David Millbern’s new TV special 100 Years of Men in Love: The Accidental Collection tells the story of Neal Treadwell and Hugh Nini’s collection of photos of gay couples from the 1850s-1950s. The passion David Millbern has for the subject matter is clear in the work and the detail he describes through this conversation. He also touches on the variety of stories he has told, giving voice to personal stories hoping to spread the universality of our world through art.
Awards Daily: How did you discover the book Loving- A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s that the special was based on?
David Millbern: Well I’m glad you did your research! It started when I was a kid about seven years old. I was going through a box of photos of my family’s heirlooms and I came across this old tintype of two handsome gentlemen on the young side in their early twenties, next to each other with their legs crossed towards each other. They were holding a sign together that said Bourbon, Indiana Fair 1908. So I asked my parents, “What is this picture? Who are these people?” They said, “Oh David, that is your great-great uncle and his friend.” That picture, that old tintype, always held such wonderment for me. It never really clicked as to what I was looking at until I came across Neal Treadwell and Hugh Nini’s book and I realized they had 3,700 other pictures just like this one in their collection. So I called them up–I had already won my Emmy at that point–and I said, “ Hey, I am David Millbern, and I think your collection of 3700 pictures would make an amazing documentary.” And they said, “Go for it.” So here they are, and my editor Billy Clift and I culled those 3,700 pictures down to 350 which are in the TV special. And that’s how it started.
Awards Daily: Speaking of all those photos, did you have a favorite photo yourself?
David Millbern: You know, I did. Part of the process of bringing this immersive art film piece to being was I looked at ways to make it even more interactive. Some of the photos had writing on the back of them. Some of these photos were found in wallets and were creased and dirty and as though they were hidden away. Others were on mantels in pristine condition. Well this one photo had some writing on the back of it and I said, “During the TV special, why don’t we bring some of these writings on the back of some of these pictures to life?” So I’m an actor and I said I will narrate these. My favorite picture is from the early 1900s, late 1800s. And it’s two gentlemen sitting in a horse drawn carriage being pulled by a horse and they have their arms around each other on their shoulders and they are both smoking cigars. And on the back of that photo it says, “Here is a glimpse of a little part of my life that you may not know about.” So I interpreted that.
You know some of these writings on the back of the photos are not written by the people in the photos. There is another photo that is from the early 1950s. Remember how they used to colorize photos? Well, these are two older gentlemen sitting in a living room and on the back of that photo it says, “Here is a picture of Uncle Bob and his friend Bill. Bill liked horses. He rode horses in parades. Your dad said they were both as queer as ducks.” So there’s a lot of humor from what is written on the back. Basically, that was another way to have this film be an immersive journey or experience.
The film has won about 23 film awards and I sometimes stand in the back of these screenings and I see hundreds of people watch this thing and en masse they kind of surrender into the journey. This is not a quick montage. We actually go into each picture, we analyze it, we escape into it. Then I also juxtaposition many of the shots with a famous quote by a gay author about love, and what love means. I will tell you something funny. At one of these film festivals a woman comes up to me afterwards and says ” Oh David, what a beautiful beautiful film. I just wish to God some man would look at me in my eyes as you see in this film.” Then I wanted to say, “Oh darling, Oh darling, I’m sad that you don’t have someone like that in your life.” I didn’t tell her that.
But people are responding to the love, the love that is captured at a time when these men could have been put in prison or lost their entire livelihood. They could have ruined their lives. Yet they felt their love mattered so much that they wanted to capture it. Little did they know those photos would survive and their love would be basically a call to action. I feel that these pictures show that we stand on their shoulders. The ability to love freely whoever we choose is basically resting on the shoulders of those who showed us the way. These men in the photo booths and in the tintypes, underneath an umbrella hiding themselves whatever way they could. We feel that this was a way to say this love matters now and it mattered then. So I somehow think that maybe they are looking down at us and saying thank you. Thank you for bringing these pictures to life. Thank you for honoring our love and acknowledging that it mattered. Because it mattered to them.
Awards Daily: You mentioned how each picture tells a story. There is one group of pictures that Hugh and Neal mentioned of John and Dariel Burns where they did know the story, That John’s nephew reached out to them. Do you know how that occurred and was that different from the other pictures in making the documentary?
David Millbern: Well, it was interesting that was the only living connection we have to any of these pictures. They had liberated Dachau with their forty second infantry squad. Which was named the Rainbow division. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Then they went up to the Swiss Alps and took some wonderful pictures by a lake and exchanged rings. The nephew said that his uncle would reach up into his closet and pull down this old shoe box and go through these photos and show me his love during that time. The nephew says he still wears the ring that they exchanged to this day, so that was our only living connection. But I really feel that these gentlemen are through the generations to us. The film is a call to action to those of us to be bold, to be authentic, to take that picture. I’ll tell you since working and creating this documentary I now am aware of every picture I take in a group, and I wonder where this picture will end up. What message will this tell years from now? If indeed it is lucky to survive and be put into a documentary.
The TV special is also a history of photography. We start with the tintypes and we go to photo booths. What was so interesting about the photo booth was that you had to close that curtain, you were in a confined space, there was no photographer and no developer and when those pictures spit out they went straight into your hands to do whatever you wanted with them. Therefore you could be as intimate as you wanted in that photo booth; it was a very important time. We also felt we discovered the first selfie. Two gentlemen shooting the camera into a mirror, they had some contraption to trigger the shutter. We feel it is the first selfie ever taken of two gentlemen.
Awards Daily: With the filming technique I noticed for some of the pictures you created an old movie quality over some and for others there were like small circles or bubbles that went past the images. What was behind some of those choices?
David Millbern: That was to make it a more immersive experience. Instead of just seeing a flat picture. The circles we call the champagne bubbles, and they bring a sense of mystic wonderment to what we are looking at. Going back to that 7 year-old boy in Indiana looking at a tintype, bringing a sense of mystery and fancy if you will. I was so honored that this TV special is not only playing in a Hollywood museum in Los Angeles, but the Palm Springs Art Museum is now dedicating an evening to it coming up April 8th for a charity fundraiser for the Palm Spring Art Museum. Because they understood in reaching out to us that this is an art installation. This is something that needs to be viewed as not just a TV special but as a piece of art. I felt so honored, I felt that we had really achieved something there to be recognized in this way, because these pictures are art.
Awards Daily: Looking over your filmography, you have done so many different creative endeavors: children’s programming, producing, directing, you’ve created TV shows, you created a game show that you also hosted. What has made you want to try out so many different creative outlets?
David Millbern: I started as a child actor and I just love storytelling. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy expressing the most private things because that’s what becomes universal because that’s what good art is. The more private it is, the more universal it is, and the more responsive and impactful it can be. I felt that becoming a writer, director, producer was just an extension of being an actor. A different way to tell a story more inclusively, if you will. I won an Emmy for a show last year called Girls’ Voices Now, where I give cameras to underrepresented girls 13 to 18 and match them with female mentors who look like them. Telling them to go tell their stories, go tell us what your life is about. They come back with these amazing little shorts so I put them all together into a series. Last year we won with a little short that was about a Muslim girl wearing a hijab. She expressed in her film how she is jeered at, laughed at, made fun of wearing a hijab. But she knows the reason why she does, for her religious convictions. Well, we are waiting for the Emmy telecast to begin and they name the other nominee and she said, “ David, my story is so personal nobody ever cares. We are up against Disney, we are up against Sesame Street, we are up against Apple TV +. No one will ever care.” I said, “Mehrin you don’t get it, the more personal the story is the more universal it is. The more artful it is.” And sure enough when Here TV and Girls’ Voices Now won the Emmy and we got off camera she just bawled and bawled and bawled. She said, “I didn’t even want to go on camera and do this to shoot the short because it was just so personal.” But that very element says to me, and is a culmination of my journey, to tell stories in whatever fashion.
We created a game show, Modd Couples, where we pit a straight couple against a gay couple to find out who knows their partner best. It was The Newlywed Game meets Tattletales, but at the end of the day I imagine audiences saying, God honey, that gay couple is just like us. They have their own couple speak. The universal message would be: you know what we are all alike. We all have a hijab on, we all have our own couples speak that makes us the same. To expose that kind of universality through art is nothing new but that will save us. If we realize we really are the same human being, and we’re just dressed up in different space suits, if you will.
I love what I do. I love writing, I love directing, I love producing. When I first started producing it was, like, okay, I’m an actor and I’m used to having a role and complying to a script, but if you’re a good actor you can spread out the role and build levels into your craft and into the role. At the end of the day you are still reactive to the director, the producer, the final cut, the editor. Then you look at your final performance and you say, Okay, I was able to get some stuff through that I wanted, but as a producer I look at the films and the TV stuff I create and it’s, like, Wow! I chose the music, I rewrote that part of the script, I hired the director, I approved the cast. You realize when a producer looks at his work on screen you are all over the place. You’ve had influences in more than just being an actor.
Awards Daily: You have already done so many things and told so many different stories. Is there something else in particular you are wanting to still do? A certain story or medium that you would like to work in?
David Millbern: Well, I’ll tell you it’s always about the next, and the next project I’ve written is a screenplay titled Big Rage. It’s a kickboxing film and there’s a young gentleman who is a kickboxer and he teams up with an older female kickboxer and they go off and right the world and fight the bad guys. But he happens to be gay and the actor that was cast happens to be gay in real life, and is married to his husband, and he happened to look like an underwear model. That is revolutionary for our audience, to have someone sitting in a theater watching an action star and there is nothing gay about the film. He is just being an action star and doing good work fighting the bad guys. But our audience will know about this guy. He is gay, he is married, he has a husband and that will send positive role images to young LGBTQ people to say guess what, I can be that. I can be that, there is nothing holding me back. That is revolutionary. And I support Here TV providing positive role images in an authentic way by producing this type of programming.
Awards Daily: Any final thoughts?
David Millbern: I want to bring up the fact that when Biden passed the Respect for Marriage Act in December the polls said that 74% of Americans believe that same-sex marriage should be a guarantee, correct? I thought, when did 74% of all Americans agree on an issue? Yet 74% of Americans believe same-sex marriage should be a guaranteed right. So that only leaves 26%, and 13% of those said they don’t care one way or another. That means we’re only dealing with 13%. I don’t judge people; they can live their lives the way they want to and believe what they want to believe. But that’s how close we are to respect for marriage. I want to leave you with another photo from the TV special that really touches me. Two handsome young gentlemen, probably 18 or 19, in the late 1800s. When you would go to get your picture taken there would be a table with props, and they chose the prop of a little sign that said not married but willing to be. When we think of the message that they were saying to themselves, to the photographer, to anybody who would see that picture from then until now, they were saying we love each other and we want to be married. Not married but willing to be, that’s a pretty strong message. So I support the 74% of Americans who believe the same way, and at the end of the day this special is about love. That love matters then and it matters now. One should care about people that want to take those pictures for posterity.