Based on the memoir of Garrard Conley and starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, Boy Erased is the powerful account of a gay teenager’s ordeal after he is enrolled in a church-sanctioned conversion therapy program by his Baptist father.
This is the second film as director for Joel Edgerton, who also stars as the program’s lead therapist, Victor Sykes. STACK spoke with him about the issues raised by the film and the important message it sends.
When did you first come across Garrard Conley’s story?
Joel Edgerton: I read the book at the beginning of last year when I was in Budapest shooting Red Sparrow. I became so obsessed by it that I wanted to meet him. I told the producer who had given me the book, ‘You have to get the rights to this.’ It was a shock that nobody had taken the rights for a whole year since its publication
I met with Garrard and the other survivors of conversion therapy and just started getting involved, not thinking I was going to write and direct the film, but somehow help produce it.
Then I found myself with some downtime in Budapest. Knowing that every morning I was waking up thinking about it, I started writing a couple of scenes to see how it felt and before long I realised I was so obsessed, I’d written a version of the first draft of the script.
Was Garrard receptive towards it being turned into a film?
Along the way I was sharing each draft of the script with Garrard for approval, so he was across everything. I really felt like I was a passenger to his story, and wanted him as a partner.
What did you know about gay conversion therapy prior to Garrard’s memoir?
Very little. I knew it existed, but like a lot of people I’ve met and talked to, I was one of those who thought, ‘I can’t believe that. It sounds absurd and weird.’ It was a mix of shock and disbelief.
The film is non-judgmental – it lets the actions speak for themselves.
I was always making sure that I had to have respect for the other point of view in order to not demonise anybody. It almost strengthens the film. The idea that you could reorient sexuality is truly a belief held by many people, and dismantling their belief in that subject is the thing I think needs to happen.
I was taking my lead from Garrard’s book and wanted to treat everybody and the situation honestly, like he has, with space for empathy.
Nobody was determined to be evil towards him – in fact it was the opposite. They felt they were able to help him, and making sacrifices in order to help him, and that it was possible. That, to me, is almost more frightening in a way than people just profiteering from people’s fears and torturing young people. The therapists and parents were really trying to turn things around for Garrard so he could lead a life that was safer and better for him, because they believed that homosexuality was going to marginalise him and affect his life in a negative way.
Why did you decide to play Victor Sykes?
I was curious about his psychology, and I found myself meeting John Smid, who the character is based on, in Texas. I went to get his point of view on things, his take on the therapy, and his now stance against the therapy, which was important. As I got more and more into researching him, I realised it was so fascinating and wanted to play him onscreen.
Did you want Lucas Hedges as the lead from the very beginning?
It was perfect timing. I’d watched Manchester by the Sea for the second time just before I picked up the book, and I knew Lucas because I’d worked for his father. Every time I read pages of the book I was picturing Lucas as the character.
How did Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe respond to the script?
I was surprised at how quickly they read the material and wanted to have conversations about it, and that I had them onboard, which sort of put this terror into me because now I had to make the movie.
What’s the most important thing you learned from making this film?
There were a lot of important things. The need to dismantle this stuff wasn’t a surprise; one of the biggest surprises for me was understanding that this was really a film I had made more for parents, as a guide for what not to do when it comes to this kind of subject matter, and how to handle a scenario of this nature. It was almost like Garrard’s story became some kind of road map to help other people, that we made into a movie.
As well as raising awareness of this practice, what do you hope audiences will take away from Boy Erased?
I really hope they question their own point of view on this subject. I hope that audiences realise that there’s a practice going on that needs to change and that they spread the word and become part of the raising of awareness.
• Boy Erased is in cinemas on November 8