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: 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.