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FREEHELD

About The Production
Freeholder (N.): 1. One who is able to freely dispose of their land and possessions 2. A position unique to New Jersey government empowered with a broad scope of authority over property and finances.

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.

Now this vitally relevant 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), written by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and featuring Academy Award winner Julianne Moore and Academy Award nominee Ellen Page portraying Hester and Andree.

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."

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 TEAM

Freeheld's diverse producing team -- which in addition to Shamberg, Sher, Page and Bush, also includes Richard Fischoff, Duncan Montgomery, Jack Selby, Cynthia Wade and Phil Hunt -- now began an intensive search for a screenwriter who could weave all 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."

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."

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."

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.'"

INSIDE THE PERFORMANCES

Though the film touches on one of the most relevant topics of our times, the core of Freeheld is the characters and, as with any film about modern love, casting was absolutely critical. "Here we had a beautiful love story - one that could only resonate through two powerful performances," notes producer Jim Stern.

With Ellen Page attached to the story from the outset, the pressure was on to find a woman who could play Laurel Hester, who is facing a human being's most vulnerable moments at the same time as she is taking on the daunting powers of government over her personal decisions. To embody both Hester's resolve and her tenderness, the filmmakers approached one of the most lauded actors of our time: Julianne Moore, who recently received the Oscar for her role in Still Alice.

Moore could not resist the challenge. "It's a lovely, lovely story, and I really felt compelled to do it," she says of her choice. "Love is such a huge part of any human being's life. It seems ridiculous to deny that right to anyone at any time."

As she always does, Moore approached the part with 110% commitment, beginning with an intensive period of exploration and inquiry into Hester's life and community. "I did a tremendous amount of research on Laurel," says Moore. "One of the things that really struck me about her was that she was someone who cared very much about getting justice in her work as a detective. But the irony is that after devoting her entire life to finding justice for other people, in her last year, she had to give everything she had to find it for the woman she loved."

The more she learned about Hester, the more Moore was moved not so much by her audacity as by her humility. "Laurel had an extraordinary work ethic, but it was always behind the scenes. She didn't take credit for a lot of things. She really just cared about the results," Moore observes.

Page was thrilled to join with Moore in bringing to life the most unexpected element of Hester's life - her relationship with a woman 18 years her junior. "Julianne is phenomenal in this role," Page says. "She's also the kindest and most generous person you can work with and a master at what she does."

From the moments Laurel and Stacie meet at a volleyball game, their relationship is on rocky ground, but despite obstacles and seemingly obvious disconnects, they keep growing closer. Moore says that, no matter the people involved, love is love and portraying its overpowering depths is always about getting to the raw and elemental, to the undercurrents beneath words and actions.

"It's always somewhat of a mystery what draws people together, and also what keeps them together," Moore notes. "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."

Like Moore, Page committed herself full-scale to taking on the essence of Stacie Andree. She felt especially fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time talking with Andree - and in the very same New Jersey house Andree shared with Hester. "We even went to the place where Laurel used to get coffee every morning," Page recalls. "When you have that intimate human experience to draw on, you see more of a person and you're able to get to more dimensions."

Andree enjoyed the chance to share her most treasured memories of Hester with both women. "Both Julianne and Ellen would text me during production asking how I would have said something or how Laurel would have said something," offers Andree. "I got very comfortable with them."

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."

As Moore and Page came together on the set, the chemistry between them was volatile and palpable. "Ellen and Julie are each incredible in this, but they're so beautiful together," says co-star Michael Shannon. "They capture the tenderness of Laurel and Stacie, and the bravery they found to let people in and see what was going on."

Shannon, who has come to the fore as one of the most versatile actors of his generation and also stars this year in a divergent role as a greed-driven real estate magnate in 99 Homes, joined the production after being deeply moved by the story.

"I was drawn to Laurel's story because it's about the idea that matter how scared you are, or what odds you face, it's worth risking everything to not hide who you are," Shannon says.

Shannon was also deeply intrigued by the arc of his character: Dane Wells, Laurel's longtime partner on the police force, who wasn't aware of Hester's sexuality for most of their association. When Laurel comes out of the closet to fight for Andree, Dane's loyalty is tested and he has to evolve in ways he never imagined.

"The relationship between Dane and Laurel fascinated me, because they were so close and yet there was so much he didn't know about her," the actor reflects. "Yet he came to support her fight. Dane didn't want to become an icon in a movement -- he just wanted to help his friend."

Peter Sollett was moved by the depth of feeling Shannon brought to the supporting role.

"Michael is wonderful as the disillusioned cop who's become frustrated by a job he once loved," says Sollett. "You see him wrestling with injustice."

The real life Dane Wells was already of fan of Shannon from the HBO series Boardwalk Empire and was impressed by the time and effort he put into getting to know his story. Wells recalls that, in the midst of their fight for benefits, he and Laurel Hester once joked about how their lives might play out on screen. "We even talked about what actors we wanted to play us, and realized the chances were a million in one against such a thing ever happening," laughs Wells.

Ultimately, it was Dane Wells who rallied his fellow cops to Laurel's cause, and teamed up with civil rights activist Steven Goldstein, founder of Garden State Equality, New Jersey's statewide advocacy organization for the LGBT community. Goldstein led the organization and its protests during the 2005 and early 2006 battle for Laurel Hester.

The role is another intriguing turn from comedian and Oscar-nominated actor Steve Carell, whose works has ranged from the wry comedy of The Office to his acclaimed, award-winning performance as the eccentric DuPont heir in Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher.

"Goldstein is somebody who doesn't take no for an answer. He's a force of nature," says Carell. "His passion led him to speak out at every opportunity he found."

Ron Nyswaner says Carell was a surprisingly perfect match with Goldstein. "When Goldstein learned that Laurel was being denied justice because her partner was a woman, Steve decided that he was going to ruffle some feathers and make some people really uncomfortable -- and he did. His role in this fight is really significant. And Steve Carell is a piece of genius casting. He brings that willingness to be passionate and eccentric in his characters, and he is always very, very real."

Goldstein himself was thrilled to have Carell portraying him - and notes that being an activist also involves performance skills. "Public advocacy is first and foremost about entertaining, because you have to entertain to educate and persuade. If you don't grab people's attention, you're never going to educate or persuade them to do something," he points out.

As for seeing himself mirrored on set, Goldstein was taken by Carell's accuracy. "He was uncannily spot on. There is a sort of a wink and a sense of humor that he really got," he concludes. Rounding out the main cast is rising star Luke Grimes, recently seen in Fifty Shades of Grey and American Sniper, who portrays young police officer Todd Belkin - a man struggling with his own secrets. As he stands up to the officers in support of Laurel's pension request, Belkin is inspired to come out at the same time. It becomes a stark demonstration of shame turned to inspiration.

"It's been interesting to explore how it must feel to keep a huge secret without being able to tell everyone in your life who you really are," says Grimes. "You discover how much this can affect the way you are day to day."

ROMANTIC NATURALISM: THE LOOK OF FREEHELD

Rather than the gritty realism often applied to real-life stories, Peter Sollett approached Freeheld with what he calls "a romantic naturalist look." He explains: "There's already a documentary on this subject, so we wanted to take a different approach and also to invite a wider audience into this story. The idea was to paint this world not so much as it was, but as Laurel and Stacie experienced it."

To do that, he collaborated with a team that includes cinematographer Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler), production designer Jane Musky (Boychoir) and costume designer Stacey Battat (Still Alice, The Bling Ring) and Academy Award winning composer Hans Zimmer.

Alberti says: "The photography in this film was very much about capturing the performances," she says. "But we were always working to incorporate that sense of time, place and who each person is into every shot."

Production designer Jane Musky also emphasized naturalism in her work. "We saw it our jobs as peering into the lives of these two women and this whole town encapsulated in this one moment in time," she says of the task facing the crew.

One of the most indispensable design elements for Musky was the house that Hester and Andree purchase, and where there relationship deepens even as the stakes for both of them grow higher. The house becomes a significant character, as the symbol of what hearth and home mean beyond the most confining and conventional definitions.

Musky explains: "The house was so important because Laurel and Stacie experience so much there - they share happiness together, they share sadness there. It had to be a real window into their lives. That's why a bay window was so essential. It plays a role in a lot of different scenes in the film- it becomes a beautiful framing piece."

Likewise, Stacy Battat drew on reality, poring through photographs from 2005, while adding her own character-based touches to the film's largely blue-collar clothing. She honed in on Julianne Moore's color palette to reflect Hester's shifting health status, and collaborated closely with both Moore and Page in making costuming choices for the duo. "Having smart women who are so devoted to telling a story really helps inspire," she says.

One of her favorite characters to dress was Steve Carell's Steve Goldstein. "He would wear yarmulkes and ostentatious ties to get a reaction out of people. It's a really interesting way to try to push someone and we had fun with that," she laughs.

The final touches on Freeheld came as prolific, Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer teamed up with The Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr who serves as a soloist on the film's evocative score. Renowned singer-songwriter Linda Perry also came aboard to write Freeheld's end credits song, performed by Grammy-nominated and multi-platinum selling artist Miley Cyrus.

Perry was inspired by Zimmer's work. "Hans felt every word of the script and developed music that reflects the strength of the characters and the emotions. It's a haunting yet hopeful score," says Perry.

She was so inspired she wrote most of the closing track - titled "Hands of Love" -- the same day she saw the film. Asked by the producers to come in and discuss ideas for the song, Perry took it a step further and sat down at the piano, playing a fresh arrangement that brought the room to tears. "The song just came to me, and it came to me as something that feels victorious," says Perry. "I saw it as being about the idea that we have struggled and are going to continue struggle as a community, but we will come of out it and keep pushing ahead."

For Peter Sollett the hope is that the film's emotions will hit people at a human level beyond any of the ongoing political controversies. After all, love is love. "I think the film's elements, and especially Ellen and Julianne's performances will movie audiences. As a result, I hope that people will see this story not as an 'issue' but as a part of the human experience."

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