On May 7, 2011, Tom Bridegroom died after falling off a four-story apartment building. His small hometown in Indiana held a service for him, but there was a big part of Bridegroom’s life that was left out of the memorial—that he was gay and had been in a committed relationship with his partner of six years, Shane Bitney Crone of Kalispell. The couple had been living in California together surrounded by friends. They hoped one day to legally marry. But when Bridegroom died, those aspects of his life were disregarded by his family, and Crone was barred from the funeral.
The story is the subject of a recent documentary, Bridegroom, written and directed by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (“Designing Women”). There are shocking elements: Bridegroom’s freak accident, and the fact that Crone was treated with such disdain by his partner’s family. But those sensational elements don’t overshadow what really feels like an intimate tribute and film that puts love and loss into perspective.
A year after Bridegroom died, Crone made a raw, personal YouTube video titled “It Could Happen to You” that touched on what happens in a society that devalues same-sex relationships. It went viral. The feature film, which showed on the Oprah Winfrey Network Oct. 27, takes the same intimate approach, using interviews and video footage, including some dating back to Crone’s years in Kalispell. The film was funded by Kickstarter in what is the highest-funded crowd-sourced film to date. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and won the Audience Award, and it’s gone on to win awards at the Toronto Inside Out Festival, Outfest Los Angeles and Little Rock Film Festival. In advance of the film’s Nov. 19 release on DVD, we talked with Crone about the experience of making the documentary.
What made you decide to let Linda Bloodworth-Thomason tell your story?
Shane Bitney Crone: Tom and I had met Linda and her husband about five years prior at a friend’s wedding. We sat at the same table and Tom and I talked about how we wanted to get married some day. Fast forward five years, after the YouTube video, and she called me. When I met with her she told me about her mom. Her mom was a victim of transfused AIDS and she passed away during the AIDS crisis, and Linda experienced the hate and discrimination firsthand that a lot of gay men face. For her this was something very personal, it wasn’t just a Hollywood director wanting to make a film. Knowing that and meeting her, I trusted her.
What was your conversation like with her about how the film should be made?
SBC: When she asked me to hand over all the footage I had, I felt like it was important to give her everything so she could tell the story in the most authentic way. There are things in the film that I was maybe a little embarrassed about because it’s so raw and you see a part of me that I thought no one would ever see. There are video diaries from junior high and high school during my most awkward phases. And even the video diaries after Tom passed away—those were an outlet for me but I never imagined that anyone would see it. But it’s out there now. I think a lot of people don’t necessarily believe that gay people can feel love and loss [for their partners] and I think that by showing the video diaries they can see that the emotions are like anyone else’s.
How have people in Kalispell reacted?
SBC: It’s been a pleasant surprise to hear from so many people in Montana and especially Kalispell. I got literally hundreds of supportive messages from people who are in the closet still and aren’t necessarily comfortable coming out yet, but they just wanted to let me know that they’re proud of me. I’m so grateful to have so much support from there, because it goes to show that it’s not the same town it was when I was in high school. Even some people in high school that were really mean to me have reached out since they heard about the film just to apologize. That was the last thing I was expecting—and it wasn’t just a generic message either, it really felt genuine and sincere.
The film does a good job of paralleling how you and Tom are from similar families and similar places—small blue-collar towns. Why is it you think your family was so supportive but his wasn’t?
SBC: I wish I knew exactly what causes some parents to love their children unconditionally. I think that Kalispell, although it’s a small town, is definitely a lot bigger than where Tom is from in Indiana. He’s from a really conservative, very religious community and I think that his parents were so religious that they allowed that to influence them over accepting their son. All I know is I’m grateful my parents are the way they are. On one level, my dad could almost be friends with Tom’s dad—they’re really not that different in a lot of ways.
I was really impressed with how fair the film seemed to treat everyone, including Tom’s parents.
SBC: I had hoped that his parents would participate in the documentary. We reached out to them numerous times and they never responded. I was afraid that people might not take the documentary seriously because they didn’t participate. But it was very important for me and the director to not demonize them in any way—to just tell the truth. It makes me feel good to hear from people that they don’t feel like this was a film seeking revenge. It wasn’t. I hope when people walk away from this film they aren’t just focusing on Tom’s parents, that they see the bigger picture. I don’t want anyone to go after his parents or harass them—that’s not the goal.
The interview with your grandmother and great-grandmother is great where they talk about you and Tom as “Romeo and Romeo” and that when it comes to you being gay, people need to “get over it.”
SBC: [Laughs] How cool is it that my 90-year-old grandma wanted to participate to support me? I think a lot of people don’t realize that there are quite a few humorous points in the film, which was definitely needed. They added so much to it.
In the beginning of the film you are a sweet but seriously anxious boy and teenager. But that changes. What have you discovered about yourself since meeting Tom and since losing him?
SBC: It really wasn’t until I met Tom that I started to finally be more open with who I am. I wasn’t completely proud of being gay, but he made it easier to forget my past—all the years of anxiety and panic attacks and being bullied. Unfortunately I still struggled a lot even being in a relationship with him because of that deep-rooted shame. It wasn’t until he passed away that I finally decided to be more proud. I posted the YouTube video because I saw it as an opportunity to finally speak up for myself, but also honor him and show people what happens when we don’t have access to the same rights.
What is the film about, to you?
SBC: It’s really just a love story. [Bloodworth-Thomason’s] main goal was to open people’s hearts and minds, and I think there’s no better way to do that than through real people’s stories. We didn’t want it to be a gay love story or a straight love story, we just wanted it to be a love story. And hopefully that’s what people see it as.