"The Case Against 8" co-directors Ben Cotner (left) and Ryan White won the U.S. Documentary Directing Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival
"The Case Against 8" co-directors Ben Cotner (left) and Ryan White won the U.S. Documentary Directing Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

From 600 hours of raw footage collected over the course of five years, Cotner, White, and veteran editor Kate Amend ("Into the Arms of Strangers," "The Long Way Home") shaped an unmannered portrait of four courageous Californians enduring a taxing emotional experience, all without losing view of the attorneys' acumen. (You're likely to learn more about the arduous logistics of constitutional law from "The Case Against 8" than you did in high school civics.) When it comes to the film's most arresting aesthetic choices -- the decision to open with Olson's rehearsal; the inclusion of the plaintiffs' moving recitations of court transcripts, with the documents themselves displayed on screen -- White credits the encouragement and keen eye of longtime HBO Documentary Films President Sheila Nevins.   

"We always thought it was such an electric scene, and some people were worried about that scene because it's so legal nitty-gritty," White said about Olson's opening sparring match. "Sheila said, 'If you want to throw people into it, why don't you try it at the top?'"

But dealing with Nevins, who many recognize as "a force to be reckoned with," was not without trepidation for the filmmakers. 

"The first time we showed Sheila the film, you know, you're terrified to even go into Sheila's office, and you don't know what she's going to say, because she gives you no indication of whether she liked it or not," White recounted. "When we got to [the transcript readings], she said, 'This should never work in a movie, and if you'd told me you were going to do it, I would have told you not to do it... [but] it's my favorite part of the movie.'"

While "The Case Against 8" is clearly a work of political advocacy, the co-directors, both gay Californians, deny this. Yet the film ultimately forges a compelling argument on behalf of marriage equality. In this, it follows in the footsteps of its subjects, who won "the first decision by a federal court that under the federal Constitution, which obviously applies to all fifty states, that marriage discrimination was unconstitutional," as Boies notes near the end of the film. Like the long journey that brought "The Case Against 8" from nascent idea to final cut, the legal challenge to Proposition 8 arrived at a conclusion even the old studio hands might not have scripted. 

"We got the fairy tale ending," White said, reflecting on the decades of political organizing that preceded the Supreme Court's decision and the work that continues apace. "We got the Hollywood ending with our film."

"The Case Against 8" premieres on HBO Monday, June 23 at 9pm.