As documentary filmmakers know, immersive filmmaking depends on access. And financing and distribution often requires unique access, to something incredibly special.
The whole process of gaining access, let alone making a film, can be so bloody hard that you gotta really love your story, or you gotta get the hell out. The challenges of bringing these projects to fruition would be unbearable if you weren’t a person on a mission.
Thus, every time I finish a film (nine to date), I say, “Maybe that’s my last one.”
So, in January, 2015, I went to Realscreen in D.C., armed with a handful of cool TV pitches. At an afternoon meet and greet, a cable executive asked, “Well, if you were going to make one more film, what would it be?” Immediately, one story popped into my head.
I had just seen in the news that the same-sex marriage movement was about to have its day in court. After decades of work by attorneys and activists, the U.S. Supreme Court had consented to decide, once and for all, if everyone should be legally entitled to marry the person of their own choosing, regardless of gender, in every state in America.
This was shaping up to be the climactic battle of one of the biggest civil rights stories of our time. Not only was this a big story, it was also, I thought, a story I had some access to, by way of a personal connection to Evan Wolfson, the “architect of the movement.”
Evan Wolfson may not be a familiar name to most Americans, like Dr. Martin Luther King. But where I grew up in Pittsburgh, Evan has always been a bit of a legend. Even as a kid seven years Evan’s junior, I’d heard the tales. As far back as grade school, he was already famous for his intellect. By the time he had graduated from Yale, finished a stint in the Peace Corp and been accepted to Harvard Law… and come out as gay… the whole neighborhood expected greatness.
The gay part, I’m proud to say, barely moved the needle. My parents and all their friends believed implicitly in Evan Wolfson. So, in 1983, when Evan wrote his third-year paper in law school arguing for same-sex marriage and laying out a blueprint for how to win it, even though the bulk of the LGBT world thought his idea was farfetched, my parents and their friends believed.
I’ve been following the marriage movement ever since.
We weren’t friends, as kids. The age difference was too significant for Evan and I to really know each other, so I wasn’t sure what he’d say when I Facebook messaged him out of the blue, after my meet and greet at Realscreen:
Two days later, I visited Evan in his Manhattan office. We caught up on family news, then, like all sane people, Evan expressed that he was indeed wary about letting cameras into his midst, and about entrusting his story to someone he barely knew. He asked the big questions right off the bat—and I don’t think he liked a single one of my answers.
Evan: “Can I have final say over the cut?”
Evan: “Will I get some sort of contract?”
Me: “Just a standard access agreement and release form. I guess if you get sick of me, you can stop letting me in the door.”
Evan: “Well, who owns the footage?”
Me: “I do.”
Evan: “And how will you get the money for the film?”
Me: “I don’t know.”
Evan: “Where will this be seen?”
Me: “I don’t know yet…”
You would think I’d have been shown the door at that point. But the fact is, in negotiations like this, it is never the words that matter, it’s the honesty and the intention. People look each other in the eye, and tend to trust their Spidey-senses.
I was hoping that Evan could see that I was going to at least try to do my best. He looked to Marc Solomon, his political director, for affirmation, then said, “OK. When do you want to start?” And that was it.
I suddenly had unique access to the biggest civil rights story of our time; a chance to ride shotgun with the “Dr. King of the movement” and his colleagues on perhaps their final and most important push to summit.
Truth be told, Evan’s “Yes” had taken my breath away. I just wasn’t used to things being this quick or simple.
Then came the hard part. How the hell was I going to do this? I’m not gay and, in reality, I didn’t know this story very well. Supreme Court arguments were just months away. With Evan, his team and whole teams of attorneys sprinting toward the finish line, jumping on a train moving at that speed felt like a suicide mission.
I came home a bit dazed and asked my wife what she thought I should do. I understood that taking on this project meant, in all likelihood, I’d be putting our family on the line, emotionally and financially (again!) This wasn’t a decision I could or should make by myself.
Randi listened to me describe my meeting with Evan. She heard my catalog of concerns, absorbed my list of lamentations and said, “You should start right now.”
That was on a Wednesday. By Thursday, I had cleared out my calendar for the foreseeable future and borrowed a Canon C300 from my friend and frequent DP, Mark Smith. By Friday, along with soundman Peter Ginsburg, I was boarding a plane to Wisconsin to begin shooting.
As I worked to come up to speed on the subject and the players, I was also gearing and crewing up. I called Amie Segal, who had produced for me for the past six years, and who had just moved to L.A., and asked her to move back to Brooklyn. She did, thankfully. Given the nature of this project—that things would likely come up on a moment’s notice—I bought my own C300 and a set of L series Canon lenses so, if need be, I could shoot anything on a moment’s notice. (Amie is also a credible sound person, so we can be a two-person crew.)
I love shooting. I do. But when producing and directing, I prefer to concentrate on producing and directing. So I reached out to Bob Richman (An Inconvenient Truth, My Architect, The September Issue) to see if he was interested and able to be the cinematographer of this film. Having worked with Bob for years, I’ve come to love his story sense, his wit and wisdom. I knew I wanted him in the cockpit with me to help land this thing and I was thrilled he could join the team.
Bob wasn’t going to be available full time, so I also reached out to the brilliant Claudia Raschke (Mad Hot Ballroom, Particle Fever) to co-DP. And, since this came together like a frantic pick-up game, I thank my lucky stars for the other amazing cinematographers who filled in at crucial times as well (Stephen Gifford, Mark Smith, Vitaly Bokser and Matt Bockelman.)
Having to research, obtain cooperation from a myriad of other players, produce, shoot and cut from the seat of our pants—while trying to figure out how to boil down a sprawling, decades long story into a 90 minute or less format—meant that, of all the new gear we purchased, the Kuerig machine might have been our MVP.
Financially speaking, like so many documentaries, this film remained a thrill-ride to the bitter end. Luckily, eventually, a few prominent LGBT funders and angels stepped up and we were able to raise over half of the actual budget, enough to get the job done (as long as my wife and I were willing to do the rest with a combination of savings and sweat equity.)
Despite the sleepless nights and growing pains, there is usually a moment in every project that, no matter what it took to get there, makes the entire journey worth the effort. On this film, I’ll never forget what it was like to be in the room with Evan Wolfson when the Supreme Court decision was rendered, and his 32 year battle came to a joyous end. As emotion swept over him and a single tear began to flow, Bob Richman peeked over at me. Having been through hundreds of “amazing moments,” one of Bob’s great qualities is that he is hard to impress. But I saw him grinning from behind the viewfinder like a father at his daughter’s wedding. “Wow,” he whispered. And, suddenly, I knew we had a movie.
One year (to the day) after the Supreme Court decision and Evan’s first tear, The Freedom to Marry had its world premiere at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco. It played in the historic Castro Theater, the day before the Gay Pride parade, mere steps away from Harvey Milk’s former storefront. Having not yet seen the film with an audience, we were all tingling as we arrived, and I wasn’t kidding when I introduced the film by saying, “I really hope I didn’t screw this up.”
Luckily, it went great. After the end credits, as producer Jenni Olson, Evan Wolfson and I took the stage for the Q&A, we were showered with a standing ovation that lasted, to my joy and surprise, for over two minutes. The bulk of that was simply appreciation for Evan, and the movement—and for the fact that marriage had actually been won. And, of course, for the hope and inspiration that the marriage victory provides, even in these dark times.
The Freedom to Marry has since played in 25 other festivals, winning eight “best documentary film” prizes, played theatrically in dozens of cities and has been translated into 10 foreign languages. Thank goodness my wife didn’t let me punk out. (See? I really am a big fan of marriage.) MM
The Freedom to Marry opened in theaters in the U.S. and Canada and across digital platforms including iTunes, Amazon and Google Play June 6, 2017, courtesy of Ro*Co* Films. All images courtesy of Ro*Co* Films.