BIFF: A true story gets a narrative retelling in 'Freeheld'

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GREAT BARRINGTON — It's amazing just how far an Academy Award — together with a lot of chutzpah, determination, persistence and faith — can take you.

Just ask Oscar-winning Berkshires filmmaker Cynthia Wade, whose 2007 film, "Freeheld," earned her the 2008 golden statuette for best documentary short subject as well as a special jury prize in short filmmaking at the Sundance Film Festival.

But a 40-minute documentary can carry only so much of a story. Wade knew from the get-go that there was a larger story to be told and only the narrative form could tell it.

It's taken eight years but Wade's instinct has paid off. Beginning today in Los Angeles and New York and continuing over the next two weekends, Lionsgate is rolling out "Freeheld," a narrative drama starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, in 500 theaters across the United States.

This weekend, however, at 4 p.m. Sunday, "Freeheld" will have a special pre-release screening at Triplex Cinema in a benefit for Berkshire International Film Festival, which screened Wade's short in 2009. Wade will be on hand to introduce the film and talk about it in a post-screening question-and-answer session, after which she'll be at a private wine-and-cheese reception for BIFF REEL Friends.

It's a powerful story. Wade's documentary chronicled the last 10 weeks in the life of Laurel Hester, a much-decorated New Jersey policewoman who was dying of cancer. At the same time, she was fiercely fighting the Ocean County, N.J. Board of Chosen Freeholders over their decision to deny her request to have her well-earned pension passed on to her same-sex domestic partner of five years, Stacie Andree. This narrative — directed by Peter Sollett; written by Ron Nyswaner, who wrote the screenplay for "Philadelphia," and featuring Moore as Laurel and Page as Stacie — spends time than the documentary could on Hester's career in law enforcement.

Wade — who has a successful career making real-people commercials — became interested in Hester's story through a series of published accounts. She got permission from Laurel and Stacie, raised money, assembled a crew and left her husband, daughter and three-month-old in their Brooklyn home to move in with Laurel and Stacie and film their story, which she traced through Laurel's funeral. The film was shot and edited in 2006 and released in 2007.

"It was upsetting and shocking to me that this was happening," Wade said in a telephone interview from the Great Barrington home she shares with her family.

"Because I had only 10 weeks with Laurel, I never really got to know her in her life as a tough, decorated cop, although I had read numerous clippings about her and her career. It was a story I thought needed to be told and only a narrative film could do that. Also, while documentaries are playing to increasingly larger audiences, that audience is still select."

The process of getting from a documentary short to a 103-minute narrative was tough. The journey began with Wade obtaining life rights from the real-life people who would be depicted in the film. Laurel, who is being played by Moore, signed her life rights to Wade in her will. The rest came along over the ensuing year. At the same time, Wade began waging an active Oscar campaign for the documentary, sensing that that statuette would give her credibility and, with credibility. the opportunity to land a experienced and influential producers.

She brought Stacie with her to the Oscar ceremonies. The night was golden in more ways than one.

Soon after, Wade began meeting with prospective producers, many of whom suggested her project might be better suited for television but Wade held out. She finally caught the interest of Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, who had co-produced "Erin Brokovich," among other films. They landed Nyswanwer and Sollett. They also sent a trailer for Wade's doc to Page, an Academy Award-nominee for "Juno" the same year "Freeheld" was up for its Oscar.

Page, who, in addition to playing Stacie, is one of "Freeheld's" producers, came out a year and a half ago.

"Part of the reason she came out," Wade said, "was because she felt that she couldn't produce and act in this film without being honest and open about her own sexuality."

It was Page who reached out to Moore to play Laurel.

Wade — who was on set virtually every day consulting with location directors, the wardrobe people — says she was particularly impressed with Moore's attention to detail in creating Laurel Hester. She asked for the transcripts of all the interviews Wade had done with the real Laurel; to see footage that didn't make into the final cut of the documentary.

All in all, Wade says, developing this project was a long, hard, grinding process.

She frankly admits there were times when "I felt it would never happen. But Michael and Stacey were dogged [in their effort to get this film made]."

But in the end, it's all been worth it, Wade says. She's pleased with the finished film. Initial audience reaction to "Freeheld" at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival was good and there is already some early some Oscar buzz.

Wade hopes "Freeheld" will mark the start of a new phase in her filmmaking career. She is planning three feature-length documentaries and is signed to shoot a substantial number of real-people commercials. And, yes, she is hoping to direct her own feature-length narrative.

"I was asked if I wanted to direct this one but I said no, I didn't have enough experience," Wade said.

"Part of what I wanted to accomplish as a producer was to have a front-row seat on the making of a major feature-length narrative. I wanted to learn, absorb. I wanted a long and rich learning experience. I got that. I'm ready."

ON SCREEN

What: "Freeheld." Special pre-release screening followed by Q&A with Berkshires filmmaker and "Freeheld" co-producer Cynthia Wade. Benefit Berkshire International Film Festival

Who: BIFF

When: Sunday afternoon at 4

Where: Triplex Cinema, 70 Railroad St., Great Barrington

Tickets: $17 (film and Q&A)

How: biffma.org; at Triplex Cinema


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