(Pictured left to right: Randy Barbato, Chaz Bono, Fenton Bailey)
It can be a circuitous route to bring a project from conception to screen. When one of the key elements for getting a film off the ground gets uprooted, the route becomes even trickier to navigate.
And when one of those uprooted key elements is funding, well, that’s a whole different ball game.
That’s the situation Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, principals for Hollywood-based prodco World of Wonder, faced when they set out to make Becoming Chaz, a documentary that would follow Chaz Bono, formerly Chastity Bono, as he underwent the gender reassignment surgery that would successfully transition him from female to male.
Bono had approached the duo about making the project, as he was familiar with their work via other productions that dealt with transgender subject matter, such as TransGeneration for the Sundance Channel, an eight-episode series that followed four university students undergoing gender reassignment. He also had taken part in the prodco’s The Real Ellen Story.
Barbato and Bailey pitched the project to assorted networks, and received a verbal commitment from one. But a few months later, the unnamed network pulled out.
“Because the financing fell apart very close to the first day of the filming, there wasn’t really time to figure out another financing path, so we said, ‘We’ll just get started and see how we go,’” recalls Bailey. “Then we realized that anyone we’d go to [later for funding] would say, ‘Let’s see what you’ve got!’ We’d have to shoot most of the film and put together some highlights and extracts. So from the beginning we knew we were going to have to finance it all the way through.”
“Which was great because there were no network notes and we could just make the film we wanted to make,” adds Barbato. “In addition to getting to know Chaz and getting to understand who he is, the best part [of the process] was making an independent film.”
Upon making the decision to forge ahead, Barbato and Bailey were pleasantly surprised by Bono’s openness regarding both the transition process and the life he shares with fiancée Jennifer Elia. Granted, Bono had spent a fair portion of his early life in the public eye as the daughter of singing duo Sonny and Cher. But, as Bailey notes, he’s not a naturally gregarious seeker of attention.
“He’s lived his life in the spotlight by virtue of whose child he is but it’s not that he’s sought out the spotlight or is comfortable in it,” says Bailey.
“He was a great subject in that, literally on the first day of filming, he walked in and we had the camera up and running,” offers Barbato. “There was rarely a moment where he’d say turn it off – he let it all hang out for the camera in a way that can be difficult for people and can take time. He was committed to the subject matter and also there was a trust level – he didn’t edit himself and that was refreshing.”
For his part, Bono says what he really needed to drum up the courage for was the decision to move forward with the gender reassignment surgery, and accepting that because of his celebrity status, he wouldn’t be able to do it quietly. He says it was a process that took “many, many years.”
“When I finally did make that decision, I knew I’d have to talk about it or it would turn really ugly,” says Bono, who has also written three books, including his most recent memoir, Transition. “I knew I wanted to get my side of the story out there and really try to own it and not let it be tabloid fodder.”
Bailey says that care was taken over the 18-month filming period to ensure that the film remained focused on Chaz and his story, to the point that having his mother Cher in the film wasn’t a consideration at first.
“But as we got into it, one of things about people changing their gender is that it’s a big change for everybody around them and often it’s a harder thing for people around them to accept than for the people undergoing the process – they’re already on that train,” says Bailey.
Thus, a request was made to have Cher take part with an interview. Surprisingly, the affirmative response was swift. It would also require immediate action.
“When we came to the conclusion that we had to ask Cher, we thought it would be weeks that we’d have to wait to hear back but it was pretty much an overnight response,” explains Bailey. “The only challenge was that she would do the interview that very day. It was around lunchtime in New York [when the OK was given] and we had to be in Vegas that night if we wanted the interview.”
Eventually, the team took a teaser tape to networks to see who’d bite. Several nets made offers, but one rose above the pack.
“It’s fair to say that OWN stepped up to the plate and were aggressive and clear and it felt like there was a lot of love coming from this network for the project,” recalls Barbato. “When we learned that there would be a Documentary Club [on the net] and this would be the premiere, it seemed like the right place and the right opportunity. It’s great that there’s another network making a commitment to documentary filmmaking.”
With the OWN deal in place, the race was on to complete the film in time for a prestigious premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, which Bono calls “one of the most amazing experiences of my life.” From that point, critical reviews and comments from the LGBT community were overwhelmingly positive, a trend that continued with the film’s spring premiere on OWN and culminated in three Primetime Emmy nominations this year.
Becoming Chaz is up for outstanding non-fiction special, outstanding directing for non-fiction programming and outstanding picture editing for non-fiction programming.
“From transgendered people or even parents of transgendered people, I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me and send me tangible examples of how the film has helped them,” says Bono, who has recently signed on as a cast member for the upcoming season of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. “Whether it means being treated better at work, or having parents or family members who’d shut them out earlier reach out to them again – really tangible stuff like that [is happening].”
Shooting is currently underway for a sequel set to air on OWN which Bailey says will be centered around “what is happening in Chaz and Jennifer’s lives now as a result of the documentary and how they’re moving forward.” From there, Bailey and Barbato are eager to continue telling the couple’s story.
“Frankly, we think there should be an observational documentary series,” says Barbato. “He’s in an interesting relationship and he’s just so unflappable in front of the camera.
“We’ve discussed it with Chaz and I think he’s game,” he adds with a laugh. “And I think people around town know that it’s on our minds.”