“I would get off stage and someone would say, ‘You didn’t really make a statement, like, gay rights!’ And I would say, ‘I just did a whole hour about my wife — you can’t get much gayer than that!’” Wanda Sykes lets out an exasperated laugh as she leans toward the camera. She is just one of the many individuals interviewed for the upcoming HBO documentary The Out List. The film, directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, is set up as a series of interviews, almost as if you are peering into a therapy session. Neil Patrick Harris shares his thoughts on gay parenting, while Lupe Valdez explains how she found herself as the first openly lesbian sheriff in Dallas, Texas. Some of the anecdotes are humorous, and others are heartbreaking, but all reflect upon what it truly means to grow up “out” in America.
The film debuts on HBO during New York City Pride Week on June 27, the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
What sparked your desire to make this film?
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: This is really a continuation of the last two years of work on identity — a series of films I did starting with The Black List and then The Latino List. So this was an obvious continuation of that. I think it certainly came to a head for us after the Prop 8 decisions. That’s what really ignited us to get funding and get the film going.
We had been thinking about this film from the very beginning. When we did The Black List, it was pretty obvious that with its success there was more to be done here in the area of LGBT. My friend Sam McConnell and I were very disturbed by the Prop 8 vote in California, so that was enough to push us towards starting a film on gay rights. Actually, in the beginning we called it Generation 8 — that was the title. It was focused on marriage equality in the post-Prop 8 world. As we began filming, it became more obvious that it wasn’t the only important issue out there.
You photographed all the interviewees for portraits that go along with the film. Did you also conduct the interviews?
TG: No, I did not do the interviews; Sam McConnell did the interviews. I did end up doing two of them because he wasn’t available. He is gay himself and he wanted to do them… I thought he could do it.
Going into the interviews, did he know what he was going to ask?
TG: The way we’ve done these always has been that there is a conversation. You have questions, but you don’t have a list you read. It goes organically in any direction the subject wants it to go in. Different people took it different places.
Was the result of this project different than you had originally envisioned going into it?
TG: Going into a film, you always have a sense of what the film will be. I don’t think I realized how powerful the film would be, and also that the timing of it would be so fortuitous. We’re airing on HBO on the 44th anniversary of Stonewall and possibly on the day that the Supreme Court announces the two major decisions.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Sam McConnell pose with some of the individuals featured in the film:
What do you hope people walk away from the film with?
TG: I think there are a lot of takeaways. I think that certainly if you’re a straight audience member, you get a much better sense of what it’s like being gay in America. … Sixteen different people have 16 different realities. If you’re gay, it really supports a lot of what you’ve been feeling your whole life. You know, we screened it in Dallas the other day, and a 12-year-old girl was there and she came up to me afterwards and I asked her who her favorites were. She said, “All of them,” and then she kind of burst into tears. I think for her, she was struggling with coming out; her mother brought her to the film. I think it was a very powerful film for her to see and…it answered a lot of questions for her.
Was there any one interview that spoke to you personally?
TG: I grew up in New York in the ’70s and ’80s and I lost a lot of friends to AIDS. So, Larry Kramer really was an important figure of the film for me, and I think to Sam McConnell as well, because it’s easy to forget about AIDS, because a lot has gone on, and people focus on marriage and financial equality. People can easily forget the nightmare of what happened to people in the ’80s and ’90s.
Was it a conscious decision to include not only celebrities but also normal, everyday individuals?
TG: Absolutely. You want to make a film that people are going to see. One of the ways to get people to sit in front of the TV and watch it is to have famous people in it that they’re interested in. So, of course, you want Ellen and you want Neil Patrick Harris. Those are obvious guests because that’s going to bring up your audience. But, I think as you get into the film, you want to hear about Lupe Valdez and Wayne Davis because they’re equally as interesting.
Do you think after this film you will start another identity-style documentary, or is this the final one?
TG: I would be thrilled if HBO wanted to continue this. I would urge people to write in and say, “We want more!” It’s not up to me totally.