Ben Cotner and Ryan White deservedly won the doc directing prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival this past weekend for their film “The Case Against 8.” Shot over five years, the film offers an incredible inside look at the legal battle behind overturning Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California back in 2008. It’s an inspiring journey that Cotner and White (along with editor Kate Amend) put together into a very powerful film about a legal battle that will and has dramatically changed the legal rights situation for gay and lesbian couples in the U.S.
Indiewire sat down with Cotner, White, the four plaintiffs in the case (couples Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo — all of whom are wonderfully charming both in the film and in person) and a couple of the cases’ lawyers (somehow also all very charming) just after the very emotional premiere (you can watch the Q&A from said premiere here). Here’s what they had to say.
This was clearly an extraordinarily emotional experience in itself, but to have it documented and shown to a very emotional audience… What was that like?
Paul Katami (plaintiff): I think I can speak for everyone that it was reliving memories of the case, and in a way, even though we knew how it ended, we still felt the anxiety, and we still felt the excitement. Your heart still swells, even to this day. We know that what Ben and Ryan have done will make the hearts of so many people swell in the country, and hopefully it’ll sway a few people from the middle to the right side of the situation.
Ben Cotner (director): For us, it was really an honor to be there, to be there with these amazing people and watch their reaction and have them see it with an audience, and share the amazing work that they did with the world. To do it at Sundance was such a thrill. We really had a great time.
Was anything surprising about the reaction to it?
Sandy Stier (plaintiff): I think that we were really surprised but also very happy to see the emotional response that the audience of the film seemed to have, because for us it was an emotional journey. We’re so proud that our lawyers, the brilliance that they brought to the case, the wonderful support, and how they changed lives by taking our case to federal court and winning…it’s going to change lives of Americans everywhere, and we’re so proud to have that story profiled, and for people to see the human side of them that transcends the legal battle. We’re of course thrilled that our filmmakers did such a beautiful job encapsulating the story into a film. It’s fantastic.
Ted Boutrous (lawyer): It was really amazing to see and feel the crowd react to moments that we had all experienced and to see them really bond with and relate to what our team was going through, and what our couples were going through, to laugh, to cry, to see the emotional connection. I think when people see this film, they’re going to see how people who want to get married love each other, want to get married, they’re going to see it from start to finish and experience that emotional jolt. If you this film, there’s one thing you can say when you’re done: “I’m so happy that happened, and people should be able to get married.” So from the legal team’s perspective, it’s so meaningful, because it can get everyone to look at this in a different way, and to see it from a human side and a legal side, and we think that’s going to help the effort to get marriage equality across the country.
Going back… When you first found out that this documentary was going to happen, was there any resistance to the idea of putting yourselves out there like this?
Kris Perry (plaintiff): We were concerned about our kids, because when we started the case, our youngest were in eighth grade. Ben and Ryan did everything they could to put us at ease, but we always worried that it would feel like we kind of expose them and ourselves at the same time. One of the parts I’m really happy about is how the kids grow up in the film and end up being a part of the story in terms of how kids are affected by Prop 8. Hopefully other states will see how removing bans is good for kids and families and couples. I’m really glad at the end of the day that we had them in it, but we were nervous about it in the beginning.
Ryan White (director): One of my favorite things about being a documentary filmmaker is forging those relationships with people like everyone that’s here. It’s probably of the main part of your job to get to know people even when you’re not filming, forge relationships with them, and make them feel comfortable that you’re going to tell their story faithfully to what they believe their journey was. We’re very grateful that they all opened up their homes to us, and their legal offices to us, and it was five years, so that was a lot of time to spend with someone. I think the comfort level grew and grew over five years. On day one, they looked at us like, “ Who the hell are these guys with cameras?” But now I was at their son’s graduation. So I think that’s one of my favorite parts about filmmaking. Not only are you helping tell that story, but you’re also becoming friends with those people.
David Boies (lawyer): We have lawyers less than five years with us at our firm. So this was big. And they became visible, unobtrusive participants, and we felt very comfortable even as lawyers letting them in the process because we trusted them to not disrupt what was actually happening, and we were working like dogs to get the case ready. Really it was an honor to watch them work, and see what they did with all that footage. It’s just amazing.
To have it documented in such a well done way is a gift to your lives to have that for the rest of your lives.
Jeff Zarrillo (plaintiff): It’s a gift to a lot of other people, too. People really want to see the movie so they can help, so the movement continues to move forward. It needs to be seen across the country, here in Utah especially. The film is very important to be seen in areas like Utah or Oklahoma, areas where maybe it’s not as progressive, and you may not have thought that marriage equality would come so quickly. The Supreme Court decision has really birthed a lot of these cases. You’re seeing the hard work of these attorneys and the work of the filmmakers. It’s all coming to fruition now because people get to see it, and they get to live it along with us.
And the timing worked out really well with Utah. What would happen if it didn’t go through? Did you have a back-up plan?
Ryan White (director): We were filming for years not knowing if we actually had a film. It could have been thrown out of the court system. The Supreme Court could have not taken it, which would have made it a much less cinematic film if it didn’t reach the final hurdle. We kind of spent years documenting it, not knowing if there would ever be a film, and I think the day we knew was when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and we knew, “Okay, this have our third act.”