JAMES Erskine is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. His work includes Battle Of The Sexes (2013), based on the legendary tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, and Sachin: A Billion Dreams, about cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. His new film tells the story of John Curry, the first ever openly gay Olympian who died of an AIDS-related heart attack in 1994. Ahead of a Q & A session in Brighton the evening before the film’s nationwide release, Erskine told EDWIN GILSON about Curry’s extraordinary life

The film covers the AIDS epidemic and political tensions as well as Curry’s career and sexuality. Was it difficult to get it all in?

It was very difficult to weave the geo-political and civil rights angles into what I really wanted the film to be about, which was the work of a great genious and his struggles. I had to give enough context so that people can understand the personal impact. Back then, winning a gold medal was even more remarkable than it is now. Britain hadn’t won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics since 1912 before John won [in 1976].

You said you were inspired to make the film after reading a review of a book about Curry’s life. Did you know much about him prior to that?

He was a distant memory of my childhood in the 70s and early 80s. I was only two when he won the Olympics. I knew nothing of the drama of the story. It’s unique in the entire history of the world to have a gold medallist in the Winter Olympics who was also effectively an artist in what he did. He had the goal of being the “Picasso on ice”. Maybe he will inspire Usain Bolt to pick up the violin.

The blurb for the film says that “every act was a rebellion” for Curry. How aware was he of the profound social impact he made?

Often when we think of civil rights we think of politicians making speeches but not everybody is that eloquent. To be a great leader in society is about showing not telling. When I did the film about Billie Jean King, it was about the idea that not every woman had to be Gloria Steinem to make a point. John’s performances said, “this is me, this is who I am. accept me for it”. The fact he didn’t actually say that made it more powerful, in a way.

Curry recalls being told to “dance like a man” in the film because of his graceful performances. Given that nobody else was skating like this, where did he get inspiration from?

His real inspiration was ballet. I’ve read a lot of his letters and he talks about going to watch dance in the cheap seats. He wasn’t allowed to become a ballet dancer, though [his father banned it]. I talked to [American ice skating champion] Johnny Weir for the film who said that there is still a huge degree of homophobia in all sport. The film has strong contemporary relevance for that reason.

Curry’s homosexuality was revealed by a reporter at the Olympics after Curry had told him off the record. Was this a source of great irritation for him?

I think he was saddened by it. He thought, ‘I’ve just climbed the highest peak and now it’s all going to crash down’. Other people might say he should have known better when talking to a journalist. But part of John definitely wanted to come out, I think.

What has become very evident is how much he was loved at that time. From his brother we inherited thousands of letters of support after he came out. The narrative quickly switched from trauma to ‘people will accept me for who I am’. Part of his struggle was that he was accepted by people but he couldn’t accept himself – he couldn’t find a connection with his own character.

Did Curry suffer from not knowing where to go after he had hit such heights? After Olympic success he went on to perform to huge crowds across the world.

I don’t know if he struggled in that sense but he’d skated since he was seven years old and for 19 years before he won the Olympics. It took its toll on his body. John always said that everything was catered for during the Olympics but then when you set up your own company, as he did, it’s just you trying to pull the show together.

It was difficult enough just to transport loads of ice into venues like The Royal Albert Hall and freeze the whole place. That icy land of dreams is almost doomed to failure.

Zooming forward, Curry appears quite upbeat in the footage during his years with AIDS. Did he find some level of peace?

To a degree, yes. I’ve read lots of letters he wrote at that time but obviously it’s so difficult putting yourself in a place where your friends and lovers suddenly start dying. Almost all of his close friends died and he was left alone with this illness. You have to come to terms with it, in a way. He was peaceful towards the end, happy to potter around his garden.

In another world he would have become a skating teacher because that was his great ambition. He wanted to set up a school of skating after his name. It’s a great sadness that he wasn’t able to do that.

Have you always been interested in the intersection between sport and documentary films?

It’s not so much sport, it’s more about a wider culture seen through the lens of sport. I’m interested in the world these sportsman are operating. The Sachin Tendulkar film was more about the change in Indian society over 30 years. For this one, nobody could have done what John Curry did for society at that time, and I think that’s extraordinary.

The Ice King, Screening and director Q & A at Duke’s At Komedia, Brighton, February 22, 6pm. For tickets and more information visit picturehouses.com or call 08719 025728