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
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
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
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
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
unexpected activists when the political suddenly became personal for them."
She chose the title Freeheld because the word was rife with double meanings -
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
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
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
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
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
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
"I wanted to write about Laurel and Stacie because they were ordinary people
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,
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
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
For Shamberg, the synergy between Sollett and Nyswaner gave the film its
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"It's always somewhat of a mystery what draws people together, and also what
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 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
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
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 was also deeply intrigued by the arc of his character: Dane Wells,
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
Peter Sollett was moved by the depth of feeling Shannon brought to the
"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
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
whose works has ranged from the wry comedy of The Office to his acclaimed,
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.
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
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
To do that, he collaborated with a team that includes cinematographer Maryse
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
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
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
that reflects the strength of the characters and the emotions. It's a haunting
yet hopeful score," says
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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