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The Evolution of
Prayers for Bobby

The Evolution of
Prayers for Bobby


From big screen to Lifetime, Susan Sarandon to Sigourney Weaver, it's taken 12 years to bring Prayers for Bobby, the story of homophobe-turned-activist Mary Griffith, to life.

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

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)].

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].

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.

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.

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