But Hester wouldn't take no for an answer.
Winner of a special jury prize last year at the Sundance Film Festival and an Oscar nominee this year, "Freeheld" will also air on Cinemax in June. The Women in Film Foundation, whose Film Finishing Fund enabled Wade to complete the documentary, will also show the film Feb. 21 at the Endeavor Screening Room in Beverly Hills.
When did you shoot this?
I met her Dec. 7, 2005, and the first freeholders meeting was that day ,and lived on and off with her for the last 10 weeks of her life. She died on Feb. 18, 2006, so we are actually coming up on the two-year anniversary.
How did you learn about Laurel?
I read an article in the paper -- I can't remember if I read it online or if it was in the New York Times. I was definitely clipping and looking for potentially a new film. So when I read that, and read that there was going to be a freeholders meeting, I thought, 'I don't even know if I'll be allowed to shoot, but let me go down and see if there will be a story.' I had just had my second child so I was trying to re-emerge as a filmmaker. I went down to that first meeting and it was in that meeting that I realized that this is the film I'm going with.
Get breaking news alerts delivered to your mobile phone. Text BREAKING to 52669. You will receive up to 30 msgs/mo. Msg&data rates may apply. Text HELP for help. Text STOP to cancel.
Were Laurel and Stacie immediately open to this?
Laurel was immediately open. She always had wanted to write a book about being a gay woman detective and when she got the terminal cancer diagnosis, she realized she would never be able to write the book and that made her very sad. She was hoping that the film would take the place of a book in a small way and it was a project she could help with. So she was very excited about it from the very beginning. Stacie was not on board as much in the beginning. She wanted whatever Laurel wanted, but Stacie is intensely private and shy, so it took her longer to warm up to the project and to me. But, by the end, I was definitely closer to Stacie than I had ever been to Laurel. We are good friends now and she's coming with me to the Academy Awards even though she's never been west of Pittsburgh.
How do you as a filmmaker deal with the sadness of watching Laurel dying?
I definitely cried with them in the interviews. I often would set up the camera and sit next to the camera so they could talk to me directly. Sometimes I had an assistant there. A lot of times I didn't. I would just set up the lights and do it myself. And I cried with them. I think that it was very difficult to decide what to shoot and what not to shoot. They really did trust me and they trusted I would make the best film possible. But there were times, especially as Laurel got sicker, where I wasn't sure if it was the right thing to shoot. There were things I didn't shoot . Sometimes I would start shooting and then put down the camera because it didn't feel right because she was so sick. I think if there is a difference in my style in this film compared to my other films, I think I shot less in the film and I treaded more carefully. In other films, even if it's really raw -- like "Shelter Dogs" was a very raw film and a difficult film to make -- I could always talk later to the subjects about why we should include a certain scene. But with Laurel, there wasn't going to be a later, so there was a great responsibility in the moment to follow my conscious. Increasingly, as she got sicker, I didn't shoot. I would just sort of be there.
So many of these macho policemen, and her even politically conservative partner, were very supportive of her.
What I think was so kind of refreshing about this is that there were all of these unlikely gay activists. We were in the middle of suburban New Jersey in the middle of a conservative county. Ocean County is definitely conservative and Republican-held. I think the freeholders misjudged the groundswell of support that Laurel was going to get, not just from gay organizations, but from these kind of average heterosexual cops who would not normally be at a gay rights rally. But it's a police officer thing. She was one of their favorite partners and was on raids, and they were going to stand up for her. That was very inspiring for me and kind of refreshing because, in her case, I felt it crossed over from just being a gay issue to a civil rights issue for the whole community.
Did you ever try to get interviews with the freeholders?
Yes. I tried repeatedly to get interviews with them. We got into Sundance on a rough cut and I sent them a certified letter and said, 'Please, I didn't expect to get into Sundance. ... Please, can you grant me an interview ... because I want to give you the opportunity to speak. And they sent back a certified letter saying 'We respectfully decline.' They wanted to distance themselves from it.
How many festivals has the film played?
In 2007, we screened in 26 states and seven countries, and the majority of those screenings were film festivals, but additionally in order to qualify the film for Oscar consideration. And that is something I promised Laurel I would do, essentially on her deathbed. ... We had several conversations about what she wanted the film to be. Her greatest hope was that her personal struggle would not be in vain and that her personal story would make a difference to same-sex couples across the country. I said to her, 'We don't have a lot of time and I don't have a lot of footage. What if I make it a short film, so we could use it as a tool.' Because it would take me eight months to finish it and [by that time] it would be going into 2008 elections. What if we tried to use this where we screen the film and had a panel discussion and talk about what is going on in so many communities. She was getting letters and e-mails from all over the country from people saying they were going through the same thing. She loved that idea. I said, 'Laurel, this is a big story and I want to be able to take it as far as I can take it for the cause.'
When we qualified it for Oscar consideration ... besides a week's run in L.A., we chose unexpected cities. We had a theatrical release in Salt Lake City where domestic partnership benefits are a huge issue. ... We screened in Kansas City and Florida and Columbus, Ohio -- Ohio has terrible laws in terms of support for same-sex couples. We tried to be creative and really use the Oscar qualifying and now the Oscar nomination, not really as the end goal, but a tool to a strategy, so we can bring more attention in the media to same-sex couples as we got into elections.
Was funding difficult?
It was very difficult. It still is. We are up against the big boys and this has been a little bit like the little engine that could. I had no funding until I finished the film, and I was very much in debt when I took it to Sundance. We put [the airplane ticket] on the credit card. I got to Sundance and 8:30 in the morning at the first screening there was a funder in the audience, and that was the beginning of a year of magic, doors opening. Laurel said to me that she wished she could know about the film after she died. I said maybe you can help me with the film from wherever you are going. And magical things have been happening. ... I think maybe it's her.