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Leap! Book to Documentary

By Carol Grever

After two books and a decade of writing about “mixed-orientation marriages”-one gay and one straight in the partnership-I was in a rut. My writing niche had absorbed me for a long time, offering a reliable platform for additional assignments and media exposure, but the topic had become too comfortable. I was a one-note song and the lyrics were getting boring.

Though writing about it was becoming tiresome, interviewing straight spouses continued its fascination. I was touched by their anguish and willingness to tell their stories in order to help others recover. Men and women who told me their painful truths demonstrated courage and highly individual approaches toward resolution. Their experiences were moving, dramatic, inspirational, tragic or triumphant-the stuff of good film. Why not use their stories as material for a documentary on the straight spouse dilemma?

How hard could it be to point a camera, interview people, and edit the segments together?  My research had garnered dozens of subjects who might be willing to be filmed. The characters would simply leap from the page to the big screen. There was only one obstacle:  I knew nothing at all about filmmaking or conventions of documentaries.

Armed with a thin veneer of information from a quick reading of Alan Rosenthal’s Writing, Directing and Producing Films and Videos, I started tapping acquaintances who might guide me. I met with two experienced filmmakers, neither of whom wanted to take the project because they were too busy with other work. They also disheartened me with the startling fact that the average cost of a documentary is $3,000 per finished minute. Whoa!  My assumption that this would be easy began to fade.

I stepped back to think it over.

The whole idea had been shelved for a year when I met Roslyn Dauber, a filmmaker with more than 20 years of experience, both as a producer/director in Los Angeles and an associate professor at CU. Roz was easygoing, supportive, and non-threatening to a novice. Having been a teacher, she took me on as a student and she agreed to co-produce “my” documentary. March 21, 2007: That was the beginning of my elementary education in the film business and the genesis of one of the most interesting and demanding projects of my life.

Roz and I met every few days that first month and each time she taught me more about the process, from concept to finished DVD. Dozens of decisions and agreements were required. Foremost was purpose. What did I want to accomplish? That wasn’t so hard to articulate, since the same motivation drove my books: To create resources for healing the wounds of heterosexual men and women who unknowingly married homosexual mates. The primary audience would thus be straight spouses, with additional possibilities in university classrooms, peer support groups and therapy situations.

During those early weeks, we discussed style, length, content, narration, budget, funding, timeframe, and our mutual commitment of time. Decisions were needed on each aspect. There were also legal considerations. Binding contracts would be necessary with the professionals, including the director, film editor, cover designer, and composer of original music. We would need releases from everyone who appeared in the DVD, allowing us to use their image and name for educational purposes. As in writing, accurate citation of sources of any quoted material is required.

It was soon apparent that I was deluded in thinking that this would be simple, or that we could just run around shooting video tape and patch it all together. There could be no tedious talking heads staring into the camera. Interesting visuals had to be planned and shot. Family photos would demonstrate individuals’ personal history. Roz indicated that re-enactments with professional actors would be useful to depict dramatic experiences, narrated with voice-overs of the straight spouses themselves. It grew more and more complex. This wasn’t just a home movie. It would be a professional, first class DVD that we could show with pride, and it would take months, perhaps a whole year to accomplish.

Through the following months of shooting interviews, the direction and movement of the film slowly evolved. Its storyline began to emerge, with dilemmas and rising action, climax and denouement. We were working with real people, sharing their true experiences. Nothing they said was scripted, so we used selections from their interviews as building blocks to develop a thread of meaning that served as plot. With 500 pages of transcripts, it was like putting together a complex jigsaw puzzle. Since length was critical, we continually cut segments to stay within the 35-minute limit. The result is a lean, evocative montage of anecdotes and fragments pointing toward hope.

As a writer turned filmmaker, I had to see through a different lens. Every point is conveyedvisually, not with narration. Echoing William Carlos Williams: No ideas but in scenes and pictures. It’s the ultimate application of the writing teacher’s admonition to “show, don’t tell!” I rewrote the script a dozen times, each version more spare than the last. The final narration consists of fewer than 15 sentences transitioning through the 32-minute film. Straight spouses chronicle their own histories, without comment or interpretation from the disembodied voice of a narrator.

Because the narrative portions are necessarily condensed, it was essential that they be read sensitively, with just the right tone and emotion. A professionally trained voice was needed. Could we interest a celebrity in the project? We had a stroke of great luck when Roz asked a mutual friend to approach actress Ali MacGraw. The subject interested her; she read the script and my previous book and watched a sample of the film in progress. Within a week, we had a contract and a date to record her voice in a Santa Fe studio.

Of course, everything cost more than I’d hoped, particularly as the months rolled by and deadlines were extended. Roz had estimated a minimum cost of $100,000 for production, but that didn’t count marketing and promotion costs afterward. At the very least, we’d need a trailer for promotional purposes and a Web site to sell it online. Expenses climbed.

What did all this money buy? The major cost of any project is payroll:    Compensation for the director and film editor and several camerapersons. We needed original music to enhance dramatic scenes. There were countless other necessary expenses: Various contractors-technicians who transfer video tapes to DVDs, for example-administrative expense to transcribe every word of every tape, specialized equipment, hundreds of video tapes, airfare and hotels and rental cars for film shoots, and entertainment of interviewees. There was liability insurance, entry fees for film festivals, dozens of Fed-X deliveries, postage, additional computer equipment and photo scanners.

Near the end of the project, the final cut of the video required color correction and audio “sweetening.” A thousand copies of the finished DVD were made, with a thousand specially designed covers. It all added up to well over $100,000, and the total would have been even higher, but I worked for nearly a year on the project with no compensation.

Eventually we should recover some of the cost with sales of the DVD, and we have approached HBO and Discovery Health to make a longer version of the film. If we’re fortunate enough to place it on public television, 10 to 40 million viewers will see it, multiplying the impact of my books exponentially. Working toward that goal, we’ve applied for several finishing grants and will enter our present version in various competitions. If any of these possibilities come to fruition, this adventure into filmmaking will continue.

But for me, the real payoff will not be in dollars. It is the conviction that this film carries a message of healing and hope and guidance for straight spouses and their families. It is the only documentary of its kind and I’m sure that there is a need for it. This psychic reward is enough for taking the leap.

Carol Grever


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