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.

Recount

recount-poster

Memories of hanging chads and confusing ballots permeate our consciousness years after the heavily contested 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. We saw this played out on the networks with all their furious coverage, but with “Recount” we get a look at what went on in the campaign offices while this election fight went on to get a picture of what they each felt was fair and just.

How you view “Recount” may depend on what side of the political spectrum you have placed yourself on. I’m not sure how accurate this movie is to the real events, but I imagine it is pretty close. Coming out of it, you may feel it values one candidate over the other. But in the end, “Recount” is not so much a movie about the fight to get candidates elected as it is about the fight for democracy. It is a fight for all the voters to be heard, and also a scary tale of how the fate of the Presidency can end up in the hands of a powerful few instead of America as a whole. Hopefully, this is something that we all collectively hope we never have to live through again.

“Recount” was directed by Jay Roach, best known as the director of the “Austin Powers” movies. Here, he directs a large cast of superlative actors who take the roles of many people we know well from the 2000 election and gives us a strong case of why many still thank Al Gore was robbed of the Presidency. Both Gore and Bush are basically supporting players here, and we only see them from the backs of their heads or in news footage of them during the campaign. The movie is more interested in what went on behind the scenes of the election and of the different fights made to get to the truth of who won the Florida electoral votes.

Even though we all know how this ended up and who got elected, the movie is still riveting in the same way “Apollo 13” was. The filmmakers are not so much interested in the general way things happened as they are in the specifics of the election. We see brilliantly shot examples of how chads in ballots could not be broken off as they were designed to. The opening shot of the movie shows how easily confused some Florida residents are when they are trying to vote, and yet it is not altogether clear how to vote for Gore so that you don’t accidentally vote for Pat Buchannan. The moment where one of Gore’s campaign workers rushes up to him before he is about to make his concession speech on the night of the election is scary as we all feel like we are running alongside him. Even after all these years, we have a strong emotional reaction to the thought of Gore conceding the election.

At the head of this star-studded cast is Kevin Spacey who gives one of his best performances as Ron Klain, Gore’s legal advisor on the campaign trail. The day before the election, it is presumed Gore is going to win, and Klain is offered a job in Gore’s new administration. Klain ends up turning it down as he feels it is not the way he wants to spend the next eight years of his life. But when it becomes clear there are clear inconsistencies in the voting in certain Florida counties, Klain goes right into action to make sure all the votes are recounted, as the margin of victory is only off by just over a thousand votes. Klain is aided by a large team of political strategists from Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) to Warren Christopher (John Hurt).

Spacey makes it clear from the start that Klain is an idealist more than anything else about the way the political system works. What he does throughout the movie is not motivated by his desire to see Gore become President, as he even admits he is not even sure he likes Gore, as it is by the desire to see all the votes counted and to not have any of them thrown out for different reasons like those rejected ones which contain the similar names of convicted felons. Because the election was so close, we can see in Spacey’s eyes how this election is much too important for anyone’s vote to be cast aside.

We also get great performances from actors like Ed Begley Jr. who plays David Boes who passionately fought for the recount to continue when testifying at the Supreme Court. Another great one comes from the always reliable Tom Wilkinson (“Michael Clayton”) who plays James Baker who fights on behalf of George W. Bush to turn the election his way. Wilkinson plays Baker as being idealistic in his own way, and he is almost as idealistic as Klain is for the democrats. Bruce McGill is also great here as Republican lobbyist Mac Stipanovich who is brought in to persuade Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to stop the recount.

Speaking of Katherine Harris, who by the way wanted nothing to do with “Recount,” she is played here in a brilliant performance by Laura Dern. With makeup, which brings up harsh memories of Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest,” Dern gives us a Katherine Harris who is not dumb, but who is oblivious to what is going on around her. Harris says she is following the law, but never really questions those around her as to what their true motives are. Dern is one of the best actresses working today, and this movie is a good reminder of this fact.

The other thing to note about “Recount” is how the actors do a great job of inhabiting their roles as opposed to impersonating people we have become all too familiar with. The trap of playing real life people is many actors end up playing them from the outside in instead of the inside out. It takes a group of well-trained actors to play these roles, and who are not mere impressionists or mimics. Mimicry is a cool art, but it doesn’t work in a movie like this one.

Roach does a great job of putting us back in the year 2000, and he makes you a witness to all the events to where even though you know how this race ended, you still hope and pray for a different outcome. He also shows how each candidate has to be grateful for the dozens of people and hundreds of supporters who helped them get to where they ended up. The truth is we haven’t had many movies recently which have looked at the people who work so hard for the politicians they support, and these people need to be thanked for all they do. They can’t stay behind the scenes forever. They need to be seen for who they are.

In the end, “Recount” is not so much a movie about how Gore got screwed out of an election he won the popular vote on. It’s not even about if Gore lost the election. It is about how democracy was lost in the 2000 election, and of how many voices were rendered irrelevant for reasons which were not altogether justified. The final scene of the warehouse where all those uncounted votes is haunting, and it  feels like an outtake of the scene from “Raiders of The Lost Ark” where the Ark of the Covenant got stored in a factory holding hundreds of boxes which all look alike. The real victim of this election was all the voters were not heard, and this left a shadow over George W. Bush’s presidency which will never be erased.

It also serves as an important document of this moment in history which we can never forget. We need to remember what happened so it never happens again.

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