because you never know how readers will respond, or whether there will be some technical glitch or mistake or whatever. And, of course, I wanted the men I’d profiled to feel like the stories were honest to them, and something they would be proud to have out there. But I was also incredibly excited to share this story that I felt so close to — and that I’d invested so much time and mental and emotional energy into getting right. Fortunately, the response was very positive, which made the print release a few days later much less stressful, but frankly just as exciting.
Do you have any regrets?
Honestly, no. There were some tough decisions made in the reporting and writing along the way, but we made those decisions very thoughtfully, so I have no regrets there. I’m sad and disappointed, though, that Peter Greene passed away before the story was published. He was very proud of his involvement with this project and I know he was looking forward to seeing it all come together. He especially would have loved the documentary premiere at the Castro Theatre.
How did the public react?
The public reaction has been incredible. It’s been shared pretty widely on social media and it’s certainly been well-read on our website. The response overall has been very supportive and favorable. What’s been especially nice is seeing other long-term survivors sharing the story and adding their contributions — saying that this project feels familiar to them, that this feels like their own story, that it feels like something they can own. I love that.
Was the film originally part of the plan? How did the idea for the long-form documentary begin?
Since January 2011, the photography department at the Chronicle began ramping up on high-end video. I brought in Wes Pope, a well-known filmmaker and teacher to train the staff on using their DSLRs as video cameras. Immediately afterwards, our editor at the time, Ward Bushee, asked Wes, Mike Kepka and I to embark on a series related to the famous Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. We won a few Emmy awards from this endeavor and the hook was set. Going forward, all of our large projects had an ambitious documentary film element included.
When I was introduced to Erin Allday’s narrative project idea, thankfully very early on into the process, I knew that we had the opportunity to make an important documentary film about the long term survivors of AIDS. This was a story that only a newsroom based in San Francisco could tell and we had the team to do it. When the next opening on the staff emerged, I hired filmmaker Tim Hussin to join us. Right away, Tim, multimedia editor Erin Brethauer and I started working on the concept and the structure for the film.
What were some of the challenges with editing this feature?
Making a long-form documentary on a newspaper staff will always be a challenge — but with the support from Managing Editor Kristen Go — I was able to manage the process relatively easily given the quick turn around. There were suggestions from the panels we presented our iterations to that helped a lot, as well. But for the most part, the editing of the film was relatively simple — the narrative arc was obvious and we had amazing characters supplied by Erin, the writer.
What was the biggest challenge with creating a feature-length film?
The biggest challenge was what to leave in and what to take out. But I find making a ten-minute film much more difficult, to be honest. You have to be clear and concise with your over-arching thesis and remain committed to it throughout the process.
What surprised you?
I was surprised that our visual team had very little trouble navigating the editing process and was also blown away by the emotional impact the work evokes from the viewers. I still cry every time I watch it. The story of how these brave souls navigated such a crisis is devastating and inspiring all in the same breath. Their resilience humbles me and I am proud to be associated with such a strong example of visual storytelling.
About Erin Allday
Erin Allday is a health reporter who writes about infectious diseases, stem cells, neuroscience and consumer health topics like fitness and nutrition. She’s been on the health beat since 2006 (minus a nine-month stint covering Mayor Gavin Newsom). Before joining The Chronicle, Erin worked at newspapers all over the Bay Area and covered a little of everything, including business and technology, city government, and education. She was part of a reporting team that won a Polk Award for regional reporting in 2005, for a series of stories on outsourcing jobs from Santa Rosa to Penang, Malaysia. Erin started her journalism career at the Daily Californian student newspaper and many years later still calls Berkeley her home.
About Judy Walgren
Judy Walgren is the Editorial Director for ViewFind, a robust visual storytelling platform. Previously, she was the director of photography at the San Francisco Chronicle, where she managed a staff of visual content producers, photo editors and pre-press imagers for print and digital platforms. She has also worked for the Denver Post, The Rocky Mountain News and the Dallas Morning News. Walgren received a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting with a team from the Morning New for their series dealing with violent human rights against women. She received her Masters in Fine Art from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in January 2016. She lives in San Francisco with her son Theo, their dog Stella and two chickens — Happy and Lulu.
ViewFind is the home for thought-provoking stories that delight, engage, illuminate, and surprise.