Oscar-Winning Director Cynthia Wade’s 10-Year Journey Behind “Freeheld”
Freeheld. To some, the word connotes a new feature film starring Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, and Steve Carell. To others, it’s an Oscar-winning documentary short. And still to others, it’s the second most-Googled term on the planet one fateful night in 2008. But for filmmaker Cynthia Wade, the term means all of the above—and most of all, a life-changing, decade-long labor of love.
BEFORE IT ALL BEGAN
While it’s only recently coming into the public eye, “Freeheld” (in all its incarnations) bears roots in Cynthia's longtime commitment to filmmaking, starting with her learning the nuts and bolts—everything from shooting to lighting to editing—in a Stanford Master’s program. Following up on her undergraduate love of theater (and her self-taught documentary thesis project), the program enabled her to go out and shoot her own films—particularly empowering, Cynthia states, as a female in the industry.
Following her intensive film training—and six years of creating and running programs for homeless families in New York City shelters—Cynthia was eager to meld her love of film with her drive to help others. But committed as she was, she couldn’t crack how to make a living as a documentary filmmaker.
Working as a cinematographer, she did snap up projects for MTV, the History Channel, A&E, and PBS. Ultimately, she was able to shoot and produce a personal film that Cinemax picked up, as well as another film about which she cared deeply, centered on the ethics of euthanasia among shelter dogs. But her work predominantly came in the form of client and corporate work—not bad gigs by any means, but nothing that deeply resonated. Now a decade into her career, Cynthia—sitting on the stoop of a Brooklyn walk-up with her husband (producer Matthew Syrett) and two small children—had a startling (and disheartening) realization: “I was drowning. I felt creatively empty—like there’s no way I can make films I really care about. I even remember writing in my journal, ‘I want to be in love with a film again, be obsessed again.’ But I really felt like it was over.”
“I was drowning. I felt creatively empty—like there’s no way I can make films I really care about. I even remember writing in my journal, ‘I want to be in love with a film again, be obsessed again.’ But I really felt like it was over.”
Luckily, her supportive husband stopped her in her tracks. He assured her, “I can feel this and I want you to listen. Your next project is gonna hit hard and fast, and it’ll come by the end of this calendar year; your job is to be ready.” Cynthia believed him.
THE SPARK IS LIT
Bolstered by this encouragement, Cynthia began scouring articles from all kinds of sources—from the New York Times to local papers—to find something in her radius that might be worth investigating. She stumbled upon an online article in a New Jersey paper about veteran Police Lieutenant Laurel Hester in Ocean County, New Jersey, and her legal struggle to leave her earned pension to her same-sex domestic partner, Stacie Leigh Andree, when her fight with terminal lung cancer would come to an end.
In 2005, New Jersey allowed state employees to assign their domestic partners as beneficiaries, but a loophole in the law allowed county officials to decide whether to include or exclude this provision for county employees. Laurel was a county employee, and her local officials—the Ocean County Board of Freeholders—repeatedly voted to deny her request to leave her pension to Stacie. Without Laurel's pension, Stacie had no way to keep the small house the couple bought, renovated, and lived in. She would be out in the cold, despite Laurel’s tireless 23 years of service on the front lines.
The ensuing protest on the issue piqued Cynthia’s interest. Stationed in a tiny office that overlooked the Prospect Expressway in Brooklyn (“the least glamorous place” in the borough, she jokes), Cynthia was equipped with a camera, lights, microphones, and a part-time assistant. And since she’d been trained as a cinematographer, she could shoot. The news item spoke to her immediately. “For me, I’m interested in people first and the issue second,” Cynthia explains. And in this case, both the people and the issue were calling to her.
Cynthia reserved a Zipcar a block away, grabbed her assistant and their cameras, and drove to the courtroom in New Jersey. They found a packed room, the air thick with tension. Supporters held up stark red signs that read, “Ocean County Freeholders: Don’t let officer Laurel Hester die like this. Have compassion.” Cynthia started filming, unsure if she would be asked to stop. She wasn’t. Her filmed entrance into that room became the opening scene of the “Freeheld” documentary. But it also became something else: an epiphany. As Cynthia states, “Within the first 10 minutes of shooting, I realized this is it—this is my labor of love. I will go to the ends of the earth for this story.”
For Cynthia to truly tell this story, though, she knew she would have to forge a partnership with both Laurel and Stacie, who were at the heart of it all. But there was already a ton of media attention, with many people jockeying for position to get access.
Undeterred, Cynthia introduced herself after the meeting, and was told she could visit both Laurel and Stacie in their home. She made arrangements for a few days later. That first visit turned into 10 weeks of close contact—Laurel’s final days, which constituted the timeframe of the film.
A DOCUMENTARY IS BORN
To gather her footage, Cynthia packed her equipment in a Zipcar and traveled at least once a week—and sometimes two or three times a week—from New York to New Jersey, exclusively by Zipcar. As she became closer to Laurel and Stacie, they’d ask if she wanted to spend the night or weekend. She slept on their couch a lot.
Cynthia operated with limited resources, utilizing Zipcar, a small crew, a next-to-nothing budget, and nights spent in their house rather than a hotel, but this scrappiness yielded something very important: a chance for Cynthia to become close to Laurel and Stacie, in ways a full-fledged camera crew simply never could. “Often, I was alone doing shooting and sound, and was able to capture some really intimate moments, because we were just three women in a house,” Cynthia explains. “I got scenes that were love story first and political story second; I shot the film from the inside out.”
“I got scenes that were love story first and political story second; I shot the film from the inside out.”
Adding to the intimacy and (scrappiness) was Cynthia’s idea to arm Laurel and Stacie with a handheld camera when she wasn’t there. This not only kept the cost down, but allowed the film’s subjects to participate in a collaborative, hands-on way. Many of the private moments they captured ended up in the documentary—like Laurel first losing her hair, and the last three images of Laurel’s passing (for which Cynthia was deliberately not present, for privacy sake). This was their film after all, through and through.
SUNDANCE, HOLLYWOOD, AND BEYOND
A year later, Cynthia sent a rough cut into Sundance. She got in. Not only was she invited to premiere it there, but it won Special Jury Prize. Cynthia had believed in the film all along, but this was the beginning of launching it into the world—big time. The next step: prepare the 38-minute masterpiece to be an Oscar contender in the short documentary category (where films must be 40 minutes max).
From Sundance, she connected with her first funders (people in the audience!) who could see that the coming election year (2008) would be a big year for equality measures, and also were aware that to be an Oscar contender, a film requires a theatrical release. Her team decided to release “Freeheld” in states or cities where there would be either discriminatory laws to be decided or equality measures to be set forth.
Merging the personal with the political yet again (plus that trademark determination), Cynthia organized a grassroots effort to enable fans to “adopt” cities to show the film. This attracted a wide range of supporters, from all walks of life—from LGBT groups in Columbus, Ohio, to a formerly Mormon gay woman in Salt Lake City, to cancer and union groups all over. Cynthia traveled the country and was there for it all.
Everything fell into place when “Freeheld” was not only nominated for the Oscar, but won. Cynthia’s victory speech about equality reverberated far beyond Hollywood. Not only was it banned in Singapore, but that night, the term “freeheld” was the second most-Googled term in the world. Stacie—who had never been west of Pittsburgh—went to LA with Cynthia for the landmark event. Laurel’s ashes, which hung in a locket around Stacie’s neck, were there, too.
BUILDING UP TO SOMETHING BIGGER
The exposure from the Oscar win catapulted Laurel and Stacie’s story into a new dimension. Talks began about turning the short into a fictionalized feature film. Ellen Page—who was nominated for best actress in a leading role for "Juno" at the very same Academy Awards (and—in another sign of coincidence—whose aunt happened to be sitting next to Stacie at the ceremony)—became attached soon after. This was the big time.
Except…it wasn’t. At least, not yet. While the documentary had taken 10 swift weeks to film Laurel (but a total of a year to film additional scenes and create the complete piece), “Freeheld” the feature film didn’t begin to roll tape for seven more years. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. As Cynthia explains matter-of-factly, it was the fundraising. “It’s very difficult to raise money where two females are in the lead. Especially when those females are lesbians.”
“It’s very difficult to raise money where two females are in the lead. Especially when those females are lesbians.”
But a lack of money hadn’t stopped Cynthia before, and it definitely wasn’t going to stop her now.
ASSEMBLING THE DREAM TEAM
The pieces—both finance- and talent-wise—finally fell into place last year, with the casting of Julianne Moore as Laurel. Ellen—who publicly came out in February 2014, while the film was in development—was not only a producer and lead actor, but was instrumental in getting Julianne on board. Steve Carell, who was doing press for “Foxcatcher” in New York, was snagged for six days to shoot his scenes as LGBT activist Steven Goldstein. Michael Shannon—known for his more hard-edged, even sinister roles—rounded out the cast as Dane Wells, the detective partner of Laurel who became an unexpected LGBT ally throughout her legal journey. Despite these victories, getting the cast in place was still just one piece of the puzzle.
As the director and producer of the documentary—and now a lead producer in the feature film—Cynthia knew authenticity and integrity needed to be maintained, down to every detail. (That was part of the reason Laurel wrote Cynthia into her will as the sole person granted life rights to Laurel’s story.) And that required the right team behind the scenes, to see her vision through.
Cynthia connected with Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher of Double Feature Films, who had created films like “Erin Brockovich,” where, Cynthia notes, “they had taken real life stories and turned them into very successful feature films for mainstream audiences.” This last element was key. “I’m aware that a very self-selected group is going to watch a documentary, which probably isn’t going to hit a multiplex in Texas,” she adds. “But a film that will go to a multiplex will go into communities that aren’t aware of the documentary. And my hope was for Laurel’s story to be shared with a much wider audience.”
STAYING TRUE TO LIFE
But with mainstream appeal can come, well, mainstream content…and—worse yet—mainstream compromises. Cynthia explains, “There was always this fear, where I was going to hand this over to be fictionalized—and what if it strayed very far from Laurel’s story and the real events?” That’s where the screenwriter—Ron Nyswaner, who had been nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the 1993 AIDS courtroom drama “Philadelphia”—became mission critical.
For the seven years the film was being developed, Cynthia and Ron worked closely together. She brought him to all of the locations in New Jersey where Laurel and Stacie had spent time together, and guided him through all of the documentary transcripts and footage—even the material that didn’t make the final cut. Because of Cynthia’s past hard work, he had a thorough record (in fact, a veritable treasure trove) of what the real people were like, down to what they talked like and how they were dressed. Much of the language in the final film is even taken verbatim from the freeholder meetings and the documentary.
The screenwriter wasn’t the only player who prioritized accuracy and sensitivity. The actors themselves were deeply invested in staying faithful to the source, which influenced the wardrobe, props, and sets, too. Says Cynthia, “Julianne was like an investigative reporter; she also wanted all of the documentary footage and transcripts. She consumed everything, and she noticed everything, from the necklace that Laurel wore—which is replicated from the real one that Laurel’s sister brought in—to the brand of cough drops Laurel kept next to her bedside.”
Ellen was the same way, visiting New Jersey to meet with and spend quality time with Stacey. Michael also met his real-life counterpoint, and Steven Goldstein was on set with Steve Carell, who was “really open to getting the truth right,” Cynthia notes. All of the players—who participated in the low-budget project out of genuine affinity—were also in harmony about the core nature of the film: that, above all, it was a love story.
The result? Overall, Cynthia was more than satisfied. “It ended up enormously true to the original story. We’re all sort of amazed at how authentic the approach was in the fiction version. I was expecting to have to let go more, kind of accept that this was going to be the Hollywood interpretation. But it was faithful, down to Laurel’s exact words a lot—it was incredibly journalistic.”
So journalistic, in fact, that Cynthia, her 14-year-old daughter, and her husband all have cameos in the film. “My husband, who came up with the film’s title, got to play a cop in the foreground of the funeral scene. And in the last scene of Laurel pleading for her rights, the real Stacie is sitting behind and to the left of her and Steve Carell, and to the right of her is me and then my daughter. When the verdict is read, we jump up, and I’m crying for real. So there’s a little bit of us in the film, too.”
MAKING AN IMPACT
Ten years have passed since the “Freeheld” project began, and the original documentary has been shown in more than 100 film festivals all over the country, as well as international festivals—including a screening in Tokyo at a Japanese gay and lesbian festival, which the first openly lesbian city official attended. (Progress that was sadly unmatched in Russia, where a gay and lesbian film festival slated to screen “Freeheld” was shut down.) In addition to the Oscar, the documentary garnered 14 more film awards.
It’s also been used as an educational training tool for communities trying to show the impact that discriminatory laws have upon fellow citizens. Says Cynthia, “It’s one thing to hear that laws are discriminatory, and it’s another thing to see an average couple go to work, pay their taxes, come home, unload groceries, and watch TV; it puts a human face to the issue.”
This was true not just for audiences, but for the real people portrayed in the documentary. Cynthia explains, “For the male heterosexual police officers that Laurel worked with, this was the first time for them that the political became personal. She wasn’t filing reports; she was in freezing vans with bad sound equipment, staking out houses that had organized crime or drugs. She was always going through the door first in drug busts, and saved her fellow officers’ lives on some occasions. Some have said that if she hadn’t been a woman, she would’ve been chief. She was a sister in the police offer world; they loved her. So some of her peers became unexpected LGBT allies—because of her.”
MAGNIFYING A LEGACY
Now, with the release of the feature film, Cynthia is eager to continue this path of advocacy and acceptance, and—given the dramatically changed social climate (including the historic Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage a mere decade later)—honor and amplify it.
“The infant daughter I had right before I started shooting the documentary turned 10 a couple days after the Supreme Court decision,” Cynthia says. “And I said to her and her sister, who had just turned 15, ‘This day is as big as a human walking on the moon.’ And they said, ‘Really?’ And I told them, ‘Really. Remember that I told you this; this is a huge day.’”
Adds Cynthia, “For the film to be coming out just after this decision, the timing is right. But for everything that’s been won, you have to protect those freedoms—you have to remember the people who have fought and used their own lives to get to this place. Although gay marriage is legal now, it needs to be protected and defended. And we need to remember people like Laurel and Stacie who were part of the groundswell.”
Although gay marriage is legal now, it needs to be protected and defended. And we need to remember people like Laurel and Stacie who were part of the groundswell.”
The film officially premiered in Toronto, with Stacie, Stacie’s sister, and Laurel’s police partner Dane Wells in attendance. Next up was a screening at MOMA in New York, and following a theatrical first-weekend release in New York and L.A., it's now in more than 500 theaters around the country via Lionsgate. Later in 2015 or early 2016, it will debut overseas.
But for Cynthia, the most meaningful screening was a pre-release in the Wade family’s new locale of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. (Bringing her Zipcar use full circle, she carted a special film projector up from Brooklyn for the occasion.) Laurel’s sister was one of the audience members, who all gave Cynthia a standing ovation—a welcoming sign from her new community that underscored the film’s own message of communities coming together and supporting one another.
FINDING FURTHER MEANING
Just as “Freeheld” was about people before politics, so was Cynthia’s own personal experience with both films. “I would say that ‘Freeheld’ was a game changer in my working life—it helped me grow as a filmmaker, and helped define me and define my brand,” she says. “It solidified that I’m drawn to real people—people who are ripping away shame, rising above what might feel insurmountable—and drawn to telling these real stories of strong women.”
And with Cynthia’s seven-year journey of producing the fiction film, “It changed me in that I want to move into fiction; I want to take the raw emotion and handheld quality of my documentary work and infuse it in a fiction script.”
She’s since gone on to direct many films—both feature-length and short documentaries—as well as taken on commercial work that (in the case of the acclaimed Dove beauty spots) uses the documentary experience to tell stories in a branded content way, as well as further supports women and girls through empowering messages. She’s also actively pursuing new scripts.
Despite all of her success, Cynthia definitely hasn’t lost sight of the little people—or cars—that helped along the way. “For years and years living in New York, my family and I relied on Zipcar. It was a block away from my apartment, so when I was shooting the documentary, I could just sign up online, throw everything in the trunk, and go. It was that easy and enabled me to shoot that film. It was our key to freedom, taking risks, having family adventures, pursuing work, and—in the case of ‘Freeheld’—pursuing my dream.”