Back in November of 2008, when Proposition 8 narrowly passed and defined marriage in California as only existing between a man and a woman, the LGBT community was dealt a harsh blow. Filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White, however, took their cameras and headed into the court rooms to begin a documentary project that would span five years and amount to 600 hours of footage.
The result is the emotional and engaging film The Case Against 8, which examines the battle to overturn Proposition 8—the ballot initiative which would prove to be one of the most contentious legal battles in recent years. The documentary follows the unlikely legal team of former courtroom adversaries Ted Olson and David Boies, as well the Prop 8 plaintiffs Sandy Stier, Kris Perry, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarillo, and gives the audience a unique behind-the-scenes look at how it all went down. It is set to air tonight, June 23, on HBO at 9:00pm.
GLAAD had a chance to speak with Cotner and White about the production of the film, the real-life couples at the heart of the case, and the diverse landscape of the LGBT rights movement.
GLAAD: Congrats on the win at Sundance earlier this year! After five years in the making, how did it feel to finally get to see the film with an audience at the premiere?
BC & RW: It was terrifying and thrilling at the same time. But to have over 60 people with us who had either worked on the film or the lawsuit in some way was really special. Mostly though, we were happy that the tape didn't break.
GLAAD: One of the film's strengths is that you were able to capture so many important moments in the ongoing court case as they actually happened, rather than piece things together in hindsight. When did you first get the idea to document this case, and when did you suspect the larger social significance it was going to take on?
BC & RW: We first got the idea in early 2009 when we heard there might be a federal challenge to Prop 8. But we never had any foresight that we might be making this for five years, or that the case would even snowball the way that it did and eventually make it to the Supreme Court. We filmed for three to four years without even knowing if we had a film at all -- it was an unpredictable way of living, completely at the mercy of the legal system, so we're just really lucky that it all worked out.
GLAAD: The documentary will be playing both in theaters and on HBO later this month. What has your experience working with HBO on distribution been like, and do you feel it's important that the film reach a wide, mainstream audience?
BC & RW: Working with HBO and Sheila Nevins has been a dream. It is the best home for a film like this, and our minds have blown with the amount of resources they are putting into the film to make sure it reaches such a wide audience. We're keenly aware that this doesn't often happen for us documentary filmmakers, so we are enjoying the ride and are very excited for the release.
GLAAD: Another aspect of the film that many critics have praised is how it spends significant time to the real-life couples at the heart of the case, and examines the meaning it has for them and their relationships. Was this always your intention, or did that come about naturally during filmmaking?
BC & RW: We were initially drawn to the attention grabbing headline of Ted Olson and David Boies as the odd couple fighting for marriage equality. And while following such talented lawyers in a legal roller coaster was invigorating, we realized early on that the journey of Kris, Sandy, Paul and Jeff was something that we - as gay people - were so inspired by and - as filmmakers - knew that audiences could really relate to. Their testimonies in the trial spoke such a simple and powerful truth in a way we had never experienced and we wanted to share that with the world.
GLAAD: The production of this film must have been emotional for both of you, and for everyone involved. Were there any moments you found particularly moving or overwhelming?
BC & RW: The first day of trial was incredibly emotional. It started early in the morning with Jeff preparing to make a statement to the press and all four plaintiffs feeling the incredible weight of the responsibility that they bore as they were about to take the stand. What they said that day in court could have massive implications throughout the country. Witnessing that tension and then being in the courtroom when each of them nailed it - articulating things in ways that resulted in a domino effect of tears throughout the courtroom - was such an incredible moment of pride. And since the Supreme Court had just ruled to block the broadcast of video from the trial, we knew that we had a major task ahead of us to tell the story of what happened that day.
GLAAD: Now that marriage equality is a reality in California, what message do you hope the film will send to any viewers in states or countries where it still may still seem far off?
BC & RW: That question shouldn't be answered without acknowledging that marriage equality is only one aspect of a very broad and diverse landscape of civil rights battles that are all incredibly important and many of which are increasingly urgent. In some states where marriage equality exists, a gay person could be legally fired the next day because an employer saw their wedding announcement. The worldwide prevalence of violence towards LGBT people is shocking. And while we never set out to prove or disprove the value of same-sex marriage, I hope that our viewers, as David Blankenhorn would say, "get to know people" like Kris, Sandy, Paul and Jeff, they will realize the harms that discriminatory laws like Proposition 8 - or some that are even more insidious - can inflict on individuals and their families.
The film was released in theaters June 6th and will air on tonight on HBO at 9:00pm. Check out the trailer below!