Fair Haven – new film tackles impacts of gay conversion therapy

Kerstin Karlhuber’s first feature-length film gives us the story of James (Michael Grant). After a long stay in ex-gay conversion therapy, James returns home to his family farm and his emotionally distant father, Richard (Tom Wopat). After Richard pressures James to give up his music career and take over the farm, James agrees as a way to make up for his past. Soon, however, James finds himself face-to-face with a former lover, Charlie (Josh Green), who wants to help him turn away from his new beliefs and family expectations, and follow his dreams of studying music.

We spoke with filmmaker Kerstin Karlhuber for a behind-the-scenes look at the film:

Kerstin KarlhuberImage courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures

Kerstin Karlhuber

What was the inspiration for the story?

Jack Bryant, our screenwriter, had written a film about reparative therapy several years before Fair Haven came about. I loved the script, came on board, and we tried to get it off the ground. It was a much larger film, needed a bigger budget, a much bigger cast, and we just couldn’t get enough funding.

We had done so much research about the topic. Telling a story about reparative therapy was really important to us, so we switched gears and focused on lowering the costs.

I was really passionate about telling a story that took place in my native Vermont, on a farm, with a surly farmer character. So we combined inspirations, talked a lot about the story together, and then Jack went off and wrote the incredible script.

Have you had any personal experience with conversion therapy?

Jack wanted to write a script about the subject because in his youth he had seen one friend and one family member participate in conversion therapy. He was so passionate about highlighting the devastation and turmoil that resulted.

I sat down with a young man who was a survivor and it changed my life. Not just as a director making this film, but as a human being living in a world where this kind of barbaric practice takes place. I couldn’t not tell this story after learning so much about it.

When you get into the darker aspects of the practice, like the electro-shock therapy, it’s something that devastates me so deeply. It became my mission to educate audiences about it. A lot of people assumed that this was in the past, we didn’t send our kids out to these ‘therapists’ anymore, but it very much still happens in this day and age.

What was the production process like? 

Writing the film was relatively fast. It took Jack a few months, and then for about eight months we were in pre-production. We made some tweaks to the script along the way, especially when casting was locked in and locations were set.

We shot in 14 days, which for any feature film is insane, but for something that is so deeply emotional it’s a miracle we pulled it off. That’s to the credit of the actors. Each and every one of them came to set each day and nailed it. We had no time, but it didn’t matter most days because everyone was so talented, so prepared – we captured incredible scenes in a few takes and with minimal set ups.

Was it difficult to raise the funding required?

It was very difficult. We had to keep our costs incredibly low.

We raised enough for production, and then once we were shooting this excitement and momentum kicked in. We were updating social media with pictures from set and then we had investors come forward who were excited about the cast, the story, and they wanted to part of it. Their investments went toward post-production, but we just kept needing to raise more and more throughout post-production.

Sometimes it feels like the costs never end. Even when you’re done and have been picked up by distributors, you’re still hit with things like insurance costs, or creating a different kind of sound mix for foreign dubbing.

What was the casting process like?

Casting was very exciting. It feels so real when you’re finally seeing actors reading from the script.

Tom Wopat came in to read for us and it was such a thrill. I was told he would come in to the session to meet me but that he wouldn’t read. So we met and I was elated because I was a big fan of his work on Broadway. I liked him immediately. Then after a few minutes he said: ‘Are we going to read these scenes, or what?’ He’d prepared two scenes. He came in dressed like Richard and his audition stood out because he just was this role. Being from Vermont, having worked in an apple orchard as a teenager, I knew this character and I knew what felt authentic and what didn’t.

Later, I learned how close this story and character was to Tom. He grew up on a dairy farm, he knew this character down to his bones. I think when you see the film you can tell how personal it is to him.

Were there any unexpected challenges in making your first feature-length film?

We are over three years out from when Jack started writing Fair Haven, and the work on this film doesn’t stop. No one cares more about your film than you do and no one will work harder for it than you.

I think the biggest surprise was how long things took once we finished it. We expected to sell it quickly and then I assumed I’d be done. But that didn’t happen and even when we did start selling to different territories I could never be done. Every territory needs something different, and I’m the go-to person. So, I’m expecting to be actively working on Fair Haven for a long time to come as other countries purchase the film.

Now that I know what kind of time investment a feature film like this actually takes, it will probably inform my choices from now on. What I take on has to be inspiring enough for me to dedicate my heart and soul to it for years and years and years.

What has the reaction been like to the film so far?

The reaction has been incredible. I’m shocked that almost every day I get an email or a tweet or Facebook message telling me how much the film means to someone. I’m not sure I can comprehend fully how much Fair Haven touches audiences.

I’m so grateful that I was able to accompany the film to most of our festival screenings around the world – seeing the reaction during the film makes all of the hard work worth it, and then hearing from people afterwards even more so.

I’ve been to screenings where it took me hours to leave the theater because so many people wanted to tell me personally how this film touched them. Audience members have opened up to me about their own struggles, and their relationships with their parents. One man tearfully told me about his rough relationship with his father, and how he finally got the closure and acceptance he needed when his father was on his deathbed. He told me that watching this film brought up so many memories and that certain scenes were so aligned with his own life. I’m just so overwhelmed that this little film I made touches people in that way.

Have you had any specific reactions from people who have had experience with conversion therapy?

We had our world premiere at the Human Rights Campaign in Washington DC and I knew that there would be a group of reparative therapy survivors there. That made me so nervous. I worried that maybe the film was inauthentic, that they would have a negative reaction to it. But that wasn’t the case.

One survivor stood up during the Q&A and couldn’t have been more supportive. He was so grateful that we premiered at the HRC, in DC, and we gave their community the opportunity to be at the premiere with our cast and creative team. It was a wonderful event and it was exactly what I wanted for our premiere, to share it with the LGBT community and survivors.

What do you hope that audiences feel when watching this film?

Going into this I had two goals – to lend support to those who are struggling with identity, equality, community, or family, and to open a few closed minds. I haven’t heard about changing anyone’s views yet, but to know so many people have felt support while watching this film is everything to me.

Read more from Gareth Johnson

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