It’s not always easy to make one person’s true story into a feature film — especially when it’s a disturbing, painful one. But director Joel Edgerton (The Gift) made sure that the subject of his second film had a say in the adaptation process. In developing Garrard Conley’s harrowing, acclaimed memoir Boy Erased for the screen, Edgerton and the author worked together to depict the traumatizing experience of gay-conversion therapy sensitively, and with nuance. The result is a movie (starring Lucas Hedges as a slightly renamed Conley) that raises awareness of an inhumane practice which persists in several U.S. states, and doubles as a deeply affecting family story.
EW caught up with Edgerton and Conley to talk about how the film got made, what their collaboration looked like, the importance of casting a queer family, and much more. Read on below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Garrard, for you, did feel any reluctance about having your story adapted for the screen? Especially since it’s such a personal and at times intensely dramatic story.
GARRARD CONLEY: I never imagined this could be a film at all. When I was first trying to publish the book, people were sometimes saying, “Well, it’s a gay book, so no one’s going to read it.” Unfortunately, that’s something that still is prevalent in the entertainment industry.
I’d seen Joel while doing his promotion for the film Loving: He was talking a lot about marriage equality. During our first meetings, he wanted to meet with other survivors of conversion therapy. As an artist, I could see that this was another artist in the grip of a story. The memoir is this very insular queer perspective — it’s me — but I felt like Joel had the ability to translate that, especially with the actors that he hired, and could reach the mainstream and make conversion therapy a topic in almost every household and really get some stuff done in terms of advocacy. It provides a map for people to empathy and how it works. Empathy is not really taught in our country very well.
Joel, why did you want to turn this story into a movie?
JOEL EDGERTON: I had a real fear as a child of any place where I [could be] locked up — boarding school, prison, a military unit. I guess that’s what led me to read the book so quickly. It wasn’t enough to make me want to make it into a movie, though; it was feeling so emotionally moved and invested in Garrard’s family story.
Can you give a bit more detail as to how you collaborated?
EDGERTON: Early, I was feeling frustrated, like I wasn’t the right person to make the movie. I didn’t feel qualified, quite frankly, because of my sexuality — “What right do I have?” I started tinkering with the script out of frustration, and quickly I got dragged along. I’d read the book three times, and then I wrote the screenplay without looking at the book once. I wanted to remember what I’d remembered — what first stuck to me. Then I sent [what I had] to Garrard.
CONLEY: From there, Joel involved me in so much of the process. When I met with Lucas Hedges, he told me about his own experience, having a crush on his boy when he was younger and feeling shame around that. It felt like Joel was not only willing to honor my story, but populate the world of Boy Erased — both behind the camera and in front of the camera — with a queer family: Troye Sivan, Xavier Dolan, Cherry Jones, Lucas, and many more. It felt like the right kind of collaboration with an ally.
EDGERTON: Every time I wrote a significant change in the script, I would send it to Garrard and make him get on the phone with me. We’d hash it all out, he’d tell me what he wasn’t happy with and what he didn’t feel good about. That extended to conversations in pre-production and then visits on set by Garrard. I was consulting him in ways that I didn’t even think I normally would. There was a free and open invitation to visit us on set. I showed Garrard edits of the project, much like the sharing of the script. Now here we are collaborating and getting out on the other side — talking about the film, finding other ways to put the message out. It’s been long, constant, and I have to say as much as I tried to drag Garrard along with me and involve him as much as possible, he’s given me an incredible amount of slack in order to do my thing and not impose his will on me.
Joel, did you find as you were getting deeper into it, it was more important to you that Garrard had a voice in the project?
EDGERTON: We only had one chance to make a movie about gay-conversion therapy. I wanted to tell Garrard’s story as truthfully and as honestly as I could. It just became more important to me that we kept hitting close to home. Also, it became more and more evident as I kept revisiting the book in between writing the drafts that the home story was more fascinating than the one that’d drawn me into the book. The reason Garrard ended up in conversion therapy was because of his parents. The reason the family was at the risk of falling apart was because of those decisions. It meant so much to realize family was everything in this story. Each draft, each edit of the film brought it closer to the family story, with the conversion therapy being this obstacle that Garrard had to go through.
As to the gay-conversion element of the story, though, how did you feel it translated to the screen, Garrard?
CONLEY: The strength of the story is in its truthfulness. When you’re in a place like [gay-conversion therapy], the old joke goes that we all wanted to have sex with each other — a camp where, “Yeah we were being repressed, but secretly we’re giving each other books.” It’s an annoying joke if you’ve actually been through conversion therapy: I get why people make it, but when your soul is being destroyed by a bunch of indoctrination and psychological torture, you aren’t really that horny. [Laughs] You’re not quite there. I respected Joel for taking the story really seriously and documenting it in a way where history records it correctly.
EDGERTON: With The Miseducation of Cameron Post, I know people are like, “There’s two projects competing!” But the way to see that is the strength in a double-pronged attack; two very different stories, one female-skewed and one male-skewed. One is more about family, one is more about the conversion therapy itself. One has a satirical element and one is rendered more seriously. The more stories that are out there, aiming an arrow at these places, the better.
CONLEY: We need a multiplicity of stories. That’s always the case. Even within the writing world and I know within the film world, there’s this idea that you can’t have two queer movies at the same time — like it’s too crowded. But there are a lot of stories that can be told about this. I was actually a consultant for Miseducation, so it was such a wonderful experience to see these two movies coming out in the same year.
Given the resistance Garrard met just publishing the book, did you run into any issues getting the movie made, Joel?
EDGERTON: I’m old enough and have been around the block enough in Hollywood, as an actor, to have started to really understand — happily and sadly — the business side of the phrase show business. There are different ways of putting movies together; each one has its own path. There’s a version of putting a film together where you write a script and then you look for financing and go out to actors. Or you just make a film on a shoestring budget and hope to sell it at a festival.
I wanted Garrard’s story to be seen by as many people as possible. How do you get as high profile a vibe around the film as possible, in order for it to be made with the right amount of money? My instinct was that I write the screenplay, use my contacts to reach out to actors, put a package together, then go get the financing. In other words, they’d have no reason to say no. So by that stage, I had Lucas, myself, Nicole [Kidman], and Russell [Crowe] attached. Focus [Features] came to the party after we had a number of calls of interest from different companies. That’s the way I knew we had to put it together, and that’s exactly what happened. It was heartening that people answered the call and opened their checkbooks really quickly. It gathered this great momentum.
One thing that struck me in both the book and the movie was the nuance of the characters — Joel’s character, the conversion therapist, and the parents, played by Russell and Nicole, specifically. Why was that important to you? To not totally villainize people doing such terrible things?
CONLEY: From all my classes, I learned that good literature is always nuanced. It’s rarely interesting to write pure villains; it can be done, but it’s relatively rare for it to work out. And anyway, when I started to write it, it took me about 10 years before I wrote a single word of it. I had to get a bit of insight — and my insight that I gained told me that it’s not right for me to attack religion or the church or even the players involved in this. We hold them accountable, yes. But for me, my real target was the systemic bigotry that’s existed in our country since its very origins. That’s a much bigger target, a much bigger dragon to slay.
EDGERTON: I took the lead from how Garrard had written about the people in his life. I directed every actor working on the villain side of the tracks to really work under the mantra that they’re trying to help. The true conviction and belief — whether an idea fed to the parents, or that the therapists truly inherently believed that a person’s sexuality could and should be changed — meant that there was hope in that. So there’s this eerie tension that exists, with everybody trying to help Garrard get back to the “right” side.
CONLEY: I wanted to understand why my parents did what they did. Joel and I have talked about this quite a bit: It’s almost more terrifying to say that the people who love you can do these absolutely terrible things to you.
Garrard, what was your first reaction to watching the movie?
CONLEY: The first time I watched it, I was so worried about what Joel would think about my reaction. I was like, “He did all this work, I want to have the right reaction.” I was really nervous I wouldn’t. I don’t think I was even watching it that first time — I remember I even had to go to the bathroom because I’d had several beers to calm myself down. [Laughs] After, I asked for the link to [the movie]. When I watched it by myself, it felt cathartic. [It was] like we created a doppelgänger to expel something. Their lives are now recorded, living that story over and over in some weird alternate universe — whereas I could finally let it go.
Boy Erased hits select theaters on Nov. 2.