Filmmaker Cynthia Wade may be a married mother of two, but she’s one of the biggest allies the lesbian community has seen in the last five years. Wade was behind the Oscar winning documentary short Freeheld which followed Lt. Laurel Hester as she battled terminal lung cancer and the Ocean County, New Jersey freeholders in an attempt to have her pension given to her partner, Stacie Andree, after her imminent death.
While Freeheld did well at film festivals and screened on both HBO and Logo, Hester and Andree’s story is going to get an even bigger push when it becomes a feature film in the next year, with Ellen Page attached to play Stacie.
"Back in late 2005, when I first met Laurel and Stacie, I spoke with them about the idea of their story becoming the basis for a feature film," Wade wrote in an e-mail to AfterEllen.com "They were amazed that anyone ‘would care’ about their lives and their struggle. They were very much in the midst of their intense fight for Laurel’s pension, and they were managing Laurel’s rapidly progressing cancer on a daily basis, so it was difficult for them to see the big picture — how their lives, which they saw as very ordinary, would be interesting or moving to a larger audience.
"I remember sitting on the bed with Laurel," she continued, "talking to her about both the documentary, and the possibility of a feature film for a larger audience, and her eyes widened. She was excited by the idea, as she wanted her struggle to mean something to the world. But it seemed a bit outlandish to her, because she was just living her life. "
But both women trusted Wade and were open to any ideas she had as to how to get the word out.
"They both agreed to let me retain the ‘life rights’ to their story," she said.
The feature film is in the works with Double Feature Films and Endgame Entertainment, and is being written by Ron Nyswaner, who was behind Philadelphia, a film starring Tom Hanks as a gay man who sued his employer for firing him after they found out he had AIDS.
Since Freeheld was a short (roughly 37 minutes long), there’s a lot more going into the feature film, including background on Laurel’s work as a policewoman.
"She worked for 25 years in a very male-dominated world, and risked her life many times in scary situations," Wade said. "According to everyone who worked with her, she was brave, honest, incredibly hard working, but sometimes overlooked for promotions because she was a woman. The stories surrounding her work are gripping and intense, and worthy of more coverage than I was able to fit into a short documentary. Those scenes should be very exciting!"
It will also show us how Laurel and Stacie met.
"It is important that the audience get to know Laurel and Stacie as an ordinary couple — loving each other, paying bills and setting up a home and everything else that comes with a long-term commitment — before we discover that Laurel is ill," Wade said. "I never knew Laurel and Stacie prior to Laurel’s illness — by the time I’d met them, their roles had settled into patient and caregiver. It’s really important, especially for the heterosexual audience, to see Laurel and Stacie’s relationship as any other."
Since Freeheld‘s release on DVD, Stacie Andree has been able to go back to living a private life, but Wade said she is supportive of the development of the feature film.
"Stacie really likes and respects Ron very much," Wade said. "He has spent extensive time with Stacie, gathering information and details about her life and relationship with Laurel, and those times have been filled with lots of details, laughter and some tears."
And Ellen Page playing her must also be a plus.
"She saw the documentary and was moved by the story," Wade said of Page’s attachment to the movie. "She understands the potential power of a feature version of the film. She is a very smart and very talented. I am thrilled that she is involved in this project — she has countless offers to appear in many movies, and the fact that she is so strongly attached to this film is a testament to how special Laurel Hester was, and how important Laurel and Stacie’s story is to this country’s slow move towards true equality."
As of now, Wade says Nyswaner is working on the first draft of the screenplay and there will be several more drafts written before production will begin.
"Everyone involved in this project wants this film to be very effective, moving and well done, so I am personally prepared for the long haul," Wade said. "The final film will be much better and much stronger because the team is not rushing to throw something together. We are all invested in the quality of the final product."
In the meanntime, Wade’s latest documentary, Born Sweet, has been receiving great reviews and focuses on another down-and-out person who seeks to triumph against all odds. It follows a Cambodian boy "who is dying of arsenic poisoning but dreams of being a karaoke star." It has won nine festival awards and is looking good for an Oscar nomination this year.