Finding Humanity In The Pain As We Talk With Author Garrard Conley About ‘Boy Erased’

It’s hard for some people to realize that you just can’t change everything…

Boy Erased tells the story of Jared (Lucas Hedges), the son of a Baptist pastor in a small American town, who is outed to his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) at age 19. Jared is faced with an ultimatum: attend a gay conversion therapy program; or be permanently exiled and shunned by his family, friends, and faith.

This is a real life horror story in the truest sense of the word, but with this writer/director Joel Edgerton has crafted something that is painfully unique, poignant and will pack a punch for audiences everywhere as it’s deeply layered and rich messages come through.

After a successful festival run, Boy Erased is getting ready to hit theatres in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and in advance of the premiere we got the unique please of talking to the man who all this actually happened to.  Author Garrard Conley.

We talk about his initial reaction to learning that is story was getting optioned into a film, working with Joel Edgerton, the larger issues the film brings up, not only in the LGBTQ community but in society at large and so much more…

 

David Voigt: This story is so rich in layers, because it’s heavy, it’s emotional, there’s even some small moments of hope in it.  I’d love it if you could walk me through everything that you’ve experienced with this process especially in those initial moments when the reality of this very personal story that you’ve written is going to be on the big screen for the world to see.

Garrard Conley: As I’m sure you can imagine people just don’t pay as much attention to books as you’d hope and while I did get a lot of great feedback, it really wasn’t a best seller either.  I was just living my normal life and about a week before that I had gotten the offer from Joel (Edgerton) and his team, we had received an anonymous offer; they wouldn’t tell us who they were which is just weird (and honestly a little creepy) and my agent told me that we just didn’t want to go with them because we’d end up being really embarrassed at the premiere and I can’t tell you any more than that.  I of course at least asked how much they were offering, because I am a starving artist and I just moved to New York where things are actually pretty expensive, but my agent just told me to think about it and I eventually did turn it down, which was just the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  Of course then a week later I was rewarded like I had won the lottery when Joel’s team came in with their offer and this great group.

Then of course Joel wanted to meet with me in Brooklyn because of course I thought this had to be fake!  Why is this straight Australian man interested in my story all of a sudden?  Then we met and he was just super nice and also wanted to meet with other survivors of conversion therapy and even offered to let me write the script.  However I had never written a movie script in my life and as much as this is my story it’s not exactly something that I ever want to write again either so I was happy to let him do it because at that point I really was just exhausted by it at that point because obviously my family had been in somewhat of a public eye and it was freeing and a lot less stressful to be able to hand it over to someone else.  He wrote the script in about a month and he sent me drafts the entire time and it was a very fast process.  I think I got the initial call from Joel and his team in like January or February and by October we were on set shooting.  That’s how insane this all was, it all came together really quickly.

Was there one specific moment in all of this where you ended up really knowing that Joel was the right man for the job of telling this story?

You know I think it was at that first initial meeting where I was really sold on his vision because when we met I asked him point blank; “What are your intentions with this story?” and he was straight me saying that he wanted to get A-List Actors on this project so we could really get people paying attention to this story and so that we can get people like my father and others who support Conversion Therapy to go and watch the film.  In my mind that was a good enough reason for me and granted there are a lot of other reasons to make a movie like this.  Maybe if it had been made by a Queer director it would have become this incredibly personal story but in doing this way with Joel I really saw it as an opportunity for advocacy, to be able to get it to the right people.  And really who knows if that will ever happen because it’s hard and our country is just so divided right now, you just don’t know.  At least if it gets people, who identify with Russell Crowe from Gladiator and wonder why he’s in this LGBTQ film, why is someone like Flea in this film as well.  It’s having people like that in a movie that really helps to spark on conversation of why they are in a movie like this.  I really think those things do matter and it’s important when your allies in trying to get a message across are actors that a lot of people look up to.

Oh absolutely because there are some aspects of the story that I just found absolutely fascinating because as much as this your story, when we’ve seen other stories along a similar vein come to the big screen we tend to see issues of faith get thrown to the back burner as well as things like the culture of toxic masculinity that we live in today which is just so pervasive in today’s society which do elevate this film beyond being just an LGBTQ story and tackles something so much more universal…

And that’s especially true with Flea’s character who is just terrible and making them perform this toxic masculine rhetoric was really uncomfortable for some of them and I’m so glad you picked up on that theme in the movie.  It was something really important to me and during this entire process of making the film and having it all come together, I knew that we just had to get it right.  For the most part the gay conversion centers are a white industry and mostly male as well and when you are dealing with that dynamic you really do have to lean into the darker side of things and genuinely critique it, otherwise you’ve just made another movie with white gays in it.  You have to lean into the darker aspects that are there so we can really see how domineering and uncomfortable it can all be in an environment with almost no diverse voices.

I think that’s why the film really works on such a universal level as well because while I’ll grant that I live in a left-leaning, multi cultural big city like Toronto; the message of the need for us all to maybe move a little more towards ending all the divisiveness which is so poisonous and counterproductive on so many levels is something that needs to be said and I definitely see it here.

Oh I hope so to be sure and also there’s going to be people in all of our lives from different walks of life who you’ll never really find a common ground with.  I mean finding common ground with someone who is blatantly racist is a dangerous thing, but I especially think that people like my parents really do provide a road map for people who have messed up in the past and I mean I even equate “messing up” as something like being at a family dinner and someone says something racist or homophobic…but you just let it slide.  That kind of compliancy is also making a mistake and at some point you do have to stand up for people, especially those who just aren’t as privileged as you are.  I think the character of my mother is something that people can really map their own lives on to and see an example of what it actually means to do the right thing.

Is that one of the main goals for you on this project?  Not only about creating awareness around things like gay conversion but on a broader scale as a call for us as a species to just be generally nicer and treat each other better then we historically have in the past?

Yeah for sure that is one of the main goals, and while obviously I wanted to do everything that I can to raise awareness about Gay Conversion Therapy, it’s so important to be able to put out there that comfort really isn’t necessarily the key ingredient in any kind of family or social gathering.  There’s a tendency just to try and smooth things over and just go “Oh never mind, it’s just my racist uncle” rather than calling these issues to light and reminding everyone that words matter.  I think this is especially big in group settings and making sure that occasionally it’s important to make things a little messy and a little awkward and have a discussion about things to see alternate view points and maybe even convey even the smallest idea that to someone who would have never considered it before.

Obviously while on the festival circuit, the film has had great reactions in places like New York, San Francisco, LA, Toronto but have you had a chance to see the film be screened in front of audiences that aren’t necessarily as receptive as the one’s you’ve had so far and see that needle move in a direction more positive then we’ve seen in the past.

Well, not yet and yeah obviously in the cites you just mentioned we are kind of “preaching to the choir” as it were and they’re the kind of cities that need it the least…but that doesn’t mean they don’t still need it.  After the New York premiere, I had these two young girls come up to me and gave me letters saying that they hadn’t come out to their parents yet but after seeing the film they feel like they can take their parents and have more of an open dialogue with them then they had ever had before so it’s not to say that the big cities don’t need it…

And that really does speak to the larger point of the film as well because in many ways, everybody needs that push in a more tolerant direction…

It does!  There’s this interesting detail that I always like to point out because 10 miles away from San Francisco in San Raphael, California is where “Love & Action” the conversion therapy centre that I went to was born in 1973.  10 miles from the safest place that there ever was for Queer people, the exact opposite was created.  I think that’s a perfect example of how nowhere is really free of this type of hate.  Any time we make progress there will always be some kind of push back and it’s never going to be a straight line.  When the community achieved marriage equality, there was such a temptation to just go “Yay, we did it we won!”  So many people just want that moment to relax and feel good when there’s still work to do.

That speaks to society’s ills as well because as a species we’re always looking for the quick fix or the cure.  It’s an idea that’s ingrained in us and it’s so much more complicated than that.

And that’s a dangerous idea no matter what form it comes in.  I talk about this a lot in the book but not nearly as much in the movie but this Great Gatsby like idea where everything will suddenly change and we’ll all get a happy ending.  American’s are just obsessed with that, with the idea that if you just “Work Hard” you can make it and do anything.  That idea of just “work hard” was the exact mentality that was pervasive in conversion therapy…and guess what it didn’t work!  Some things just don’t change!

And that really does capture how I felt the first time I heard the words “Gay Conversion” because my first reaction was “Wait, that’s actually a thing?”

And most people have that reaction but if you came from where I came from, people do think it is a real thing.

Boy Erased is open in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver now…

 

Dave Voigt

David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like Examiner.com, Criticize This, Dork Shelf, to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema. Having launched his own home; In The Seats (intheseats.ca) back in 2015 for all the latest and greatest movie reviews and interviews he’s one of the leading voices in the film criticism scene in Toronto, and eventually the world. David is the Entertainment Editor for Addicted Magazine.