Beyond The Lights is Not Your Average Showbiz Movie

I walked into “Beyond the Lights” expecting it to be some sort of manipulative soap opera which aimed to be “The Bodyguard” for a new generation. What I got instead was a showbiz story which felt surprisingly genuine in its emotions and intentions. It does have that familiar ring of two people from opposite walks of life coming together, but the way their relationship evolves throughout proves to be very entertaining to watch.

When we first meet Noni Jean, she’s a little girl performing in a talent competition and singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” which leaves the audience in a state of awe. However, when the judges award her a runner up prize, her mother Macy (Minnie Driver) angrily takes her out of the auditorium and orders her to “chuck” her trophy in defiance. The way Macy sees it, being second best counts for nothing in a world where you need to be number one.

We then move to years later when Noni, now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is on the verge of stardom after having won a Billboard Award even though she hasn’t released an album yet. But after retreating to her hotel room, we come to see how much the pressures of fame are bearing down on Noni as she sits on a balcony ready to jump. Coming to her rescue is police officer Kaz Nicols (Nate Parker) who pulls her back from the edge, literally and figuratively speaking, and two quickly get lost in each other’s eyes. What happens from there is easy to guess.

Initially, Kaz feels somewhat betrayed when Macy pays him off to publicly say Noni did not try to commit suicide, but Noni warms up to him quickly as she can tell he sees something in her others do not.

While they may come from different worlds, Kaz and Noni are going through similar issues. Her mother Macy has been grooming her for stardom ever since she was little, and she has helped turn Noni into the kind of woman every man wants or at least fantasizes about. As for Kaz, his police captain father David (Danny Glover) is grooming him for public office, something he does in fact have ambitions for. However, when you look into Kaz’s eyes, you wonder just how serious he is about politics or if he really wants a different path in life.

Basically, Kaz and Noni are trying to fulfill the desires of their parents, and we have caught up with them as they have long since played a role they feel society wants them to play. In the process, they have lost touch with what they really want out of life, and we follow them as they go through a much-needed period of self-discovery. Watching these two evolve and change from start to finish is deeply involving and, even if the conclusion is never in doubt, we revel in their personal triumphs.

I am not at all familiar with Mbatha-Raw or her work as an actress, and she gives an extraordinary performance here. She is mesmerizing to watch as Noni begins to shed the public persona which has been foisted upon her, and it allows the frightened child inside of her to come out into the open. Also, she has a show stopping moment where she sings “Blackbird” by herself onstage, and you cannot take your eyes off of her for a single second.

Parker also puts in a strong performance as a well-meaning man who respects the law, wants to help people and who has, as his shirtless scenes will attest, spent a lot of time in the gym like any cop should. Looking at the actor’s past which had him involved in political activism, charitable work and working as a wrestling coach, you get the sense he was born to play Kaz. As he wades deeper into Noni’s world of fame, Parker shows Kaz to be someone who keeps his head above water and is not easily seduced by the closed-off world of show business. But there’s also no doubt that the chemistry between him and Mbatha-Raw is very palpable.

Kudos also goes out to Minnie Driver who takes what could have been a one-dimensional stage mother from hell and turns her into a complex character who is far more vulnerable than she lets on. We come to see how Macy has never had it easy, and she is eager for Noni to have everything she never had. But as much as she cares for her daughter, Macy also comes to realize her determination to make Noni a star speaks more about her ambitions than anyone else’s. Driver is a powerhouse as she lets us see how Macy has been wounded by others who had no faith in her when she was young, and it becomes understandable why Macy wants to beat everyone at their own game.

“Beyond the Lights” was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood whose previous films include “Love & Basketball,” “Disappearing Acts” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” I regret to say I haven’t seen those films, but I am certainly willing to see them now based on the work she has done here. Prince-Bythewood succeeds in giving us a showbiz tale which actually feels grounded in reality. The atmosphere at the award shows and parties Noni attends feel authentic, and they never seem like a spectacle to be easily laughed at. She also gives us a number of complex characters who struggle to survive the high pressure world of fame and fortune where people have everything and nothing at the same time.

I also have to applaud Prince-Bythewood for sticking by Mbatha-Raw when studios were insistent on getting a bigger name cast in the role of Noni. Perhaps a music star would have done a good job here, but they also would have brought an enormous amount of baggage with them which would have had an unintentionally negative effect on this movie. Mbatha-Raw has the advantage right now of not having this baggage, and that makes her performance all the more enthralling as a result.

Sure, there are some soap opera dramatics here and there and certain moments do not ring true, but “Beyond the Lights” really did prove to be one of the big cinematic surprises of 2014. It is also another film to add to the list of worthwhile romantic movies. Just as this particular genre looked to be burning out, the movies coming from it are getting so much better. I’m starting to like these kinds of movies again. What’s wrong with me anyway?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to check out the video interviews I did with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker which I did for the website We Got This Covered.

Underseen Movie: The One I Love with Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass

The One I Love” is one of the harder movies to review because it really helps to go into it with an open mind. The less you know about what happens in it, the better the experience will be. Ever since its debut at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, its most fervent admirers have been praising it and guarding its secrets as if they have the secret formula for Coca-Cola. What I can tell you is that it is an insanely clever romantic comedy, and it belongs to a genre I typically live to avoid.

Things start off with the married couple of Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) going through troubles which usually tear a couple apart permanently. They try to recreate their romantic spark by revisiting the house they snuck into when they first met and jump in the pool, but the magic isn’t there. In the process of visiting their therapist (played by Ted Danson), he suggests they spend the weekend in this cottage he knows about so they can work on their marriage. When they get there, they find the cottage is in a beautiful location I would personally love to visit sometime, and it proves to be a very relaxing place for a vacation. But when they start to explore the other parts of the house, things quickly get very trippy.

So that’s it. This is all I am going to tell you about the plot of “The One I Love.” It is very nice we have a movie like this one where film buffs are not investigating every little detail like they do with “Star Wars” or “The Matrix.” With big blockbusters, everyone is analyzing every single moment of the movie trailers, following news updates of who is being cast, and it gets to where they have a vision of what it is going to be like inside their heads. The problem is, going into anything with such lofty expectations will usually have you living very disappointed, and perhaps for the wrong reasons. It helps that “The One I Love” is a low budget feature which is coming in under the radar because people aren’t busy overanalyzing like this one.

It should also be noted how director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader created this movie out of a 50-page document which contained the scene beats and the locations of the entire movie. The only thing this document did not contain was the dialogue, and the actors ended up improvising it themselves. Even though the actors were given ideas to work with, they pretty much drive this movie more than anyone else, and I applaud the challenges they face here and the risks they took with what they were given.

“The One I Love” serves as a terrific acting showcase for its stars Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, both of whom get to explore different levels of their characters throughout the movie’s running time. Mark is, of course, well known for making and producing many offbeat films with his brother Jay Duplass like “Cyrus,” “Baghead” and “The Puffy Chair” among others. As an actor, he is perfectly cast in the role of an everyman husband who finds himself threatened with the various events he is forced to endure while staying at the cottage. As Ethan, we sense his desperation to save his marriage, and we also sense his desperation to not be second best at anything.

Moss has had quite the ride in recent years with her work on “Mad Men,” “Top of the Lake” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and she is currently experiencing great success on the silver screen in “The Invisible Man.” She once again proves just how wide her acting range is as Sophie. Like the movie, she is full of surprises and such a lovely presence to watch, and she renders every emotion you see Sophie going through as being totally genuine. Considering what the role has her doing, it is really quite a feat when you realize what Moss has accomplished here.

“The One I Love” is one of the few movies I have seen in recent years which takes turns I did not see coming, and I honestly have not been this riveted by a romantic comedy since “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Seriously, you really need to check your expectations at the door when you go and see it because there will be no easy way to prepare you for what will unfold. I am always waiting to see a movie which constantly surprises me throughout, and this is one of them.

If there were any expectations I had with “The One I Lovie,” it was that I was to hear Stephen Still’s song “Love the One You’re With” play over the end credits. Once you watch this movie, you will understand why this would have been the perfect piece of music to end things on. After all, “The Simpsons” made great use of it on one of their “Treehouse of Horror” episodes.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Skeleton Twins’ Has ‘SNL’ Stars Doing Drama as Well as They Do Comedy

The Skeleton Twins movie poster

Okay, I think we are way past the point where we should not be the least bit surprised when comedic actors succeed in giving strong dramatic performances. Many are stunned when funny people like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler give strong and deeply felt performances in “The Truman Show” and “Punch Drunk Love,” and it feels like these same people are saying they were fully prepared for them to really suck because they were working outside of the genre they have gained the most recognition for. After all these years, the majority of audiences still believe drama is far more challenging to pull off than comedy, but it has always been the other way around. Making people cry is easy, but making them laugh is much harder. Frankly I am far more stunned when serious dramatic actors give terrific comedic performances because lord knows they take themselves way too seriously.

I bring this up because I just saw “The Skeleton Twins” which stars two of “Saturday Night Live’s” best alumni, Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader. It won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and it is not hard to see why. They play twins who were as close as a brother and sister could be until events like the unexpected death of their father tore them apart. The two bring their comedic talents to this sad tale, but they also dig deep into their roles to show us sides of themselves we have not seen, or never took the time to see previously.

When the movie starts, these characters have reached an emotional bottom they cannot seem to dig themselves out of. Milo (Hader) lives in Los Angeles where he is just another out of work actor, and he is inconsolable after his latest relationship falls apart. As a result, he sinks into his bathtub and tries to commit suicide. Meanwhile in New York, Maggie (Wiig) is about to take her own life when she is interrupted by a phone call informing her Milo has beat her to it, except of course for the fact he was saved from death just in the nick of time.

Maggie visits Milo in the hospital, and it marks the first time they have talked to one another face to face in a decade. It is an awkward reunion as neither is sure what to say to the other, and one of them has to spoil the ending of “Marley & Me” in the process. The wounds from childhood are still fresh in their minds, and their mother (played by Joanna Gleason) is no help as she has since become a new-age practitioner who refuses to recognize or even consider the pain her children have been enduring. But soon Milo and Maggie realize in order to fix their lives and let go of the past, they need to repair their relationship with one another first.

Now regardless of the above description, “The Skeleton Twins” is indeed a comedy, or perhaps a dramedy is a better way to describe it. In a lot of ways, it has to be a comedy because Milo and Maggie need to laugh about something or else everything will become far too painful to bear. But even though they look to be on the road to recovery, Milo and Maggie still have some severe road bumps to travel over which will test them and their broken faith in one another.

We learn Milo’s first love was his high school English teacher Rich (Ty Burrell), and it should go without saying it was a forbidden love which should never have taken place. Nevertheless, Milo still has deep feelings for Rich and has never gotten past what they shared. He tries to reconnect with Rich by pretending to be a successful actor, but Rich initially resents Milo’s reappearance in his life as he now lives with his girlfriend and son. But this does not deter Milo as he continues to pursue Rich for a relationship which is not the least bit realistic for either of them.

As for Maggie, she at first appears to be happily married to a Lance (Luke Wilson), and they tell everyone they are more than ready to start a family. Maggie, however, is secretly taking birth control pills behind Lance’s back and has developed a crush on her flirtatious scuba diving instructor, Billy (Boyd Holbrook), who is quite the Australian hunk (is there any other kind?). As well intentioned as she and Milo are, both are indulging in self-destructive behavior and do not fully realize the consequences of what they are doing until the damage has already been done.

Like other movies I really admire, the characters in “The Skeleton Twins” are refreshingly down to earth and relatable to where they are not much different from those we know in our own lives. Regardless of whether or not we ever had an affair with our high school English teacher or our scuba diving instructor, we have all been at that point where we feel infinitely lost to where we are unsure of how to make our lives better. Furthermore, none of these characters are painted in broad strokes. They all have various layers to their personalities, and there are no clear cut good or bad guys to be found here.

Wiig has long since proven to be a wonderful actress in “Bridesmaids” and “All Good Things,” and her work in “The Skeleton Twins” is the latest example. As Maggie, she uses her brilliant comedic skills to great effect, but she also inhabits her character more than she plays her to where we get caught up in the infinite sadness Maggie is trying to outrun on a daily basis. This is especially the case when Maggie is forced to face up to what she has done wrong, and this not easy for anyone.

But the most revelatory performance in “The Skeleton Twins” comes from Hader as Milo. Honestly, I am not surprised he is as good as he is here, but it feels like this is the first time we have seen him in this kind of role. Milo is gay, and this may lead some to believe Hader is simply resurrecting his Stefon character from “SNL” to where we will watch him go to Trash, the meatpacking hot spot where you can meet the Muslim Elvis impersonator Pierre, but he is a lot smarter than that. Hader gives a very nuanced performance throughout, and his story about peaking in high school really choked me up. No one wants to believe high school is the best time in their lives, but it may be the place where you end up doing your most memorable work.

And just as they proved over the years on “SNL,” Wiig and Hader are quite the team when you put them together. They play off each other brilliantly during the scene in the dentist’s office where they discover the benefits of nitrous oxide which allows their characters to open up in a way they haven’t in years. But that almost doesn’t compare to the movie’s penultimate scene where they lip sync “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship (or Jefferson Starship or Jefferson Airplane or whatever the hell you want to call that band) which proves to be hilariously moving. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, but this movie has me seeing it in a whole new light.

While I am at it, I do have to give credit to the supporting actors who take roles which could have been stock characters and render them as truly memorable. Luke Wilson is a delight throughout as Lance, the endlessly cheerful husband. Lance could have been completely indifferent to what his wife is going through or just a flat-out jerk, but Wilson humanizes this character to where we see he is truly a good-hearted man who wants to be there for his wife even when he does not know how to help her. Special mention also goes out to Ty Burrell who plays a character who, in real life, we would despise with an intense passion, and he makes Rich an empathetic character who is in his own way just as lost and self-destructive as Milo and Maggie are.

“The Skeleton Twins” does end on a rather abrupt note and leaves a couple of plot threads dangling in an unsatisfying manner. Regardless, it is one of those movies which had quite the emotional impact on me. It always feels like a gift when you watch a movie with characters you can relate to, and director Craig Johnson has given us just that.

Seriously, there can be no more talk of how amazing it is when comedy actors can do drama. Of course they can, and this should go without saying. Do not tell Hader and Wiig to stick with comedy because this movie shows they can do anything and everything at this point. No pun intended, but nothing is going to stop them now.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Guillmero Amoedo About ‘The Stranger’

Guillermo Amoedo photo

Uruguayan writer and director Guillermo Amoedo has left a solid mark on Chilean audiences with his short films and movies, and he was a co-writer on the Eli Roth productions of “Aftershock” and “The Green Inferno.” In 2014, he left his mark on American audiences with the supernatural thriller “The Stranger.”

Cristobal Tapia Montt stars as Martin, a mysterious man who arrives in a small Canadian town to look for his wife. The reasons why Martin seeks her out become clear as the movie goes on, but he quickly discovers she has died and decides to commit suicide as a result. But after he is viciously attacked by a trio of criminals, the incident soon has a snowball effect on the whole town, and its inhabitants soon find themselves ensnared in a nasty bloodbath many of them will be unable to escape.

I got to speak with Guillermo about “The Stranger” and of how he came up with the idea for it. Although it his film, Eli Roth’s name is heavily featured on the movie’s advertisements and it had me asking Guillermo how much the “Hostel” director was involved in its making. Guillermo also discussed how Cristobal was cast, of how a particularly brilliant vampire movie became a strong inspiration for “The Stranger,” and of how family always plays a big part in horror films.

The Stranger 2014 movie poster

Ben Kenber: What was the genesis of “The Stranger’s” story for you?

Guillermo Amoedo: Well it was an idea that I had five years ago in between scripts. It came actually from the idea of what kind of vampire movie I would like to see. I’m actually not a vampire movie fan, but I saw a vampire film called “Let the Right One In.” I really loved the way it is designed by genre and I really loved the way they treated the subject, and I wanted to do something very grounded in the kind of vampire films that I would like to see; more grounded and more character driven than the ones that are out there right now. I wanted to take the tone of that film and make it more grounded, but then also make it my own kind of story that was more of a character driven story about this guy who has to choose between his own family or humankind. I like this kind of character that had this deep moral conflict inside of them and has to make the tough decisions.

BK: On the surface, “The Stranger” looks like a vampire movie, but it also has elements of a ghost movie as well as supernatural elements as well. Was it always your intention to mix up genres with this movie?

GA: Yeah, that was the idea. It has of course some supernatural elements, but it’s more about the people than it was about the supernatural powers. That’s why I wanted to make all the supernatural stuff as minimal as possible. They don’t have wings, they don’t fly, they just have some stuff from the vampire mythology but they’re actually pretty human.

BK: “The Stranger” has Eli Roth’s name on the top of this movie’s advertisements and I know that you worked with him previously on “Aftershock.” What part did he play in the making of “The Stranger?”

GA: Well he helped a lot in the development of the script and had a lot of notes. He also helped us a lot in post-production with different cuts and ideas. He was involved in different stages of this process. This is the fourth film where we have been involved with Eli and we have a very friendly collaboration process with him.

BK: I really enjoyed Cristobal Tapia Montt’s performance as Martin and I love how he holds the audiences’ attention just with a single stare. What was it like directing him in “The Stranger?”

GA: He was amazing. Originally the script was written for someone older, much older, like 45 or 50 years old. But then before doing the film I made a short film and I casted him for it. I changed the age of the character in order to cast him, and he did such a wonderful job that I changed everything so he could play the role of Martin. He’s a terrific actor. He has a lot of experience working in Chilean films and TV, and I hope he can have more opportunities in the future.

BK: I liked that, as a writer, you didn’t go out of your way to spell out everything in the movie’s story for the audience. As a writer, how important is it for you to keep secrets from the audience?

GA: Well I think it has to be a balance of how much you can tell without revealing everything, but you also don’t want to reveal too much. There’s a line that says the secret to being boring is to tell everything. You have to test sometimes the script and then the movie to see how much you can hold back from the audience and how much you have to give them so it’s tricky sometimes. It also depends a lot on the kinds of audiences. Some people get mad because they want to know everything. It’s like the tip of the iceberg; you have to tell as much information as necessary so that the audience can understand the story, but then you can leave a lot of stuff that the audience can fill with their own imagination. So I like to do a lot of that stuff where people have to fill part of the story with their own imagination.

BK: Ariel Levy who plays Caleb, the town bully, was he meant to have the same hairstyle as Eminem in this movie?

GA: (Laughs) That wasn’t actually the idea, but now that you mention he does look a lot like an Eminem fan. It was to change Ariel’s aspect as much is possible, so we changed his haircut and his hair color and he was intended to resemble Ben Foster in “3:10 to Yuma,” but something like that more than Eminem. It was changing Ariel’s aspect everything to get him more involved in his character.

BK: Nicolás Durán’s character of Peter is referred to as a tagger which is slang for graffiti artist, and it was interesting to see the symbolism in what he was painting. Was there any intentional symbolism in what he was spraying over the walls in town?

GA: There is one thing: the symbol that he writes on the walls is the same as the marking that Cristobal’s character has on his wrist. That’s actually the idea that there is some kind of connection between them, and it’s a made up symbol that has to do with something the Greeks used to do. They used to mark the people who are ill before Christ, so we are trying to build a mythology between that and what kind of character that Cristobal plays.

BK: I imagine you had a very tight budget to work with on “The Stranger” and a short schedule to make it in. How much did that force you to be more creative while shooting?

GA: Always limitations, I think, are better. Sometimes you have too many limitations to work with, but when you have enough… It’s a good thing to know your limitations from before, so when I wrote the script I knew how many pages we could shoot a day and how much stuff we could do so I tried to plan everything right from the beginning. Then when there’s so much trouble that I think we were pretty much prepared for the worst, and we ended up doing a pretty good job.

BK: The town where you shot “The Stranger” in has a wonderfully Gothic feel to it as well as a great small-town vibe which fits the movie perfectly. Did you always plan to shoot the movie there, or did this town come to your attention through a location scout?

GA: Well we actually planned to shoot everything at another town that was farther away from the town (we shot in), more South. This town is near a place near another town where one of the producers of the movie has a house where he always goes to for vacation. He told me that this place was great and had lakes and volcanoes and everything. We went there and it was amazing. I mean everywhere you could shoot from anyplace and you would have three volcanoes in a lake in the town in the view and everything. It was an amazing place to shoot.

BK: How would you describe “The Stranger” to an audience that has yet to see it?

GA: I would say it is a supernatural thriller about the clash of two fathers who have to decide why on one side this father has this desire to save his son or put in danger the whole of humankind and decides to save humankind, and there’s the other one who decides to save his kid and puts the whole of humankind in danger. So there’s this clash of morals between fathers.

BK: Family always plays a big part in the best horror films.

GA: Yeah, and that’s what actually the film was about. Aside from the supernatural stuff, it’s about how far would you go to save your kid. How much would you put in and risk to save them? Even though your kid might become a monster, it’s still your kid. So that kind of challenges and creates a moral conflict, and that’s what the movie is about.

A big thank you to Guillermo Amoedo for taking the time to talk with me. “The Stranger” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Cristobal Tapia Montt about ‘The Stranger’

Cristobal Tapia Montt in The Stranger

American audiences may not know who Cristobal Tapia Montt is, but they will not be able to forget him after watching him in Guillermo Amoedo’s horror thriller “The Stranger.” A Chilean actor who has spent much of his career acting in Spanish language movies and television, this Eli Roth production marks his first ever performance in an English language movie.

In “The Stranger,” Cristobal plays Martin, a mysterious man who arrives in a small town in the southern part of Canada to find his wife, Ana. The both of them are afflicted with a horrible disease which gives them a never ending thirst for human blood, and Martin is in town to kill her. But upon discovering that she died some time ago, he decides to commit suicide so he can eradicate this disease once and for all. However, after being brutally attacked by the town bullies, his presence in the town soon creates a snowball effect which will plunge its inhabitants into a bloodbath they have little chance of escaping.

It was a real pleasure talking with Cristobal about his performance in “The Stranger” as well as his other artistic works. Many have noted his unique approach to the characters he has played, and he has also been recognized for his work as an illustrator and musician. We talked about these things and a lot more, and I invite you to read our interview below.

The Stranger 2014 movie poster

Ben Kenber: Your performance in “The Stranger” is really good. I liked how you managed to hold the audiences’ attention with a single stare.

Cristobal Tapia Montt: Yeah, there is a lot of staring in the movie (laughs).

BK: How do you prepare for moments where you have a close-up and stare straight into the camera?

CTM: I don’t know if there’s much preparation for that. I didn’t have a lot of lines so I knew I was going to have to work on this face and attitude where you could actually understand what I was thinking or feeling, so I just jumped into it on set. Guillermo was directing me pretty well so he really knew what he wanted, so it wasn’t really hard at all. It was really easy and everything was pretty clear from the beginning.

BK: In the production notes it says you have a very unique approach to the characters you play. Could you tell us more about your approach?

CTM: Well actually I didn’t go to acting school, so every character I portray comes from a gut feeling. Whenever I try to imagine myself being that person, I see my characters as living beings as friends or people I’ve met. I just try to understand and have empathy on whatever they are going through or what they are going through and just understand them. It’s a really weird way I guess for me because I don’t know if anyone else does it that way, I try to picture living creatures and try to understand and be them for a while. It’s very intuitive and I just play it by my gut and whatever I feel. It sounds pretty scary, but I guess acting is kind of like that for me.

BK: Your character of Martin remains a very mysterious character in this movie. He’s not necessarily a vampire, but he’s also not entirely human. Did you have to create a whole backstory for this character?

CTM: Yeah of course. Actually I asked Guillermo to help me out with that because he had a backstory already, so he shared it with me and we discussed it and I kind of added my own backstory because there was a couple of years and a couple of gaps in between with his wife and what he had gone through. I just had to come up with this whole backstory and the 16 or 17 years that passed by because you don’t really know what happens. The moment that Martin appears in this northern city in Canada I just had to fill in the gap of all those years, so that’s essentially the backstory that had to come out with because no one really knew went on during those years.

BK: I’m guessing Martin has been on this planet for a lot longer than anyone realizes.

CTM: Yeah, exactly. That was the whole idea in the beginning. That was a really interesting transition because you never hear the word vampire in the movie, but you end up understanding that this movie has a lot to do with vampires. Vampires never grow old, but what we wanted to do… You can see a transition through the years. We just wanted him to have the longer beard and we wanted him to look actually beaten up a little bit just because emotionally he got beaten up so we wanted to reflect that physically. I think you see that in the movie as well because in the flashbacks we (Martin and Ana) both look not younger but fresher in a certain way and Martin looks lighter. We wanted to portray them with this burden 16 years after, and I think you can appreciate that in the movie.

BK: Speaking of emotion, this looks like a very emotionally draining part to play. How were you able to maintain such strong emotions throughout shooting?

CTM: I guess as an actor you get trained to get into it, and when you’re on set you do it and then you just disconnect. It’s kind of like a switch, you know? So in that sense it wasn’t really hard. It was just like getting into it and then stepping out of it. We were shooting at night because most of the movie was shot during the night, so whenever I went home to the cabin where we were staying in, I would just sleep so I didn’t really have any time to even think about it. I would get there at like seven in the morning and wake up at four and just go for it again. It’s exhausting as an actor to shoot at night, but emotionally I was doing pretty much okay. It was fine. It wasn’t really that draining.

BK: What was it like shooting in that small town where the movie takes place?

CTM: It was amazing. It’s this beautiful town down in the south of Chile and it’s amazing. It’s like super green, it’s way down south, it’s rainy, it’s gloomy and it sets the perfect mood for the movie as well. I think we were there for 12 or 14 days, and just to be there and to stay at a cabin that was right off the shore of the lake and wake up to that was very inspiring. It’s easier shooting a movie when you’re in such an amazing location.

BK: What interested you most in playing Martin in “The Stranger?”

CTM: Well the fact that it was in English. It was my first opportunity to play a character in English because I’m a Chilean actor so I’ve only played characters that speak Spanish. So it was a huge opportunity acting wise to try that out and see what it was like to act in English and if I could pull it off as well. The opportunity to be in a movie that is being shown in the (United) States was just very, very attractive, and that possibility existed since the beginning of the movie. I speak English and Spanish so I wouldn’t mind trying to act in English for a while because I’m a native speaker. The story was very interesting as well. I’m a horror fan and I’ve always liked vampire movies and science fiction, and it’s my kind of genre so that was pretty cool as well. It’s like, I get to play a vampire! It was a very interesting project so I was attracted to it from the beginning.

BK: What would you say are the differences between doing a movie in English and doing a movie in another language?

CTM: I thought it was going to be very, very different and maybe more difficult, but in the end it’s the same thing. It’s the same language film wise. You’re speaking a different language but you’re still telling the story. It’s very much the same, you know? I don’t think it’s different at all. But the main difference is that you will probably reach a larger audience because English is a universal language. A lot more people speak English than Spanish I’m assuming. I could be wrong, but I guess it’s easier to show in different countries if it’s in English, and I guess that’s the main difference from acting in Spanish.

BK: I also read that you are known for your music and illustrations as well as your acting. Can you tell us more about that?

CTM: Yeah sure. I’ve been drawing since I was very young. I’ve been drawn to the artistic world in all its forms. I started playing on the piano when I was 12, so I’ve been always been playing music and drawing since an early age. I dropped out of college. I was there for three years and I was interested in studying design. I just kept on drawing and playing. I’ve played a cello, I’ve played in different bands, and I have a music project that I’ve been a part of as well. I compose and sing and play instruments. I just really enjoy art as a channel of expression. Acting is just another form of that art and it just helps me get stuff out of my system. If I didn’t have that it would drive me nuts. It’s very personal though. I’ve never really gotten my music out there. At art shows I show my drawings and I’ve had two that sold, and I play live sometimes. But it’s not something that… I feel like it’s more personal. I really don’t have the urge to just like put it out there and make everyone listen to my music. It’s more about me expressing myself and putting myself out there.

I want to thank Cristobal for taking the time to talk to me. “The Stranger” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘Nightcrawler’ is a Brilliantly and Insanely Twisted Motion Picture

nightcrawler movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2014.

Just when I thought I wouldn’t see a 2014 movie as twisted as “Gone Girl,” along comes “Nightcrawler.” Delving into the underground world of Los Angeles freelance crime journalism, this is a thriller which feels like a cross between “Taxi Driver” and “Network” as it follows characters who do not hesitate to cross over any and all ethical or moral considerations in order to survive another day in an infinitely cruel and competitive world. You will find yourself laughing at things you would normally never laugh at, but that’s because it serves as a way to deal with the increasingly insane scenarios which will leave you staring at the screen with your mouth open.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, an alienated young man struggling to find work anywhere and everywhere. The movie starts off with him stealing materials from a construction site which he then attempts to sell at a scrap yard with little success. His attempts to find a job or even an unpaid internship prove to be utterly fruitless despite his best efforts and conniving ways, and he is a symbol of how many Americans who are having the toughest time finding work. Then one night while he’s driving on the freeway, he comes across a nasty car accident and, like many, he is tempted to take a closer look. This is when a camera crew led by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) drops by to film whatever footage he can get to sell to the local news station. Instantly intrigued, Louis goes out and buys a cheap video camera and starts filming crime scenes and human carnage which eventually catches the eye of veteran news producer, Nina (Rene Russo).

“Nightcrawler” marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy whose writing credits include “Freejack,” “Two for the Money” and “The Bourne Legacy.” With a limited budget, he succeeds in creating a crazy version of the American success story, proving it can be achieved but at a soul sucking price. Gyllenhaal, with a stare which cuts through the audience like a laser beam, gives us a character beyond determined to rise to the top of the TV news food chain. In many ways Louis is enigmatic as we don’t get to know too much about him, but no one can deny he is a full blown sociopath who has finally found something he can make a career at.

Gyllenhaal does some of his best work yet in “Nightcrawler,” and I’m not just saying this because he lost 20 to 30 pounds to play Louis. His focus as an actor is never in doubt as he makes Louis as compelling a human being as he is an insane one. Even as Louis throws all reason out the window, we cannot help but be mesmerized as Gyllenhaal makes him a highly unlikely antihero.

It’s also great to see Russo here as well as she brings Nina to a life in a way which showcases how vulnerable her character can be despite how hardened life has made her. This is a character clinging on to her job for dear life in a business prepared to chew her up and spit her out without a second thought. It should not be a surprise she crosses countless journalistic guidelines to get the bloody violent footage her audience is craving for. Whether or not she believes it is the right thing to do is beside the point because her survival in an unforgiving economy is foremost on her mind. You can chastise Nina and Louis all you want for the choices they make in life, but like anyone else, they are driven to survive by any means necessary.

I loved the scenes between Gyllenhaal and Russo as they constantly size each other up to where they firmly believe they have the other person figured out. As Louis gets more and more successful at capturing footage others could only dream of getting, and this eventually leads to him getting better equipment and a super cool car which goes super-fast, their relationship gets increasingly tense as he makes it clear to Nina who’s in charge. Nina observes Louis with both utter fascination and disgust as he stares right through her to where she can’t help but be taken in by him.

As “Nightcrawler” hurtles towards its wonderfully insane conclusion, Louis becomes a magician of sorts as he manipulates events to where he creates news he greatly profits from. We should despise him for what he does, but Gilroy has the audience firmly in his grip to where we can’t help but admire him for the devious things he has accomplished, and that’s regardless of what happens to others in his path.

Gyllenhaal was born to play Louis just as Russo was born to portray Nina, and both actors are well served by a supporting cast which matches them from scene for scene. The always reliable Bill Paxton plays Louis’ chief competitor, Joe Loder, and he is a hoot to watch as he tries to gain the upper hand only to see things blow up in his face. Also terrific is Riz Ahmed who plays Louis’ partner in crime footage coverage, Rick, a nice guy who hasn’t lost his moral bearings but is constantly forced to go against his better judgment in order to keep his job. Ahmed does great work as he makes us sympathize with Rick even as he gets into situations he can’t quite pull himself out of.

With “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy has given us a wonderfully twisted tale which shows how the American success story can become a reality if you’re willing to lose yourself in the process. What’s brilliant about the movie is it’s filled with characters molded by the world they live in. We can berate them all we want, but their actions speak more about what society has turned them into. In a time where employment opportunities are not as plentiful as they should be, it’s a little hard to blame these characters for what they do. But when we are forced to do the same, hopefully we can do it in a way that is nowhere as life threatening. Of course, that might just be wishful thinking.

I have to end this review with this piece of dialogue Louis Bloom has as it sums up the state of the world today perfectly:

“I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. What I believe, sir, is that good things come to those that work their asses off, and that good people such as yourself, who reach the top of the mountain, didn’t just fall there. My motto is: if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Please check out the interview I did with Gyllenhaal and Russo on “Nightcrawler” which I conducted on behalf of We Got This Covered down below.

David Gordon Green Captures an Authentic Reality in ‘Joe’

Joe movie poster

One of 2014’s most underrated and overlooked movies was “Joe.” Directed by David Gordon Green, who just directed the incredibly successful reboot of “Halloween,” it stars Nicolas Cage in one of the best performances as Joe, an ex-convict and a foreman for a small tree removal crew in Texas. One day, Joe is met by Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old drifter who has just moved into town with his wayward family, and he ends up giving the young man a job on his crew. However, Gary’s father is an alcoholic bastard who beats up everyone and anyone in his path, and this presents Joe with the choice of finding redemption in his life or meeting his maker by putting an end to this vicious situation Gary has been tragically caught up in.

For Green, “Joe” represents a return to his independent roots where he made his mark with films like “George Washington” and “All the Right Girls.” As a result, he ends up capturing a reality of life which is not easily captured in other movies as we watch characters native to the state they live in trying to get by in life. Green ended up hiring non-actors to play certain roles as he wanted to capture the realism of the environment these people live in.

I was lucky enough to attend the press junket for “Joe” held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the website We Got This Covered, and I asked Green what it was like capturing the authenticity of these people and where they live. More importantly, I was interested in finding out if capturing this authenticity was easier or harder to accomplish in this day and age where we are bombarded with an endless number of “reality shows.”

David Gordon Green: That’s a good question. We live in a world with reality television so it’s less surprising to see a camera on the street corner to see a production. Certainly, a lot of us who frequent the Los Angeles area don’t even bat an eyelash at some production that’s closing down a street and taking us on a detour. I kind of like that the production element can be that much more intimate because the mystery has been dissolved a little bit. When I was a kid you would watch a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of a movie and it would blow your mind learning the steps of folly and the art form behind it. Now I think everyone has a good, clear concept of that. There’s not that obsession with that. It’s also a world where people know where the lines of documentary, reality TV and fiction/narrative filmmaking are starting to blur a little bit. I actually think there are a lot of values there. Some of the great performances are documentary performances. You see a movie like “Grizzly Man” and you’re like, if only I could take Timothy Treadmill, I could make an amazing script for him. In that way it’s become a lot easier and it’s just about trying to market a film to be appealing to an audience. Trying to get a movie that emotionally connects with an audience and invites them into a world that does have an authenticity. It does take you to difficult places but has enough of an emotional honesty and levity to be able to be something that you want to look at and an attractive quality within the cinematography and music that brings you in and makes you feel fulfilled. All of these technical elements that come in make it a rewarding experience and not just the dramatic hammer coming down to tell you their melodrama, but really to open up insight into the characters and their revelations to each other.

With those comments, I hope audiences take the time to discover “Joe” as it is a movie deserving of a bigger audience than it ended up getting in 2014. While many think Cage makes nothing but bad movies these days, this one reminds you of what a great actor he can be given the right material.

Exclusive Interview with Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo about ‘The Case Against 8’

The Case Against 8 Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo

Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo are two of the people at the center of “The Case Against 8,” Ben Cotner and Ryan White’s documentary which takes a behind the scenes look at the historic federal lawsuit filed in an effort to overturn California’s discriminatory ban on gay marriage known as Proposition 8. These two have been together since 1998, and Katami is a fitness expert and small business owner while Zarrillo is the general manager of a theater exhibition company. We watch as they make their case about why they deserve the same rights as anyone else who wants to get married, and we revel in their victory which makes for a genuinely happy Hollywood ending of sorts.

I had a great time talking with Katami and Zarrillo when they were in Los Angeles to talk about their involvement in “The Case Against 8” back in 2014. For the two of them, this was a case which was supposed to last at least a year, but it ended up going on for five.

Ben Kenber: When this project started this project started, obviously you had no idea of what kind of documentary this would turn out to be. What was your reaction to having these documentary filmmakers, Ben Cotner and Ryan White, follow you around all the time?

Jeff Zarrillo: We knew that it was really important the story get told because our story, and Kris (Perry) and Sandy (Stier’s) story, is the same story of thousands and thousands of people around California and beyond. So, Ben and Ryan coming on board to memorialize it was a great way to make sure we could put a film together that would help inspire people and help educate people who might be on the fence. Or it might inspire the young kid who is sitting in his room watching this movie, and his parents are out in the living room and they don’t know if he or she is gay, and he looks at this film and says, “Wow! I can do this too! It’s going to be okay.” I think the young people that have yet to fall in love will watch this movie and become inspired to fall in love regardless of their sexuality. So, I think with Ben and Ryan coming aboard to do all this, to put a period on the sentences, they have a stake in the outcome too. They are two gay men living in California who would love the opportunity to get married, so I think we always knew that they would take good care of the story, protect the story and tell the truth of our lives and also the lives of so many other people.

Paul Katami: I echo what Jeff said. I mean you go walking into the world of the unknowns. Our focus was the case and no one could’ve ever imagined the twists and turns that it took. But at the time it’s a testament to Ben and Ryan, and they said that this is an important venture. This could be a landmark case, this could be a teachable moment for people, this could help other states and potentially people around the world understand that when there’s an injustice like Proposition 8 you must fight it. You must be at the front end of it because we were on the back end of it when we got into this case. So, it was a testament to them to say that we are going to be putting forth the time and the effort and the commitment for however long it takes, not knowing what the third act is and not knowing how this is going to end. I think it’s a true testament to them in saying regardless of win or lose, it’s an important story to tell because it will get people talking about the truth of the matter. I think that’s the goal of a good documentary which is to just represent the truth. No angle, no hard-hitting, this is just telling the truth of what happened. And much to what Jeff said, I believe that that person who may be in the middle of this subject matter, we preach to the choir all the time, but we want to find that unexpected ally. So maybe that person is going to sit in their home in their living room, and they don’t have to publicly affirm or deny anything. They can just sit and understand what the truth of the subject matter is based on this case. To us that’s a benefit beyond anything we ever dreamt about when they first approached us.

BK: Is there anything you wish was included in this documentary that wasn’t?

JZ: That’s a good question. I think the movie is so well done and well edited that there are moments where you think, “Wow! I really would have loved to have seen that” like the moment where we get the decision. But I think that Ben and Ryan have done such a good job of using the footage they had, and Kate (Amend) did such a great job editing it that you almost feel like you’re in the room with us. You can imagine Ted (Olson) sitting there with this tie over his shoulder, or you can think of Paul sitting in the courtroom and his knee going up and down and me telling him you need to stop. You almost feel like you were there with us. So, there were parts that we wish were there, but they are typically the parts where the cameras weren’t allowed to be. So, everything else was told very well, and to have 600 hours of footage and filter it down to an hour and 45 minutes and still have a really strong progression in narrative from beginning to end I think is really a testament to their abilities as filmmakers and Kate’s ability as a really strong editor.

BK: Did the thought of being surrounded by cameras make you hesitant to be in the documentary?

PK: A lot, but ultimately, I think in the back of our minds we knew the most important camera that was following us was the one that was going to tell the story. And so many times you have a private moment, just a totally private moment, and you look up and there would be Ben or Ryan behind a camera and you’re like, “Wow I didn’t even know you were in the room,” which is also the testament of a good filmmaker that they are going to capture the truth that way. You don’t ever feel like you have to be on. You can be yourself so they made us feel very, very comfortable along the way with the process. They funded this completely on their own. These filmmakers were behind the cameras, and there might have been just one camera on you, one person in a corner of the room for five hours, and at the end of the day you’d look up and be like, “Wow, we just went through deposition in preparation and Ryan’s been standing there the entire time with the camera on the shoulder or making sure focus and sound was right.” So, talk about being dedicated to the film (laughs) because some of that testimony prep is just not exciting. So, you’re aware but you’re not aware in a way, and I think that was the beauty of it because you see sometimes people dealing with the media who are in their face. They need a response in the moment, and sometimes that’s not the most genuine thing because you are reacting to what you feel you need to say or need to do. Their (Ben’s and Ryan’s) cameras were the most important ones, but they were not always in our faces. They were always capturing the truth of the moment.

BK: What I like about this documentary is forces you to look at the specifics of the case and the people involved. When Ted Olson was announced as the lead attorney in the case against Proposition 8, there were a lot of objections as he is considered a conservative and also represented George W. Bush in the “Bush v. Gore” case. What was your initial reaction when you heard that Ted Olson would be representing you in this lawsuit?

JZ: Well it’s very funny. Again, we’ve had these coincidences throughout this whole process, but I (swear to God) had just watched “Recount.” I had never seen it, and for some reason I had seen a pop up on HBO and I TiVoed it and watched it, and within the month we were a part of this lawsuit. So, I knew that I could probably sit down at the dinner table and have a great conversation with David Boies (who represented Al Gore in “Bush v. Gore” and was also representing the couples in this case) about everything we agreed on, but with Ted Olson there were probably very few things we would agree on. That really underscores how important it was to have both of them there because it stripped away all of that. This has always been a partisan issue, so the fact that they became involved stripped all that away regardless of the reactions that Ted got from his conservative friends and colleagues. But I really just love the fact that it really just underscores that this is more about equality and it’s more about being an American than being a Democrat or a Republican. And Ted is one of the sweetest grandpas you will ever meet.

BK: What kind of effect has the documentary had on your life so far?

PK: For us it’s kind of an out of body experience. During the case, it was really about work. It was about making sure that we worked to do what we needed to do for the case to be our best to make that goal happen, and then going right back to our everyday lives and work as well. So, there’s really no ego attached to it, but when you see the film at a festival and someone comes up to you afterwards and says I’ve been affected this way by this film, and it’s always been positive, you think of the power that you have in your own life and with your own voice. Because five years ago it was just Jeff and Paul in Burbank speaking on the couch about what we could do to speak out and do something and make it different. And five years later we are watching it in a documentary film after a legal battle at the Supreme Court of the United States. So, to me, I think in terms of how it affects us is that it affects us by saying you don’t need a legal battle to make a difference. You don’t need to have this major platform or media or a documentary. You can make a difference by just making a decision to saying yes to something in your own home or community, to stand up and protect yourself and present yourself and people like you because that’s all that we did, and we got lucky. We merged with an effort with people who put their lives on the line to start this movie way back when, and it’s a much easier time for us to do it now. We feel very lucky and blessed, but we also hope that the film can then inspire someone else to do the same. Continue taking the torch forward.

BK: This lawsuit took five years to come to a full conclusion. But when you began it, how long can the lawyers say it was going to take?

JZ: 18 to 24 months.

PK: Yeah, and no testimony (laughs). Don’t worry about it; you won’t even take the stand.

JZ: No trial, it’ll all be a series of motions that will be filed. You’ll have to stand there and make a few appearances, but that would be it. But then Judge Walker decided to have a trial, and we really understood what having a trial meant and how important it would be to have a thorough record and presentation of evidence and experts. And really, how much that trial showed the way that the evidence being on our side versus on their side, it made all the other things worth it.

BK: When the defendants presented their evidence which argued for Proposition 8, a lot of it became kind of comical…

PK: There was no evidence (laughs).

BK: Oh right, sorry about that. There was one point that was brought up called gender disorientation pathology, and I literally started laughing.

PK: But this just goes to show you that that is a perfect example of why we had to bring the Proposition 8 campaign to court. Can you imagine that you could just write this and then disseminate it and say this is the truth? And that’s not even the worst of it. That’s actually mild. Junk science was made up and then purported as truth, and then people vote based on that. So, you take that to the court of law and you say “prove it.” Where did you find this? And the answer is that “we found it on the internet.” It’s laughable, right? But it’s also so angering because good people were swayed into believing something that was untrue for your benefit and to the damage of other peoples’ lives. Its embarrassing is what it is. People laugh at it because it’s ridiculous, but then talk to the people who lost partners of 30 or 40 years during this process before they were able to legally marry and how their lives have been destroyed because of the prohibitions to federal law and federal protections and to state laws and state protections. To them it’s not funny at all. We laughed too (at the defense’s arguments). We were like, are you kidding? It’s a funny part of the movie, but that’s how idiotic it is. You sit there and go, oh my God! Of course, you laugh and you laugh at David Blankenhorn and you laugh at these moments where you’re like, really? It’s responsible procreation? Jeff’s sister-in-law said, “I was really offended by that,” because she had to artificially inseminate. And she’s like, “Well does that mean that I’m not responsible? That I’m not a responsible person? I’m married, I want to have a family, and I want to be responsible to this institution.” So, it’s laughable, but at the same time it’s angering.

BK: I remember watching that Proposition 8 commercial on television where the little girl comes home and tells her mother that she got told a story about how she can be a princess and that she can marry a princess too, and I remember thinking “are you kidding me?”

JZ: People live in this world of sound bites and instant information because with working families and moms coming home late and dads coming home late and you’re helping them (the children) with homework and you’re getting them fed, this is how you are getting your information; on bumper stickers and 30-second campaign ads, and that’s why they work.

BK: The documentary really covers your side of the case more than the other side. Did you want to see more of the other side presented, or are you happy with how it all turned out?

JZ: We’ve had that conversation with Ben and Ryan too, and I think we are all in agreement that this is really, at the heart of it, a love story. It’s a story of two couples. The other side didn’t have any arguments anyway, and it would just take away from why this is such a strong argument on our side. I think just by adding David Blankenhorn and his evolvement, I think that certainly helps. By the time the documentary was made, we didn’t know about Chuck Cooper’s evolvement with his daughter being a lesbian and he’s planning her wedding now. That may have been interesting to have in the movie, but it came out well after the documentary was already done.

PK: David Blankenhorn has this really awesome evolution afterwards. Believe it or not, the case that he went into to try to support the proponents of Prop 8, he came out understanding better what it was about. He went through the process quite publicly. The film doesn’t say this is right and this is wrong. The film says this is what happened and this is how it ended because of what’s right.

BK: It’s astonishing that Proposition 8 ever made it onto the California ballot, but it’s even more astonishing that it took so long for it to get overturned.

JZ: Judge Walker actually admonished the lawyer for the Attorney General at one of the hearings early on before we even had a case. He asked, “How does this get on the ballot with this language?”

BK: The movie ends on a great note with you and Jeff getting married, and it’s a wonderful moment because you see all the joy in the room. That is what it’s all about.

PK: That’s exactly right. We say that all the time. Getting married to Jeff doesn’t change the institution of marriage and it doesn’t harm any kids anywhere. It only benefits our lives and the people that we touch with our lives, and when you see that joy and you see that much relief after being damaged for so long like a second-class citizen, I think it’s hard for anyone to say you don’t deserve that. Believe what you want to believe in your home, I guess, but you don’t go try to enact a law because of it to help prohibit other people from the same rights that you have.

I very much want to thank Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo for taking the time to talk with me. “The Case Against 8” is now available to own, rent and stream on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Exclusive Interview: Kris Perry and Sandy Stier on ‘The Case Against 8’

The Case Against 8 Kris Perry and Sandy Stier photo

The Case Against 8” is a highly in-depth documentary about the historic federal lawsuit filed to overturn the discriminatory (and completely unnecessary) ban on marriages for gay couples. This fight for marriage equality went on for five years, and filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White were there for it all as they went behind the scenes with the legal team of David Boies and Ted Olson (the same two lawyers from the “Bush v. Gore” case) and the four plaintiffs named in the suit. HBO aired the documentary on June 23, 2014 which coincided with the first anniversary of the Supreme Court rulings which restored marriage equality to California and ended federal discrimination against gay couples under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

I was very excited to talk with Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, two of the plaintiffs in the case, when they arrived in Los Angeles in 2014 to talk about “The Case Against 8.” We see them both getting married at the documentary’s beginning, and it’s a wonderful ceremony to watch. But then came the passage of Proposition 8 which defined marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, and their marriage was soon declared void. After five years of fighting for marriage equality, Kris and Sandy succeed in getting married again and they are still trying to adjust to the reality of that.

The Case Against 8 poster

Ben Kenber: When the idea of the documentary came about, was it something you were initially open to or were you hesitant to participate in it?

Kris Perry: Well we were a little hesitant about media in general at the beginning of the process. We didn’t know how it would turn out, we didn’t know what was going to happen, and we knew people would be opposed to marriage equality and they might direct it at us personally. So we were pretty reticent about media, but the filmmakers were sort of in a different category. They obviously were supportive of Sandy and I and everybody on the team. The obviously had good intent, they were incredibly trustworthy and thoughtful and supportive, so we always felt like they were different and they did something different than what a lot of people did which was just cover a minute or two here and there. They lived through it all with everybody and I think that sets them apart and made them special for us, so we were really happy they were around actually.

Sandy Stier: They became invisible very early on which is kind of interesting. They were very quiet so they set up the cameras quietly everywhere and they were such sweet guys. It was easy to accept them being there, and they also seemed protective of us in some really nice ways. I always felt like they wouldn’t include anything that we didn’t feel comfortable with, and they were very open to our perspective and what we felt okay with being in it or not. And also, on some level, I don’t really believe they would make a documentary or that it would really even happen because we had no idea what would happen with the case. We didn’t expect it to be as big a deal as it was, and I thought these nice guys are here filming and that’s great. They might make a documentary, but it’s probably kind of a long shot that it’ll be something that’s that big of a deal. So I know that sounds kind of crazy but I thought that they were so sweet and I hope that this works out okay for them, but I kind of thought that they were wasting their time.

BK: Is there anything that you wish was included in this documentary but wasn’t for one reason or another, or are you perfectly happy with the way it turned out?

KP: We’re very happy with it. We were just on a panel with the editor (Kate Amend) the other night, and somebody asked her that question because she looked at all 600 hours and was the one with the job of deciding what was in or out and had to fight with Ben and Ryan about what they wanted in. Her answer I thought was beautiful as she said, “Now that I’ve seen it this many times, I think I wouldn’t change one bit of it. I wouldn’t put anything in that I took out, and what’s in is what should have been in.” I was happy to hear her say it because she saw everything and we never did and yet I think it couldn’t be longer, it couldn’t have more in it, and I think they made some beautiful decisions.

SS: I think they did certainly a fantastic job, and we will never really know about all the footage that they have. I’m sure we would be kind of blown away by some of what they have that we will probably never see. The one thing is when I watch our wedding, I loved the way they captured it but hoped so much that are four boys would’ve been there that day we got married, and they couldn’t be there. It’s always a reminder of how we had only one out of the four and that was just painful, but they could not have done a better job putting it together and making it make sense. It’s a complicated case to make sense of and they did a great job of weaving it together.

BK: The voice of love speaks louder in this documentary than any other voice that’s featured in it. What was it like watching your wedding as it is presented here?

KP: It’s great. I mean who gets to see their wedding on a full screen in a movie theater with Dolby? That’s like a really lucky thing. I like seeing Sandy’s face again because it really was such a blur that day and there was so much happening and there were so many people including the Attorney General and all the people standing there all of a sudden. To be able to focus just on the person I was marrying was like, “Oh right, that was what was happening too.” There were the two of us and then there was everybody else, but you get pulled into that everybody else part. So I like how easy it is to focus on the two of us in the way that they included it in the film, but you can see everybody else too. But they are not the point of the wedding.

SS: To see all the people that were there supporting us at our wedding, it’s a rare wedding where you don’t know most of the people. But that’s how it happened. It’s kind of fun to see all those faces again.

BK: Now that the documentary is finished, what effect do you think it has had on your life so far?

SS: So far I think it has been a wonderful gift to us to go back and see people and see how it comes together and relive it. Every time we get to relive it slightly differently and focus on a different part of the film. It’s been a very positive impact on us so far. I think it that what will honestly be a little weird is that once it’s on TV on HBO, there are all these people we don’t know who will see it and they peer into your lives. People are in your kitchen with you and at your child’s graduation, and it’s just an odd thing knowing that so many people we don’t know will have been viewing our lives. But it’s okay.

KP: Yeah, I really think it’s been positive so far. The people who have seen it like you who have come in and say, “Wow, I didn’t realize how much was going on because I didn’t track it every day,” I’m really glad for someone like you that’s open to looking at the bigger story. It gets interesting again, and now when you hear about Utah or you hear about Pennsylvania or Illinois you’ll go, “Wow! Now I know what it takes to fight something in court. Now I know what it takes to be a plaintiff.” It gives you new perspective.

BK: What was your first reaction when you found out that Ted Olson, the lawyer who essentially gave us George W. Bush as President, would be representing you in this case?

KP: Skepticism maybe a little bit. But the people that found him and wanted him to do it and hired him are some of the people I respect the most. The political efforts of Chad Griffin and Rob Reiner and Bruce Cohen and Dustin Lance Black, I just thought these are guys who have seen so many battles and have tried to win so many rights that, if they think Ted’s the guy, who am I to question their wisdom? And they were right; he ended up being a terrific champion and still is and will continue to be. So I just was relying on the jury of peers that we had before we met.

BK: We’re so quick to judge people based on political beliefs, and I’m really getting sick of that. One of the great things about “The Case Against 8” is that it strips away partisan politics and forces us to get beyond our own biased beliefs to fight for what’s right.

SS: Yeah, and I think on some level that highlights the fact that we have politicized almost every argument in our country as though they are political arguments and they aren’t. Issues of marriage equality, why is that a political argument? Why are so many other issues… Why do they need to be political arguments also? So the more we can get out of that realm, the more we can actually make progress.

BK: The lawyers representing you at one point talk about how they’re getting more grief from the gay and lesbian groups than the conservative groups, and it shows how the mob mentality can take over on either side of the political spectrum. The documentary aims to be saying that need to be open to people and what they have to offer, and that’s even if you don’t agree with their belief system.

KP: Yeah. I think getting away from the ballot box and raising money for political campaigns and people saying things in political campaigns that aren’t even true and winning is necessary. I think it was the right time to go on to a new path and try to create a new way to solve that problem, and I think it was a better path. It’s harder on some levels as it takes forever. Campaigns are over in a year, and this was a five-year effort so everybody can’t do it but maybe everybody won’t have to.

BK: What are your plans for the future?

SS: Well when we were in the case it was always that and doing that in addition to our lives. Back then we were raising kids and working, and now the kids have launched basically. They take a lot less time. The youngest kids are in college and the older kids are grown-ups so we’re no longer actively parenting on a day-to-day basis, but we both have very big and busy careers that need a lot of attention and a lot of focus. So that’s our immediate thing to just get back to work and make work a huge priority, and we both in our work do a certain amount of advocacy as well. Kris still works in early childhood education advocacy at the federal level now. I work on public health and systems and policy so we want to get refocused on that, but in terms of the issue of marriage equality, the fight’s not over. We don’t have marriage equality in 50 states, so there is a lot more work to be done to the degree that we can help advance that cause in those states. We are absolutely happy and very motivated to participate, and beyond that there are so many other issues. There is employment discrimination, there are still a lot of issues around LGBT rights and, beyond rights, quality of life. It’s just something that I think Kris had a great a-ha moment when she talks about the quality of life as an LGBT kid and what it does to you to feel like you don’t have the same options and that your life is less than others. There’s a lot of work to do.

BK: Do you still encounter a lot of obstacles in life or do you feel like you are on a good path now?

KP: I think because it matters so much to get married and stay married, you have to work at it. You have to work really hard at being grateful that you have that, and you have to keep making it work because circumstances are changing all the time. Even having a situation where we had kids or we don’t, that’s an obstacle. And we don’t know what the future holds. There could be some hard things and you have to keep the bond strong, and we’re just lucky we got married. We are still trying to believe that, you know? That took so long and we’re still digesting the fact that we actually got married.

It was a real pleasure to talk with Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, and I wish them the best in life. “The Case Against 8” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Exclusive Interview: Ben Cotner and Ryan White Talk About ‘The Case Against 8’

Case Against 8 Ben Cotner and Ryan White photo

The documentary “The Case Against 8” focuses on the historic federal lawsuit which was filed to overturn Prop 8, California’s discriminatory ban on gay marriage. Its directors, Ben Cotner and Ryan White, spent five years filming the plight of two couples (Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo) who were plaintiffs in this case as well as Ted Olson and David Boies, the lawyers in “Bush v. Gore,” who represented them. The documentary made its debut on HBO back in 2014, and it gave us an in depth look at what went on behind the scenes with these people as they fought for marriage equality.

I got to speak with Cotner and White in 2014 when they were in Los Angeles, California for “The Case Against 8” press day. Cotner has served as an executive at Paramount Pictures and Open Road Films, and he has worked on the films “An Inconvenient Truth,” “American Teen” and “Side Effects.” White produced and directed of “Good Ol’ Freda” which is about Freda Kelly, The Beatles’ longtime secretary, and “Pelada” which follows two soccer players as they travel around the world. They were both very open about the challenges and surprises they encountered while making this documentary.

The Case Against 8 poster

Ben Kenber: The lawsuit was supposed to last only a year or so, but it ended up going on for five years. You couldn’t have known how everything would turn out, but did you have a clear idea of how you wanted this documentary to play out?

Ryan White: No. We began filming in 2009 right after the case was filed, but more just to cover our bases in case it became something big. We were lucky to get Ted (Olson) and David (Boies) on board, and they recognized also that if it snowballed into something bigger, it might be important to have a video record of it. But we filmed for three or four years without even knowing whether we had a film, or at least whether we had a third act or not. It was when the Supreme Court granted cert in December 2012, that was when we really sort of launched into hyper drive and realized that we have to finish our film. We had six months to edit it, but also that we would have a really great ending no matter which way it went.

BK: And you did end up with a great ending.

RW: Well we were very lucky in a Hollywood fairytale type of way (laughs).

BK: What surprised you most about making this documentary?

Ben Cotner: I think one of the things I was most surprised about was how open the plaintiffs and the lawyers were with us in sharing their lives. When we first went in there we had never met them, so it was really important for us to spend a lot of time gaining trust with them and for them to be comfortable with cameras around. Ryan and I intentionally didn’t have big camera crews. We shot everything ourselves so I was surprised that we were able to slip in and out of rooms for these incredibly confidential meetings and they let us do that. That was really, truly, as a documentary filmmaker, such a gift and such an exciting opportunity for us because we would get to see things that were happening that other people involved in the case weren’t able to see.

RW: I mean it’s a surprise where we are now in the country with the climate on marriage equality and what’s happening with states right now. When Prop 8 passed I think only two states had legalized gay marriage at the time in California was the third so it was relatively normal that things like Prop 8 could pass, and now it’s pretty abnormal. Even in the reddest of red states we are seeing federal judges saying that the constitutional bans/the state bans are unconstitutional, so I would’ve never expected in 2008 when we began this film that we would be at this point which feels like a tipping point.

BK: There is some attention paid to the defendants. Did you ever get any pressure to put a little more focus on them as well, or did you feel that they got enough focus?

BC: The title of our film is “The Case Against 8” because we really wanted to tell a character piece, a journey of these people to overturn this law that was affecting them. I think in doing so we spent so much time behind the scenes with these people that it would’ve been deceptive of us to pretend to be giving fair attention to the other side. At the same time, we wanted to be very respectful and not villainize them. So it really wasn’t that we were setting out to make them look bad. I think we wanted to present the best of their arguments that we could see as they were presented in court and be very true to what they said, which I think at the end of the day we were. Their lead witness, David Blankenhorn, we approached when he changed his mind about same-sex marriage very publicly. He agreed to an interview which we thought was really interesting, so we could actually see some of the perspective of somebody who was, at the time, on that side during the trial. It wasn’t that he was a hateful person. He would say there was some animus in their belief that gays and lesbians shouldn’t have the right to marry, but it wasn’t because he was trying to be mean to anybody. He was essentially a nice guy. As he said, he just hadn’t gotten to know people. So for us it was important to be as fair as possible to them but not pretend that we were going to make a film about whether gay marriage was right or wrong and be fair to both sides. It really wasn’t about that for us. It was telling these characters’ stories.

BK: You had 600 hours of footage when you finished making this documentary. What was it like editing that down?

RW: A nightmare (laughs). No, it’s fun editing it down but it’s also a nightmare at the same time. Ben and I shot the footage ourselves so we were intimately familiar with what we had shot, but we hadn’t looked at it for many years. When we would shoot on tapes and we would put them into safety deposit boxes. We didn’t look at the footage. Our agreement with the legal team was we wouldn’t put a film out until the case had resolved, so we didn’t even look at the footage until we knew it was going to the Supreme Court and then we only had six months to finish a film. So it was a really fun, sort of nightmarish process to have to go through all that footage and figure out what we had and how we could put it into a cohesive narrative, but that’s where all the chips fall into place. Our main editorial goal was to balance a legal story with the human story. If you look at the structure of the film, it leads in and out of legal intricacies with the lives of the plaintiffs, and that was sort of the balance that was always the goal to strike. Hopefully we did in the end.

BK: Was there anything in this documentary that you wanted to include that you were unable to for one reason or another?

RW: It would have been great to have footage of the Supreme Court just to get to see them in action. I liked what we were able to do with the scene and hearing their voices is amazing. I can picture it myself, and as an audience member I would love to be able to picture those nine justices in action.

BC: There were some very special, intimate moments with the plaintiffs such as the day after they testified. Everyone left the courtroom and went into this sort of back secure elevator that was closed to the public, and everyone that was involved in the case was in there including us. And as soon as the elevator doors shut everybody burst into chairs. Those little special moments that, because you’re in a courtroom you can’t be filming, I think it would’ve been great to have. But fortunately there were plenty of other joyful moments that we could put in the film.

BK: I was talking with another documentary filmmaker recently and she talked about respecting the space in terms of keeping a certain difference from your subjects. Do you think you were able to pull that off?

RW: I think it’s inevitable in a film like ours that lasts for five years that’s so personal and with issues that are personal to Ben and I, we are gay Californians, that it’s hard not to have a respect for their bravery. Also, seeing them go through the wringer during this case, it’s hard not to feel invested in what happens to them. So we tried to be very respectful of telling their story faithfully, and also if there were things that they didn’t want to be part of the process we were respectful of that, but to their credit that was very few and far in between. I think one of my favorite parts of the film right now is that we are releasing it, and Ben and I are not holding cameras anymore. This morning we were all in the same room and we got to spend time with them without any of us working. It’s just getting to enjoy being together because we did become friends with them during the process. We adored both of their families, we wanted them to get their fairytale ending, and we were thrilled filming their weddings so I think it’s just about finding a balance between respecting their privacy and also trying to make a great film. We obviously had a lot of respect for them as people and families.

BK: One of the things I love about this documentary is how it peels away at political labels.

RW: Thank you. That’s our goal. That’s what we wanted to do.

BK: Ted Olson was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, and he is the same guy who basically gave us George W. Bush as President of the United States. What was your first reaction when you found out that he was going to be taking this case?

BC: We were definitely surprised. We knew who Ted Olson was, and he is one of the most famous conservative litigators in the country. At the time, Dick Cheney was probably the only prominent conservative who was speaking openly for same-sex marriage. When he took the case we were surprised, but then once we got to know Ted we understood a little bit more why. He was never really opposed to it and he believes in equal protection of the law and always has believed that. But what was so great about it was that we could look at the issues not in a political way and not in a partisan way. We could look at the facts and we could look at what scientists were saying. Preeminent scholars from around the world came and testified about what the real science and statistics say, and individuals like Kris, Sandy, Jeff and Paul could speak to their experience and how it affected them in a very real way. So I think it allowed those stories to be heard in a way that never had happened before.

RW: Yeah, and the case was engineered around stripping politics out of it. We sort of tried to mimic that in our film because we could have concentrated on a lot of political things. We didn’t want to make a traditional social issue film about one side’s opinion on an issue and the other side’s opinion on an issue and try to draw a conclusion from it. That just wasn’t our goal. Our goal was to tell human stories, and that is the trajectory of two couples. This isn’t a movie about gay marriage being right or wrong. It’s just watching what these two couples were put through and the extraordinary circumstances they had to go through. Most straight people propose, get married in a year and it’s very routine. That’s what they grew up thinking is normal, and these two couples didn’t go through that. They went through a completely rigorous zig-zag way of getting to their fairytale ending. So I hope that that’s what the film’s take away is; just human stories rather than the political things that just sort of overwhelm the issue.

I want to thank Ben Cotner and Ryan White for taking the time to talk with me. “The Case Against 8” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.