Valentine Road Filmmakers Want Their Doc to Be a Call to Action

Director Marta Cunnigham, executive producer Eddie Schmidt and producer Sasha Alpert share why this was a story they had to tell.

HBO: Marta, how did you come to this story, and why did you want to tell it?

MARTA CUNNINGHAM: I read an article about the shooting in the Southern Poverty Law Center magazine, which described it as a hate crime, saying that Larry King (15 at the time of the shooting) had been killed by Brandon McInerney (14 at the time), who was allegedly into white supremacy, and was facing life in prison without parole. I was so blown away by the story that I got in touch with a journalist who put me in touch with Casa Pacifica, a family services center where Larry King was a resident before his death. From there I went on a journey of discovering what had happened and why. I realized it was much more than what was being reported at the time, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it.

EDDIE SCHMIDT: It seemed like a story that was being reported strictly from a salacious, headline-grabbing standpoint, rather than looking at the impact on the community. The aftermath of something like this is something we don't usually consider. So we started at the point of impact in the story, but much of it had to do with trying to process what brought the incident on, and what occurred afterward.

HBO: One of the fascinating and disturbing aspects in the film is the way in which so many people tried to blame the victim.

SASHA ALPERT: There's a tremendous amount of institutional intolerance that we witness in this film. And the laws that are passed, which allow LGBT students to express themselves, and the anti-bullying legislation that's currently pending — those things are so important, because without it, we can't really regulate how adults behave. And it's that intolerance on an institutional level that makes our kids feel very unsafe.

MARTA CUNNINGHAM: My job was to be a witness, and just to be present. I wanted to allow both sides to have a voice. And that doesn't mean that on a personal level I agree with the choices they made. But it wasn't my job to judge. My job was to create a platform for them to speak, and to let the story unfold.

SASHA ALPERT: When Marta first went out there, she was looking at it as a potential scripted story. And then when she met these kids, she was so blown away by them and their honesty. There's something completely unnerving about it. As adults, we have many more filters than they do, and there's a directness and honesty that these kids have that I really responded to.

EDDIE SCHMIDT: I think you can't have a dialogue about change or reform if we don't understand how people think. Because you have to be willing to hear what people's feelings are, even if, as Marta said, you personally feel otherwise. But if you don't listen, then you're never going to be able to have any kind of discussion about how we can make things better.

HBO: Through Larry's openness about his sexual orientation, we really see the many ways in which intolerance was expressed by so many people within his community

MARTA CUNNINGHAM: Well, the LGBT movement is the new civil rights movement. And I thought it was really important to put myself in a position where I wasn't always comfortable with the way people talked about Larry, with so much bias. But it's the only way that we're going to get to the next level. You kind of have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations in order to understand. But intolerance is everywhere.

HBO: The film also shows how two kids coming from the same community can turn out so differently.

SASHA ALPERT: This tragedy could have happened anywhere. One of the things we tried to do in the film was to create a little bit of empathy for Brandon. Both kids did come from similar backgrounds. Brandon became violent, and Larry has this fortitude that is just unimaginable. To see a kid like him who dealt with so many setbacks in his life, and still be essentially happy; I think we all fell in love with Larry, even though we never met him, because of his strength to stand up to what people were telling him was wrong.

HBO: Is there a positive aspect to this tragic story that you'd like audiences to take away?

EDDIE SCHMIDT: I think the hopeful part of the film comes from the kids in the classroom who survived it. They're resilient, emotionally intelligent and open-minded. And although society might be moving much too slowly, these children will become the parents and educators of tomorrow, and we have to hope that they will have a broader perspective on life.

SASHA ALPERT: One takeaway for parents is learning to teach your children tolerance. Teaching them that bullying is wrong; teaching them that we're all human beings. Teaching tolerance is probably the best thing we can do, from the ground up.

MARTA CUNNINGHAM: Eddie, Sasha and I really all came together on this because we wanted there to be a serious social call to action. We're all parents. And the idea of teaching acceptance is something we're all extremely committed to. We wanted to tell that story. And to see people not just read about it, but get out there and do something about it.