The Evolution of Prayers for Bobby

By Dale Hrabi

Originally published on Advocate.com January 23 2009 1:00 AM ET

The success of
Brokeback Mountain notwithstanding,
convincing Hollywood suits to make a gay-themed film for
a mainstream audience is tough. If your script also happens
to involve suicide and an indictment of evangelical
faith, you’re pretty much screwed.

A rare exception
is Prayers for Bobby, based on Leroy Aarons's
1995 nonfiction account of a mother named Mary
Griffith, whose erstwhile religious extremism led her gay
son to kill himself. Starring Sigourney Weaver, the
film will finally make it to the screen this January
24, thanks to Lifetime Television (in its new,
post–evil-twin-drama incarnation) and the three gay
executive producers who stuck with the film through 12
years of development agony.

David Permut, 52
(whose eclectic career encompasses movies as varied as
the Travolta action flick Face-Off and the
upcoming Michael Cera indie Youth in Revolt),
and his production partners Daniel Sladek, 43, and Chris
Taaffe, 42, describe themselves as “three men
on a mission.” Their story is one of unexpected
network turnover, bad luck, creative clashes, a succession
of female leads including Susan Sarandon and Christine
Lahti, and, ultimately, the powers of persuasion.

With additional
support from Stanley M. Brooks (producer of the Emmy
Award–winning miniseries Broken Trail), their
efforts have yielded a strategically
“palatable” movie that is nevertheless
bound to provoke debate among the book’s many gay
fans as well as the broader Lifetime audience.

Advocate.com
recently spoke with David, Dan, and Chris about their
passion project and their hopes that it will help other
parents accept their gay children.

Advocate.com:Was there a point at which you were
ready to give up?
David: Not really. I believe in fate… Even
though it took 12 years to get this movie made, I think it
was meant to be. And of course, we got very lucky with
Sigourney Weaver. To have a star of her caliber
working with the confines of a 20-day shoot for a
cable network is remarkable.

What was the project’s genesis?Dan: Back in 1996, before David came on board,
Chris walked into A Different Light bookstore [in Los
Angeles] and found a copy of Prayers for Bobby.
When I came home that night, he said
“Don’t talk to me until I finish this
book.” And then he basically went insane and
insisted we try to get the film rights.

Was that easier said than done?Chris: Yes. The book had already been optioned.
But we finally flew up to Northern California to meet the
author, Leroy Aarons, a year later. When we walked into his
backyard, Mary Griffith and her entire family were
waiting for us too, which was a shock. For probably
eight hours, we all had this cathartic, storytelling,
get-to-know-you discussion. They wanted to know our
motivations in telling Bobby’s story.

 PRAYERS FOR BOBBY RYAN KELLY SIGOURNEY WEAVER X390 (BEN MARK HOLZBERG/LIFETIME TV) | ADVCOATE.COM

What was your goal at that point?Dan: A feature film. We talked a lot about Kramer
vs. Kramer
, Ordinary People -- the moment
when Mary Tyler Moore can’t put her arm around
her son for the family portrait. So Chris and I needed
to hook up with a theatrical producer. And fortunately, when
David Permut read the book, he was in on page 10 and that
helped us attach an A-List actress. We lucked out with
Susan Sarandon, who’d recently done Dead Man Walking.Chris: The first question Susan asked was, "Who
is this movie for?" I told her it’s for mothers.
Because when families are at home over the dinner
table, whenever the next fag joke comes up,
it’s going to be the mother [who’d seen this
movie] who silences it.

When did the project go to TV?Dan: Susan was being courted by NBC to come
make her first television film. When she insisted we go MOW
[movie of the week], that was the first left turn. But
we thought, What the hell. Maybe we’ll get
30 million Americans to watch this story.

So what went wrong?Dan: Two things. The head of movies at NBC
abruptly resigned, and the new guy came in and shut down the
MOW business in 2000. And then we parted ways with
Susan because of creative differences regarding the
script [by lesbian screenwriter Katie Ford (Miss
Congeniality
)].

 PRAYERS FOR BOBBY RYAN KELLY Henry Czerny SIGOURNEY WEAVER X390 (BEN MARK HOLZBERG/LIFETIME TV) | ADVCOATE.COM

What was the issue?Chris: Susan wanted to go darker, she wanted to
champion the truth of Bobby Griffith’s story as
it’s told in the book [which features harrowing
passages from Bobby's diaries about his drug use and
stint as a gay prostitute].

Why did you feel it was necessary to go with a more
sanitized version?
Dan: It was a strategic choice that we
defiantly made. We didn’t want to give any mother a
reason to change channels and divest themselves of
this movie because they’d been gratuitously
offended. We asked ourselves, Are we just making this for
the gay community or are we trying to make a film that could
be screened in schools and help people understand the
emotional truth of what gay kids lives are really like?Chris: And when you’re dealing with TV and
advertisers, there are just a lot of roadblocks. It was the
difference between a movie that would never have been
made and reaching a green light.

Was Brokeback Mountain a role model in any way?David: Yes, in the sense that Brokeback went
beyond preaching to the choir. It wasn’t
alienating and it reached the vast audience between Los
Angeles and New York by appealing to people’s
emotions.

Were you ever worried that Christian conservatives
would try to dismiss the film as whitewashed propaganda?
Dan: I have no problem being seen as someone
with an agenda. I’m a gay man living in Los Angeles
in 2009 and my rights have just been taken away from
me [by supporters of Proposition 8].

PRAYERS FOR RYAN KELLY X390 (BEN MARK HOLZBERG/LIFETIME TV) | ADVCOATE.COM
 

After the NBC deal fell apart, what happened?David: We explored every opportunity. We had an
entire developmental process with Showtime. We talked to
Lifetime [then under different leadership]. We talked
again about whether this was a theatrical release or a
cable film….Dan: There isn’t a financier or a studio or
network head who, at some point over the last 12 years, has
not been aggressively approached. At one point, I flew
to Dallas to meet a multimillionaire investor and the
pitch took place in a gentlemen’s club with
topless waitresses serving us very expensive Texas prime rib.Chris: It was incredibly frustrating to keep
pushing and pushing without getting the break. And then
Leroy [the book’s author] died in 2004.

What kept you going?Dan: There was a lot of support in the
Hollywood community. Dustin Lance Black, the writer and
executive producer of Milk [another uphill
battle], and I used to run into each other all the
time at the West Hollywood Starbucks on Santa Monica
Boulevard. I’d be sitting at one table, making
calls about Bobby, while Dustin was working on
his latest draft of Milk. And the joke was "So,
where are you at with your gay project?" 

What was the turning point?Dan: In late 2007 we were in deep negotiations
with a private financial equity group interested in
financing Bobby as the sort of indie movie
where the lead actress would have to work on scale…David: The kind of movie that might play to the
New York/Los Angeles art-house crowd at best, but never
really get a proper release.Chris: That’s all that we thought we had left
at that point…but then we got lucky with Lifetime.
And then came Sigourney.

PRAYERS FOR BOBBY SIGOURNEY WEAVER MARCHING WITH PFLAG (BEN MARK HOLZBERG/LIFETIME TV) | ADVCOATE.COM
 

How was Sigourney Weaver different from some of the
other actresses you’d talked to over the years?
Dan: She was more emotionally invested right
from the start. Before she committed, she wanted to meet
Mary Griffith to make sure that Mary was OK with her
playing the role. So we flew up to the Griffith home
in Walnut Creek [near San Francisco] to meet Mary, and
after we’d all talked, Sigourney and I went up to
Bobby’s bedroom and sat on the bed, and she
turned to me and said, "We have a huge responsibility
to get this right.”

Is this project a conscious effort on the
network’s part to redefine the “Lifetime
Movie,” which in some circles is shorthand
for cheesy Meredith Baxter-Birney melodramas?
David: I think so, yes. Lifetime really wanted
to do some bolder material and reach out to a significant
star and they made it clear that they would make that
work economically. And for us, of course, going with
Lifetime meant that the movie would be seen by
millions of people…the audience who really needs to
see this movie, the other mothers out there, the other
Bobbys out there.

Do you feel the movie is even more necessary in the
wake of Proposition 8?
Dan: Twelve years ago, none of us could have
predicted the timing. We would have been even luckier if the
movie had aired at the end of October. Who knows? It
might have helped change the tally of the votes.