with Cynthia Wade ’89
On February 24, filmmaker
Cynthia Wade ’89 ascended
the stage at the 80th annual Academy Awards to claim an Oscar
for her documentary film Freeheld. The film chronicles
the story of the late Laurel Hester, a detective lieutenant
in Ocean County, New Jersey. During the final year of Hester’s
life, after she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer,
she engaged in a struggle with elected county officials to
transfer her pension—earned after 25 years of fighting
crime—to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree, an option
for heterosexual couples living together.
Wade will visit Smith
on Wednesday, April 30, to deliver remarks and hold a question-and-answer
session at 4 p.m. in Neilson Browsing Room. At 8 p.m. that
day, Freeheld will
be screened at the Academy of Music Theatre in downtown Northampton.
answer audience questions following the screening, which
Wade recently answered
questions for The Gate about
her award-winning film and her Smith experience.
The Gate: How did you first get involved
in the story of Freeheld?
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 other 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 themeeting started, I knew instantly that this
was going to be my next film. The meeting was very dramatic;
the air was thick with tension. 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
Freeholders said no. If Laurel had been married to a man,
there would have been no issue.
I couldn't believe that
in New Jersey—just a stone's
throw away from New York City—this kind of overt discrimination
was taking place. Afterward, I went up to Laurel and Stacie
and introduced myself and asked if I could tell their story.
Laurel said yes. She had always wanted to write a book and
realized she was running out of time and wouldn’t be
able to write the book, so she hoped that the film would
take place of the book. Later, 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.
Gate: What were some of the key elements
in making this film?
CW: First and foremost, I had to garner the support and
trust of Laurel and Stacie. A film like this can only work
if the filmmaker earns total trust from her subjects. Laurel
and Stacie trusted me completely, and that was a big responsibility.
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
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 also financial challenges—when we got accepted
to Sundance last year, I didn't even know how I would get
the money to buy a plane ticket to get to the festival. My
editor, David Teague, trusted me, and even though I owed
him $30,000, he said, “Let’s just finish the
film. You’ll figure out a way to pay me later.” Sure
enough, it happened, and at our first Sundance screening,
I met a funder, and things just kind of took off from there.
Fortunately, there are a lot of people who care deeply about
this issue, and feel that the film is a crucial component
to spreading the message of equal rights.
Gate: What do you find to be the
most difficult or frustrating aspects of being a documentary
filmmaker? The most exciting?
CW: The most difficult part is not knowing where things will lead—not
knowing where the story will take you, not knowing how you will find the
money, not knowing the outcome. However, it’s the most exciting part
as well. All of it is like a treasure hunt. There’s something
so exciting about making something out of nothing. Yes, the hunt for money
can be demoralizing, and yes, it can take years. But to me, trying
all these doors is like in Alice in Wonderland: eventually, one
of those doors opens and you slide down the rabbit hole. That’s really
exciting to me—I love that part. A hatch opens, and off you go.
Gate: How has your Smith experience informed
your career as a documentary filmmaker?
CW: I was a theatre major
at Smith. Somewhere along the line, I realized that I had
very little control as an actor; that my participation
in theatre depended on the audition and how I looked. I
would get the part based on the way that I looked. Often
I didn’t get the part and later would
be told that I was too tall or my hair was too dark. It was
incredibly frustrating that my outward appearance would determine
whether or not I could be part of a creative process. By
my sophomore year in college I realized that I wanted more
artistic control, and from that, I turned to film. I started
going to a lot of cinema in downtown Northampton. I loved
Northampton’s movie theaters, and I stumbled into documentary
that way. Very quickly I realized that I wanted to be behind
the camera making documentaries and telling stories about
By the end of my sophomore
year at Smith, I’d made
my first documentary with the aid of the Smith Non-Print
Resource Center (now the Center for Media Production). The
Center was very supportive and allowed me to have a camera
and access to some linear editing equipment. By my senior
year, Smith allowed me to focus exclusively on making a documentary
through the Smith Scholars program. The college actually
bought me a camera that I could use, with the arrangement
that it would be given back to the school once I graduated.
So I had exclusive use of the camera, which was a half-inch
VHS camera, and I was editing on linear equipment. It was
incredibly liberating to focus on that documentary project.
By the end of my senior year, I’d directed, written,
shot and edited a 63-minute documentary called Dream
Lovers, which focused on young women’s expectations
of love and romance in the 1930s as opposed to the 1980s.
By the time I graduated from Smith, I knew that what I wanted
to do was make documentaries.
Two years out of college,
I went to a master’s program
for documentary film at Stanford University in California,
and I learned the technical aspects of filmmaking—shooting,
lighting, sound recording, editing—there.
Gate: What is your advice
to aspiring filmmakers at Smith?
CW: Don’t let anyone tell
you that you can’t,
because with enough hard work and persistence, you can.
And write thank you letters
to everyone who helps you along the way. That’s actually a big one—remembering
to say thank you!