Interview: ‘The Case Against 8′ filmmakers on trying not to get emotional

Filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White spent five years making the Proposition 8 doc "The Case Against 8." Credit: Getty Images
Filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White spent five years making the Proposition 8 doc “The Case Against 8.”
Credit: Getty Images

Documentary filmmakers Ryan White and Ben Cotner are finally seeing five years’ worth of work come to fruition with “The Case Against 8,” chronicling the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in the state in 2008. The film premieres on HBO Monday June 23 at 9 p.m.

On keeping it together when chronicling such an emotional subject:

Ryan White: It was an extremely emotional film to make. I mean, I had made two films before this and I’d worked on many other films before, but I don’t think we’d ever worked on something that we were so emotionally invested in — in the sense of the people that we were following, but also for ourselves, because the result of our film directly effected what our rights were. I would say it became increasingly emotional the more we went into it. By year five we were about to boil over, just blubbering messes. The weddings were the best day of filming for us. It was just incredibly emotional to have followed them for five years and to see all of it finally paid off.

Ben Cotner: I don’t think either of us were prepared for how emotional the response to the film would be when we started screening it. That was a real surprise, even though the process was emotional for us. I don’t think we realized how deeply people would relate to it. I mean, we cried a lot, but… [Laughs]

On how quickly opinions on gay marriage have changed:

RW: I think it was shocking. I wasn’t expecting that. Ben’s from Indiana and I’m from Georgia, so we’re not from parts of the country that are particularly LGBT-friendly. And we’re not from parts of the country that are on the road to marriage equality that closely right now. When Prop 8 passed I remember not being that surprised. Like, “Of course we don’t get that because we never get that. That never happens, and our rights are always voted down.”

BC: It felt like there was this landslide of people coming out in favor of it leading up to the Supreme Court decision. We in our entire lives had never really had elected officials speaking out for our rights, and all of a sudden here in such a short window of time there was such a massive change. It was really surreal to see how quickly things were changing.

"The Case Against 8" details the mission to knock down Proposition 8. Credit: HBO
“The Case Against 8″ details the mission to knock down Proposition 8.
Credit: HBO

On trying to keep the “states that allow gay marriage” text at the end of the film up-to-date:

RW: We knew we were making a bad decision, but we like the numbers because it’s a really visceral way of showing where we are in the country, so we’re updating it up until the broadcast. But it’s a bittersweet ending to a film that has such a happy ending at least in the footage itself. I hope that the messaging at the end is more bittersweet and remains a call to action, and that people are left thinking: we just watched these four people go through this incredible journey and have their fairy tale ending, but how many people out there in Mississippi are not even close to that — unless our Supreme Court steps in? So hopefully the film can serve at least as a conversation-starter for people in places like that.

On the end of Prop 8 not being the end of the struggle:

BC: We can’t take these rights for granted, and I think that is now even more important because there’s this conversation that it’s inevitable — and remember, that’s how we felt in 2008 when Proposition 8 was being passed. We think about that a lot and how now, with everyone hoping and assuming that the Supreme Court will take this case and make a final decision in favor of same-sex marriage some day, I don’t think we can assume that that’s inevitable. And even if that does happen, there are so many other things that need to happen, whether it’s Employment Non-Discrimination Act or anti-violence acts here and abroad. There’s a lot of work still to do, so I think we should all look back to that day in 2008 and remember not to be complacent.

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter @nedrick


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