“In the midst of this very scary time in America politics, here’s an American story that gay and non-gay people, in fact anyone who believes in equal rights and a constitutional democracy, can all take pride in.”
– Eddie Rosenstein
Releasing digitally on June 6, the civil rights documentary “The Freedom to Marry” follows attorneys Evan Wolfson and Marry Bonauto as they fight to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states during the Supreme Court case Obergefell vs. Hodges. In an interview with The Untitled Magazine, director Eddie Rosenstein elaborates on his inspiration, choices, and focus during the making of “The Freedom to Marry” and how this film is highlighting democracy in action and those fighting for equal rights.
Sarah Yenesel: What inspired you to make the documentary?
Eddie Rosenstein: I’m going to say that the key word in that question is “inspire.” I had the opportunity to film someone that I thought the world should know more about and someone who really inspires me. For the last few decades, Evan Wolfson has been the leader of one the biggest civil rights movements of our time. This is the story of Evan and some of the other main players in the movement, and the inside scoop on how the movement worked. It’s not only a big and inspirational story but, in some regards, “The Freedom to Marry” is an untold story as well.
SY: Why did you decide to make Evan a subject as opposed to other people and organizations advocating for the Supreme Court decision?
ER: One of the most pressing challenges of this project was choosing which stories to tell, especially given that so many people worked so hard on this issue for so long, each of whom deserve to have their stories told. But unfortunately, a film can’t tell everyone’s story, or everything just gets muddy and loses poignancy. As a director, you have to make choices and pick main characters.
I was drawn to Evan, party because I knew him, but also because he actually is “the architect of the same-sex marriage movement.” He started his efforts in the early 80s and is both the longest serving and most pivotal person in the history of the movement. There are plenty of people who say, in fact, that the freedom to marry simply would not have happened without Evan’s vision, guidance, leadership and tenacity.
That said, Mary Bonauto was also a huge factor in both this film and the movement itself. I’m honored to have had a chance to tell her story as well.
SY: Did you know Evan before the documentary?
ER: I did know Evan a bit, since our parents are close friends and we grew up in the same neighborhood. We weren’t actually friends before the making of this film, simply because of our age difference, but I knew of him and I was aware of what he’s been up to for years through our families. So when I realized that this was possibly final chapter of a long and heroic journey, I contacted Evan and asked if I could join along for the final battle.
SY: Was there any personal motivation to make the documentary?
ER: I’ve think that people expect me to say that this was an important story to me, not only as a filmmaker but as a gay person, but that’s not actually true. I’m straight and so “The Freedom to Marry” wasn’t my particular fight other than, of course, human rights, equal rights, and compassion which are things we should all care about.
No – The personal reason I felt compelled to take on this project was that my wife and I had been talking a bunch to our teenage kids about what it means to be a good citizen of the world. We realize our kids (and so many of their friends) seem to feel hopeless, like it’s impossible for regular people to have any impact.
So, I was keeping an eye out for a story that shows how regular people really can make a difference; something that would not only give us all hope but that could show us all exactly HOW to make a difference. Then, this happened.
SY: Why release the documentary on June 6th? Does that date have a particular significance?
ER: We wanted make this available on VOD by the beginning of Gay Pride Month. One of the cool things about this movie is that this isn’t just the story of how America lived up to it’s “promise” a bit, it’s also the story of how LBGT people went from a despised minority, just a few decades ago, to a majority level of public support, and also some important legal protections. So, in the midst of this very scary time in America politics, here’s an American story that gay and non-gay people, in fact anyone who believes in equal rights and a constitutional democracy, can all take pride in.
SY: How long did it take for you to create this documentary from start to finish?
ER: It took 17 months in total to make this film, from the initial moment it was conceived, till the film was researched, financed, cast, shot, cut, scored, mixed and first complete print was output. That may seem to some like a long time, but in the documentary world, that’s actually a pretty tight time frame – which, at one point, even required nearly a month of round-the-clock editing, for instance. The reason everything happened so fast was that by the time I got involved, there were only 3 months till the Supreme Court arguments and just five months till the decision would be rendered. Then, I wanted to finish the film by the one year anniversary – which we actually accomplished. “The Freedom to Marry” premiered one year to the day after the Obergefell decision.
SY: What were some important aspects that you kept in mind while directing the documentary?
ER: The most important thing for me, as with every project, is to keep trying to understand the real story (vs. my preconceived notions of the story) and to put myself in a position to harvest it as well as possible. If I work to keep my ears and eyes and heart open, the story always, inevitably, gets more interesting as it unfolds, until it begins to toss me around like a rag doll – that’s when the fun begins. Of course, since you can’t film everything and budgets are limited, the challenge is to figure out in the production phase what it is that you want to shoot. The key to making those decisions is having a strong sense of the dramatic question and keep digging at that, while always keeping one eye out for ways to amplify character, stakes and obstacles. In other words, while there are huge historical, social and factual considerations, I think my primary job is to be a good non-fiction storyteller. Once I feel like I have the plot working, I then look for ways to embed important themes, history, and side stories.
SY: Why did you also interview the organization that was against gay marriage and was fighting against it?
ER: You can’t try to be real and not listen to the other side of a story. It was important to me to hear out people who are opposed to same-sex marriage, to find out what they’re thinking and what makes them tick. I’m 100% sure that everyone needs to hear them out, and then make up their own minds, having heard both sides of the story. At least that’s always important for me.
SY: In what ways could this documentary positively impact the public opinion on same-sex marriage?
ER: One of the things I learned is that when people who are opposed to same-sex marriage actually meet people gay people and have an honest conversation with them about why marriage matters, they become about 70% more likely to support it. I hope that this film puts a human face on same-sex marriage and has a similar effect, creating dialogue and conversation.
At the same time, I hope that this not only speaks to the freedom to marry, but helps further cement the fact that our LGBT brothers and sisters are just people, the same as non-gay people, and that they absolutely deserve the same amount of respect and dignity as everyone else.
SY: What do you hope the viewers learn from the documentary?
ER: First of all, I really hope that people don’t only watch documentaries just to learn something. I hate that documentary films get pigeon holed as teach-texts or as things that you’re supposed to watch because they’re good for you.
That said, I admit that all movies have the power to affect not only our hearts but our heads. I hope that people watching “The Freedom to Marry” come away knowing that change is possible – and that it takes time, perseverance, commitment and hope. I hope people are inspired by Evan and Mary, and by all the activists who spent decades working on this cause, and I hope that people realize that, yep, democracy is a team sport. Everyone, off the bench. Strap on your helmets and get onto the playing field.