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LAist Interview: Kirby Dick, director of Outrage

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One of my absolutely favorite documentary filmmakers. | Photo courtesy of, uh, me!

I think it would be very fair to classify Kirby Dick as a documentary filmmaker's documentary filmmaker. He tackles difficult subjects; he's fearless; and, most of all, he tells great stories that can find a glint of humor even in the darkest of places. His two best films to date, Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist and This Film Is Not Yet Rated are both masterpieces of the form. Expect his latest film, Outrage to collect similar accolades after it hits theaters today. LAist had a chance to speak with Kirby earlier this week.

LAist: From your perspective, was this a movie that had been in your mind for awhile or was there an inciting incident that said to you, "Okay, this movie next!"

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Kirby Dick: Well, I was in Washington for This Film is Not Yet Rated which was about censorship in the American film rating system which I knew about primarily because I was in the film business. So I thought, "Here I am in Washington. Probably all of these people inside the Beltway know a lot of stories that would make great documentary subjects." So I started asking around and found out there were a lot of closeted politicians, a number of whom were voting anti-gay. But then I found out that the mainstream media were just not reporting on this and just thought, "Okay. This is the story I want to make." That and the fact that the psychology of these people is extremely fascinating. Some of the characters are almost Shakespearean. It's interesting because I was working on another film. I was in development and doing some shooting. But immediately -- within half an hour -- I said this is the film I want to make.

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My name is Larry Craig, and I am a gay American. | Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

LAist: In every film there are things you have to leave out. And especially for this film, I would think you have to leave out certain things because you couldn't vet them as deeply as you felt you needed to. Were there things that you left out?

Kirby Dick: We looked at a number of politicians, most of whom I do think were probably closeted. I just could not source that thoroughly enough to put them in the film. Because I just wanted to make sure that I was 100% confident about everything we put in the film.

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LAist: You were saying earlier that this is an unreported phenomenon by the press. Is that one of the intents of this movie?

Kirby Dick: Exactly. I hope that it will be harder for the mainstream media to avoid writing about this because here's this major documentary on the subject that's very well sourced. It looks at it historically; it looks at the lack of reporting by the mainstream media on this issue. And it will cause the debate to begin. When people see my film they are stunned by this information. Of all the films I've made this is the one that comes off as the most surprising to people. They just had no idea. Now what I'm running into is there's a certain push-back from the mainstream media to still not write stories about this. Somebody came to me and said, "Look. We can't write these stories about the politicians in your film because we have a policy against outing." And this is someone who wanted to do the story. And I turned to that reporter and said, "So you're telling me that your company's policy about outing trumps your policy about reporting." I mean, that's their job!

LAist: How do you cover this movie and not talk about that?

Kirby Dick: Yeah!

LAist: That's the point of it (the movie).

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Kirby Dick: Some people say there are legal issues. That it's been vetted by (their) legal and they can't write about it, but that's bullshit as well. Sullivan vs. The New York Times clearly established that if you're a news outlet writing about an elected official, unless you willfully misrepresent the truth you're not liable if something isn't true. And also, they could say "the film alleges" which they do all the time. And this film is very well sourced, often better sourced than stories they go out with so why? I think it's a couple reasons. One, they are still worried about their readership. Barney Frank says that "news organizations will write about all sorts of things about my personal life, but they won't write that I'm gay." As if there's something wrong with that. And what's the underlying message of that? That there is something wrong with it and that gets disseminated through the culture. Another thing is a lot of these news organizations are owned by major corporations that have a lot of business running through Congress. And they feel it's in their own best interests to not report on this.

LAist: Get along to go along.

Kirby Dick: Exactly. It's really interesting to see. First of all, I really respect the press. I've gained a great deal of warm respect for reporting by doing this film. How tough it is -- the job of investigative reporters -- my hat is off to them. But it is really stunning when you have these news organizations participate in the very censorship that you've critiqued in your film.

LAist: Right. In the last few years, I don't know if the influence of the mainstream media has decreased, but certainly other influences have risen to challenge it. Do you think this is a better environment for the film to come out in? Do you think -- five years ago -- it would have been a blip in the ocean and now it has the chance to gain some real traction?

Kirby Dick: I think so. I mean, there's no question about that. The blogs -- the major blogs -- except for the political blogs in D.C. -- I haven't seen what they've done with this, but all the other ones do not have a problem with this. One of the great things, I think, about the Internet is that now there are alternative sources of information. Unfortunately, the downside is that the investigative journalism departments of the major newspapers have been eviscerated. So there's a lot that we're losing as well.

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LAist: There's also a tendency, I think, to not believe an individual as much as you are willing to believe a company.

Kirby Dick: That's true. And, you know, this is a complex issue. Again, I have to say, that the protocol of classic journalism -- I've always respected it, but I've gained even more respect for it. I understand it's value, it's efficacy. And we're all at a loss because of the decline of these newspapers.

LAist: Do you think that perspective of the journalist is that they just want to be set loose to write about this stuff?

Kirby Dick: They just want to report. It's almost always the case. Rarely when you attack the media, rarely is it the experienced journalist that is at fault. It's usually higher up.

LAist: With this film, what were the real shocks to you?

Kirby Dick: I was surprised at how afraid sources were to go on the record. You know, I would talk to them off the record and they would be receptive and seem like they would be ready to move to the next step. And then I would call them back and they would say, "Look. I've thought about it. I've talked to people." And they would be very afraid of the repercussions. I don't know if that was justified or not, but the fear was surprising.

LAist: Towards that, is there fear for you as the filmmaker? Is that something that crossed your mind or is that just part of the business? Or both?

Kirby Dick: I think it's both. It certainly crossed my mind. I've sort of taken the philosophy or the approach in my last couple of films that I'm not going to allow fear to prevent me from doing what I want to do. Maybe when I encounter a real threat I will sit back and make an evaluation, but I haven't yet. I guess that remains to be seen.

LAist: Are you going to be doing some larger press, some TV where this is going to get out?

Kirby Dick: I hope so. We did CNN last Sunday.

LAist: Did you do it with Anderson Cooper?

Kirby Dick: (laughing) No.

LAist: Because that briefly comes up in the film. You see it in the typeface of an article even though you never actually talk about it.

Kirby Dick: (laughing) You're good. You're good. No, I don't think Anderson Cooper is ever going to come near this. (laughing) But, it was with Don Lemon. He was good. And he also interviewed Michelangelo Signorili and somebody from the Log Cabin Republicans who were all in favor of the fact that politicians should be out. And that there was a real cost to the closet, both personally and politically. And to CNN's credit -- that ran for 12 or 13 minutes. I'm sure that was the longest piece done on the closeting in politics ever. So my hat is off to Don Lemon.

LAist: I saw a poll a few days ago saying that for the first time a majority of Americans favor gay marriage. Radically quick movement on that issue in the last few years. Do you think this is going to start bleeding into the rest of society with respect to politicians coming out of the closet?

Kirby Dick: I hope my film accelerates that. Because the mainstream media hasn't been reporting on this, people who go into politics early in their career have to decide whether to be out or closeted. And when they look around they see that it's not being covered and that they can get away with it. Now that this film is out and being discussed, I'm hoping that people will say a) "Whoops. I'm not going to take that risk." and b) "It's a much better life to live personally. I'm going to run as an out candidate, be it Democrat or Republican." But you never know. It's a classic strategy of reactionary forces to demonize a minority. And if they can link morality or health issues to that minority in any way, they will do it. So this issue is by no means over. It will rise again.