Filmmakers and plaintiffs from The Case Against 8 at the Film Society. Photo by David Ninh

Filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White joined the subjects of their Sundance- and SXSW-award-winning documentary at the Film Society last week for a screening and Q&A at the Walter Reade Theater. Their film, The Case Against 8, goes inside the historic legal fight to overturn California’s controversial Proposition 8, which banned same sex marriage.

The documentary, which won a directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and an Audience Award at SXSW, chronicles the legal proceedings that lead to a showdown at the Supreme Court last year, but it goes beyond the nuances and legalese of the justice system. The film also gives an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at David Boies and Ted Olson, the powerhouse legal team behind the suit. The pair are best known as opponents in the Bush v. Gore case, which ultimately decided the 2000 U.S. Presidential election.

The Case Against 8 also goes into the homes of couples Kris Perry and Sandy Stier as well as Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami, the four plaintiffs at the heart of the battle to overturn Prop 8. When the four first became involved, they had no idea if their case would go to court, nor did they conceive that their private lives would enter the spotlight.

“It wasn’t a decision to have our stories told in this fashion, it was a default,” said Stier at the Walter Reade Theater after the screening of the film. “When we first became involved with this case we never in our wildest dreams believed it would go to trial. The surprise was meeting these fantastic filmmakers come with us on this journey.”

Inside the Walter Reade Theater. Photo by David Ninh

Filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White met at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Not long afterward, Cotner had read that a case was going to be filed and he gave White a phone call. “I said, ‘Hey would you like to do this with me?'” he recalled. “At the time we didn’t know it would be a big trial or go to the Supreme Court so we approached the American Foundation for Equal Rights  about access to the case. They introduced us to Ted and David and the four plaintiffs in the case.” The meeting began a five-year journey that culminated with their case going to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5 to 4 decision, the justices effectively overturned Prop 8, letting stand a lower court ruling.

“A big challenge for us was [having a sense of] suspense in our film,” said White. “Everyone knows the ending of the film since it’s one of the best documented court cases out there, which you don’t want as a filmmaker. The subject matter would be heavy at times, it’s very emotional. But we found that there’s also [a lot of] humor too, which is an element that also gives a great deal of levity.”

Early on, the couples faced not only a challenge from groups opposing same-sex marriage but also from some within the gay community who argued that challenging Prop 8 so soon could cause a major backlash.

“Once we were signed onto this lawsuit we were signed on, but there were days when we questioned what we were doing,” said plaintiff Paul Katami.  “One day when I was going to work someone said to me, ‘I wish you well, but you’re a troublemaker and you’re going to set us back decades.’ So I went home and [told] Jeff, and he said, ‘You know what? We can go to our graves knowing that we tried and that is the most important thing.'”

HBO Films came on board with the project last year, just as the Supreme Court issued its final ruling in the same day it overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in a separate case.

“It was impossible to predict what would happen. There wasn’t a single person in the world that thought there would be a trial,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “The train was moving very fast. It seemed like every judge in California and the nation wanted to touch this case. I know they had sleepless nights. We all owe a great deal of gratitude to these four people and their families and Edith Windsor [plaintiff in the DOMA case] for moving public opinion. They are all our heroes.”

“It was an amazing journey,” said plaintiff Jeff  Zarrillo. “We knew Ben and Ryan would take good care of us because they had incentive to see us succeed as well. This movie will be a great opportunity to show people and inspire people. Kids in Arkansas and the fly over states will be able to use this film to find inspiration to walk out of their rooms and tell their parents they’re gay. And it will show kids today that they will be able to get married no matter where they live in just a very short amount of time.”

[HBO Documentary will open The Case Against 8 in theaters this weekend. It will air on the premium network starting June 23.]