The Power Of Love Empowers Women From Two Different Generations To Change The World
When it comes to prejudice and discrimination against same sex unions, one always remembers Arnold in Harvey Fierstein’s autobiographical Torch Song Trilogy when his conservative mother accuses him of blasphemy when he recites cottage at the gravestone of his young lover.
‘’You lost your husband in a nice clean hospital, I lost mine out there. They killed him out there on the street. Twenty-three years old laying dead on the street. Killed by a bunch of kids with baseball bats. Children. Children taught by people like you. ‘Cause everybody knows that queers don’t matter! Queers don’t love! And those who do deserve what they get!’’
35-years later, with films like the powerful Freeheld, these profound words reverberate in the remarkable, inspirational story of New Jersey police lieutenant Laurel Hester and her partner Stacie Andree – a story which started out as an intensely personal experience of love and identity, but in 2005, became a flashpoint in the growing global battle for justice and equal rights, and a world where some don’t “give a damn about a dyke who is dying.”
”Being afraid and hiding things is a horrible way to live..”
A decorated New Jersey police detective, Laurel (Julianne Moore) is diagnosed with cancer and wants to leave her hard-earned pension to her domestic partner, Stacie (Ellen Page).
An officer who spends her life fighting justice, is denied justice when the county officials, Freeholders, prevent Laurel from doing this.
Hard-nosed detective Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), and activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) unite in Laurel and Stacie’s defense, rallying police officers and ordinary citizens to support their struggle for equality, turning justice into political theatre.
“It’s not an opportunity to change the world, it’s your legacy…”
This vitally relevant and endearing story is brought to life as both a riveting board-room procedural and a nuanced story of unanticipated, irresistible love overcoming intolerance, directed by Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas), based on the Oscar-winning short documentary and adapted by the writer of Philadelphia, Ron Nyswaner.
Says screenwriter Nyswaner: “The themes of Freeheld are universal. We all want to be treated with respect, we all want the right to love the person we choose to love and we all need our communities to acknowledge our work and our relationships. That’s really what Laurel and Stacie fought for with everything they had.”
From Doc To Drama Through Historic Changes
The story of Laurel Hester first drew national headlines in 2005 — when the hard-nosed, 23-year veteran of the Ocean County police force made impassioned appeals for her partner to receive her pension as she confronted her impending death. Hester’s battle was unfolding at a local New Jersey level, but it was one of several simultaneously developing fights that, together, would ultimately alter the landscape of love, marriage and tolerance forever. Yet no one could have seen then how rapidly things would soon change. Ten years later, just as the feature film of Freeheld was being completed, the first steps towards full marriage equality were realized.
The raw depths of what Hester and Stacie Andree went through in their campaign for equal rights came to the fore in an Oscar-winning short, also named Freeheld, directed by Cynthia Wade. What might have once been considered a story on the margins instead broke through as few short documentaries ever do.
Wade says that as soon as she heard about Hester’s quest for benefits, she felt driven to capture her story. With no funding and two young children at home, she began shooting the proceedings of the Ocean County freeholders while also becoming an inside witness to Hester and Andree’s poignant, but profound last days together. The more she filmed, the more she realized this seemingly homegrown, two-woman story was epic and multi-dimensional. It was not just a story of the messy complexities of social change in the making, but of love, courage, community and endurance.
“I always saw it as a love story,” says Wade. “It was not only a love story between Laurel and Stacie. It was also a story about a community loving its members, about people who became unexpected activists when the political suddenly became personal for them.”
She chose the title Freeheld because the word was rife with double meanings – seemingly referring not just to the name of New Jersey’s election county officials but also to the emotional stakes of the situation for Hester and Andree. The term originally referred, in Colonial times, to those who freely held real estate, but the word seemed equally applicable to navigating personal love and liberty.
“In a very real sense, Laurel was being held back by the freeholders,” remarks Wade. “But at the same time Laurel was being held close by Stacie – and being held up by the community. I was fascinated by all the different tensions between the words ‘free’ and ‘held.’”
As soon as Wade’s short was screened for audiences it started winning acclaim, including the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and culminating in the Academy Award® for Best Documentary Short Film. By that time Academy Award® nominated producers Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher (Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, Garden State) were talking to Wade about expanding on her work with a feature drama that could reach a broader audience.
Wade was thrilled by the idea. “We’ve come so far in terms of equality in our country since the documentary was made, but there’s still discrimination,” says Wade. “I want a younger generation to see a community filled with compassion and a sense of justice coming together to do what’s right for a public servant. That’s a great story to be told.”
Simultaneously, actress and filmmaker Ellen Page and her producing partner, Kelly Bush Novak, found themselves magnetized by the story’s mix of social relevance and honest passion, and joined forces with Shamberg and Sher.
Page says of her fervor for the project: “I’m simply in awe of what Laurel and Stacie did. It was incredibly brave and something most people would never do. It’s also such a human story – and when you see the human side of a story, you are able to connect to people who might have a different point of view in a deeper way. I felt completely humbled to get to play a part in sharing this story.”
Page was also able to bring some of her own experiences to bear on her performance. “I relate to this film on a personal level because I’m gay, and when you see two human beings being treated as ‘less than’ because of that preference — and being told your love is not valid — it’s heartbreaking. But the chance to play a character falling in love and exploring the depth of love is also wonderful.”
For Shamberg, the story speaks to striking changes in the culture but also to core shared values. “The themes of this story are really about dignity, honor, serving your community – all the values we prize in America,” he notes.
Sher was equally moved by the film’s exploration of something even more fundamental: the sustaining power of love and intimacy in the face of extreme outside pressure.
“It is love that pushes these two very private women, women from two different generations, to become civil rights activists, a position neither is particularly comfortable assuming,” Sher says. “Laurel’s bond with Stacie instills in her the determination to fight for equality. That makes for an incredible love story. They truly find their sense of ‘home’ in each other.”
The Freeheld TeamFreeheld’s producing team now began the intensive search for a screenwriter who could weave all of the story’s threads of love, police, politics, media, and mortality into a gripping narrative. That search led to Ron Nyswaner, who brought his own insights. Nyswaner previously was nominated for an Academy Award for his smart, humanist, close-up approach to the screenplay for the critically acclaimed Philadelphia, which starred Tom Hanks in what was the very first hit Hollywood movie to openly address the social and political consequences of the AIDS crisis.
Seeing Wade’s documentary sealed the deal for Nyswaner. “Twenty minutes in, I was weeping uncontrollably in my living room,” he remembers. “I was just so moved by it, and I felt drawn to the mission to tell this story to a much bigger audience.”
Shamberg and Sher next shared the project with Endgame Entertainment, where CEO James D. Stern (Looper, Side Effects, An Education) was so moved by the documentary, he agreed to join the producing group and finance the development of the script. “I had tears in my eyes,” Stern said of his reaction to the documentary. He said he was hooked by the movie’s potential as a tool in what was then a building fight for marriage equality rights. Stern and the company’s president and producer Julie Goldstein (Looper, Belle, Shakespeare In Love) oversaw development of the script alongside the rest of the Freeheld producing team.
Nyswaner approached the story first and foremost as a bone-deep love story, one that touches on all the complications and delicate beauty of connecting with someone at a level that should need no validation from others. He believes Hester and Andree never intended to have their love story writ large in civil rights history, but they could not turn back once denied their most basic rights.
“I wanted to write about Laurel and Stacie because they were ordinary people living ordinary lives, who found themselves in an extraordinary situation – and they responded in an extraordinary way,” says Nyswaner. “I love that because of the depth of feeling they had for each other, they found the courage to make a difference in the world.”
For Nyswaner — and for the world — much has certainly changed since Philadelphia, and much has even changed from the day he started writing Freeheld to now. Yet, he notes there are urgent reasons to keep the conversation going about discrimination, division and intolerance, perhaps even more so as progress comes along with pushback.
“There has been some significant and very welcome progress in the area of LGBT rights and marriage rights, but this story is even more timely because of that,” he says. “As human beings, we still too often look for ways to divide ourselves into groups, and stories about how we are at war with each over politics and race and sexuality are still all over the news. What I hope this movie lets people experience is the emotional and psychological reality of regular people caught up in those divisions. I hope it speaks to people’s hearts and to the desire for justice.”
Nyswaner was especially drawn to the contrasts between the two lovers – the law of opposites that often leads to the most overwhelmingly powerful attractions. “Laurel and Stacie were very different and they went at life differently. First, there was the age difference and that always creates certain challenges in any relationship,” he observes. “They also had different attitudes about being out, about acknowledging their sexuality in public and at work and that was a source of interesting conflict to me. Yet, no matter how much they bumped up against each other, they also stay committed all the way through the hardest times. The chance to write about that kind of relationship felt very special.”
The reaction to Nyswaner’s screenplay was immediate. “Ron brought a deep, deep sensitivity and connection to this material,” says Page. “He wrote what is to me simply a beautiful love story.”
Director Peter Solett
To entwine the raw romance of Freeheld with its exploration of how civil rights are won through step-by-step changes in people’s hearts and minds, the filmmakers next recruited director Peter Sollett.
Sollett first made waves with his debut film Raising Victor Vargas, an enchantingly original coming-of-age story set on New York’s Lower East Side. He then went on to direct one of the smartest teen movies of the last decade with Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
Freeheld takes places on a larger scale, but Sollett says the film shares similarities with all of his work. “I see it as being a humanist film and a love story, which is true of all my movies,” he says.
He wanted to keep the focus tightly honed on the humanity of the characters, on their intense personal relationships as lovers, friends, supporters and adversaries, revealing how everyday acts of courage lead to larger social triumphs.
“What made Freeheld interesting to me is that beneath this larger civil rights story you find a very universal story about two people who are just trying to find a way to love each other,” says Sollett. “Laurel wants to keep their relationship secret, while Stacie is someone who wants their relationship to be known. The friction is really about on whose terms this relationship is going to exist – and that is something I think everyone in a relationship can relate to.”
Nyswaner was exhilarated to work with Sollett. Years before, he’d actually served as a script mentor to him at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. “Peter is an incredibly thoughtful director. He was really committed to each of these characters and to bringing them to life. He’s very sharp and very assertive in the way a director should be, but without that kind of ego,” says the screenwriter.
For Shamberg, the synergy between Sollett and Nyswaner gave the film its unwavering center. “Ron is not only a highly skilled writer, but he has a personal interest in this story. If it weren’t for him, the movie might never have been made,” says the producer. “Then Peter came in and captured Ron’s story in a very focused, naturalistic style – a style that is entertaining but allows you to really believe the people involved are real.”
With the script and cast taking shape, producers Jack Selby (Bernie, Act of Valor) and Duncan Montgomery (Dirty Weekend, The Last Rites of Ransom Pride) came on board. In addition, co-founders of Bankside Films, Compton Ross and Phil Hunt (Black Mass, Hector and the Search for Happiness) joined the team. Both Selby and Bankside collectively put together the financing for the production of the film.
Getting the spirit of Hester and Andree right was a major priority of Freeheld. Understandably, Andree and others who lived through these events had reservations about a feature film in the beginning. “I was scared,” remembers Stacie Andree. “I didn’t really know what to expect. I just wanted it to be true to what happened.”
Those anxieties dissipated as the devotion of the production to be true and respectful were seen in action. “Stacie and I were both really amazed at how much accuracy and authenticity there was in the script. I expected a lot more dramatic license taken, and there wasn’t,” says retired Detective Dane Wells, Laurel Hester’s real life police partner.
Andree, who still lives in the same house she shared with Laurel, is now anticipating that the film might continue Hester’s legacy. “This event was one of the stones that started the ripple,” she observes, “and I hope it keeps taking the movement forward.”
Indeed, sweeping changes were happening so fast as production swung into high gear it was hard to keep up. After decades of activism, including that of Laurel Hester, it seemed that popular consensus was seismically shifting – with gay marriage no longer perceived as radical or deviant but as normal, desired and reflective of the universal human impulse to love and care for one another.
Says producer Kelly Bush: “It’s rare to create a film in an environment where history is changing at every moment. Now we can see how Laurel and Stacie’s fight a decade earlier helped lead to the Supreme Court debating the definition of marriage this year. It was extraordinary to watch this film come together, even as we started seeing the nation galvanize around the hashtag ‘love wins.’”
“It’s always somewhat of a mystery what draws people together, and also what keeps them together,” says Moore. “You always wonder ‘Why that person?’ ‘Why now?’ In the case of Laurel and Stacie, whatever the spark, the feeling was intense, dynamic and meaningful for both of them. It doesn’t matter whether you’re homosexual or heterosexual, meeting someone and truly falling in love like that are rare events and it’s something that we all value and cherish.”
The right to marriage is guaranteed to all Americans, including same-sex couples
On June 26, 2015, in a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the right to marriage is guaranteed to all Americans, including same-sex couples. That morning, President Obama said in a speech to the nation: “Progress on this journey often comes in small increments, sometimes two steps forward, one step back, propelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens.” The President could well have been referring in that comment to the remarkable, inspirational story of New Jersey police lieutenant Laurel Hester and her partner Stacie Andree – a story which started out as an intensely personal experience of love and identity, but in 2005, became a flashpoint in the growing global battle for justice and equal rights.
The battle was joined in a transformative time for the couple. Newly, deeply and unexpectedly in love, Hester was hit out-of-the-blue with a staggering shock: she had Stage IV lung cancer. She had just one final wish: to leave her personal pension benefits to Andree so that she would be cared for in her absence. But her requests were repeatedly denied by the five Ocean County freeholders – the name for New Jersey’s elected county officials. One freeholder raised concerns that this simple act of love could threaten “the sanctity of marriage.” Unwilling to be refused what any heterosexual person would be granted as a matter of course, Hester undertook a bold grassroots campaign of advocacy in the toughest hours of her life. Even as she came to her own private crossroads with Andree, she channeled the power of her love and conscience towards a moment of monumental change.