‘Fairyland’ Looks Back at Gay Life in San Francisco and the AIDS Crisis That Changed Everything

‘Fairyland’ Looks Back at Gay Life in San Francisco and the AIDS Crisis That Changed Everything

January 20, 2023

When Andrew Durham was searching for financing for “Fairyland,” his film adaptation of Alysia Abbott’s memoir about growing up in San Francisco with her gay single father and the impact that the AIDS crisis had on the community of LGBTQ Bohemians who populated her world, he received a shocking rejection.

“In a meeting, somebody told me verbatim that AIDS is passé,” Durham remembers. “I had to keep reminding people that stories about AIDS have been told, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep talking about that time and offering different perspectives.”

After years of struggle to bring the movie to life, “Fairyland” will have its premiere on Friday at the Sundance Film Festival with a cast that includes Scoot McNairy, Geena Davis and “CODA” breakout Emilia Jones. And the finished film does exactly what Durham said it would — tell the story of those plague years not only from the perspective of the people who were robbed of their lives, but the loved ones who were impacted by their deaths.

“When we talk about the history of AIDS in this country, I don’t think we necessarily think about the way it impacted families,” says Abbott, who also served as a producer on the film. “There are parents who died of AIDS. Some of these men died alone, but some left behind children and spouses.”

Originally, Sofia Coppola had optioned Abbott’s book and intended to direct it. But at some point she abandoned those plans and instead turned to her friend and frequent creative partner Durham. He had never directed a feature, but had enjoyed a career as a photographer and had worked in various production capacities on everything from Coppola’s first short film “Lick the Stars” to “Scream.” Crucially, Durham had something that few other filmmaker could offer — a deeply personal connection to Abbott’s story. He also had a gay father who had died of AIDS during the darkest days of the virus. Making “Fairyland” enabled Durham to process some of the grief he still feels.

“Both Alissa and I are survivors of this,” he says. “We kind of have PTSD. For those of us that survived, it was something we pushed out of our minds. When you’re dealing with a sick person you’re on autopilot, and once they die all you want to do is get on with your life. That’s all you want to do, and I think a lot of us that survived that epidemic wanted to get away from it as soon and as fast as possible.”

“Fairyland” is about more than just a disease that cast a pall over gay life for more than a decade. It’s also a coming-of-age story about a girl who had a very different kind of upbringing. Steve Abbott, Alissa’s father, was a poet who partied hard, didn’t seem overly concerned with holding down a steady job and believed that his daughter should be given freedom and independence — a view that also enabled him to enjoy San Francisco’s vibrant nightlife. But “Fairyland” doesn’t condemn Steve, even as it shows his flaws. He loved Alissa and wanted her to grow up to be a strong, smart, self-reliant person. That was worth a lot.

“It’s a film about family,” says Durham. “There isn’t one universal type of good parent.”

During the years it took to get “Fairyland” financed, Abbott and Durham kept in close touch. She’d share photographs and mementos (some of which were used as set decoration). So when it came time to finally make the movie, Abbott spent a week shadowing the production. Much of the film, including the Abbotts’ many different apartments, were constructed in an abandoned mansion in Vallejo, just across the bay from San Francisco. That made for a very strange set visit.

“Imagine there’s a house and every room you enter is from a different era of your life,” Abbott says. “In this one, is where you were a baby. In here, there’s your dad’s bedroom from when you were five. In another, there’s your bedroom from when you were a teenager with your posters on the wall. It was like a dream.”

That wasn’t the only weird moment for Abbott. When she was a small child, her mother died in a car accident. That prompted the family’s move across country to San Francisco at a moment where the city was a mecca for dreamers and iconoclasts. During shooting, Abbott acted as an extra in her mother’s funeral scene.

“Of course, I was there, but I have no memory of her funeral,” Abbott says. “And here I am acting it out and doing it take after take. It was very Freudian and psychologically a bit strange.”

“Oh my god,” Durham exclaims, his hand covering his face for a second. “I should have been much more protective of you during those retakes.”

Here’s a clip from “Fairyland”:

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