Tom Miller committed a long period of his life — 14 years — to his film Limited Partnership, and it became a true labor of love, appropriate for what is at its very heart a love story. The film traces Richard Adams’ and Tony Sullivan’s long journey to become legally married (again), as they eventually sued the U.S. government, initiating the first federal lawsuit seeking equal treatment for a same-sex marriage in U.S. history. Miller, who went to medical school and is also a pediatrician as well as filmmaker (he’s produced several other films for PBS) partnered with producer Kirk Marcolina to tell what is both an historically important story and an incredibly personal, heartrending one.
“A remarkably poignant chronicle of the devotion of these two men for 40 years… Miller and his editors have kept the story hurtling forward right up to the rousing if bittersweet conclusion. It helps if a documentary has compelling subjects, and Adams and Sullivan certainly hold the camera. But the skill of the filmmakers socks the story home.”— Stephen Farber, The Hollywood Reporter
Both Miller and Marcolina chatted with us about the making of Limited Partnership, which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS tonight, Monday June 15 [10pm; check local listings], in likely the same month the Supreme Court will be ruling on the marriage equality case. Tony and Richard, the stars of Limited Partnership, were among the first to bravely trek down that long legal road.
Why did you first want to make Limited Partnership?
Miller: Los Angeles is so multicultural, and I have many gay and lesbian friends who have dated or fallen in love with foreign nationals. For many years I witnessed their distress and desperation as they tried to figure out how to remain together in the face of the United States’ discriminatory marriage and immigration policies. Several of them moved to other countries, one man was deported, and two couples lived in the U.S. underground. For some, the strain was too much. One couple I know had a son together and their plan was to move to Sweden, get married, and live there as a family. Unfortunately, since one of them couldn’t work, their relationship couldn’t withstand the financial strain and they broke up after eight years.
I also lived as a closeted gay pediatrician in the Midwest for many years. I didn’t want others to have to feel like they couldn’t be who they are and work in an occupation that they loved, anywhere in this country. In making this film I wanted to show gay couples as normal, everyday citizens, and help change the discriminatory laws that make us feel like secondary citizens. As a filmmaker, I know the power of personal stories that put a human face on social issues, so I knew this was a film I had to make.
Marcolina: I’m a gay American who is married to an Australian, so I am acutely aware that for decades unjust immigration policies devastated relationships like mine. When I heard about Richard and Tony’s four decades of struggle, I knew their story needed to be told and held up as an example of how two people can help change the world for the better.
Do you remember when you first heard about Tony and Richard’s story? Was it well known within your circles? How did you first approach them about making a film about it?
Miller: I first heard about them while doing research for a film about bi-national same-sex couples in 2001. I was trying to find out when the first same-sex couples were married and had tried to apply for a green card, and their court case popped up. The case was Adams vs. Howerton, that Richard and Tony filed after Tony was denied a green card based on their 1975 marriage in Boulder.
This story was not well known at all. In fact, the LGBT and straight communities generally do not know about the 1975 Boulder, CO marriages or Richard and Tony’s story. So after discovering this story I networked with some bi-national gay couples in Los Angeles, asking them if they had heard of it. One of the couples not only knew about the story, but told me they were friends with Richard and Tony and that they lived in Los Angeles.
Leo Chiang, my co-producer, and I then approached Richard and Tony about being in the documentary in 2001. They told us that over the years many people had asked them to be in a film and they had declined, but they agreed to be in Limited Partnership on our first visit. It seemed that Richard had a very good connection with Leo and I had one with Tony right off the bat. This relationship lasted over 14 years.
How did you gain their trust?
Miller: At first Richard and Tony were a bit reluctant to be included in the film, and just wanted to discuss their historical role in dealing with same-sex marriage and immigration equality. They felt their story was in the past as they weren’t actively involved in the movement. But when Prop 8 and the gay marriage movement heated up in 2008 they re-emerged as activists. They reached a point in their lives when they couldn’t continue to sit and watch from the sidelines, and it was at that point they fully committed to sharing their story with us. I also think that when you work and are constantly in contact with your subjects for over 14 years, you develop a special bond that is lasting.
Marcolina: Tony and Richard have always been activists at heart. And in 2008 they felt like our movement needed their voice once again. At that moment Tony explained, “We are at a real turning point right now, and the fight could go either way.” They understood all too clearly that the time was right to stand tall and share their personal story.
Who do you hope your film impacts the most?
Marcolina: Many people think that marriage equality has come quickly. Richard and Tony’s struggle shows this isn’t the case. My hope is this film will provide both historical context and a deeply moving and personal story that shows how social progress is achieved.
Miller: With DOMA and Prop 8 overturned in June 2013 and more and more states allowing same-sex couples to be married, things seem to be moving in the right direction. But full equality is far from assured and this issue continues to polarize the country. Many challenges to same-sex marriage have headed to the U.S. district courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court is finally ruling on same-sex marriage equality in all states [this month]. By showing the 40-year plight of Richard and Tony, my hope is that Limited Partnership will become part of this final national dialogue on both immigration and same-sex marriage equality.
I would also like for Richard, Tony, and Clela Rorex to be recognized for their part in LGBT history. Even though their story is well documented, I am surprised by how few people within the gay community actually know about it. They are truly pioneers in the fight for equal rights.
As you mention, the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality is coming up; do you think that could be the “happy end” to this story, or do you feel like marriage equality will still be debated regardless?
Miller: I think there will be a “Happy Ending” as far as marriage equality is concerned, following the Supreme Court decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the same person whose final decision caused Tony to be deported in 1985, seems to have changed his mind about the nature of same-sex relationships over the past 30 years. He was the swing vote that removed a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, essentially giving same-sex couples all Federal Rights.
Over the past 1½ years a majority of states have now accepted same-sex marriage and I think there will be a majority of justices that will decide to make same-sex marriage legal in all States and the District of Columbia. Of course I don’t think this will end the discussion on the subject, but I do feel that over time, marriage equality will be an accepted part of American life.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
Miller: Toward the middle of 2012 we had completed a rough cut of the film and I thought we were almost done shooting. There was a lot of positive momentum in the country as President Obama and several states began supporting same-sex marriage and immigration reform. Then things changed dramatically. In November, Richard was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and was given 4 1/2 months to live. Simultaneously, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear a case on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). If DOMA were to be ruled unconstitutional, then legally married same-sex couples would be granted the same federal marriage rights as heterosexual couples, including immigration rights.
A few days after this announcement we shot a scene with Richard, Tony, and Lavi S. Soloway, their immigration lawyer discussing ways to protect Tony if Richard should die. At the end of this shoot I asked permission to do a short interview with the two of them. During that interview I asked them several difficult questions about their life together and about what the future might hold. When they talked about their feelings for one another and having no regrets for taking on the government for 40 years, their love for one another was palpable. Richard passed away that night. I couldn’t believe how cruel it all seemed to me, just when it appeared that things might finally work out for the two of them.
The following day I went over to their apartment to see Tony. He came up to me, hugged me, and thanked me for asking those tough interview questions the day before. He told me it keyed him into just how sick Richard was, and it opened a dialogue between the two of them where they expressed to each other everything they needed to say. This enabled both of them to be at peace when Richard passed away.
This reinforced the power of documentary filmmaking to me on many levels and made these past 14 years entirely worth the ride. On a personal level, I have grown in many ways. Making this film has given me more confidence in myself as a filmmaker and as a gay man. I can see that a few individuals like Richard and Tony can create social change, even if it takes decades to accomplish, and I want to be one of those people. The journey is frustrating, depressing, exhilarating, expensive, exhausting, and I couldn’t be happier that I have gone through it with Richard and Tony and my crew.
Are you concerned about what could happen to Tony as a result of the film’s release?
Miller: Of course I am concerned that Tony could be arrested, jailed and deported to Australia, where he hasn’t lived in decades because he is undocumented. I’ve asked Richard and Tony countless times, “Are you sure you want to go public in the film?” Every time, they said, “Our relationship is the single most important thing we’ve accomplished in our lifetime, and it’s time it’s recognized!” They were willing to speak openly about their 40-year marriage in hopes of helping other same-sex couples achieve marriage and immigration equality. I can’t even express the degree of admiration I feel for both of them after covering their lives for the past 14 years.
Marcolina: And I am constantly amazed by Richard and Tony’s bravery. For years they stood up to our government and forced them to examine the blatant discrimination in our immigration and marriage laws. Tony realizes that he could be deported because he is going public with his story, but he is proud of what he and Richard have achieved and is excited to share their story with the world.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Marcolina: The list is endless. But my 8-year-old daughter tells me I wasn’t able to play enough Skylanders with her.
Miller: I spent so much time working on trying to help LGBT binational same-sex couples with their relationships that I didn’t put any time into finding a partner for myself. I think that’s my next project!
What are your three favorite films?
Marcolina: Salesman, Man on Wire, and The Times of Harvey Milk.
Miller: Mary Poppins, Dead Poets Society, My Life as a Dog.
Any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Marcolina: Make sure you love the story you are telling because it’s going to be your life for a long time!
Can you tell us about projects you’re planning next?
Miller: Right now I am going to take a few months off and relax after working on this film for almost 15 years in addition to teaching full-time at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. I will be a supervising producer/editor on a feature documentary about a famous Turkish painter/illustrator. I also would like to do a sports documentary, perhaps one looking at the subculture of domestic violence in professional sports.