Last February, 18 year old Constance McMillen made national headlines when the Itawamba County school board refused to allow her to wear a tuxedo and bring her lesbian partner to the Itawamba County Agricultural High School prom. McMillen brought in the ACLU to fight back and the board canceled the prom. Constance was subjected to intense bullying at the school and on Facebook from students, parents and hordes of antigay attackers outside the small Mississippi town, about 20 miles east of Tupelo.
Despite fears of retribution, the young lesbian stuck by her right to freedom of expression and became a reluctant hero. "My daddy told me that I needed to show them that I'm still proud of who I am," McMillen said at one point. "The fact that this will help people later on, that's what's helping me to go on."
When openly gay Storyline Entertainment producing partners Craig Zadan and Neil Meron heard the story, they knew they had to try to make into a TV movie -- as McMillen said -- to hopefully help young people.
The producing team has a solid track record of going to the heart of a civil rights issue and changing hearts and minds by telling a story, including Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, the gays-in-the-military story co-produced with Barbra Streisand and starring Glenn Close and Judy Davis; What Makes A Family, starring Brooke Shields and Cherry Jones about lesbian child custody; Wedding Wars, starring John Stamos, the first film about same sex marriage; Hairspray, the John Waters civil rights/integration story made into a musical starring John Travolta in the character made famous by Divine; and Cinderella, the TV retelling of the old favorite with African American singer Brandy as Cinderella, heading an intentionally racially diverse cast.
I spoke with Craig Zadan by phone late Thursday about the news that he and Meron are producing the McMillen story. He was on the Atlanta set of yet another civil rights movie, Footloose, a re-make of the popular 1984 movie about youth culture confronting staid small town religion. We talked about the timing of this TV movie for ABC Family -- in which McMillen triumphs -- at a time when gay teen bullying has become an epidemic.
When McMillen's story first made news in February, Zadan said, "we started seeing reports on CNN and reading about it in the newspapers. Neil and I said this seemed like a very, very important subject to tackle and we went after it." Told there were other producers vying to option the story, they said they really wanted an opportunity to "audition" for it.
Here's Craig Zadan on how and why they came to the acquire the rights to the story:
"We did two things: one, we sent her a whole large selection of some of our movies. And the second thing we did was we got on the phone with her for about an hour and we explained our point of view and what we wanted to do. It was a long process because she spoke with other producers, also. We just said, 'Look, we're passionate about this. We want to make this. This is something we really want to do!'
We just wanted our day in court where we thought if we sent Constance Serving in Silence, and What Makes a Family, Wedding Wars -- and we sent her Chicago and Hairspray -- we just thought that she'd see those movies and see that we were right for it. When we spoke to her, we told her what we wanted to do.
We had a conversation with ABC Family and they said they've never done anything like this -- ever -- and that it would be a totally unique kind of movie for them to make that they'd never tackled before. But we were excited at the idea of reaching that audience that had never seen a movie like this.
So we got really excited about ABC Family and they made us an offer and said if you end up with rights, we would like to do it. Finally one day we got a call -- recently -- saying, 'Constance decided to go with you.'
We were thrilled and really excited about it. And then -- out of the blue, sort of -- this situation last week or so happened where all of a sudden all day long on CNN and everywhere else are stories about teen bullying and the tragedy of all these suicides. We were just horrified by it.
We hadn't gone into optioning this material because of that -- because we didn't know that this rash of things was going to go on this week.
But it turned out that just at the moment we got the rights, set it up at ABC Family- - we went after John Gray because John Gray is one of our best collaborators we've ever worked with -- ever -- because he wrote and directed Brian's Song for us, which we thought was fantastic and Martin and Lewis, which we thought was fantastic. He's so talented. It's also one-stop shopping because you get to hire him and he writes a brilliant script and hen he directs so well. He's a great director.
We told him about this and he said, 'I have to do this because this story is amazing and it has to be told.' Then he called Constance and spoke to her for a long time -- I think he spoke to her a couple of times -- and then he spoke to the ACLU lawyers and other people. He came back to us and pitched us the entire movie.
When we actually heard the details -- the ins and outs of what really happened behind the scenes -- we were even more shocked than we were in the beginning. The story is so complicated and so filled with such devious behavior that we couldn't even believe what he was telling us. So we thought, 'Wow, now more than ever, we have to do this.'
And then John pitched ABC Family executives in the last couple of days and they were flipping out: 'Oh, my God -- we had no idea it was even this complicated.' They loved it and said, 'Go write the script immediately. Let's get it written right away and let's go make the movie as soon as possible.'"
Zadan is also excited that the story of how Constance McMillen stood up for herself in her small town in Mississippi will inspire other LGBT youth at a time when gay teen suicide seems to be an epidemic.
"All these bullying stories, sadly -- very sadly and tragically -- ended in suicides and in this story, Constance is triumphant. She became a reluctant hero and she stood up and I think the movie will be an inspiration for these kids who might normally think of doing something bad to themselves. I think it will inspire them to say, 'You know, I don't have to kill myself.'"
Zadan said he and Meron are keenly aware of how the power of television can save lives.
"We're honored she chose us to do it and thrilled we're able to make something so important to us and hopefully to a lot of people. What we showed with Serving in Silence and What Makes a Family and Wedding Wars is that there's nothing like going into people's living rooms and having them see this on TV. That changes minds and really makes people look at things differently.
After we aired Serving in Silence, Greta Cammermeyer went out on a speaking tour and she was in Oklahoma and she called from the road. She said that after each speaking engagement, everyone would leave but there would there would be a handful of people who stayed behind who would want to shake her hand and meet her. She said this one teenage boy went up to her said to her, 'I just want you to know that I just saw your movie on NBC and recently I had realized that I was gay - and I had decided to commit suicide. And when I saw the movie, I decided I didn't have to.' She said the kid collapsed in her arms and they both were crying.
So we thought - if that happened to one teenage kid, how many did we not know about who had that experience by watching the movie? So for us, we're getting an opportunity, once again, to do something with Constance that hopefully will have the same effect on teenagers all across America."
Zadan said they expect to provide resource-links to one or several helpful organizations at the end of the TV movie.
Zadan also noted that the Cinderella TV movie in 1997 starring Brandy and Whitney Houston:
"...was the first time that multicultural casting had ever been done that to that extent on a broadcast network. It was really unique and unusual and people were so surprised and I think that the reason we reached 60 million viewers -- we got the highest rating that any movie on ABC had gotten in 14 years -- was because we were inclusive. White people and Latinos, and African Americans and Asians -- everybody could watch the movie and see themselves in the film."
Zadan said that Footloose will wrap early in November and will open in movie theaters on April 1. "It's going really, really well and Paramount loves it. They're so excited about it."
Another Zadan and Meron endeavor -- Promises, Promises on Broadway -- has been a "smash" since they opened, Zadan said, landing in the top five grossing shows each week - despite the economy. Though Zadan didn't mention the Newsweek article questioning whether audiences would accept gay Sean Hayes playing straight, but the push-back implication was implicit.
"The show's success, Zadan said, is "a tribute to Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth. I think people have fallen in love with them as a couple in the show. We're really excited because Molly Shannon goes into the show next week in one of the other roles."
Also in the works is a Broadway revival in the Spring of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, starring Daniel Radcliffe and directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford.
Radcliffe, a strong advocate for LGBT rights who is best known for his Harry Potter character, told MTV that he is "heartbroken" over the epidemic of gay teen suicides:
These young people were bullied and tormented by people that should have been their friends. We have a responsibility to be better to each other, and accept each others' differences regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ability, or religion and stand up for someone when they're bullied. When a friend is feeling depressed or says they're thinking of killing themselves, we must take it seriously and get them help.
Radcliffe made a PSA for LGBT helpline, The Trevor Project: