Hollywood – February 24 – Tonight Freeheld , directed by Cynthia Wade won the Best Documentary Short Film Award. Here is a Cinema Without Borders exclusive interview with Cynthia Wade.
Cynthia Wade is a NYC-based documentary filmmaker. Her short documentary “Freeheld” won a Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, and her award-winning HBO documentary “Shelter Dogs” was broadcast in seven countries. Wade directed the 1999 Cinemax Reel Life documentary “Grist For The Mill”, which The Hollywood Reporter called “a delight…full of quirky moments and clever humor” and Variety called “a jewel … extremely comical.” She was co-producer and principal verite cinematographer for the 1998 PBS documentary “Taken In: The Lives of America’s Foster Children”, which won a duPont-Columbia Award for Excellence in Journalism. Wade has been a Director of Photography for PBS, HBO/Cinemax, Bravo, AMC, MTV, A&E, Discovery, TNT, Oxygen, LOGO and The History Channel. She received a BA cum laude from Smith College and an MA in Documentary Film Production from Stanford University. Wade runs a video production company and teaches advanced digital cinematography at the New School.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you learn about the subject of the Freeheld and what did motivate you to make it into a film? Did meeting Laurel Haster for the first time any effects on your decision to make the Freeheld or the way you have made it?
Cynthia Wade: I did not set out to make a film about Laurel Hester. It was late 2005, and I had recently given birth to my second child and was busy with film projects. But I read an article about Laurel in a local paper, and when I read that her partner Stacie, an auto mechanic, was poised to lose their house, I immediately understood the great risk they faced. I brought my camera to a community meeting where Laurel planned to speak to her county officials, the Freeholders.
As soon as the meeting started, I knew instantly that this was going to be my next film. The meeting was very dramatic; it’s actually the first scene in the film. Community members were passionately begging their elected officials to allow Laurel to keep the pension she had earned over the course of 25 years of service. The county officials, called Freeholders, said no. If Laurel had been married to a man, there would have been no issue. It was amazing to witness, just an hour from New York City at the end of 2005.
In retrospect, this story fit all of the elements of a ‘Cynthia Wade Film’. As a filmmaker, I am attracted to tough stories about controversial issues. The stories are usually told through the eyes of strong female characters. Laurel Hester’s story was compelling to me on many levels: she was a female police detective in a male-dominated world; she had helped solve many cases such as a double homicide; she was dying of cancer; she was in love with Stacie and just wanted to pass her pension to her. Time was running out. There was a sense of urgency and purpose to the story. This was an opportunity to tell a very personal, intimate story about how equal rights are still being denied in this country. I wanted to bear witness to that.
My other films have similar themes of controversy, risk and death. My 2004 HBO film Shelter Dogs is a film about the ethics of animal sheltering and euthanasia, as seen through the eyes of a controversial shelter owner.
In terms of Freeheld, I introduced myself to Laurel and Stacie at the end of that first community meeting. They invited me to spend some time with them in the coming weeks. That night, I drove back to New York City, where I live, and told my husband what I had seen. I said, “I have to go back to New Jersey and make this film.” This posed a challenge: we had a 4-month-old infant, a 5-year-old kindergartener, I was running a busy documentary film business, and my husband works full-time in another industry. But after I explained what was at stake – for Laurel and for other same-sex couples — he took a deep breath and said, “Okay. Let’s work it out.” This became a family project; we were all invested.
Hours later, Laurel was admitted into the hospital; on the next day that I spent with Laurel, she was diagnosed with brain cancer, which became another scene in the film. There was an urgent feeling that the sand was rapidly running through the hourglass. Laurel and I decided to work on this film as quickly as possible, together. Laurel’s hope was that her personal story would help other same-sex couples that faced discrimination.
Bijan: How challenging was making of the Freeheld ?
Cynthia: There were many challenges. The hardest challenges were ethical. Making a documentary can pose ethical questions along the way, but when your main character is dying rapidly, it opens up a giant Pandora’s box of moral issues. Laurel and Stacie gave me access to their lives in an extremely vulnerable and emotional time. I did not want to hurt them in any way. We all felt that the film was important, and that it could be used as a tool for social change, but we were dealing with real life too. Respecting them was extremely important to me. I was constantly asking myself, “Should I shoot this? Should I put down the camera? Is this too much?” As Laurel got sicker, I put down the camera a lot. There were definitely things that I didn’t film because it felt too invasive.
I gave Laurel and Stacie a camera so that they could film when I was not there; some of the best material came from them. The film was collaboration between the three of us.
There were logistical challenges – the more time I spent in New Jersey, the less time I spent with my two young children in New York. I didn’t always feel completely comfortable with this, but I was rapidly losing Laurel so I needed to be in New Jersey as much as possible. My husband was holding down a demanding full-time job and taking care of our children at night (our infant was not yet sleeping through the night). Between our family members and a babysitter, we covered the childcare.
There were financial challenges. The window was closing so rapidly that I could not wait for funding. I had been specifically saving proceeds from corporate video work so that when my next “labor of love” project hit, I would have some financial freedom. So in that way I was prepared. I was careful with the money, only hiring crew when I absolutely needed it (I shot most of the film myself). The savings carried me through shooting and editing, about a year.
Then I totally ran out of money. Just about that time, the unfinished film was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival. I remember thinking, “This is crazy. I can’t afford to buy a plane ticket to get to Sundance to see my own film.” My amazing editor, David Teague, just said, “Let’s just finish the film. Don’t worry about the money right now.”
At our first Sundance screening – which was 8:30 am on the first day of the festival – I thought, “Who is going to see a short documentary at this early hour?” But people were lining up in their parkas and with their coffees at 7:45 am. And miraculously, there was a funder in the audience of that morning screening, who later offered to help me pay back my editor and sound mixers. We have since secured funding from many other supporters. It was another example of how important it is to take risks in life!
Bijan: Freeheld has the depth of a fiction where director has full control over the process of the story. It tells its story in a few layers, the Laurel struggle at the hearings and the story of her relationship with Stacie, how did you plan and manage that?
Cynthia: I worked with one main editor, David Teague, but we relied on additional editors for perspective and feedback. Towards the end of post-production, we hired a Supervising Editor (David Mehlman, who edited the 2006 Oscar-winning short film The Son and the Moon). It was easy to lose perspective when working with the material, and we struggled between how much this would be a personal love story versus a political battle, so we needed many opinions. There were lots of vigorous discussions in the editing room.
I also kept coming back to what Laurel would have wanted. She died in February 2006, and we started editing in April 2006, so I was constantly asking myself, “Would Laurel be happy with this?” That helped me as a guide.
Bijan: Did Laurel and Stacie know where you are heading with this film and what was their reaction?
Cynthia: One of my greatest regrets is that Laurel did not live to see the finished film. She really wanted to participate in a Q&A at a festival, and she said that she wanted a poster from the film. One day, we were sitting on her bed and talking about the film. She said to me, “If I don’t make it long enough to see the film, I hope I will be in a place where I will hear about it.” I said, “I hope so too.”
Stacie has been very supportive of the film, and has come to screenings in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. It is not easy for her to watch Laurel so sick on a large screen, but she – like Laurel – always understood the greater potential that the film could have in terms of social change.
Stacie loves that her dogs are in the film. I named the film’s newly-formed production company Lieutenant Films, Inc., partially after Laurel’s Police Lieutenant rank, and partially after the couple’s 180-lb dog, Lieutenant.
Bijan: How was the reaction of the Laurel co-workers and friends to your work?
Cynthia: Here is a statement that was written by Dane Wells, Laurel Hester’s first police partner who was a self-described “straight, conservative guy” who, despite his political leanings, became Laurel’s staunchest ally during her battle. Dane wrote this about Freeheld:
“During the last months of her life, Laurel and I talked a lot – we reminisced about the cases we had worked on, we strategized about the political battle we were waging, and we talked about all those things that people talk about when they know the end is near. One of the things she talked about over and over again was how much she regretted that she would never write the book she had always planned.
It was to be a book about her life as a woman police officer – more particularly I had only just learned, as a closeted gay woman police officer — and she had so desperately wanted to write that book in an effort to help spare others from the pain of discrimination she had suffered in her life.
When Cynthia Wade arrived on the scene, Laurel quickly recognized the prospect of Cynthia’s film taking the place of that book she had always dreamed about. The idea that her story could be told on film instead, and the idea that such a film might help to make the world a better place, gave Laurel an unbelievable second wind and a renewed strength and vigor that was downright palpable.
I think you would all agree that we have just watched a beautiful work of art that tells an incredibly powerful story. Laurel would be so pleased with Freeheld. She would be so thrilled to know that letting Cynthia into her life turned out to be one of the best decisions she had ever made.
I doubt there will ever be a more powerful tool than Freeheld that’s more capable of changing the hearts and minds of the millions of people out there like me — people who simply have never paid any attention to gay rights issues because it’s something that doesn’t affect them. People like me who will nevertheless become enraged to learn that people like Laurel are being treated as second-class citizens in 21st-century America.”
Bijan: Freeheld is a very sad story with a very positive message; it’s about birth of “hope” in the darkest hours. How intentionally you wanted to have a positive message?
Cynthia: It looked so bleak for Laurel in those last weeks of her life. When we got word that the Freeholders were going to hold an emergency meeting to vote on extending domestic partnership benefits to county employees, we were very excited. When the Freeholders reversed their stance, I was thrilled for Laurel on a personal level. As a filmmaker, I was relieved that the film could have a positive message.
Bijan: Where you aware of the GLBTI laws before making of the Freeheld? Did making of the film any effect in your position or actions?
Cynthia: What surprised me the most is how inconsistent and fractured the legal system is. I was surprised to learn that GLBTI laws can vary on a micro-level, from county to county, even town to town. In Laurel’s case, New Jersey passed a resolution that allowed all state employees to share benefits with their domestic partners. However, it was up to individual counties as to whether they would adopt the resolution. Laurel’s county – Ocean County – decided not to adopt the resolution, but six neighboring counties did. So if Laurel had been a state trooper – or if she worked for Union County, for instance – then she would have been able to pass her pension to Stacie. Because she worked for Ocean County, she was forced to embark on a year-long battle with her county officials.
Bijan: How has been the reaction of the audience to Freeheld inside and outside US?
Cynthia: We have screened in about 35 cities at this point. I have been receiving emails from people after the screenings. Here is a sample:
“Until you made Freeheld I had never really thought about what would happen to my partner. I am a lot like Laurel at times, not wanting to draw a lot of attention to myself. For her to have the courage to endure what she did those last 10 weeks has made a great impact on me. It has made me stronger and wanting to take a stand for what WE ALL deserve, not care what others think and take a stand for what is right!” – Shelly, a police officer in Utah
“I loved the discussion after Freeheld. I had no idea that as a married person I have 1200 rights, and domestic partnerships have only a fraction of those.” – Nancy, heterosexually married in Kansas City, MO
Bijan: The material and subject you had could have lend itself to making of a feature film, was there any particular reason that you made it into a short?
Cynthia: Laurel and I talked a lot about what the film would look like. I decided early on that we would make this a short film.
My main reason for making Freeheld a short film is that I only had access to Laurel for a brief time. I met her ten weeks before she died, and I lived with her during her last days, on and off. The footage is dramatic and very emotional, but it is limited. So my window with Laurel determined the final length of the film. I also thought that the film would compete better as a short, in a shorts category. Many shorts are visual poems or portrait pieces. They are beautiful and well done but sometimes limited in story. I decided that I wanted to challenge myself and make a short that offered a feature-length experience. This is a full-scale drama, with a strong beginning/middle/end arc, all packed into thirty-eight minutes. It was challenging to edit.
I also decided that I had to make it a short because I needed to finish it within a year’s time because of the national political landscape. Same-sex marriage equality is getting increased attention in the media, particularly as we head towards the 2008 elections, and I wanted this story to be part of the national dialogue now, since it is a very personal perspective of a current political issue.
Bijan: Will you continue in making films with political and social subjects? Do you consider yourself a filmmaker/activist?
Cynthia: I am a storyteller first.
That being said, these stories lead me into activist work. It’s the personal connections made with the people in my film that make me want to make a difference in the world. I am an unlikely activist, but so was Laurel. We will bring the film to festivals both nationally and internationally in 2007. I am also working with non-profit groups that are working for equal rights for LGBT Americans.
My greatest hope is that this film reaches people that haven’t really thought about this issue before. Laurel’s first police partner, Dane Wells, a straight, self-described “conservative voter”, said that he never before thought about issues facing gay Americans. And yet when he saw the best police partner that he ever had being denied the right to pass her pension, it became personal. Dane suddenly became Laurel’s greatest ally. He was an unlikely activist; it was a civil rights issue to him. My goal is that the film will make people like Dane think – maybe even for the first time — about how same-sex couples are still being denied equal rights in this country.
Bijan: Please tell us about your future plans.
Cynthia: This is my 20th year in making documentaries. I am researching new projects (again, controversial subjects with strong female characters!) and I am shooting documentaries for other directors, as I am a working DP (Director of Photography). I am also directing films for commercial clients.
This fall, I am teaching digital cinematography at the New School in New York City. I think it is really important to teach the technical aspects of filmmaking – shooting, lighting, editing – so that emerging filmmakers have the power to make their own films. I am particularly committed to teaching the technical skills to women, so that they don’t have to rely on crews to make their films for them