Award-winning director, producer and writer Linda Bloodworth Thomason’s moving documentary, Bridegroom, tells the heartbreaking yet life affirming story of Shane Bitney Crone’s journey to honor his partner Tom Bridegroom’s memory. The film about two young men in love whose relationship was tragically cut short after an accident raises important questions about marriage equality and human rights. Premiering on the Oprah Winfrey cable network (OWN) on October 27th, Bridegroom was introduced by former President Bill Clinton at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won an Audience Award for Best Documentary.
In an exclusive interview, Thomason talked about how she first met Shane and Tom, why Shane’s heartfelt YouTube video tribute marking the one-year anniversary of Tom’s death inspired her to become involved, how she approached Shane about letting her tell his story, their collaboration on the film, and how she drew upon a wealth of material to create a multifaceted, deeply personal portrait of the young couple including videos Shane had compiled to document his life over the years. She also recalled her own first-hand experience with the bigotry that’s at the heart of the story and how it made her a passionate advocate of equality and human rights. Hit the jump to read the interview:
QUESTION: How did you first meet Shane and Tom and what inspired you to make a film about this story?
LINDA BLOODWORTH THOMASON: I actually serendipitously met Shane and Tom about a year and a half before Tom died. The owners of the salon where I go were getting married and this was a gay wedding. Shane and Tom had the little office upstairs, the little shack of a studio that they were operating out of. So, I didn’t know them. I didn’t even know they were upstairs. But, at the wedding, I was seated at their table. That night was the only time I ever met Tom. I felt so lucky to get to meet him. In the film, I felt cheated that I didn’t get to be friends with him because he was such a joyful presence and he’s very appealing. I thought on the way home that night, and I told my husband, “That is the most adorable couple, gay or straight, I’ve met. I really hope they get married.” Cut to, I get a phone call later, I never saw Tom or Shane again, but I got the news that Tom fell off a building and died. I just was devastated.
Without really even knowing them, it was just such a sad story. I thought that was the end of that and it was so sad. And then I start hearing how Shane’s been denied the chance to go to the funeral and how horribly he was treated. I didn’t even know Tom’s last name, by the way, until I saw Shane’s video (It Could Happen to You) on YouTube. That’s when I found out his last name was Bridegroom, and I went, “Okay. This seems like a sign that we need to do a film.” I don’t know. That just came out of nowhere. So I called him and I said, “I’ve never done a documentary, but I’ve done a lot of political films for President Clinton. I’d like you to come in and talk to me. I think this is a story that needs to be told.”
So he came in and at the end of the talking, I said, “Shane, do you have any material? I mean, do you have any film, moving film of your life.” I had no idea that he had been documenting his life since he was a little kid because he was lonely. That’s the way he did it. And then, when he got into the grief thing, it’s probably the largest compilation of human grief that’s ever been assimilated. That’s the way he dealt with his grief. So he backed up his car with all this material. I said, “Shane, you have more material than Bill Clinton in an eight-year Presidency,” and he did. That’s how we got started.
How did you go about creating such a multifaceted, deeply personal view of both men despite the fact that Tom’s family refused to participate?
THOMASON: Well, it was so easy with Tom because everybody I interviewed was very expansive. I’d say everybody in this film was in love with Tom Bridegroom. He’s an unusual presence. He’s a real ambassador for joy and he has an unbridled enthusiasm for life. I think this was Tom’s first time here when he was here. I mean, I think he hadn’t been here before. If you believe in reincarnation, Tom hadn’t been here before because he was fascinated by virtually almost everything. He was so positive. Everybody loved this kid. And so, that part of it was easy. I even worried about if this was going to look balanced because there’s no negative to him. But I knew instinctively, and after getting to know the Bridegrooms a little bit through Shane and the other friends, I said to Shane, “We are not going to characterize the Bridegrooms as anything other than who they are.” They don’t need to be characterized. When you have people who are behaving badly, you just need a big spotlight. And so, they characterized themselves. I did not want to demonize them. I also felt sorry for them. I felt angry at them. But I felt sad for them that they had each made their own decision to not evolve, that they would prefer to not side with their son, not help their son, not allow their son to be who he was. And Martha tried, but once Tom was gone, she went back to her old self. I just felt like I wanted a different ending for the movie. We called a family friend, and I explained to the friend that we can’t change the ending of what happened. That’s done. Tom’s gone. But we can change the ending of this film. I said, “I don’t have the ending yet. And I would love to have a different ending. I’m Southern. I believe in redemption.” I said, “We’ll be in Indiana. Shane will be at the cemetery on this date. I would love for the ending of this film, if it was real, I don’t want to manipulate it, but I would love – because Norman has never met Shane and Shane was the love of his son’s life — if Norman only came to the cemetery and extended his hand and said, ‘Hi Shane. I’m Norman.’ That would be an ending and a beginning. And if it was real, we would use it.” They never came, but we provided that opportunity, and I would’ve loved to have made that film because it’s hopeful and it does happen. And Shane’s parents are proof that it happens. It was an evolution for them also, particularly his father. It’s an evolution for almost everyone.
You got some incredible interviews, especially with Shane’s parents.
THOMASON: They were all good. Everybody was very real and very raw.
How does the final film compare to what you originally envisioned?
THOMASON: I would say a film is like in the old days when you would get in a covered wagon and go West, and when you finally get here, three wheels are off and three people have been killed by Indians and everybody has malaria. You never know the exact film. I just knew that I had their chemistry and tremendous love that was so appealing and I wanted people to see that. And fortunately, they had recorded themselves in a way that made that possible. And, I knew I didn’t want to demonize the Bridegrooms. My goal from the start was to tell this story because I hadn’t seen this story. I’m from a small Southern town, and all the people that I know, they all base their prejudice against gay love on seeing the Gay Pride Parade once a year. They’re so afraid of that guy at the front of the parade wearing jumper cables and a thong. There’s nothing wrong with him if he wants to do that, but that does not define the entire gay community. And I thought this is a love story. This is the best love story that I have ever heard of in the gay community or ever found that would represent what real gay love is, so that heterosexuals who are about to tip like the Pope can see that this love is no different from any love. And so, that was really my main goal, to show that. And I had the perfect couple to do it with. I couldn’t have asked for better material.
How did you strike a balance between not overplaying the grief but also not soft pedaling the bigotry that’s central to this story?
THOMASON: Well, we cut the grief way down. In fact, that was something that President Clinton helped on because the version that he saw he thought had too much of Shane grieving in it. And he was right. I cut it down some because there was so much grief. Shane actually filmed himself almost every day of those three [months] – there were five or six together but the three or four of crying. We had so much. It was so hard to choose what would be representative of July, what would be representative of September. But you always wear people out with grief if you overplay it. There’s just no way for people to see that. An editor left because they just could not take the grief that he shows. It was hard to work on it.
This is the most funded film in the history of Kickstarter, and you have former President Bill Clinton introducing it at the Tribeca Film Festival, and now Oprah Winfrey is premiering it on her OWN cable network.
THOMASON: Thank you. We really need to use your take on this. It’s a fairytale.
Oprah just tweeted about it the other day.
THOMASON: What did she tweet?
She said her job is to open people’s hearts. It was a very simple but strong statement about why she was interesting in supporting the film. What is your reaction to all of this?
THOMASON: I knew we’d sold to Oprah. I didn’t know she’d tweeted that. I’d love to have a statement from her. You know, we didn’t even start until last June, a year ago, June of 2012, and by April, we were at Tribeca. That was really fast. We really had the pedal to the medal because I knew I wanted to be at Tribeca. We were the last people in and then we got the Audience Prize. That was shocking. And then we’ve gotten the audience prizes ever since. That really encouraged us. That made us feel that we have something. I’d rather get the audience prize than anything because it’s the audience we’re after. Then that helps us get it into the places like Russia and the Middle East, and Mississippi where I heard they were just booing the Matthew Shepard play at Oxford, Mississippi. Something didn’t go well there. I just thought this has to go to all those places because I do think there are a lot of people who are more open to this than they think. They also need to see exactly what it is they’ve been opposing. Who wants to oppose this? After you see it, do you really want to oppose this? How? And why? What good could come from that? Reasonable people will see that. I have faith. The people who won’t see it would never see it. No matter what film you do, they will never see it. And so, I’m not after those people. I’m just not interested in them.
What was the biggest discovery you made in the process of making this film? Were there any surprises or perhaps something that struck you on a very personal level?
THOMASON: There was a big surprise. I was surprised at how many people all over the world have Shane’s problem and have the same problem. I mean, I was shocked at the number of couples — I mean, literally, probably thousands if I read them all — who wrote to say, “This happened to me.” We showed a few of them at the end of the film. It was just over and over and over, “They came. They took my boyfriend away. I don’t know where he’s buried.” I just had no idea, even after my experience with my mother having AIDS and the way we were treated. We were treated abysmally. I mean, the medicine kicked into the room in a bucket. Nobody would touch my mother. No funeral home would take her. I was treated like a pariah and so were all the gay men. I got to see what that felt like, and I was shocked that that kind of bigotry lives on 27 years later. Here it is all over the world, people still being tormented for absolutely nothing but being born, being who they are, and loving who they love. That was shocking to me. I didn’t know it was so widespread, but it is. It’s like an epidemic. I don’t know if hatred can be a virus, but it seems to travel pretty well, and it seems to be very resilient. And hopefully, Bridegroom is the antidote. So we’ll see.