The former Utahn and filmmaker behind a popular documentary about the LDS Church’s role in passing Proposition 8 visited the University of Utah Oct. 22 for an intimate discussion about the controversial California measure, Utah politics and the fateful interview with an anti-gay Utah Senator that propelled his film into national headlines.
8: The Mormon Proposition producer and director Reed Cowan, who worked as an anchor for Channel 4’s Good Morning Utah in the early 2000s, addressed a small audience of nine University of Utah students and employees at the close of the school’s Pride Week on Oct. 22.
“I look at this film and the shit-storm it caused and I still get emotional, spiritual and mental whiplash because I didn’t anticipate I would be the David who would throw a rock at this church and its political activism. But it is what it is,” said Cowan, noting that 8 not only went on to seven sold out screenings at the Sundance Film Festival, but to open in 19 theaters across the country this summer — a number, he said, that is “unheard of for a documentary.”
“We’ve spread the message far and wide and it got way bigger than we anticipated,” he said.
When Cowan set out to make his second documentary film, he said that Proposition 8 wasn’t even on his radar; at first, he wanted to make a film about homeless queer youth, who make up a disproportionate number of the country’s homeless youth population.
“I came here and we went two stories below the earth in the dead of winter and saw where these kids were squatting and it broke my heart,” said Cowan, who added that he had a special affinity for queer youth after facing anti-gay bullying as a teenager living in Roosevelt. “They were really brilliant young people who identified as gay or lesbian.”
However, Cowan said that he quickly realized that the same mindset lay behind both Proposition 8 and the mindset that lead LDS parents to kick their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens out of their homes. And so, in early 2009 he told QSaltLake that he was coming to Utah to interview people “on all sides” of the measure, which had just re-banned same-sex marriage in California. He said that he was surprised at how many people showed up to talk on camera for just 10 minutes.
“Some people waited for five hours,” he said. “We had to turn about 40 people away and we were [shooting] until 10 p.m.”
After watching thousands of Utahns protest at Temple Square, Cowan said that he expected to hear nothing but vitriol toward the church. Yet, the people he interviewed surprised him.
“I sat in awe of the tears that fell and the humanity, and I felt the spirit of God, which is light, warmth, love, community and family,” he said. “I expected the gay community to have a different voice than it had in Salt Lake City.”
One voice that surprised him with its vitriol, however, was that of Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan. In the now-infamous interview with Cowan, the Senator, known for his anti-gay remarks, compared gays and lesbians to terrorists and graphically described a sex practice he called “pig sex” on camera. When Cowan later released the tapes to the press, Buttars accused Cowan and his camera crew of tricking him by coming to the interview in BYU jackets. Suspecting that Buttars would later try and “spin” what had happened during the interview, Cowan said that he and his crew kept minute-by-minute records of what they did throughout the interview, which took place in Buttars’ Senate office and not at his home as Buttars later said.
“Buttars lied to all of you about that interview experience,” he said, noting also that Buttars had posted lies about Cowan and his film crew on the Senate’s blog later that day. He lied! He interviewed in a building during Senate time that your tax money paid to build.”
Cowan said he was also surprised that LDS Church officials never agreed to speak with him, despite repeated calls to the church’s public relations department.
“I kept saying, ‘Look, this is journalism I’m doing here, and this is going to be bad. This is how journalism works and you would look so much better if you said something,” Cowan said that he told PR employees, several of whom were also colleagues and friends. In response, he said that one employee told him: “But you don’t understand. We’re the PR arm of the church and this isn’t abut ferreting out the truth and discussing what’s true and not. This is about finding stories that make the church look good.”
“Any time you see something spoken from the public affairs arm of the church, it is always to make them look good,” he said.
However, Cowan said that two Utahns who were not concerned with looking good during 8’s filming were then-Gov. Jon Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye Huntsman. During his talk, Cowan revealed what he said was the impetus behind Huntsman’s outspoken support of civil unions during the 2008 Legislative session.
“They got the worst hate mail you’ve ever seen. I saw it,” said Cowan, who has been friends with the Huntsmans for years. “It hurt my friend Mary Kaye and it hurt Gov. Huntsman. Mary Kaye told me, ‘You realize why he did it, right? It was because of you. He couldn’t answer no without hurting you.’”
Cowan also spoke about the arduous process of re-editing the film after an editor destroyed a hard drive by spilling soda on it, as well as the effect the film had on his family, with whom he is largely not speaking now. He also discussed a possible future project with 8’s narrator, Dustin Lance Black. He would only describe this as being produced in cooperation with The Trevor Project, which seeks to prevent queer youth suicides.
When asked by an audience member from another state why the LDS Church cared so much about same-sex marriage, Cowan was frank. “Gay people interrupt the Mormon plan for heaven,” he said. “The model for the entire plan of salvation is man marries woman in the temple, they have children who are linked to the man and woman for all time and eternity. So the doctrine is very much family. So where does a gay person fit into that, especially a gay person who wants to define family in a different way?”
When asked if that doctrine would ever change, Cowan said no. “The challenge [for the church] will be how do we assert our beliefs and still not be accused of being responsible for teen suicide and homelessness. That’s the quagmire we find ourselves in,” he said.