Dustin Lance Black and Laurent Bouzereau on Untangling the Ties That Bind in “Mama’s Boy: A Story from Our Americas”

For years, people have reminded Dustin Lance Black of his father without really knowing it, a painful subject his life when he walked out on his family before Black and his brothers reached their teens and few would know why. It was too complicated to correct people calling him Dustin when that was the name that his father insisted be on the birth certificate, but his mother Roseanne “Anne” Bisch, who valiantly raised three boys on her own in spite of being hobbled by polio, had wanted to call him Lance, seeing him as her knight in shining armor and a reason for living when her physical frailty led doctors to believe she’d be incapable of bearing children. In “Mama’s Boy: A Story from Our Americas,” which brings together many of those who are closest to Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter is called Lance and after sorting out the complicated lives of Harvey Milk and J. Edgar Hoover in acclaimed biopics, it turns out that he has perhaps the most fascinating story of them all, sharing how his mother’s refusal to let herself be defined by her affliction ultimately inspired Black to make history of his own both as a filmmaker and an advocate for LGBTQ rights.

Directed by Laurent Bouzereau (“Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind”), the adaptation of Black’s 2019 memoir sees him revisit the places of his itinerant youth as his family moved from Sacramento to San Antonio to Salinas, with Anne falling into relationships with a series of abusive men as she raised her own sons to be better, ultimately becoming a member of the Mormon Church where the promise of having her body restored in the afterlife was an irresistible lure. However, the religion also instilled the belief in Lance and his brother Marcus that they would be damned for eternity if they gave into their naturally occurring feelings towards other men, inhibiting them further anywhere they felt like outsiders anyway when they were always moving around. Still, Anne’s faith in herself and an ability to reach across divides after being made to feel inferior by others superseded any other belief system, yielding a 27-year career at the Department of Defense and an attitude that was passed down to her kids when they had to persevere and in Lance’s case, not only survive but thrive.

“Mama’s Boy” begins Anne holding her son to a promise he made when he won the Oscar for “Milk,” assuring that it wasn’t an empty gesture when he told the world he wouldn’t rest until gay couples were given the right to marry and the film shows how Black chose to use his heightened profile to pursuing equality over greater professional success, taking a break from screenwriting to get actively involved in repealing California’s discriminatory Proposition 8. When one of the proposition’s chief proponents was the Mormon Church and Black still has relatives in the South who would surely disapprove of his lifestyle, the film becomes a moving chronicle of his efforts to forge connections with those he already shares a bond, but still would deny him having the same rights as well as a tribute to his mother who made him think such a detente was possible. Shortly before the film premieres on HBO following its opening night berth last week at Newfest in New York, Black and Bouzereau spoke about their collaboration on the project, initiating the uncomfortable conversations that could lead to common ground and what goes into conveying someone’s life on film.

Lance, when you wrote the memoir, was there any idea that it would make a compelling movie?

Dustin Lance Black: I absolutely didn’t. I didn’t know that this would become a documentary. Even when I was writing the book, I was hopeful that it would find any audience. This is the thing that I’m least objective about in my life and career and I thought I would just try my very best to be wholly honest, which is frightening. I tried my best in writing the book to do that and Laurent reached out to me directly…

Laurent Bouzereau: I contacted him actually through Instagram – it was one of the first times I was grateful for social media. [laughs] – and he generously responded. I read the book the day it came out – I was actually in New York, working on a project, went to a bookstore and I saw the book and I immediately read it and even though Lance’s story is very different from my story, I grew up in France, different background, I immediately connected with it on a very deep emotional level.  I was in the process of finishing my film on Natalie Wood and was looking for my next project and I’m like, “This is it. This is the film I want to make” for several reasons, not only because did I feel that it was very relatable, but I felt a debt of gratitude to Lance for everything he had done. I was able to be married to my husband, thanks to Lance, and that also as an artist, the films he had made had spoken to me on a creative level as well.

Dustin Lance Black: I’d seen Laurent’s films and loved them – after knowing that he made some of my favorite films, probably “Five Came Back” is one of my favorite series – and then meeting him, I thought this is a safe enough place to try to do in film what I had done in a memoir, which was just to tell the truth and the whole truth and to see if that truth in any way could be helpful in a time that needs help and to see if my mother’s message of bridge-building could also live in a cinematic form.

Laurent Bouzereau: And it went really fast. I remembered we Zoomed. I was still in New York and I said, “I’m on board if you’re onboard” and we began the journey together of partnering up with our friends over at Playtone and Amblin Television and ultimately LD Entertainment and HBO, a year-and-a-half ago. Then we went on a journey over 14 days to recreate Lance’s journey from Texas to L.A. and to cut it and here it is, coming out. [laughs]

Lance, what were those 14 days like for you?

Dustin Lance Black: It was like full-contact sport therapy. [laughs] It was a lot. I’m generally a pretty even-keeled guy, but I remember at one point, I had at least one freakout about a lunch because I just felt my entire past pressing in on me. Memory is so kind that it erases the deepest pain, but we were on a journey to try and excavate that in a way that is hopefully instructive and helpful for others, but I was there with the people in the places remembering things that the kindness of memory, as Barbara Streisand says were it all so simple, well no, 14 days of revisiting it wasn’t simple at all.

Laurent Bouzereau: What Lance is referring to was a big turning point for me as a director because you take it for granted that you’re making this film about someone and I’ve been in situations where I’ve made other films and there’s a lot of emotions and a lot of tough subjects to discuss, whether it’s Lance or with Natalie Wood’s daughter [Natasha Gregson Wagner], talking about things that are extremely difficult to talk about. As a director, you’re always also dealing with logistics and suddenly, it really brought me back to the truth of the emotions of what we were doing.

A member of my crew I found out later was dealing with a health problem and seeing the interviews and the subject matter completely devastated him, which I completely understood, so I suddenly had to take a pause and really did a little bit of soul searching so I could be there for Lance and for everybody who was participating in this and really embrace the emotions and make sure that I was nurturing and respectful of the journey they were on because none of those discussions were easy. Even when we were talking about light stuff, there was always going to be the questions about the tough stuff, so it was a journey for me too and a very humbling one.

At one point in the film, Paris Barclay is talking about discovering the unique ability Lance has as a storyteller for finding a proper and unexpected structure to reveal a life in the biopics he’s written. Lance, is that something you find that helpful in telling your own story or that perhaps maybe processing your own story has helped you to tell others?

Dustin Lance Black: It’s a good question, and I can only say I tried my best. It’s much easier, by the way – and still difficult – to structure anyone [else]’s life into something that last two hours or less. Certainly when I was writing the book, I broke my mother’s life all down into note cards into a movie and laid it on the floor and tried my best to be as objective as possible about what was necessary versus what was interesting. Of course, when it’s your own life, everything is interesting, so I actually think when Laurent and I started talking about this, I said to him, “I don’t want to be a producer. I need your objectivity,” so Laurent’s been generous enough to show me a cut or two [over time as it was in the works], but I trust him and in fact those cuts were so emotionally challenging for me to watch in the best of ways. I’m eager to see the final cut – very eager — but I also trust him and trust that Laurent is objective enough about my life that he has built a structure that might be even better and clearer than the book.

Laurent Bouzereau: I work very much like Lance with cards, so right away, I found the through line and with Lance’s guidance and the book, we really wanted to highlight that journey, and that generous respect I got from Lance was essential in telling the story, but also recreating the journey and going back to the places like geographically and emotionally really cemented that we were doing something very powerful. It was a very quick trip, but each time we sat down for an interview, whether it was Lance or members of his family or friends, we were all crying in the room. I couldn’t contain myself and I was like, “Oh my God, something very special is happening and if I can put that emotion on screen the way I feel, I think audiences will feel the same way.”

Dustin Lance Black: And it was challenging, but that’s the point of the film, isn’t it? Can we in these incredibly divided times share space with people we don’t agree with? And be with people with who we have deep issues with and is there something fruitful about that and not just painful about that? The answer was sometimes. And guess what? Sometimes is way better, far better than no progress and I think that’s what we found.

Laurent Bouzereau: When I came back [from our shoot], I’d been working with Jason Summers, an editor who is like my shadow really on everything I do and he was so moved by Lance’s book and when we started watching the dailies, he was crying – we were all crying – and we started piecing it together and I don’t overthink anything. I just really cut from the gut and it just felt very genuine. When Lance watched it the first time, he said, “The structure is there,” and I felt this huge relief. There’s something to be said about really trusting your gut instinct, and just felt I had such a strong sense of the story I wanted to tell and what really touched me, but after my editor really broke down as he was putting this together, I knew that we had reached out to a much wider audience than expected, so if that’s the result of this little adventure that we had, I’m so grateful if a few people watching this are willing to have discussions and make a difference.

Dustin Lance Black: Sometimes I did feel not a lot of good is going to come from this [when we were on the road filming], but sometimes good can come of it and I think I’m holding onto today to some of those moments where good has come from it and I actually am in better communication with certain people in my family who we might’ve reconnected in those 14 days. and I’m better for it and frankly the world, hopefully, when they see this, will be better for it if they could be courageous enough to share space in that way.

“Mama’s Boy: A Story from Our Americas” premieres on HBO on October 18th at 9 pm and will stream thereafter on HBOMax.

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