During the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival, on a cold and rainy April morning in Toronto, I headed to the Park Hyatt Hotel for an interview with Ben Cotner and Ryan White, directors of the socially significant documentary The Case Against 8. Not really knowing what to expect, I sat down in a sparsely furnished room with the two filmmakers. They spoke candidly with me for 20 minutes about their documentary, which runs 112 minutes but took five years to complete.
Both passionate about changing archaic laws in California regarding same-sex marriage, Ryan and Ben reflected on the timely issue in a country that accepted this legal union years ago. The film opens today in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs cinema and runs until July 3. Click here for showtimes.
Eric Marchen: First of all, congratulations on your film. How do you feel going into Hot Docs? You’ve already screened it at Sundance; you’ve already received a number of awards and acclaim on the film. It’s getting theatrical release in June, so how did you feel about the reception here?
Ben Cotner: Well our premiere is tonight so we are excited to see what the reaction is going to be because we have played at a lot of festivals throughout the US and I think it’s such a uniquely American thing, we’re excited to see how the universal message of it translates to Canadian audiences, who so far seem really excited to see it. So we’re excited to see how they react.
Ryan White: And everywhere we’ve been showing it gay marriage is illegal. So even though we’ve been showing it in the US we haven’t showed it in places in the US where marriage is legal so it will be interesting to see what an audience who’ve had access to gay marriage for the last 10 years, 11 years what resonates with them, because you know a lot of the Q and As in the US are about, “It happens in my state now” or “I hope to have this one day”, but for people who already have it, it will be interesting to see how they respond.
EM: Now Ben, this is your directorial debut. I mean you worked as an executive producer on The Grey and Side Effects and a lot of other movies. How was that transition, becoming a co-director on your feature debut?
BC: For me, having been an executive producer for 10 years working in distribution it was really great to get to know so many amazing filmmakers and get to watch them do their work and really witness some of the greatest filmmakers of our time. It’s creatively exciting to be able to work on my own projects and to work with people like Ryan and actually create something, rather than work on the business side of it. It’s a lot more fun on this side.
EM: Nice, and Ryan what about yourself? How does this compare to some of the other work you’ve done previously?
RW: Well it’s very different; it’s a different subject matter. I’ve never worked on a social issue film ever. My first film was about soccer, my second was about The Beatles (Good Ol’ Freda), which are interesting to me, but they’re not something that’s very meaningful. It’s not something I identify myself as, a Beatles fan or soccer fan, but I am gay and I am in California so I’m definitely much more personally invested in this film than any I’ve ever been in, and it’s also the longest in scope of something that I’ve ever worked on. So I was making the other two films while I was working on this film and I finished them both while I was making this. This took up half a decade of our lives, so our lives have changed in very different ways since we began the film. It just kind of, more so than other things, feels like our baby. I think we’ve just spent so much time with it that we really are invested in it and people seeing it and hopefully liking it.
EM: That’s actually a perfect segue. You spent five years working on this project and obviously you didn’t know when it was going to end because of all the appeals seen in the film, so how do you condense that into 112 minutes?
BC: I’d say not only did we not know how it was going to end, we didn’t know if there would be a movie at the end of the day. We really started filming just on the outside chance that this case (would go) on to become something. I think it wasn’t until three years in that the Supreme Court was going to take the case that we knew, wow this was going to have, regardless of whether it wins or loses, it’s going to be an important story to tell. So that was an exciting moment to realize. All of this work and the 600 hours of footage that we shot was actually going to have an exciting ending one way or the other. Then we had to settle out the big task of narrowing down all of this complicated story into a version that could be a digested in under two hours. So we were lucky enough to have Kate Amend our editor. She’s one of the best. And (we have) a great associate editor Helen Kearns. Working with the two of them, we crafted what the heart of the story was and tried to whittle away some of the more complicated things. Even though some parts of the story we really loved and really wanted to tell were just too complicated for this but we got in what we think were the most important parts.
EM: What were the more complicated issues? Was there something specifically cut at the last minute? Like, “I really want this in the film but we have to cut it because of timing” or just the flow of the movie?
RW: Yeah, we cut a lot in the end obviously. We had our version that was six hours at some point. The complicated points we cut were mostly legal intricacies. There were a lot of different issues that went along with this trial and the ensuing appeals that would be really interesting to lawyers or legal minded audience but were complicated to tell. Sometimes we’re losing people in the audiences so we decided to cut some of those but there were also scenes that weren’t legally complicated but were emotional or on the human side that we cut for pacing reasons and have people bawling throughout the film. You want to pace the emotion of the film, so certain emotional moments that happen early on in the process, we let go. Hopefully (they’ll be in) the DVD extras at some point because we didn’t want our audiences bawling six minutes into the film because of something super emotional that happened to the plaintiff. So there was a lot that ended up on the cutting room floor but hopefully will be seen at some point.
EM: Would you guys consider doing a follow up or mini-series or something like that to expand on the issue?
BC: I mean I think we would love to see someone else do it. We’ve been steeped in this for five years. I think we’re excited to explore other stories. There are so many aspects not just (about) this case but about the entire movement for same sex marriage. You know I think there are great stories to tell about other aspects of it and there are currently some 50 law suits that are going through the legal system right now. Ultimately one or several of them might end up at the Supreme Court very soon. So I hope that there are other people out there who are making those films and telling their stories cause I think that they are really important.
EM: Now how did you guys get involved initially with The Case Against 8? I mean, there’s Ted Olson who is such an interesting character subject himself, and David Boies, plus you have this amazing group of plaintiffs. So what was their reaction to you filming them? Obviously they’re in the media and in the spotlight anyways but they also have this added scrutiny of just being observed.
RW: We didn’t know Ted and David or the plaintiffs at the beginning, but we knew some people at the America Foundation of Equal Rights who kind of organized the lawsuit, so that was our initial access, through them. We had to obviously get all the lawyers on board which Ted and David were the leaders [of]. There were probably 60, 70 lawyers that we were filming over the last 5 years and I think it goes against every grain in a lawyers body to allow a documentary crew to follow that process so closely. It really is a testament to this massive group of lawyers that they let us in, in that way. They just thought it would be an important document for the American people if we were allowed to do this, so they let us in. The plaintiffs were a little bit different. I don’t think they knew what they were signing up for when they joined this trial. They didn’t know that they would be this prominent in the American media. They thought that it was just going to be filed on paper briefs. They never knew there was going to be a trial. They never knew it was going to take five years. I don’t think that they knew that they were going to become such important LGBT figures, celebrities in a way, and joined with that, I don’t think they thought a film crew was going to follow them. Now, all four of them are pretty dear friends of ours. They’re all here at the screening tonight and so it’s definitely a credit to them. It took a while for them to become comfortable with the process.
EM: You go into their homes as well. I mean with Kris (Perry) and Sandy (Stier) and Paul (Katami) and Jeff (Zarrillo), you really get to know them as people and there’s this very human aspect to that part of the film where you realize it’s not just a court case. You also get to see the horrible downside of it where they’re getting voicemail threats. I was wondering how that played out in the film? Did you ask them about it as it was going on or did it just happen? Did they just start to talk about it and you added it into the film?
RW: Well the voicemails were happening during the trial so we knew (about them). We didn’t get those voicemails until late in the editing process. We asked Kris and Sandy if they were comfortable with us using them because we knew they had been traumatizing for their family. But again I think they realize the value of us including it in the film, to show the dark side of this trial. We were five years in when they made that decision. I don’t know if they would have made that decision if we had put a film out after a year. It was a gradual process. We weren’t filming in their homes as much the first year as we were year two and year three and year four. Once they became comfortable with us, having us around, and by year five Kris and Sandy’s sons were men by then. They were making their own decisions.
EM: Yeah, you see them grow up.
RW: They were very excited about participating in the film as well so it was a gradual process.
BC: I think that everyone understood from the beginning that this was also a public education campaign in some respects. On part of the lawyers, on part of the foundation, and so transparency became very important which is why they allowed the access. (And) since the trial wasn’t televised I think that they wanted people to understand what was happening in the case. I think it became important to tell a story especially with the plaintiffs who never really wanted to testify in court. They never really wanted to become spokes-people for this, but I think they realized the importance of this for their kids and for other kids growing up around the country. They’d be able to learn from it.
EM: How did you guys work around shooting or not shooting the court case because you weren’t allowed in? You made really good use of the transcripts and Ted Olson’s narration as if we were in the court room. How do you visually get around that?
RW: We didn’t know whether or not there would be cameras in the courtroom leading into it. If there had been cameras in the courtroom it would have been a very different film probably. Our film mostly takes place in the lead up to trial right now, where we show all the behind the scenes stuff. It became a very pull-back-the-curtain type of film (to) show what kind of effort goes into these law suits. If we had access to footage in the courtroom it would be very different I think. But we made a decision as directors to try to and somehow make the audience feel as if they’re in the courtroom at certain times. For the really important times of the trial, that is the plaintiff’s testimonies and Ted’s closing arguments (renowned as one of the best speeches given in a courtroom), we tried to do it in a very cinematic (way) but we didn’t want a lot of bells and whistles, so as you saw in the film, we have them just literally reading the transcripts. It was sort of a Hail Mary on our part. We thought (what) would we do if we had extra time in their interviews, just in case it didn’t work? And when we did it, we thought it worked really, really well. Each of the plaintiffs while re-reading their testimony were sort of reliving it for the first time and it was very emotional for them and everyone on the crew who was watching it. We just sort of felt an energy in the interview room that we thought would translate well in the film.
EM: Now what do you hope for in terms of longevity of this movie? Ten years, twenty years down the line, what do you hope this film accomplishes when people are looking back at it?
BC: I think I’d go back to the idea (that) this is really a universal idea, standing up for your rights and taking action is something that everyone can do regardless of what your issue is or what your status is in society. I think it’s a great for just sending the message that people can stand up and I hope this is a message that will last a long time.
RW: And hopefully people will look back in 20 years and think, “Wow this is ridiculous that people were fighting for this.” If you go back and watch movies about the civil rights movement in the US in the 60’s, this is still a very important document of history, but when we watch them now we can’t even imagine that world.
EM: Like interracial marriage as well. That’s mentioned in the film.
RW: Like in Virgina…now it just blows your mind how recent that was. So hopefully in 20 years it will be blowing people’s minds that we were living this in the 2000’s in the US. But that remains to be seen.
EM: Well again congratulations on the movie guys. I really loved the film, quite a bit.
BC: Thank you.
RW: Thank you and good luck with the rest of the festival.
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