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.

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.

* * * * out of * * * *

Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures

Mapplethorpe poster

This documentary starts off with former Senator Jesse Helms on the floor of congress back in 1989 where he denounced the controversial photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. Now Mapplethorpe’s work ended up pushing a lot of social boundaries with his frank depictions of sexuality, nudity and fetishism, and since he became known during the age of Ronald Reagan’s moral America, many saw him as nothing more than a shameless pornographer and refused to look at his photographs with any penetrating insight. What was on the surface bothered them, but like with any work of art it is about how the mind perceives it and of the effect it has on your perception of the world around you.

Helms told congress to look at the pictures as if they were done by someone possessed by the devil, but the HBO documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” invites the viewer to look at them from a less biased perspective and see how this artist managed to turn contemporary art into fine art. What results is a fascinating look at an artist who in some ways is more prolific in death than in life, and it is probably the most in depth look at his life currently available.

We get scenes featuring curators at The J. Paul Getty Museum and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art as they prepare to open a landmark retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work. Their intent is to look at him as a human being, and that intent is shared by the documentary’s directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato whose previous work includes “Inside Deep Throat,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “Party Monster” (both the documentary and the feature film starring Macaulay Culkin). They dig deep into Robert’s past and never sugar coat his life for easy consumption.

It was very interesting to see Robert as a kid when he was considered the pogo stick champion of his neighborhood and somewhat unsurprising to learn he never really fit into any of the social circles in high schools (the great artists never seem to). Throughout the documentary we get to hear his voice from old recordings, and he says that he grew up in suburban America which he described as a good place to come from because it is also a good place to leave. He also admits he never set out to be a photographer as he took a course on it and hated it. And yet during his college years he found a creative spark which never left him.

“Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” also features interviews with various friends, family members and celebrities who all seem to agree Robert was a largely mysterious person who was always looking to get a rise out of people.  At the same time, his brother Edward said he could be quieter than anyone else in the room. Writer Fran Lebowitz even described him as looking like a “broken Cupid,” so it’s safe to say that many people viewed him differently. As the documentary continues on, it shows us a man struggling to express himself during a time where voices which differed from the norm were quickly chastised and silenced.

One of the documentary’s most fascinating segments comes when Robert meets up with singer Patti Smith and observes the time they spent together at the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York. This segment also takes us back to a time when the Big Apple was bankrupt, corrupt and looked nothing like the insanely expensive city it is today. The two of them fed off each other creatively and created art no one else ever could have, and Mapplethorpe even shot the photograph which became the cover for her first album, “Horses.” The fact that their relationship is cut a little short in the documentary is disappointing as it would have been great to see more of them here, and it could very well make for a great documentary of its own.

Both Bailey and Barbato also might have fared a little bit better had they given equal time to the methods Robert used to create his art instead of his personal life. Many of his photographs, including his famous “Man in the Polyester Suit,” are on display here, and while we get an idea of how he messed around with his Polaroid photos to create something startlingly unique, it would have been nice to see more of his technique in how he pulled certain photographs off.

Instead, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” spends more time than it needs to on Robert’s love life and his various lovers. Granted, hearing them talk about Robert does give us deeper insight into his psychology and how selfish he became as he got older. We even here Robert say at one point, “Life is about using people and being used by people,” so his self-centeredness is very understandable. But to hear people talk about him in this manner makes the documentary at times feel like a broken record.

However, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” finishes on a strong note as we watch Robert putting up his last solo show entitled “The Perfect Moment.” By this time, he had been diagnosed with AIDS which back then was a death sentence, and some described this show as being a “memorial with a living corpse.” Robert was only 42 years old when he died on March 9, 1989, but he looked more like he was in his late 60’s. In his later years he sought fame like crazy, and he soon became more famous in death than in life. The effect this final show had on the general public was profound, and it served to secure his legacy after he passed away.

Despite some minor flaws, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” is a compelling documentary which serves to look at the famous artist as more than just a controversial figure. Robert was a human being with problems like anybody else’s, but he always photographed what he loved and the people he loved to be with. He pushed all sorts of boundaries as he described art as being about “opening something up.” He certainly opened the world up to looking at things differently than ever before, and he remains a potent force in the art world today. Looking at his photographs now, one cannot help but wonder why certain parts of the human body are still considered more dangerous than a loaded gun.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Abortion: Stories Women Tell

Abortion Stories Women Tell poster

Was there ever a time when abortion didn’t seem like such a controversial issue? Well, if there was, that certainly long, long, long time ago. Even with the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, which gave every woman in the United States the right to have an abortion, many have still been doing their damndest to get it overturned. Never mind that the Supreme Court has the final say on issues like this, never mind that Roe v. Wade was passed to stop women dying from abortions, and never mind that abortions make up a very tiny percentage of the work Planned Parenthood does; people are still swayed by their emotions more than facts, and many have to be reminded of the importance of the separation between church and state.

The HBO documentary “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is not out to take sides on this contentious debate. Instead, it gives women the opportunity to talk about their experiences with both pregnancy and abortion and to tell their own stories without any filters. Some men are heard on this too, but the focus is on women on both sides of the fence as they are the ones who have to deal not just with their decisions but also the aftermath they are unwilling exposed to.

The documentary starts off with a pro-life rally in Missouri where supporters chant “all in Christ” and an elected representative tells them they are making progress in closing clinics in the state as they now “have the ability to look inside the womb.” But the focus quickly shifts to a title card which states since 2011, more than half of the United States have significantly restricted access to abortions, and those restrictions have increased from year to year. Abortion opponents may not be able to overturn Roe v. Wade, but they have managed to find ways around it.

Missouri at this time has only one abortion clinic which means the women who live there are more likely to drive many miles across the state border into Illinois to seek help. The documentary looks at the daily happenings at the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois where employees do their best to help women in need of health care even while they are constantly harassed by protestors. None of them have any shame over the work they do, and that’s even if some consider themselves the black sheep of their family as a result.

The stories we hear cover different spectrums of the abortion debate. There’s Amie, a 30-year-old single mom who works 70 to 90 hours a week to make ends meet and cannot afford to have another baby right now. We get to meet Sarah who has discovered her baby will have lungs missing and won’t survive long after birth. Then there’s Kathy whose house is filled with various religious objects, and she is setting up a peaceful pro-life march to get what she sees as God’s message across to others. And there’s no forgetting Alexis who is 17 years old and pregnant, whose mother died when she was just 8 and who gets picked on at school because of her condition. It’s painful to see how isolated all these women are from the rest of society as the stigma of abortion is still all too harsh. Granted, Kathy might not seem as isolated, but there is a strong sense of loneliness about her as she pursues her quest to end abortions.

Director Tracy Droz Tragos, herself a Missouri resident, presents all these women’s stories without any judgment. She has given them a forum to speak their minds, and they all need to be heard regardless of how we feel about this infinitely taboo subject. There’s no narration to be found here as Tragos is not looking to steer the conversation one way or another, and this is even though the number of pro-lifers interview here pales in comparison to the pro-choice advocates. But for what it’s worth, the pro-life women interviewed here come across as very nice and full of much love, and this is in sharp contrast to those protestors (mostly men) who stand outside the clinic berating anybody and everybody who enters it.

But for me, the most important takeaway from “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is that none of the women featured here take the issue of abortion lightly. Why would they? Many people who oppose abortion treat those who have had one with such disgusting disdain as if to say they never bothered to put much thought into what they were doing. But as Representative Jackie Speier said in a session of congress, the thought that anyone enters into such a decision with a cavalier attitude is just “preposterous.”

It’s impossible not to be emotionally affected by what these women go through. Plus, one cannot but be infuriated at those protestors who hold up signs featuring what looks like aborted fetuses which are disgusting and unforgivably cruel as they do nothing more than try to manipulate the actions of people they have no interest in knowing personally. Tragos briefly gets to interview one of the most outspoken pro-lifers who follows a clinic escort all the way to her car, begging her to repent. He talks about a law in California which punishes someone with not one, but two murders when they kill a pregnant woman. Whoever this person is, he may need to look at the California law book more closely.

With the United States currently entering the most contentious of Presidential elections, the future of Roe v. Wade is in more danger than ever. But watching “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is a stark reminder of how women are still treated like a minority even though they make up more than fifty percent of the world’s population. This documentary will bring about a fury of emotions for everyone who watches it, but the one thing to keep in mind is all the women featured here are no different from one another. They believe in the same things and have more in common than they bother to realize.

I also have to quote Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times here as he made an excellent point in his review I wish I had made myself:

“The key to understanding why ‘Abortion: Stories Women Tell’ is a quietly powerful documentary is not the first word in the title, but the final three.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.