GETTING A DOC ON HBO: FILMMAKERS BEN COTNER AND RYAN WHITE ON MAKING “THE CASE AGAINST 8”

 Awards Night Ceremony - 2014 Sundance Film FestivalI first met Ben Cotner and Ryan White when they had already been making “The Case against 8” for more than four years.  They were devoted to the film and the cause of legalizing Gay Marriage.  It was impressive to see how much time and effort had gone into the project by that point, and a year later I am still impressed by their tenacity.  They had the good fortune to work with great editors, and we are proud to have handled the color timing and delivery elements.

Since the film’s release earlier this year, Ben and Ryan have been on an intense press tour.  Their interviews have largely focused on the important political issues in the film.  What they’ve talked less about is their filmmaking process. So, that’s where I chose to focus in my interview with them.

– Bill Macomber

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FF: When did you start the process of making this film?  Did you know how important this case would be?

Ryan: We had no idea when we began this — in early 2009 — that we would be endeavoring on a five-year journey. We were hopeful that the lawsuit would gain traction and snowball into something important and possibly historic, but really no one involved had any foresight of what it eventually became. We feel very lucky as storytellers and also as gay Californians that the lawsuit did gain traction. 

FF: Once we met, you had most of the film in the can and knew that there was an important story there.  How much did you know about post when you started out?

Ben: Unlike Ryan (who directed two films before our collaboration), this was my first time directing and my knowledge about post was limited to my experience as an executive which is very much at an arms length to the process compared to being a filmmaker.

In that role I would get to drop in on the final mix or color sessions, but really only to be a cheerleader. Dealing with the nuts and bolts is an entirely different experience and especially with it being my first rodeo it was important to have smart people around who could also be patient enough to walk me through the basics sometimes.

FF: You and Ben were involved in the editing.  How did that work?

Ryan: I’ve edited some of my previous films myself, so I like being a part of the process. But we were also lucky to hire an amazing lead editor, Kate Amend, and associate editor, Helen Kearns.

Kate and Helen really took the reins and allowed Ben and I to be very trusting. It was a really fun, creative, and collaborative process — and I think is very important to have those multiple voices heard on a film that is this big in scope and takes place over 5 years,

FF: You got into Sundance and knew that you would have an audience earlier than expected.  What was it like to finish the film?

Ben:  We had a fairly tight schedule telling a five year story and boiling 600 hours of footage into a film in less than six months, so when Sundance accepted the film we really had no time to waste. It was a mad dash getting the picture locked, an original score written and recorded (props to Blake Neely, our composer and hero) and all of those elements to come together with no time to spare.  It was a nail-biter, but really invigorating when it all came off without a hitch.

FF: Once you got to Sundance, the film had a very positive reception.  What was it like to go there as a filmmaker?  Did you feel like the film got your message across?

Ryan: As a documentary filmmaker, you dream of one of your films playing Sundance. For Ben and myself, we were on cloud 9 the entire festival. It was exhausting and stressful and nerve-racking — but the entire time we just felt so grateful and excited that our film was getting to premiere at such a reputable venue.

The audience reception was the cherry on top. It was really special to get to premiere the film in Utah, where just days prior a federal judge had struck down the state’s marriage ban. There was a palpable tension and energy in the air around the issue — the audiences were deeply invested in the film because they knew their state was getting close as well.

FF: When you won Best Director at Sundance, you invited editor Kate Amend up on stage with you.  Was she that important to this film?

Ryan: Documentary editors simply don’t get enough credit. A lot of the directing of a documentary happens in the editing room, it’s where mounds of raw footage becomes something magic.

Kate+Amend+Case+Against+8+Screening+NYC+J4PMuZM3pzTl

Kate Amend, Center

It was a no-brainer to bring Kate up on stage with us, she is a magician. Plus she’s a calming force so it’s nice to have her on stage with you when you’re in front of all the lights and cameras. 

FF: That’s very cool – and I know it meant a lot to Kate.  She has a way of supporting everybody around her, including the team at Fancy!  I was really happy to see her with you for the first of what has turned out to be many awards.

Moving beyond the festivals and to distribution — at what point did HBO become interested in the film?

Ben: HBO had been tracking the film and were expressing interest from the beginning of the lawsuit. It wasn’t until after the Supreme Court decision that they became a partner on the film, though. It ended up being a blessing to have their collaboration as we were finishing the film. It allowed us to focus all of our attention on finishing the film instead of worrying about the distribution side of things.

FF: When did your international distributor, Dogwoof, come on board?  What have you learned about selling a film internationally from working with such an experienced partner?

Ben: We waited until after our premiere at Sundance to engage with an international distributor. Dogwoof was at the premiere and had worked on a lot of documentaries that we admired and so we were happy to have their knowledge about this specific genre.  The international landscape is a complicated and constantly changing environment, so it is important to have partners with expertise in the type of film you are selling and also have a good amount of volume so that you know they are in front of the right buyers.

One thing that I don’t think many people understand is how different every country around the world is in terms of their taste and also in terms of how they consume entertainment. It’s important to find someone that is really knowledgeable and also aggressive about finding the best opportunities for your film.

FF: Do you have recommendations for filmmakers who are interested in making “long-term” films like this?

Ben: I think to commit yourself to something that is going to consume your life for a long period of time it is incredibly helpful to have a collaborator that you trust. Especially if the schedule is as unpredictable as ours was, it was really nice to be able to lean on each other when conflicts with our normal lives and schedules would arise. It is also really great to bring in voices that haven’t been steeped for as long with the subject so you can get some fresh perspective.

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About the filmmakers:

Ben has served as an executive for ten years at Paramount Pictures and Open Road Films, where he most recently oversaw acquisitions and production. He has worked on such films as An Inconvenient Truth, American Teen, Mad Hot Ballroom, A Haunted House, Side Effects, The Grey and End of Watch.

Ryan White is the director/producer of Good Ol’ Freda (Magnolia Pictures), which tells the story of the Beatles’ longtime secretary Freda Kelly, and Pelada, a journey around the world through the lens of pick-up soccer. White’s other credits include: Capitol Crimes (Bill Moyers, PBS); Dead Wrong: Inside an Intelligence Meltdown (CNN); 9/11: For the Record (Bill Moyers, PBS); and Country Boys (Frontline, PBS).

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