“Boy Erased” director Joel Edgerton was so smitten by the book the new movie is based on, he hunkered down during a vacation and started crafting the script before the movie rights had been secured.
To say it went well would be an understatement; the project quickly jelled with the kind of heat creative types know can’t be forced.
“In the quiet of a hotel room in Budapest where I had gone on holiday, I sort of secretly started working on the script,” Edgerton says during a break two weeks ago at Virginia’s Middleburg Film Festival where “Boy Erased” was screened. I thought I was going to write a couple of scenes. Two weeks after that, I had a rough draft, and two weeks later, after careful polishing, I had a finished draft.”
“Boy Erased,” based on the horrors of gay conversion therapy camps, opens in D.C. theaters Nov. 9.
A recent study by the Williams Institute concluded that nearly 700,000 Americans have been subjected to conversion therapy. Half were adolescents.
Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy or “pray away the gay,” is a pseudoscientific intervention to change a person’s sexual orientation through medical or spiritual interventions. Although the practice has been discredited by every major medical association, conversion therapy is still legal in 36 states (only 14 states and the District of Columbia have outlawed the practice).
One of the survivors of conversion therapy is Garrard Conley. As a 19-year-old college student in Arkansas, he was outed to his parents by a closeted classmate. His mother and his father, a Baptist minister and car salesman, gave him an ultimatum: He could either attend “Love In Action,” a conversion therapy program, or be shunned by his family, friends and community. Under duress, Conley enrolled.
Conley eventually wrote a memoir about his experiences called “Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith and Family,” published by Penguin Random House in 2016.
“I didn’t write a word of the memoir for 10 years,” says Conley, who also spoke to the Blade at the film festival. “I was too angry or too upset or totally in denial about what had happened to me. It felt like something to be really embarrassed about. It was incredibly hard to write the real truth and not rely on tricks or overly intellectualizing the experience and to show myself as someone who was susceptible to those ideas.”
Like other survivors of conversion therapy, Conley was also dealing with the effects of his experience on his long-term psychological health. “I was looking at some blogs of survivors of conversion therapy. People were describing instances of not being able to touch their partner for several months or having a sudden loss of sex drive because they feel ashamed. Those were all the things I’d been experiencing over the years. They definitely contributed to a lot of break-ups.”
One of the early fans of the book was Kerry Roberts-Kohansky, who eventually became a producer of the film. She passed the book along to Edgerton, an Australian actor and filmmaker, who was instantly smitten by the book.
“From the moment I put the book down, I knew that somebody had to make it into a movie,” Edgerton says.
Eventually, Edgerton would write the screenplay, direct the movie and play Victor Sykes, the leader of the Love in Action program. At first, the writer/director/actor was reluctant to get involved with adapting the memoir into a screenplay.
“I didn’t feel qualified quite simply because I’m not a member of the LGBT community,” he says.
But Edgerton had strong ties to the community through his work as a straight ally. He says his political awakening came when he starred as Richard Loving in the film “Loving” (2016). Richard and Mildred Loving were arrested in 1958 for violating Virginia’s law against interracial marriage. They appealed all the way to the Supreme Court and the 1967 ruling in their favor struck down all state laws banning interracial marriages.
The Loving decision served as a precedent in the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges decision which legalized same-sex marriages in the United States.
Edgerton says working on that film “impregnated me with the idea of fighting injustice. It got under my skin and I found myself getting political. I got in touch with LGBT organizations and individuals and became involved in the fight for marriage equality in Australia.” (Same-sex marriage was legalized in Australia in 2017.)
“Joel is now an honorary member of the community,” Conley says.
Edgerton finally met with Conley in a Brooklyn café on a cold afternoon in February 2017.
“I thought it was important to share every draft with Garrard,” Edgerton says. “I asked him about casting. I needed his permission and approval and his eyes on everything during shooting and during the editing process as well.”
“We felt connected every step of the way,” Conley says.
Edgerton and Conley also thought their collaboration would help “Boy Erased” reach a wider audience.
“It felt like Joel was the person to drive the story of conversion therapy into the mainstream and to target the people around LGBT people,” Conley says. “I didn’t see that as incompatible with the project of my book. Because it’s memoir, by its very nature it’s a queer narrative. It’s from me. The fact that Joel is straight helped us in many ways to think about how this would affect people like my parents who need to hear things in a language they’ll understand.”
Edgerton says working on the screenplay gave him important insights into both Conley’s parents and the staff at Love in Action.
“I had come to the book assuming that the people that sent their kids there were hateful people, that the people that worked at the facility were hateful, profiteering people,” Edgerton says. “But I realized that they were actually doing what they were doing out of love. Given the information they had and the belief system that they lived within, they thought they were trying to help. Everyone was trying to help. The perfect irony of the situation was that Garrard didn’t need any help.”
Edgerton and Conley also wanted to include members and supporters of the LGBT community in the film. Lucas Hedges, who plays “Jared Eamons” has recently publicly discussed his same-sex attractions. Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, who play Jared’s parents, are LGBT allies and both have played queer characters during their long careers. Tony Award-winning actress Cherry Jones plays a doctor who assures Jared that he is perfectly normal and discusses her own struggle to balance her religious beliefs and her scientific beliefs.
Gay Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan and out singer Troye Sivan play two of the members of Jared’s therapy group and Sivan also wrote the moving song “Resurrection” for the soundtrack. Other members of the support group are played by conversion therapy survivors who used their own narratives as backgrounds for their characters.
Finally, gay producer David Joseph Craig also plays one of the Love in Action staff members.
Conley and Craig have also created a new podcast that will be released in conjunction with the movie. “UnErased” will tell the full story of the conversion therapy movement in the United States though interviews with its creators, critics and survivors.
“Boy Erased” tells a deeply personal story,” Conley says. “‘UnErased’ tells the whole story. ‘UnErased’ will usher our queer stories into the permanent archive of American history where they have always belonged.”