May 17, 2012

Nashville Rebel: The Coming Out of a Country Music Star

Chely Wright, subject of Kopf and Birleffi's <em>Wish Me Away</em>. Photo: Tanya Braganti

The idea for Beverly Kopf and Bobbie Birleffi's feature documentary Chely Wright: Wish Me Away developed in 2008, when singer-songwriter Chely Wright came across the movie poster for Kopf and Birleffi's Be Real in a New York City publicist's office. Wright was in New York for a fresh start in her life after having spent two decades in Nashville, where she had achieved her childhood dream of becoming a successful country music singer, winning a Country Music Association (CMA) Award for Top Female Vocalist and scoring a No. 1 single with "Single White Female."

But the cost of this dream in a notoriously homophobic music industry had been high for Wright, who hid her true identity as a gay woman and thus forfeited her shot at the dream so many of us have of sharing our lives openly with someone we love. Chely was already writing her personal memoirs and creating video diaries on this subject, so when she saw the movie poster for Be Real, she reached out to the filmmakers with an idea.

Today this idea has blossomed into a powerful tale of courage and honesty. Wish Me Away has elicited the expected handful of hateful responses, but the film has, more importantly, encouraged positive change through open dialogue. The film has screened in 30 film festivals, where it was not uncommon for people to come up to the filmmakers afterwards in tears, thanking them. Ellen, Oprah and People magazine all featured Wright and her story. And Chely Wright: Wish Me Away arrives in theaters June 1 through First Run Features.

Documentary sat down with Kopf and Birleffi to discuss their reflections on this experience and what it has taught them about their craft.

 

How did you secure the initial funding and distribution for the film?

Beverly Kopf and Bobbie Birleffi: We put together a Limited Liability Corporation [LLC] and began looking for investors. Initial funding was done in stages: We raised enough to shoot; then we raised enough to edit and, finally, we raised enough to mix and online. We began by reaching out to activists in the gay community, and we would contact people one by one, having them sign non-disclosure statements. The community of funders gradually widened into the larger mainstream community. It was slow going; it took about three years. Once we secured a sales agent, the talented Andrew Herwitz of the Film Sales Company, we breathed a sigh of relief. It was his dogged determination and belief in the film that got us to First Run Features and a theatrical release.

 

Have any of the responses to the film surprised you?

In terms of Nashville, we won the Audience Award at the Nashville Film Festival, and all three screenings were well attended. We were heartened that perhaps Nashville was ready for an openly gay singer. Here's why we are beginning to change our minds:

The "Nashville" industry itself--not the many talented people who work for it--has basically decided to view Chely's coming out in negative terms: "She did it for attention to revive a sagging career," etc. They don't seem to want anything to do with her. No invitations to perform, no A-list country stars would agree to appear before our cameras when we were filming, and none have volunteered to publicly support her since. A few stars have sent Chely private notes in support, and Chely has mentioned Faith Hill as one of those.

Our most disturbing experience came over the past few months, as we prepared for our theatrical release. Gaylord Entertainment, the parent company of the Grand Ole Opry, was unwilling to license a short but crucial scene in the movie where Brad Paisley and Chely sing "Hard to Be a Husband, Hard to Be a Wife," a song they co-wrote and performed before thousands gathered for the 75th Anniversary of the Opry. Although Chely's story remains intact, we had to lose the shots of the two of them appearing live at the Opry. Why? We were tossed back and forth between Brad's management and Gaylord, and never received an official statement in writing.

To us, this is a clear example of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in action. Few in the Nashville industry want to be seen as supportive of or associated with gay culture, but no one wants to be called homophobic either. The end result is a strange kind of superficial silence. Having experienced it first-hand, we began to understand the insidious nature of institutionalized homophobia in Nashville that still exists some six or seven years after Chely's emotional breakdown.

Chely Wright, subject of Beverly Kopf and Bobbie Birleffi's <em>Wish Me Away</em>. Courtesy of Los Angeles FIlm Festival

Music obviously plays a large emotional role in this film--both Chely's music and the scenes where she's rehearsing with the legendary Rodney Crowell. Did music play a role in the structuring or editing of the film?

Yes. We worked closely with our editor, Lisa Palattella, who is a musician as well as a very experienced editor, and developed a kind of chronology of the music. We loved Chely's music from the beginning and had studied her entire catalogue. Much of her music feels as though she is singing to herself, or certainly about herself, with deep, probing lyrics--which made it work as a kind of narrative throughout the film. I think the music not only deepens the emotional power of the film, but also helps to give the audience a break from that emotion. And of course, it doesn't get any better than Rodney Crowell.

There were particular songs that we knew would help us tell key moments in the story. For example, the song "Between a Mother and a Child" comes at a heart-breaking moment, and the song "Unknown" really helped us through an amazing scene at a photo shoot as Chely prepares for her public coming out. It's a music documentary, after all, and the music is almost a character in the film.

 

Chely's relationship with her mother appears to be the most difficult, painful and, of course. defining in her life. This comes through in the film in Chely's discussions with her spiritual advisor and book editor, and primarily in her mother's refusal to grant you a full interview. Can you tell us more?

BB: We gradually built a relationship of trust with Chely, but in my experience, if filmmakers want to dig deep, there will always be issues, especially in a film about the life of an individual. We relied on Chely for access not only to herself, but to her family, and this was not easy for her. I don't think she initially realized that she would be "outing" her family. Out of respect for Chely, we wrestled with the idea of speaking to her mother without permission, but we knew that it was important for the film. In the aftermath of that shoot there was some tension but eventually we worked it out. We had no interest in demonizing her mother, but wanted to understand more of their relationship.

BK: Chely's relationship with her mom is complicated. Not only did she instill in Chely a love for country music and the absolute conviction that she could do anything she wanted to do, but she has also been a source of rejection and abandonment for Chely. A lot of gay people can certainly relate to having one parent who learns to accept you and another who does not.

 

I noticed that you two do not appear on film, except in the brief moment when you ask Chely's mother if she would care to talk with you. In documentary, as you know, there is a longstanding debate on whether the filmmaker(s) should be characters in the film or stay behind the camera. Can you tell us a little about where you stand on this debate and your choice to stay behind the camera in Wish Me Away?

BK: From the very beginning, we wanted this film to open hearts, not to carry a message. On the first day, Bobbie wrote on a blue card, "The world will open its heart when they see this film." If we had insinuated ourselves into this film in any way, we would have diminished its impact on the audience. That was our feeling from the beginning and seeing the results, we believe we made the right decision.

BB:  I come from a more journalistic tradition of trying to reveal all sides of a controversial issue and allow the viewers to think and make up their own minds. Wish Me Away is not our personal essay; it is the story of Chely's finally coming to terms with her authentic self. We tried to stay out of the way as much as we could. We did insert my question during one Nashville interview, because we needed to make a point.

 

What did the making of this film teach you about your craft?

BB: It taught me a lot about the dicey nature of the ethics of filmmaking. How far can the filmmaker go to protect the integrity of the film? When does the film begin to damage the reputation of a subject just so that it can be a good film?

It also taught me a lot about collaboration. For most of my career, I have worked solo, as a director and producer of long-form docs for television. This was a wonderful experience to work with my life partner, Beverly. She gave me the support I needed to pick up the camera and do some of the early filming--scenes that are in the film, scenes that needed to be shot. That might not have happened if I had been alone.

BK: Bobbie is a much more experienced and seasoned filmmaker, so what I learned most was how lucky I was to learn from the best. But I also learned, often the hard way, that when you make a film, every single solitary decision you make from day one will impact that film, so you had better make them carefully.

 

Now that the film has distribution, is there anything you would do differently in retrospect?

BB:  I will always wonder about Chely's mom and if we should have pushed harder on trying to get a response from her after Chely came out. She wouldn't talk, but we have learned that "no" can be the beginning of  "yes."

BK: I would definitely have trusted my instincts even more and never backed down if I had known I was right.

 

Belinda Baldwin teaches a graduate-level marketing course at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and writes on the topic of media, popular culture and social change for a variety of magazines and journals including the Harvard Book Review, The Advocate, Documentary and MovieMaker. She holds a PhD from USC in Cinema-TV.

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