Every Outfest Los Angeles invariably features one film or event that, either by luck or design, speaks to a cultural or political queer moment. In recent memory, We Were Here and Homeboy filled that slot. By this definition, Outfest L.A. 2013's must-see film is the documentary Bridegroom, which was recognized with the Heineken Audience Film Award at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.
Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (the writer-producer couple best known for Designing Women) pivot to the documentary form with Bridegroom, telling the tragic story of Tom Bridegroom and Shane Bitney Crone. Young, telegenic and very much in love, the men's relationship was cut short when Bridegroom fell off a five-story building while taking pictures of a college friend. Two hours after Bridegroom's fall, sympathetic nurses smuggled Shane into the hospital room to see Tom one last time.
During a lively interview, Bloodworth-Thomason described making the film a year after Bridegroom's death. While Harry Thomason traveled for interviews, Bloodworth-Thomason shaped the story from "more footage than Bill Clinton's presidency." (Early Clinton supporters, the Bloodworth-Thomasons made The Man From Hope, a short documentary widely credited with turning around the 1992 presidential campaign.)
Bloodworth-Thomason's personal story is an unlikely journey from the Deep South to Hollywood, teaching high school in Watts, witnessing her mother's 1986 death in an AIDS ward ( (from a transfusion of HIV-infected blood), and becoming an accidental equality activist after surviving Designing Women's Delta Burke.
Tomas Mournian: Did you identify with Tom and Shane because of their small-town origins?
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: Yes, but I was lucky enough to grow up in a very liberal-minded family. My grandfather was a lawyer and civil rights activist who fought the Ku Klux Klan in a small Arkansas town. He had four sons who all became lawyers. One of them was a judge advocate at the Nuremberg trials, and my father was a Japanese war crimes advocate. My dad was like Atticus Finch. I would ride my bike down just like Scout and sit in the courtroom and listen to his cases.
Mournian: Do you see a through line between your coming of age during the civil rights era and Bridegroom?
Bloodworth-Thomason: The human rights template was clear to me as a child. My dad took me to the municipal pool on Tuesday, where only the "coloreds" could swim, and he said, "Nuffin'" -- my nickname is "Nuffin'" -- "Nuffin', see that? This is 'colored' day, and that's wrong, and I want you to never forget that." I think that's the reason I was able to evolve into seeing this as the same old issue. These same old hateful people are denying a large segment of the population their human rights.
Mournian: What was it like moving to L.A. from a small Southern town and teaching in Watts during the '70s?
Bloodworth-Thomason: Before I went to Watts from the South, I had people telling me, because my family had been pro-civil rights, "I'm glad you're going to Watts, because you're going to change your mind when you actually live around these people." I went back home after a couple of years, and I saw some of these people and ended up saying, "You're right. I did change. I'm much more of an activist now." Because I really didn't get it. I didn't know how much the have-nots don't have.
Mournian: It sounds like To Sir With Love.
Bloodworth-Thomason: Only more violent. Jordan High School was so dangerous that the police would not go there without a backup. It was a dead-end street and the poorest school in L.A., surrounded on three sides by housing projects. I used to go over there on a regular basis and retrieve stolen material. The security people used to say, "Poor little Miss Bloodworth, she's not long for this world." I'd walk up to 7-foot basketball players and take the cigarettes out of their mouths and break it in half and say, "There's no smoking."
Mournian: You did end up working with Delta Burke.
Bloodworth-Thomason: That's true. In a way, teaching in Watts prepared me for Designing Women.
Mournian: Do you ever go back to Missouri?
Bloodworth-Thomason: I went home for my brother's funeral in February, and people at the funeral said, "What are you working on?" And I said, "Bridegroom. It's a same-sex marriage documentary." You would have thought I said, "Necrophilia." They looked at me like I must be insane when I told them what it was. I thought, "My God, the Internet does come here."
Mournian: In The Man From Hope Bill Clinton spoke about how Martin Luther King's activism changed "a lot for our generation." Making Bridegroom, what did you learn about Tom and Shane that was representative of their generation?
Bloodworth-Thomason: Technology. It has allowed knowledge to trump ignorance. I've never seen a social issue or a human rights issue change so quickly as human rights for gays has evolved. When you consider the rhetoric of the '90s, it's rather miraculous where we all are right now. I attribute a lot of that to the Internet.
Mournian: Why did you chose to use Tom and Shane's texts in Bridegroom?
Bloodworth-Thomason: I think they make the story felt so much more deeply, their texts right after they met and had fallen in love but they really hadn't said it yet. They were going home for Christmas and were each on the phone, texting.
Mournian: About the life they were dreaming of having together.
Bloodworth-Thomason: That broke my heart: "We're going to be camping. We're going to have a wonderful life. We're going to lie on our backs under the stars. We're going to have a dog and feed him scraps under the table. We're going to take our little kid to school and teach him to ride a bike."
Mournian: Is there a link between Bridegroom and "Killing All the Right People," an AIDS episode of Designing Women?
Bloodworth-Thomason: Yes. My mother died of AIDS in 1986, and I did that show for her. I had never been around so many gay people. I would take breaks at night in the waiting room. Wheel of Fortune would be playing in the background, and then the nurse would pass by and say, "So-and-so just died alone."
Mournian: Were there any similarities between writing that show and making Bridegroom?
Bloodworth-Thomason: Despite the prejudiced things that Suzanne might say, she wasn't a hater. The people I'm interested in are the Suzanne Sugarbaker types who are not haters. They're the Martha Bridegroom types, people who don't really understand what they're opposing.
Mournian: Was your decision not to demonize Martha Bridegroom an act of compassion or an act of restraint?
Bloodworth-Thomason: Truthfully, it was an artistic decision. In fact, it would only turn the viewer off, because it would make them feel manipulated. I sat back and said, "Have at it, Mr. and Mrs. Bridegroom. Let's shine a light on you."
Mournian: I was intrigued by Shane's observation that Martha and Norman Bridegroom used the funeral to seal off Tom's adult life.
Bloodworth-Thomason: I thought that was very sad, because you can't own people. You don't own people's lives. When you start messing with their story, you're just so far afield.
Mournian: Did making Bridegroom offer you insight into forgiveness?
Bloodworth-Thomason: Don't get me off on forgiveness, because I think it's so overrated. But justice? I really embrace justice and people being accountable for what they've done. Somehow, how we've evolved into this touchy-feely society where it doesn't matter what anybody does, if you hold on to it, it will eat you alive. Not really. I find a lot of mean things people do to me very motivating.
Mournian: Yet forgiveness must have figured into dealing with your mother's death?
Bloodworth-Thomason: I'll say this. I thank God that I had the parents that I did, because I was able to understand that was one man who happened to be gay. I could not make that jump to, "Well, I'm against gays, because they killed my mother." In fact, I got an award from the gay community at the Design Center. I felt that night it was very healing. I realized what happened to my mother happened to them. That night I felt a real bond with the gay community, and it never left me.
Mournian: Is there a Designing Women musical in the works?
Bloodworth-Thomason: There was, but now it's becoming something else. We felt the moment the new Dixie Carter stepped on that stage, people would be disappointed.
Mournian: But in the Broadway version of Legally Blonde, nobody expected to see Reese Witherspoon or Selma Blair.
Bloodworth-Thomason: But they weren't in a series for seven years.
Mournian: Do you speak with Delta Burke?
Bloodworth-Thomason: Delta wrote a book and just made up stuff and went on Barbara Walters. We had never done anything to her. She wouldn't come out of the dressing room. After all that was over, she came to my house in Santa Barbara. I said, "Delta, you needed to say in the book that I didn't do all those things." She said, "People don't think about that! You know I love you!" I finally just had to forget it.
Outfest Los Angeles presents Bridegroom on Saturday, July 13, 1:30 p.m. PDT in DGA 1. For more information, visit outfest.org.