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I went out to dinner one evening around 1975 with director Billy Friedkin, who had done The French Connection and The Exorcist. Billy asked what projects I had in the works. I told him I had one book in my drawer but I didn’t really want to make the movie. He asked what it was, and I said Cruising.
I didn’t like the subject matter, about the murders in gay S&M circles in New York, but I couldn’t lay it down. I was riveted. So I bought it. I paid $5,000 for it, for all rights in perpetuity. The girl he was with said, “If you guys are gonna talk about Cruising, I’m leaving. It’s the most disgusting book I’ve ever read.” Friedkin told her, “Good night.” Billy and I sat in the restaurant and we talked for a couple of hours. I said, “We’ll go to New York, and if this stuff really exists as this guy wrote it, then I’ll make the movie.”
So we went. Socially, I’m a liberal thinker, but this S&M thing was mind-blowing. I went to the police in New York, and I found out that it was true: Kids, right off the bus, were being murdered in the Village like they were meat in those days. And the cops weren’t doing a hell of a lot about it because these kids were gay. So we set out to make this movie.
It never entered our mind that the gay community would be upset with us. I thought that they would be supportive. But they were the biggest problem I had. We did have some gay supporters, like Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. But the Village Voice ripped me to shreds. They said that I was the Antichrist for making this movie, that Friedkin was terrible, that Al Pacino [who starred] was terrible. That we were anti-gay. And we weren’t!
The gay community didn’t get off my back. They threatened me. They threw bottles at me. They had guns. I went to see Mayor Ed Koch and told him I needed police protection or he was going to have a riot on his hands. It was the lead story on the news every night. The [protesters] didn’t realize that they were making a hit movie for me with all this controversy.
After we put the movie out, a lot of people liked it. A lot of people didn’t. But it was a stunning movie. I still make money every year from that movie, 35 years later. — As told to Julian Sancton