Interview with David Furnish

David Furnish, DVD cover for the director’s cut of
Tantrums and Tiaras

Just over fifteen years ago, David Furnish attended a dinner where he met pop superstar Elton John, an evening that would forever alter Furnish’s life. Two years after that fateful evening, Furnish had quit his job at a prestigious London advertising agency, moved in with John, and, as he famously documented in Tantrums and Tiaras (his first foray into filmmaking) joined John on his 1995 world tour.

This week, a director’s cut of Tantrums and Tiaras is being released, the first time the film has been available in any home format in the U.S. Furnish recently took time to talk with about why he made the movie, how it changed his relationship with John, and what it’s like to be one half of the highest profile same-sex couples in the world. He also discussed John’s recent controversial comments about California’s anti-gay Proposition 8, which passed in November taking away the right of same-sex couples to marry in that state. Elton recently did an interview with USA Today where he said he didn’t want to be married. He said he was very happy with civil partnership and that if gay people want to be legally joined together, they should just get a civil partnership. He also said part of the reason why Prop 8 failed was because gay people in California went after the word ‘marriage.’ That set off quite a controversy over here. Has any of that come to your attention?

David Furnish:
Yes, it did. Elton and I have had loads of discussions about this. I think there’s a couple of sort of mitigating factors that haven’t been brought out in the discussion. I think one is that a civil partnership in Britain affords many more rights than a civil partnership in America. That was something that neither of us was aware of.

I think the point Elton was trying to make was, America is very much a divided country at the moment. I think there are extremely religious, very fundamental religious people who have very strong views and very strong beliefs and they are very vocal. And I think there are a lot of people [for whom] religion doesn’t necessarily play such a big part in their life anymore or they’ve learned to look at the Bible and religion as more than an evolutionary concept.

AE: So let me clarify: when Elton made those comments to USA Today, neither of you really understood that most of us here in the U.S. don’t have access to any kind of civil partnership and that what you have in the U.K. is dramatically different than what we do have here in a few states?
Yeah. Elton was saying ‘What we have in the UK, I am perfectly happy with that. I don’t want to be married because in effect there’s no need’ is the point he was trying to make. He wasn’t saying he’s anti-gay-marriage. I just think – and look at the last election and look at the heated debates and how religion just always seems to keep coming to the fore, which wasn’t really meant to happen in politics. It was sort of meant to separate the two and the two seem to be so strongly intertwined now that it just gets in the way of making really positive social change from time to time.

Photo Credit: Film Magic/Bruce Glikas

AE: You still have Canadian citizenship, right?
Yes, I still have my Canadian passport.

AE: Do you agree with Elton on the sense that marriage is too conflicted of a word and we should go for civil partnerships, or since as a Canadian citizen you actually have the right to be married . . .

I think we have to look at these things in an evolutionary context. And I think if we really want – I think gay people have to ask themselves why they want to be married, in inverted commas.

In the case of Elton and I, it wasn’t a question of having a union blessed by God, which is the way some people define marriage. We wanted to be in a position to have the rights and benefits that married people have and to feel protected, and also to feel supported and accepted as a couple by society. That was very, very important to us and something that really settled in after the civil partnership. Because we feel that level of contentedness from our civil partnership, because we feel protected and supported, would we want to get married? I think the answer is no, because we don’t see the need.

AE: I am your age and have been with my partner for 16 years. Call it macaroni and cheese – just give me my rights. But to play the Devil’s Advocate, isn’t there truth to the argument that if you have two separate but “equal” things, you create a second class of status for us? Maybe it’s because of our terrible history of “separate but equal” in America, but I worry that civil partnership will never be equal to marriage.

I think inequality, everywhere we get it in life, is wrong. I really think everybody deserves to be treated equal and fairly, across the board. I guess I’m also a bit of a pragmatist too in a sense that I think we have to acknowledge that for a lot of people this is a big deal and a big change and that sometimes you have to look at these things on a step by step basis.

I think you want to get to a situation where same-sex couples in America get to something that gives them exactly the same rights as married people. That’s the full equality we should be going for. But it may be one of those cases where we have to do it in steps as opposed to getting in all in one go, because it seems to be such a divisive issue that continues to really, really divide people.

Photo Credit: WireImage/Eamonn McCormac/Nick Harvey

AE: So do you think Elton regrets what he said, given that he didn’t understand the difference between the two?

I think what Elton didn’t have the opportunity to express in the interview … I think what he was talking about is people calling it [marriage] something else but giving the same rights as marriage. In Elton’s mind, it’s a civil rights issue and he feels the rights we have in Britain with our civil partnership afford us equality with married couples and I think he was hoping for exactly the same thing in America. Does that make sense?

AE: It does. I assumed he meant something like this. So many people are so angry about Proposition 8 passing.

Yeah, and deservedly so. To wake up the morning after Obama won, I was working in the theater on Billy Elliot and came out onto Times Square as the show ended and they had just announced that Obama had won and it was just one of the most electric moments of my life and you just felt so much hope. Elton was on the phone crying. He said, “This is why I fell in love with America in the first place. It’s the country where anything can happen. Positive change can happen and anyone can get ahead, regardless of who they are or what they are.”

And then you wake up the next morning and you say, “What about Proposition 8?” Because of course that sort of gets lost and then you read that and you’re like, “How can California elect a president like Obama and then go and back Proposition 8?” It’s frustrating and it’s a really sad thing and people are right to be angry and upset about it. It’s going backwards rather than going forwards.

As for the quote that Elton made to USA Today – it was made on a red carpet at the Elton John AIDS Foundation event in New York called “An Enduring Vision” – and I don’t know if you’ve ever been down a red carpet, but you sort of stop and talk to everybody in little sound bites. So it wasn’t an interview that was a specific interview about Elton, let’s sit down and talk about your views on Proposition 8. It was literally, “So, are you happy to be here at the charity tonight?” and “How much money are you hoping to raise?” and “Who made your suit?” and “Oh, and by the way, what do you think about Proposition 8? Do you think people should get married?” And he sort of gave his answer and moved down to the next reporter and it certainly got picked up and it had a tremendous impact, but hopefully you and I chatting today can maybe give it the clarity that it didn’t get the chance to get at that moment.

Furnish speaking at an Elton John AIDS Foundation event
Photo Credit: Wire Image/Theo Wargo

AE: Well, now that that’s settled, why a director’s cut of Tantrums and Tiaras now?

I think because people keep asking for it. It didn’t come out on either home video or DVD in America. At the time, Elton’s management … they were very much opposed to it coming out in America. They were very nervous about how it might be received. They were happy for it to go to air, but they didn’t want it to be available in a sort of [permanent] format. Both Elton and I are in much different places now in our lives in terms of career management and things like that.

AE: Did doing the documentary in the first place change Elton or change your relationship in any way?

It had a much bigger impact on us than either of us anticipated. I would almost like to refer to it as video therapy, because at that point I was very new to that world and that life. I had left my career in advertising to go on the road with Elton for a year and make the documentary. It really gave me an opportunity to get to the bottom of things that just didn’t make sense to me or things that frustrated me about our relationship at the time.

Elton and David on vacation
Photo Credit: Film Magic/Dominique Charriau/Getty Images/Felix Maglo

Having the camera in my hand was like holding a weapon, an interrogative weapon and a shield at the same time. You felt sort of protected and empowered by it. And it allowed me to ask him all sorts of things, like when we were on holiday why he wouldn’t go out and do stuff and … his therapist’s view on how his therapist thought he was at that time. And I think Elton looked at it and found it to be very revealing and enlightening.

I think he’s very much a different person now since that documentary was shot. I think he’s more confident. I think his self-esteem is so much better. I think he’s much better at dealing with his fame and his celebrity now than he was then. I think he’s able to sort of look at the documentary and laugh at himself and see some of the craziness in his life. And some of it’s just him and just his wonderful larger-than-life way of enjoying life and his personality and his way of embracing life.

AE: So at that point in your relationship you didn’t feel comfortable saying, “Why aren’t you going to do these things that I want to do?” Was your relationship still kind of too new for that?

Yeah, it was too new. And to be perfectly honest with you, I would say – and I think Elton would agree with me – when we started seeing each other, the playing field wasn’t really level. I think it was the first kind of real relationship I had ever been in in my life. I was so sort of focused on my career before; I didn’t really have a big, long-term relationship. And Elton was this big, huge, famous person and it’s not that I ever bowed and scraped to him, but I think because it’s almost like being in a relationship with a corporation when you’re with someone like that because there are so many people dependent on him. There’s so much work in the business of being Elton John. It can be a 24-hour-a-day type thing.

And [now] we’re very much more as a couple on a much more equal footing. That was also a very insecure period for me professionally because I had left my career in advertising and I managed a big division of the second largest ad agency in London and I was on the board of directors and I kind of had to reinvent myself if I was going to be in a position to support my relationship in the longer term. That meant having a career where I had much more flexibility and I didn’t have so many people dependent on me on a day-to-day basis. So I was feeling quite vulnerable when I shot the documentary as well.

AE: Have you thought about doing a sequel?

I’ve thought about it and people have asked me, but to be honest I wonder if I could make it with the same level of objectivity that I had then because it was such a new world to me. I had never been on the road with Elton. Now it’s just so much like second nature to me. I wonder if I could bring up the objectivity that it would really need to be as good and as entertaining.

David and Elton after having their civil partnership
Photo Credit: Film Magic/Goffredo di Crollanza

AE: We recently did a feature on the gay partners of the very famous, which includes you and Elton. It was one of our most popular features this year, I suspect, in part, because gay men are so starved for images of successful gay relationships. Do you ever think about that, being part of such a high profile relationship? Are you aware of what your relationship represents to some gay men?
We are aware of it and it’s a responsibility. First and foremost, we have to look after each other and keep the relationship strong for our own sake. That was the primary reason why when the laws changed in Britain to allow same-sex civil partnerships, we had our civil partnership on the very day it became legal because it was groundbreaking legislation.

It’s very much a topical hot controversial issue in our world today and we thought this was an opportunity to really give the issue profile and support and say to people, “Look, here’s a happy couple who can represent, hopefully, a view of a happy loving couple.” And get that message that now we’re in a position where our government allows us to be legally living a financially, medically, benefits-wise – we’re protected. We have rights that we never had before. And that’s a big deal and it’s very important to a lot of same-sex couples.

AE: Thank you so much for your time, David.

Thank you and all the best to you and your partner and let’s just hope that you guys can get the same thing that we’ve got because we feel very lucky.