'Becoming Chaz': A Timeline From Conception to Three Emmy Nominations
Chaz Bono and producers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey recount the travails of the passion project.
When Chaz Bono decided to document his transition from female to male, he embarked on a journey that would include several bumps in the road.
Initially conceived as a feature film with a small theatrical release and then a second life on television, several factors would steer it to premiere on a young cable channel called OWN. Yet, the full story of that journey included several other networks at several points in its making and ultimately led its producers, World of Wonder’s Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (The Eyes of Tammy Faye, HBO’s Wishful Drinking), to finance the film’s making out of their own pockets.
The more than two years of jumping hurdles to bring Becoming Chaz to viewers was well worth it for Bono. Not only did it receive three Emmy nominations, but Bono knows the film has changed lives.
“You know it’s exactly what I hoped it would do,” Bono tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s done and it’s really opened people’s minds and changed people’s perceptions and it’s also really helped people within the transgender community.”
Bono, Bailey and Barbato spoke to THR about the voyage they set out on in making Becoming Chaz.
June 23, 2009 – First Meeting with World of Wonder
Bono hired publicist Howard Bragman, who has managed several celebrities’ coming out, including actress Meredith Baxter and country singer Chely Wright. He approached World of Wonder regarding the project. After the first meeting, Bono “felt they really understood this subject matter and had sensitivity to it.” For Bailey and Barbato, it would be the first time they met Chaz – “The bizarre thing is we knew Chaz as Chastity,” Barbato says. Bono had taken part in a documentary the producers did years before on Ellen DeGeneres, The Real Ellen Story.
The producers were “intrigued” by the totally different energy Bono had now compared to who they knew and Barbato says, “We decided in the room we wanted to do this documentary.” Less than two weeks later, they all agreed to move forward.
July 30, 2009 – World of Wonder pitch the idea to a couple key outlets....one expresses interest and verbally commits to the project.
“It seemed early on that we were going to have financing,” Barbato recounts. “And it was going to be by a broadcast outlet, and that maybe we’d be able to do a deal with a theatrical window.”
Sept. 15, 2009 -- Network pulls out of the project
“We were told that, for a number of reasons, that they got cold feet,” Barbato says of the network, in which they decline to name. This is one week before a very pivotal event in the documentary, Bono’s chest surgery, was to happen. At that point, the producers decided to personally finance the project on their own. “Fenton and I just decided to run with it, and decided to actually not talk to any other networks after that point, or anybody,” Barbato explains.
Sept. 23, 2009 – Bono has chest surgery in San Francisco
"I didn’t feel comfortable with them actually shooting me getting surgery and I was very clear that I don’t want you to see my chest before the surgery,” Bono says. “But I was fine with people seeing my chest afterwards because I have a male chest and it’s perfectly acceptable in our society for men to be shirtless.”
Jan. 21, 2010 -- They attend first Transforming Family meeting, as volunteers.
The crew shoots with Transforming Family, a progressive (and controversial) group that supports families with children who are “gender diverse.” Barbato and Bono attend a few meetings together as volunteers before pitching the organization on taking part in the documentary. “We really understood that here we’re dealing with minors and with parents and with having to do it in a way because we didn’t want to put anyone in danger, any of these families in danger,” Bono says. “So, it was definitely a process of them getting comfortable with me as a person who volunteered and worked with their kids, then with me and Randy and Fenton as filmmakers.”
May 6, 2010 – Bono goes to court to have his name legally changed
“I changed my name and gender legally,” Bono points out. He also takes this opportunity to honor his father, who passed tragically in a skiing accident on Jan. 5, 1998, by including his father’s real name, Salvatore, in the change. “I wanted to keep my same initials and so I changed my middle name to his name,” he explains.
June 22, 2010 – Cher sits down for an interview for the film
While there was never any doubt that Bono’s famous mother would take part in the documentary, scheduling her was the real problem. On this day, Cher was already shooting an interview for another documentary in Las Vegas and would already be in hair and makeup. The problem was that Barbato and Bailey were in New York on another shoot and Bono had to convince them that this may be their only chance to get his mother for the project.
After tossing a coin around midday, Bailey hailed a cab to the airport. Once on a plane and already on the runway, a thunderstorm hits and closes the airport. “I’m just like, ‘Oh no.’ We’ve got to go all the way to Vegas, miss the window of opportunity, and then to fly all the way back,” Bailey tells us. He took the delay as an opportunity to write out his questions for Cher, because this would be their only chance to get everything they needed. “So you know, long story short, the plane landed around eleven at night, which was when the interview was supposed to start. And I called, and they said, ‘Oh, don’t worry. She’s running behind.’ And so, I think we actually did the interview around 12:30 or 1 a.m.”
July 7, 2010 – Bono visits his step mother, Mary Bono (along with his half-sister and half-brother)
“In the beginning my other side of the family was having a really hard time with it and they weren’t really in my life,” Chaz says of the support his father’s side of the family gave him. “So, at that point it’s like you go where the loving and support is and it was in Palm Springs and it was with that side of the family. I was really grateful and continue to be really grateful for the support that they’ve always shown me through this.”
Aug. 20, 2010 – Bailey and Barbato share a 15-minute teaser tape with networks.
This would be the first time the producers would reach out again for partners. “We’re not very ruthless businessmen,” Barbato says. “But we did do this in one of those ways where it was like we’re doing this for one week. You had to come and look at it, and we wouldn’t leave the tape for anyone. It was a very focused shopping period.”
Sept. 8, 2010 – Five offers come in, including one from OWN.
“Because I’m an Italian Catholic from New Jersey,” Barbato says. “It was awful, because we knew we would have to say no to four people. I’d rather say yes to everyone. But it was great. It was an unusual thing for us. It was exciting. It was really cool, and people genuinely seemed to like it. We had such tunnel vision about the project. That was only the first time we had shared with anybody.”
Dec. 30, 2010 – OWN deal is signed
“It was a chance to be part of a brand new network,” Bono explains the decision to go with OWN. “They told us they were going to be doing this documentary club and [Oprah Winfrey] wanted to do for documentaries what she had done for books and that she wanted our film to launch it. So, you know that seemed just incredibly prestigious and cool to all of us.”
Jan. 23, 2011 – Film premieres at Sundance Film Festival
The film was well-received at the festival with sold out screenings and a standing ovation from audiences. “It was unbelievable,” Bono says. “To go up there and get a standing ovation and essentially for presenting your life, showing your life, for doing something that I was so afraid that people would reject me if they knew the secret about me, to have it the exact opposite was just like, I can’t help but getting choked up thinking about it.”
May 10, 2011 –Becoming Chaz premieres on OWN
After all the travails, the documentary attracts an average of 705,000 viewers to its OWN Documentary Club premiere, ranks fifth in its time period for ad-supported cable channels, and gives the network an 162% increase in key demos versus the year before when it was known as Discovery Health.
July 14, 2011 -- Becoming Chaz is nominated for three Emmys
The morning when the Emmys nominations were announced, Bono was traveling to Phoenix and totally unaware that it was to happen then. “I think I was in the shower and [my girlfriend] Jenny said somebody tweeted me congratulations on the Emmy.”
Barbato and Bailey were also traveling. “We had a layover in Denver, Colorado,” Barbato remembers. “As we were landing, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just turn my cell phone on just to check.’ That’s when it was like ding, ding, ding, ding. Fenton and I weren’t -- oh, my god, we were flying coach somewhere, and I was horrified. He was sitting like 10 rows behind me -- we also got two nominations for our Carrie Fisher project, [Wishful Drinking]. There were five, and I just yelled, I was like, ‘Turn on your phone!’ By the time we were getting off the plane, he was completely up to speed, as well. It was great.”
Becoming Chaz is nominated for Outstanding Nonfiction Special, Outstanding Directing For Nonfiction Programming, and Outstanding Picture Editing For Nonfiction Programming. And the team is now working on a follow-up special for OWN that will premiere in the fall.
“It was an amazing,” Bono tells us. “I don’t know, like victory. We do something for really good reasons and you know for the experience and you’re kind of rewarded beyond your dreams with that kind of recognition from your peers.”
Email: Jethro.Nededog@thr.com; Twitter: @TheRealJethro