Filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White couldn’t have known the degree to which the words “Prop. 8” would become historical shorthand for an unprecedented majority-inflicted reversal in civil rights, and their subsequent triumph in our legal system. (The United States Supreme Court did not rule in their case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, but dismissed it, and the verdict of the lower circuit court which overturned California's same-sex marriage ban was upheld.)
“Like a lot of people, I assumed that Prop. 8 would never pass in California,” says Cotner. “I think that election was a wake-up call for a lot of people like me who weren’t paying as much attention as we should have been.”
When the filmmakers, both of whom are gay, learned that the American Foundation for Equal Rights was going to file suit, they decided that regardless of the outcome, they wanted to tell the story. But it was the plaintiffs and the attorneys who made the decision to grant Cotner and White total fly-on-the-wall access for five years.
The filmmakers had access to AFER’s offices, where the plaintiffs were subjected to aggressive cross-examination rehearsal sessions. They also got views into the family rooms of Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, a lesbian couple from Berkeley with four sons, and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, from Burbank. The cameras were rolling when the couples heard each ruling, when threatening phone calls came in the middle of the night, and when each couple finally wed.
“I was by no means an activist,” says White of life before Prop. 8, “and I never entertained the thought that I would be a front-row passenger on the road to marriage equality. I feel like the luckiest filmmaker in the world.”
HBO Films will release their documentary, The Case Against 8, in theaters June 6. It will air on HBO on June 23.