When filmmakers Sheila Canavan and Michael Chandler called then-Rep. Barney Frank to pitch the idea of making a documentary about his life, it was a short phone call.
“We asked if we could make a documentary about him? He said it would be an honor,” Canavan said. “We said, ‘We were thinking of calling it “Barney’s Last Year.” ’ He said, ‘Good title.’ ”
Thus began the experience for the husband-and-wife filmmakers to capture the political and personal sides of the cantankerous Massachusetts Democrat, the first openly gay member of Congress, who announced his retirement in 2012.
The result, “Compared to What? The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank,” is the opening-night film of the Damn These Heels! Salt Lake City International LGBT Film Festival. The festival, presented by the Utah Film Center, runs Friday through next Sunday at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.
The festival, the largest LGBT film festival in the Intermountain West, features a slate of 16 films, including documentaries and narrative features from the United States, Canada, Brazil, Venezuela, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Slovenia and Israel.
Canavan and Chandler — the Moab-based makers of “Compared to What?” — will be in attendance for Friday’s opening-night screening. The 74-year-old Frank, who’s battling the flu, has canceled his scheduled appearance.
Canavan and Chandler said they long wanted to make a movie about public service, because they were dismayed by opinion polls that rate respect for members of Congress below that of cockroaches.
“We were terribly, terribly disturbed by even President Obama talking about members of Congress as naughty children,” Canavan said.
“We thought this would be a perfect way to make a tribute not just to Barney Frank, but to public service,” Chandler agreed.
Actually shooting Frank in action was a challenge, the filmmakers said.
“He is so used to press,” Canavan said. “He doesn’t get the difference between a documentary crew and a news crew.”
But while Frank was candid in his interviews, Chandler and Canavan said it was difficult to get other members of Congress to do the same. Some were skittish of going on the record, while Frank, as someone who respects the institutions of Congress, was reluctant to let filmmakers into the backroom conversations.
One congressman who agreed to an interview was Spencer Bachus, an Alabama Republican who sparred with Frank on the House Financial Services Committee. Though political opposites, Bachus and Frank are seen in the film treating each other with respect and collegiality.
Canavan said that, in the context of current politics, “it was heroic that [Bachus] gave us that interview.”
Most people in Congress “didn’t really want to talk,” Canavan said, to which Chandler added, “but Barney more than made up for that.”
The movie not only shows Frank at work in Washington, D.C., but reveals his personal life. Frank talks about his years as a closeted gay man, and a scandal involving a former lover that nearly derailed his political career. The film also includes scenes of Frank today with Jim Ready, the owner of a family awning business, whom he married in July 2012.
Ready doesn’t speak publicly often, so it was a lucky moment when Chandler captured him and Frank together at a 2012 theater event at the Rose Wagner. (Ready joined Frank in a panel discussion when the featured speaker, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, canceled at the last minute.)
Chandler said it was important for him and Canavan to balance the personal and political sides of Frank in their film.
“We did not want to make a gay-rights film, and we didn’t want to make a politics film,” Chandler said. “Barney said, a long time ago, ‘I came out to integrate my lives.’ ”
Damn These Heels!
P The Damn These Heels! Salt Lake City International LGBT Film Festival is the largest film event of its type in the Intermountain West.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
When • Friday through Sunday, July 13
Tickets • $6 for individual screenings, available at ArtTix. A pass, good for 10 tickets, is available for $45 at utahfilmcenter.org.
Opening night • A screening of “Compared to What? The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank” begins at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets are available only for passholders and sponsors.