In 2005, documentary filmmaker Cynthia Wade was living in a busy Brooklyn neighborhood with her husband and two young daughters and feeling overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood and career. For the previous couple of years, she had been working solely on client’s film projects, which had taken her away from her storytelling passion. In her journal, she scrawled, I want to be in love with a film again. I want to be obsessed with a film again.
A few months later, during a rare quiet moment when her children were sleeping, Cynthia picked up the newspaper and was transfixed by the story of Laurel Hester, a 23-year veteran of the New Jersey police force with terminal lung cancer who had been denied the right to leave her pension to her same-sex partner, Stacie Andree, and was waging a battle to change the law. Something clicked.
“I’ve always been interested in stories of strong women,” says Cynthia, whose films, including Shelter Dogs, Born Sweet, and the Emmy-winning Sesame Street: Growing Hope against Hunger, have won more than 30 awards. “I like stories where ordinary people are challenging the status quo, and, in doing so, become extraordinary and sometimes unexpected change makers.”
Days later, Cynthia drove to New Jersey to witness the protests and attend a public hearing, where she introduced herself to Laurel and Stacie. She recalls, “The first time I met [them], I knew this was the story I was going to follow, no matter where it took me. It just felt right.”
So right, in fact, that Laurel and Stacie allowed Cynthia to move in with them, for unprecedented access to their personal lives and advocacy work during last 10 weeks of the policewoman’s life. With Laurel already in the final stages of her illness, it was an incredibly challenging time. Cynthia found herself juggling the serious responsibility of representing Laurel’s story as honestly as possible while also honoring her integrity as a human being—and guarding some of the couple’s private moments and memories. It was a process of asking constant questions. Cynthia explains, “Do you show a shot of Laurel coughing in pain, or do you leave it out? Is it fair to show someone so vulnerable at the end of her life? Is it worth the potential greater good to use her personal story to possibly open hearts and minds towards issues of discrimination?”
Continually asking those questions was not only informative on an ethical level, but shaped Cynthia’s approach to the film as an artist and storyteller. The resulting documentary, Freeheld, made a slew of critic’s best-of lists and won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. It was a powerful moment for Cynthia, for the gay rights’ movement, and for Stacie, who attended the Oscar ceremony that night.
While the Freeheld documentary brought awareness to a critical issue, Cynthia knew that the audience for documentaries is far more limited than those who will head to the multiplex to see a Hollywood blockbuster on a Friday night. So she began working with the people depicted in the documentary to secure permission to use their life rights to develop a fictionalized version of the film. She partnered with producing team Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher (of Erin Brokovich fame), and over the course of seven years, they worked to secure financing and bring on board major talent like director Peter Sollett, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Oscar nominated for 1994’s Philadelphia), Oscar winner Julianne Moore, and Oscar nominees Steve Carrell and Ellen Page, the latter of whom found the project particularly timely, in light of her own coming out in Hollywood in 2014. Freeheld the feature film will hit theaters in October, and is already generating awards buzz.
More important, it’s a chance to educate new audiences. “The story now adapted on a much larger scale will absolutely bring Laurel’s story to millions of people who never knew of her fight,” Cynthia says. “It’s a huge gift to me, to Laurel’s legacy, and to millions of Americans.”
The cast dove wholeheartedly into the storytelling, meeting with their real-life counterparts and extensively reviewing hours’ worth of interviews and footage. Cynthia also facilitated bringing the people portrayed in the documentary onto the film set, in several cases as extras, something she found especially rewarding in her role as producer.
Beyond telling Laurel’s poignant story and the awareness it raises of a critical issue, the feature-film version of Freeheld serves another important purpose for Cynthia, who met her film subjects only in the latter stages of Laurel’s illness. “One of my greatest regrets is that I never knew Laurel as a healthy police detective, and I never knew Laurel and Stacie as a regular, ordinary couple before cancer,” she notes. “With the fictionalized version, the audience gets to see Laurel as the fearless detective she was.”
As the world gets to know Laurel Hester, they’re also becoming acquainted with Cynthia Wade, who is quickly solidifying her status as a voice for the voiceless, an agent of change in an industry that has long undervalued the contributions of or exploited women. She’ll follow Freeheld with several thought-provoking projects, including Mudflow, about ecological disaster in Indonesia (co-directed with Sasha Friedlander, and slated for release in 2016); Generation Startup, about young entrepreneurs in Detroit (also due in 2016); and The Gnomist, a short documentary she produced, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and will appear on CNN this fall.
Cynthia also continues to do TV commercial and branded documentary work, but the experience of working on the Freeheld set has opened her to working on fiction films, and she’s now actively reading scripts in the search for a new project. “The films I’ve had the most intense personal relationship with have found me, as opposed to me finding them,” she says. “I’ve found that they start whispering to me, and later insisting, and even later yelling, Make me, make me, make me.” No matter which project whispers to Cynthia next, we know she’ll give it the out-loud voice it deserves.
Freeheld will be released by Lionsgate in October nationwide, and there is a special pre-release screening at the Triplex in Great Barrington on Sunday, October 4, at 4:00 p.m. (Tickets and more info here.) Cynthia will also be on hand for a Q&A.