Q&A with 'The Case Against 8's' Ben Cotner and Ryan White
PARK CITY - One of the most heartwarming stories of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival was the success of Ben Cotner and Ryan White's documentary "The Case Against 8." The duo began working on the film almost five years ago and spent four years following the legal case to strike down Proposition 8, a California ballot measure against gay marriage that surprised many by passing on the same night Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.
Full disclosure, I've known Cotner casually for a good seven or eight years. When I heard he was making this doc when the case first started up I thought, "That's smart. What a great story." And then, like many others, I forgot about it. The case in question took so long to weave its way through the American judicial system it wasn't just a tremendous test of patience for gays and lesbians in California, but of the filmmakers themselves (or so I assumed). In fact, I'd run into Cotner at numerous festivals (he is a former acquisition executive for both Paramount Pictures and Open Road Films) and completely forget both he and White were still working on the doc. That was until the historic day last June when the Supreme Court effectively struck down prop 8 (it's actually more complicated than that) and, in a separate case, the Defense of Marriage Act. And it might have been an AP photo or perhaps someone posted one on Facebook, but there was Ben with camera in hand shooting the winning plaintiffs as they walked down the courthouse steps.
Fast forward seven months later and not only has "The Case Against 8" earned stellar reviews, but Cotner and White were awarded the grand jury prize for directing "Case Against 8" over the weekend. And, as the months progress, don't be surprised if the words "potential Oscar nominee" begin to circle around the film. Especially after it airs on HBO next June just in time for gay pride month and purposely after an Oscar-qualifying run sometime this Spring. And as anyone who follows Sundance and awards season knows, Robert Redford's indie showcase has become the starting point for any discussion involving the best documentary category year after year after year.
Cotner and White were kind enough to come by the HitFix condo in Park City last week. You can check out our conversation in the video embedded at the top of this post or follow the Q&A below.
What was your reaction to seeing the film with audience for the first time this past weekend after working on the project for so long?
Ben Cotner: Well, we were completely overwhelmed and I think were we were tingling all over just because we were there with so many people who had been with us on the film for so long. And to see it for the first time with an audience that didn't necessarily know a lot about the case. And the fact that the emotional response was so overwhelming I think it just took us by surprise and was really a thrill.
Ryan White: And a huge sigh of relief. I think we were terrified going into premiere. So, finally when the credits were rolling and we had a standing ovation and everyone who was in the film seemed happy with it, it was finally – like Sundance became fun at that moment. But leading up to it was not fun.
Had you purposely not shown it to friends and family beforehand? Did you want to wait for Sundance?
Ryan White: I don't think it was really that we tried not to show it to friends and family, we were just making the film so quickly that there was never really the time to be getting a lot of opinions on it. I mean we shot the film for four years but we only edited it for nine months, which is a really short period of time for a film that spans five years and has 600 hours of footage. So, it was just a very quick pace. And so the most we ever watch the film with was five or six people. So, to be in there with 320 people or whatever…and [to] actually feel the emotions in a way that we had never done with a group of people or hear laughter at parts of our film that we thought were funny but we didn't realize 320 other people would find funny, was really, really cool.
You guys actually came on board with the legal team. How did that happen? What was your connection? How did you get in the door?
Ben Cotner: So, our film picks up after the passage of prop 8 when a federal lawsuit was filed challenging the constitutionality of it. And we had found out about that and we approach the organization, American Foundation for Equal Rights, which was the organization that was a sponsoring it. And we had some early conversations with them about there was a possibility that this could become a historic case. Nobody was sure but we thought, 'Hey let's start filming, and if it turns into that we'll have a record of it.' And so time went by and the case snowballed into one of the biggest civil rights cases in history. So, we were really honored to be there to witness that piece of history.
Ryan White: Access was key to this film. If we didn't have the access then there was no film there. And one other sort of a curve ball that's part of the narrative of the film is that the case was supposed to be televised. So, when the case went to trial the judge wanted it to be broadcast to the American people, the other side appealed that. They made it to the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court blocked that broadcast, just on the eve of trial. At that moment Ben and I were making a movie regardless about this case and we already had the access to the lawyers. But at that moment our access became much more important because we felt then the motivation and the burden in some ways that our film now was the only document of what went into this trial. And so if we hadn't been given that access by Ted and David and also the four plaintiffs into the human side of things, I think our film wouldn't have gotten as far as it did.
Well, you shot this for what - five years? There must have been moments where you guys were like, especially in the down times in between the decisions, 'Well, maybe we should expand it? Maybe we should follow other stories or other things in the case?' How hard was it to just stay focused just on this one aspect of the story?
Ben Cotner: Really there were so many characters involved in this case and so many twists and turns and we had to keep a very small crew. It was Ryan, myself and Rebecca was our third cameraperson. And because of the confidentiality of that we had to keep it small with no sound people, no cinematographers with us. So, for us to follow such a complicated case with so many twists and turns and so many characters, I think it really would of been impossible for us to expand it to other cases.
Ryan White: And we knew it was so huge. I mean we knew how many hours of footage we were logging and how many great characters that we had that we knew it was going to be hard to make a reasonable length film of the type of footage that we were getting. So, the idea of other gay marriage cases and the social issue [?] Ben and I were never really interested in doing a movie about whether gay marriage was right or wrong and interviewing people that had opinions on, you know, religious opinions or things like that. Our film was a character film about these people. And we knew or I knew I think from like day one or day two [that] these are really compelling characters and this is going to be a character film that will keep an audience compelled hopefully.
Well, Ryan I have to say you were sort of lucky in one respect because you were shooting two other docs at the same time correct? And, Ben, you had a full-time job. Did that make it easier to stay as patient as you needed to do in a process like this?
Ben Cotner: Well, it at least allowed us to be employed while we were making a five-year documentary.
Ryan White: Well, you were employed; I was making other documentaries.
Ben Cotner: So, it allowed us to do that. I mean it certainly presented a lot of challenges in terms of time. And I think…we were really happy that we were directing this together. Sometimes we could pick up the slack from each other when we were busy with other things. But the timing - we lucked out a lot on the timing of the case falling at times that worked out for both of us.
Ryan White: And it is a test of your patience. I mean as a documentary director you don't want to wait five or six years to put out a film that you're investing everything into it. And so you fill in the gaps. And, you know, there were major gaps in this. After the trial it was years [where] the case ping-ponged around the court system where we would be doing nothing for five or six months and then get a phone call saying 'You have to fly to D.C. or San Francisco to do this.' So, the long gaps also allowed us to sort of go back to our normal life or work on other projects. But it was, I would say, a test of patience.
So, the case finally came to a conclusion last June, when the Supreme Court's decisions effectively allowed gay marriage in California again. You guys got that amazing footage at the end of the movie and then you have what? Nine months, six months, seven months to edit the film, to try to make Sundance. And first of all, you brought in a really well known editor to come on board to edit the film, I forgot her name, it's…?
Ryan White: Kate Amend.
To have worked on the something for five years you guys must have put together some edits. How hard was it to have your baby all this time and then let someone else come in and take over?
Ryan White: I always say that we handed Kate one scene at the very beginning, a scene that we thought was integral to the film and we gave her the footage and we gave her the interview bites that we thought were relevant. This was like the first week that we hired her. And she came back to us and showed us this six-minute piece that she edited and Ben and I were floored. We were like, 'We made the right decision.' So, that was actually the first time I've worked, I've hired someone that just completely takes over. My first film I edited and then my second film I edited very closely with the editor basically at the desk with her and we actually brought her on board to this film as well. Her name is Helen Kearns. She was the associate editor and she's really talented too. This was the first time where it was like handing a lot over to the editor and giving her a lot of [autonomy]. And it was really helpful I think for us because like Ben said we shot it all ourselves too so we were really insiders on it and sometimes had trouble having an objective eye. And so Kate really functioned as that for us. We had the best working relationship with Kate. I think she was huge in the final product.
Also, composers for docs never get enough credit, you never hear about them. I didn't recognize the name of the guy who did this. Can you talk about that because I thought his work was gorgeous. How did you find him and should I know who he is? Has he done other stuff before?
Ben Cotner: I mean Blake Neely is our composer and he's done a lot of amazing stuff. He does a lot of television stuff; he's done a couple of movies. And he came onto this because he reached out to us because he was passionate about the issue and he wanted to be involved. And every time we had no idea that he was a really successful composer and we kind of ignored the email for a couple months.
Ryan White: Why is this desperate composer emailing us?
Ben Cotner: And then we went back and looked and saw that this guys insanely talented and he composed something that's so incredibly beautiful and was really one of the most fun parts of making this film was working with him and watching him create the score and being there while it was recorded with a 24 piece orchestra.
Can you talk about your relationship with the plaintiffs in the case?
Ryan White: They're our friends now. We followed them for five years so it's just I would say the hardest scene to film was Chris – I was with Chris and Sandy at their wedding [in San Francisco] and Ben was with Paul and Jeff [in Los Angeles]. That was the hardest scene to film because I did not want to be behind a camera, and I love being behind a camera. But I just wanted to be sharing in the moment with them. They're like moms to us. And so my take away is just four really great friends and I'm excited to see where their lives go. We've watched them be completely tunneled into this for the last five years and it's sort of eaten up all of their life outside of their family and work life. And so I'm excited to see where their lives go now and they're married.
Ben Cotner: Yeah. I mean I would say it's just such a privilege to make a film about people that inspire you so much and that's such a rewarding process.
"The Case Against 8" will debut on HBO sometime this June.