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Q&A with Cynthia Wade ’89

Wade to visit Smith for Local Screening of Freeheld April 30

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. Wade will answer audience questions following the screening, which is free.

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?

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 other people.

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!

4/24/08   Compiled by Eric Sean Weld
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