Sundance Features

January 16, 2007

Cynthia Wade, Freeheld

"It was such a rapidly closing window; if I hadn't have shown up at that moment at that Freeholder meeting, then we wouldn't have had a film."

(L-R) Lt. Laurel Hester and her partner Stacie Andree, the subjects of Cynthia Wade's documentary Freeheld

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

How are you?

Good! We're about 48 hours from finishing the film. It's been a crazy couple of weeks, but we're really close now.

Forty-eight hours -- you're officially on the countdown now.

It feels like finals week, but it just keeps going -- longer than a week. It'll be great, though.

You're a festival veteran, but as far as I know you haven't taken a film to Sundance before, right?

Right. This is my first director's experience at Sundance.

How are you feeling about it?

There's an incredible air of excitement and energy here in the office, and it sort of feels like we're pulling all-nighter after all-nighter, but for this amazing opportunity. And it's actually been great because I think the film is sharper and better than had we not gotten in -- it gave us this really hard deadline that made the film better.

For the record, you should probably tell me what Freeheld is about.

The movie is about this desperate race against time; Lt. Laurel Hester of New Jersey wanted to leave her hard-earned pension that she'd earned in 25 years as a veteran police officer to her domestic partner Stacie Andree so that Stacie could afford their house when Laurel died. Stacie is an auto mechanic. (The Freeholders) said "No," because they're not husband and wife. That set off an enormous battle in New Jersey; her elected official said: "No, you're not officially husband and wife. If you were married to a man, sure -- you could pass it to your husband. But in this case, no." It's sort of like the movie Philadelphia with Tom Hanks, but in this case it's two women in New Jersey.

I lived with Laurel with the last 10 weeks of her life on and off, through this bitter fight that became not only nationally watched but internationally watched as Laurel waged sort of the last pursuit for justice in her life against her elected officials, the Freeholders.

How did you discover the story and then acquire the access you needed to take it on?

I read about it and decided to go town for a Freeholder meeting with my camera and a couple of assistants and some release forms. I didn't even know if I'd be allowed to film, but I stumbled into what is now the opening scene of my film; it was this unbelievably intense community meeting where people were screaming and pleading with the Freeholders. There were these giant red signs and there was Laurel Hester, dying of lung cancer sitting in the front row next to Stacie Andree, the love of her life. I didn't know them, but I just started shooting, and nobody told me to turn off the camera. There were other cameras there, too --news and still photographers. I couldn't believe what was unfolding in front of my eyes just an hour outside of New York City in December of 2005. It was just over a year ago.

After the meeting I went up to her and said, "I'm a documentary filmmaker, I'd really like to follow your story." There was something, I think, in the chemistry between myself and Laurel where she trusted me and invited me into her home in really intimate moments, and I very quickly fell into their lives and ended up spending a lot of nights in her guest room and going to the hospital with them and being there at 3 in the morning when she was very ill. It was one of those things where I recognized instantly I had to make this film, and I just started making it.

It's a pretty extraordinary challenge to take this kind of story on on the fly. How did you know you'd be able to commit to it at that moment?

What's interesting is that logistically, in terms of my life, I shouldn't have taken it on. At that point, I had just given birth to my second child. She was 4 months old, and I have an older child. And I was teaching and finishing other films, and sort of logistically -- or logically -- it didn't make sense. Emotionally, it was absolutely the right thing to do.

A few months earlier, actually -- the summer before -- I was sitting on my stoop in Brooklyn and I was saying to my husband: "I'm really ready to make my next film. I don't know what it's going to be; I just feel like I'm itching now to do something that's mine." He's sort of a soothsayer, and he said to me, "It's gonna hit. It's going to happen and happen soon, and you job is to be ready." And I was sort of fretting: "I'll never be able to make another film again; I just had this second baby, I'm not going to be able to do it." But he said that and I said, "OK, all right, I'll be ready, I'll be ready." And sure enough, on Dec. 7, 2005, I think part of it was that I was just ready. I had my equipment, I had my two assistants with me, I had my release forms; we were ready to jump on it when I realized it. If I had been an hour late, I would have missed the story. It was such a rapidly closing window; if I hadn't have shown up at that moment at that Freeholder meeting, then we wouldn't have had a film.

Freeheld is about 40 minutes long, right? Is it a long short or a short feature?

You have the term "novella," and I think we need the term "featurette" or something; a short film that has a feature film experience. It's so dramatic and it's so packed, and you watch this woman wage this war and die -- the experience is much greater than seeing your average short. I wish there was a new term for that.

Last year I talked to Carter Smith, whose short film Bugcrush was over 30 minutes and shared the Shorts Jury Prize. He was telling me the film is just as long as it is. That's the story. Did you try to determine whether you could pare Freeheld down or perhaps make it longer, at least for distribution's sake?

I think he's right; the film needs to be the length that it is. My window with Laurel, though... I mean, things were incredibly dramatic and intense, but it was so short. The main drama was basically 10 weeks. We went back and did interviews and pick-ups and fill-ins after she passed away, but with that length of time, it's like you're going to get what you're going to get. I also felt like, quite frankly, I would compete better in a short category, because it's not like I went to Tibet and spent seven years of my life. Some documentaries take a really long time to make, and I've taken a long time to make documentaries. But from start to finish, this one has only been a year, which is extraordinarily short for a documentary, and I just felt like I would compete better in a shorts category. One of the reasons it is in Sundance is because it is a short.

What are you anticipating or expecting from the festival and its audience?

For me, this is the beginning of a very long commitment to really getting Laurel's story out there and also really beginning to build a very comprehensive outreach plan. Another reason I made it a short film is that as an education and advocacy tool -- a tool to actually affect potential change, where you see how same-sex couples are being discriminated against in this country. I think this length works in terms of education, outreach and advocacy. And this is the beginning of what I hope is going to be a very healthy and aggressive outreach plan so that we really can get her story out there, work with groups and grassroots organizations and begin to have people really absorb the story as they're thinking abut policy. And as we start the countdown toward election 2008, where issues about domestic partnership rights and same-sex marriage are really going to be on the ballot, to me, this is an amazing experience and a kick-off for what I hope that will be. Yeah, it's a short, but as I said, the experience is greater, and I think it really resonates. I'm hopeful people will come and see it. It's quite a story.

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