Chad Hodge with Anita Bryant (Photo courtesy Chad Hodge)
When the name Anita Bryant is uttered in most circles, particularly gay circles, boos and hisses usually follow. Bryant was once Miss Oklahoma, a popular singer with several Top 40 hits, an author and an orange juice spokesperson. But it’s more than likely she’ll always be remembered as a hater of homosexuals and their quest for equal rights.
While some might argue that we just need to let the now 71-year-old Bryant become a faint memory, writer Chad Hodge would disagree. In fact, once his pitch for a Anita Bryant biopic got the nod at HBO, the first thing he did was ring up the woman herself to talk to her about the project.
When they finally met, what did they talk about? Has one of the most demonized public figures in our gay history changed her tune where homosexuals are concerned? As a gay man, how is Hodge making sure his own personal opinions don’t steer the direction of the film too much? We asked Hodge all these questions and more during a one-on-one chat last week.
AfterElton: I realize I don’t know much about Anita Bryant outside of orange juice and hating the gays. How did the project get started?
Chad Hodge: I pitched it to HBO in early 2010 and then spent the first six months of the year doing nothing but research. The research culminated with meeting Anita for three days in Oklahoma. I came home and started writing the first draft. I was writing the Playboy Club pilot at the same time and when that went forward to series I had to put the Anita project on the back burner. Now I’m finishing the final draft.
AE: Tell me about meeting Anita Bryant. I’m sure once you finally met her you had done so much research on her that you probably felt like you already knew her, right?
CH: I knew a lot from everything I read, I knew a bit more from the others in her life I had interviewed, but I knew that no amount of research could tell me everything I needed to know about Anita in order to write this movie.
I needed to know her tics, her mannerisms, the way she spoke. Naturally, I wanted to hear the story from her mouth. But in my deepest feeling, I thought she would never talk to me. Regardless, the same day HBO bought the pitch I called Anita’s office. She refused to speak to me, but I spoke to her husband briefly. It took five months of calling and prodding and emailing to finally get Anita to agree to meet me. It had been 33 years since her notorious anti-gay campaign. She hadn’t opened up to anybody about her life since 1977, and she certainly hadn’t opened up to anyone gay.
AE: Have her opinions changed over time? I mean, we’re living in different times than we did in the 70s.
CH: I’ll leave that answer to the movie because that’s exactly what it’s about. The two questions I get most about this project are the ones you just asked – ‘Does she still think the same things’ – and, ‘Does she know you’re gay?’
AE: I had forgotten that she was a big recording star and had written books and was a huge success earlier in her life and career. Will that be a part of the film, as well?
CH: Yes, that’s definitely part of the movie, because it’s largely about the intersection of religion, politics and entertainment. Where do you draw the line between those three things? I wanted to approach the story from the angle of ‘What makes a person say these things, do these things? Where does it come from?’ So who she was before 1977 is very important. I wanted to get at who this woman was and why someone would go to those lengths to be so destructive. It’s my hope that by getting a window into Anita and the events of that traumatic time in gay history, we can better understand the issues and the enemies we face today.
AE: What’s the timeframe since you’re still working on the script? A year?
CH: I’m turning in the last draft by the end of this year. Hopefully we start shooting a movie soon after that.
AE: How do you make a film like this without your own opinions swaying the focus of the project? Those opinions have got to be strong.
CH: Very, very strong. It’s hard. When you’re writing a movie, especially writing a movie of such a larger-than-life character like Anita Bryant, you really have to get in her brain as much as yours. It’s a balancing act of being objective and then getting into her point-of-view in order to write her character not in a sympathetic way but in a real way. If I just wrote a movie from the point-of-view of a gay man angry at what she did – which of course I am – that wouldn’t be a very good movie. My goal from the very beginning of this project was to tell the truth, 100%. Having read everything, talked to everyone involved, and compiled all points-of-view, that’s what this movie is. The wild, amazing, shocking truth.
Hodge on a recent TCA panel discussing The Playboy Club
AE: This last year, between this project and Playboy Club, you’ve been working on projects set in the past. Do you feel like you’re in a bit of a time warp?
CH: It’s funny, about three or four years ago I wrote a pilot about Studio 54 and sold it to Showtime – ever since then I haven’t stopped doing things set in the 60s and 70s. I love it. I hated history in high school; it was not my thing. But diving into a time warp and bringing history to life through characters has made me a total history fanatic.
AE: Talk a little bit about The Playboy Club. While we may never be able to really pinpoint why it didn’t last on NBC, Sean Maher came out publicly in the process and you had some really great stories brewing in there that we won’t get to see. Do you still want to tell the stories you were going to tell for Leah [Renee, who played lesbian Alice) and Sean’s characters?
CH: Well, those stories are specific to those characters so I wouldn’t try to lift those and put those exact stories or characters into something else. But early gay history and the Mattachine Society are so interesting to me so I’m sure they’ll find their way into another project. For me, including the characters of Alice and Sean was as much about showing honest, real LGBT characters on television as it was about resurrecting LGBT history.
AE: Will you always make sure there’s a gay presence in your next television show or future projects?
CH: I don’t have an agenda in that way per se, but I think when it’s appropriate and when it fits I will always include gay characters.
AE: Anything else coming up or are you busy in Anita Bryant project?
CH: I have a deal to create another series for NBC. I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to be yet. I have two ideas I’m working on right now, and both of them have gay characters!
You can follow Chad Hodge on Twitter @Chad_Hodge.