Q&A: ‘Valentine Road’ Director Marta Cunningham on Her HBO Doc

Marta Cunningham HBO Documentary Q and
Jennifer Lourie/FilmMagic

First-time filmmaker spent four years investigating a junior high school murder from 2008

On Monday night, HBO premiered the Sundance documentary “Valentine Road,” about the brutal murder of 15-year-old Lawrence King from Oxnard, Calif.

King, who came out of the closet at the age of 10, started to show up for the eighth grade at E.O. Green Junior High School in women’s makeup and stilettos, and he embarrassed classmate Brandon McInerney at lunch by asking him to be his valentine. On Feb. 12, 2008, McInerney sneaked a gun to school and shot King in their first-period English computer lab.

After the shooting, the district attorney’s office charged McInerney, who was 14 at the time, as an adult and of a hate crime, which brought a flurry of media attention to this blue-collar town outside Los Angeles. I was among the early journalists on the scene, and I spent five months there reporting an investigative cover story for Newsweek that explored the complicated events leading to King’s murder.

Both King and McInernary came from troubled childhoods and they often acted out at school. At the time of his death, King was living in a group home after he had been removed from his adopted parent’s care. Dawn Boldrin, the teacher who had both boys in English class that day, and had previously given Larry a green dress as a present, eventually left her job.

First-time director Marta Cunningham spent four years working on “Valentine Road” and collected 350 hours of footage. She interviewed some of King’s friends and McInerney’s family, but she wasn’t able to get inside the school or talk to the district superintendent, Jerry Dannenberg. Still, she hopes other classrooms will show her film as an educational tool. She spoke to me about the Oxnard murder earlier this week.

Ramin Setoodeh: I wanted to have a conversation because this story has been important to both of us for a long time. I remember receiving a voicemail from you in 2008, after you had read my article in Newsweek.

Marta Cunningham: I first started off with the idea of doing a short film about the incident itself. I started talking to the kids, and I sat in hearings and I realized this was a documentary and not a short narrative film.

RS: You had never made a film before. How did you get started?

MC: I think I just wanted to do it. I hired the right people and did a ton of research. I had been an actor for probably 15 years. So I was really comfortable in that regard of what a director’s job is and what a producer needs to do.

RS: How did you pay for it? Did you finance it yourself?

MC: At first, we were financing it. Then we had fundraisers and put together a sizzle reel. Someone said I need to get it to [documentary producer] Eddie Schmidt, because he will really love this story.

RS: For me, the hardest part about doing the story with kids so young was separating what they had heard from friends versus what they had witnessed themselves. Was that a challenge for you?

MC: I think the two children that take us through the story are Marina and Mariah, and they were witnesses to the actual crime. And they take us through their journey. I think that was the main [arc] of the film. And the kids that are kind of on the outskirts of the story, really we had them talking about their experiences that day.

RS: One of the things that was surprising for me at the school—

MC: Oh, they wouldn’t talk to me.

RS: I went on campus and talked to the teachers. After two teachers complained to the administration that Larry was disrupting instruction with his wardrobe, there was an email sent to the staff that said Larry was allowed to dress how he wanted.

MC: There needed to be a lot of guidance that wasn’t provided to anyone in the school.

RS: The teachers also said that Larry had been sexually harassing some of the male students at school, including Brandon.

MC: Well, the people I talked to, the kids I talked to, none of them commented on that. That wasn’t anything they told me about. It wasn’t something I purposefully left out. The only thing I heard, when it came to any kind of sexual harassment, was from the defense team.

RS: Do you think Brandon should have been tried as an adult?

MC: No.

RS: Do you think it was a hate crime?

MC: I do think it was a hate crime. I always thought it was a hate crime. I think he was motivated by that. There was never one part of me that wavered from that. A lot of it has to do with the family life he had and who he was hanging out with. From what Kendra [Brandon’s mom] told me, she has a lot of regret about the amount of hatred Brandon was around when it came to Billy [Brandon’s now deceased father]. And how he referred to any derogatory term that he could think of. I think when you’re raised with that level of hatred, it adds up.

RS: Why didn’t the first jury reach a verdict? [Brandon later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and he was sentenced to 21 years in prison.]

MC: They say it in the film. They saw him as a child. They didn’t want to put a child in prison for 53 years to life without a chance at parole. They also didn’t think it was a hate crime. Not one juror thought it was a hate crime. They didn’t believe it — they didn’t believe he was a white supremacist or racist to that degree.

RS: Was this an emotional story for you? It was for me.

MC: It was an emotional roller coaster.

RS: What stayed with you most from Larry’s story?

MC: Going to the graveyard. I think the last day, a butterfly flew by in the shot. It was really magical.

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  1. Dnanc says:

    “He came out at 10” – come on! That’s so rediculous, I realize Larry did not have stability in his home but, if there had been stable informed parents to get him more focused on just being a 10-year-old dealing with 10-year-old issues rather than his sexuality, this whole thing may never have transpired. There’s no way he was mature enough to be dealing with that. As for his teacher, she was so irresponsible and added fuel to the fire esp. when she gave him that dress. as though he’s girl like she said, well he wasn’t a girl, and when you’re dealing with other kids, esp. mean bullying immature know-it-alls that get influenced by adult issues and world issues like today, they’re not mature enough, they’re not going to lean towards compassion and embrace the idea. I’m not blaming Larry, but, the adults!

  2. Orcasite says:

    The prosecutor should be fired, if not disbarred. Obsessed, irrational, smirking. Claiming that jurors were homophobic and that’s why the jury hung. What’s it say when none of the twelve jurors voted the charge presented? What does it say that NONE of the seven jurors interviewed believed that this was a hate crime or believed the white supremacist smears? The teacher is a piece of work. Even if all other things were equal, she had no place giving him makeup tips and girls’ clothes. She’s one of those weird, over-personal teachers. What was not covered very much in the film, though it did make it in, was that Larry had behavioral issues that concerned the other teachers and administrators and that he had agreed as part of his plan not to confront other students or violate school rules. Yet he continued to do so but the “educators” were terrified to do anything about it.

    I fail to see how the filmmaker considers this to be a hate crime, and how the victim’s actions toward a straight kid, which included repeated attempts to humiliate him sexually in front of his friends, were not considered a problem.

  3. Where were you? It was big news when it happened and even while Brandon was awaiting trial. And Oxnard is not a small farming community. It is a city of 175K people with a bustling port and two Navy bases.

    What likely won’t be represented in this film is that Larry King would sexually assault boys in the bathroom at school. Not only did his teachers give him women’s clothes and makeup to wear to school, but Larry would go into the boys bathroom and expose his genitals to Brandon and other boys trying to humiliate him in front of his friends. Larry also asked Brandon to be his Valentine in front of the class with one thing in mind, to humiliate Brandon (a very straight boy).

    Of course Brandon was no angel either, but both sides of the story should be told. I hope that is the case. And if it isn’t I will be here to tell it.

  4. Morgan says:

    Amazing documentary!! I was very moved by this. I might be part of a small percentage but 21 years is nothing, at least compared to Larry who never got a chance to drive, love, turn 21 all the normal things we all get to experience. He took a life and it was premeditated. May Larry fly with the butterflies!

  5. Ronnie says:

    Such a great documentary! The director Marta Cunningham created a wonderful narrative, I really felt like I was there and caught myself a few times feeling like a part of the story. Emotional roller coaster is an excellent description of how I felt during and after watching, I can’t get it out of my head. I feel terribly for everyone involved.

    However, I do NOT believe Larry got the justice he deserved.

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