Wish Me Away is the incredibly moving coming out story of country music star Chely Wright. When I read a little over a year ago that Wright had come out my first reaction was “so what”. After you watch the film you realize how difficult this process was for Wright mostly because of where she worked — Nashville. She was the first high profile country performer to come out, something she had to do to save her life, and sadly, not for her, but for country music, she is now embarking on a new life post Nashville. Since she came out Nashville has turned its back on her and so she is remaking her life and her career.
In a juxtaposition of how far we have come and far we still have to go, on the same weekend that gay weddings began in NY the film about Wright’s struggle to come out was the centerpiece at New Fest in NYC. The directors of the film Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf answered questions about the film on the day before the NY premiere.
Women and Hollywood: How did you meet Chely and come to make this documentary.
Bobbie Berleffi: The way we met Chely was through a mutual friend in the business. Chely had seen a documentary of ours that aired on Logo called “Be Real” that had positive images of younger people from the LGBT community and she remembered it. We did not know who she was and she reached out to us through this mutual friend and we found out that she has been secretly doing private video diaries not knowing what she would do. She was thinking of writing a book and by the time she got to us we had listened to her music we were really intrigued but had no idea what she wanted. When she revealed she was going to be coming out we knew this kind of story is a kind of a once in a lifetime thing, and for us, as filmmakers even though we didn’t know how the story would end we knew we had to be involved.
So we explained to her that this could be a documentary but it has to be an independent documentary and we explained that she really wouldn’t have creative control and that we would be observing her process and she was OK with that and slowly we started to build a trusting relationship. She didn’t give us all the video diaries until we had known her for about a year.
Beverly Kopf: We’ve been asked that question before and when I think back on it is seems more and more incredible there here was a woman who had been hiding for her whole life and had become so masterful at it. She just disconnects and that’s how she was able to survive so she has this part of her that’s very savvy because she’s been in the public eye for 20 years. She started making video diaries and she would make a diary and never look at it again and then one day she turned over to us this treasure trove and didn’t even know what was in them.
BB: And she never looked back and she never saw the film until January when it was finished.
WaH: How long did you work on the film before she came out?
BB: Almost two years.
WaH: Coming out is still such a big deal in Hollywood and Nashville. Why is that?
BK: I’ve worked in Hollywood most of my career and I remember I did a network news special called the gay 90s with Maria Shriver. It was groundbreaking at the time. She was fearless and she convinced NBC to do it, and I knew many people who I knew who were gay who were in the public eye in Hollywood. When I would contact their publicists and tell them this would be a wonderful opportunity for them they responded like I had lost my mind. It’s complicated because these are people who others depend on for their livelihoods. The risks are high but Bobbie and I didn’t know that country music was so homophobic. In Nashville it’s not the people who are homophobic, it’s the industry itself.
BB: You have to distinguish between the industry in Nashville — the market image — and the people who work in the industry. It’s a hip industry and there are tons of gay people working in Nashville. But as far as high profile artists go, we couldn’t get one to step forward to support Chely – not a single one and she’s friends with a lot of those people — because the audience that the people rely on for their paycheck is an audience that is Christian based and conservative.
BB: It was a big deal that we went to Nashville and showed the film. We had a sneak preview at the Nashville Film Festival and one of our co-executive producers who is a music industry executive down there helped bring in an industry crowd. It was an amazing night. They heard Chely’s story in a new way. There had been gossip, but when they saw the film there was a whole different understanding.
WaH: Because I live in NY and am not a country music fan when I read about her story I didn’t think it was a big deal. But when I saw the film and the role religion plays in her life I really understood the gravity of what she did especially the impact she could have on Nashville. I am wondering if you saw different responses from younger people to the film.
BK: That’s interesting that you asked that. When we were making this film we hoped that the gay community would get behind it but we were making it for a mainstream audience. We are screening it in Birmingham, Alabama at the end of August. You can’t change Nashville until you change the audience that they are marketing to.
BB: We had a private tastemaker screening a couple of months ago in Denver, CO sponsored by an evangelical church that accepts gays and lesbians. Rev. Mark Tidd of the Highlands Church is phenomenal. They just soaked the film up as if it were blood for their veins and it was mostly younger people. I think we are still at the very beginning of what we are going to learn about who responds to the film. We are still at the film festival stage and we are looking for theatrical and TV and DVD distribution.
WaH: It’s been a year since Chely came out and if I am correct Nashville has turned its back on her.
BK: Rodney says it best in the film – she’s been iced out and has lost a lot, not all, of her country music fans. She has not been invited to anything in Nashville at this point in time. Her career is moving in a different direction, more in the singer songwriter direction and it’s a very interesting moment for her career because many gay people and non-country music fans have never heard of Chely so she has to build a new audience.
BB: I think it’s a great time for her because as much as she lost a genre she is now stepping into a new one and it remains to be seen what kind of music she now writes. She’s writing new material. The activism she has done across the country has been incredible.
BK: And she’s getting married in August. She’s like a sponge and now has this feeling of being free to be herself. We’ve watched her blossom over the last year. It’s been incredibly gratifying for us. And now she is coming back to her music and we’re excited to see where her career takes her.
WaH: What do you want people to come out of the film thinking about?
BK: First of all we want their hearts to be opened. When we first started this Bobbie wrote on a card “people will open their hearts” when they see this film. We put that card of our work desk and we would constantly look at it. When we see audiences come out of the film their hearts have been opened and they have been moved.
BB: They come out and they say wow, I thought I was going to see a coming out story and that isn’t just a coming out story. It’s a story about hiding and every single person — I don’t care who you are — is hiding something. And it does take its toll. And it does prevent you from living your life to the fullest. That’s the universal part of the film.
WaH: What was the hardest part of making the film?
BB: Her mother was always an issue. As filmmakers we had to fight for it because we knew it was an important part of the film. In a portrait like this there is always a delicate balance between access and the truth. We fought for the integrity of the story and knew that her mother would be important and it was really hard. Chely is like many gay people who do not and will never have the full support of their family.
BK: The other tough part is that Nashville is a very small and closed community. Chely feared that if she told Brad Paisley then everyone would know and she was terrified of that happening. So when we were filming and even when someone signed a non-disclosure agreement every time we revealed her identity we didn’t sleep that night because there was one more person who knew the secret. When she came out everything started to kick in, but the year we were filming was hard on all of us because once she got her book deal everything had to wait until the book came out because it was an orchestrated campaign. But it really came together and we are really grateful.
WaH: What advice do you have for filmmakers?
BB: I think it is really important for women filmmakers when they can, to tell stories about women as much as they can and get those stories of women out into the mainstream because I see our history disappearing.
WaH: How has the film changed your life and your work?
BB: It gave me a ton more confidence because a feature doc is a huge animal and it gave me confidence in my own judgement and in the filmmaking process and of taking risks. Every single thing we did was a huge risk. It doesn’t seem like that when you watch the movie but for example the time when she is talking to Welton Gaddy her spiritual adviser, that’s the first time they ever met. It was important to us to capture that because we knew they would talk to each other in ways that were foreign to us.
BK: For me, I am more a writer and this was the first time I felt that I could take a directing credit. I think that anytime you accomplish something that you didn’t think you could do and you do it it just takes you to a new level in your life. It’s a great lesson.
(photo -L to R: Beverly Kopf and Bobbie Birleffi)