“Freeheld”: The long journey to making a mainstream film about lesbians in love

In 2008, Ellen Page was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Juno. Although she didn’t take home the win for Best Actress (the honor went to Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose), she was in the audience when Cynthia Wade‘s Freeheld won Best Documentary Short Subject. The 40-minute film followed Lieutenant Laurel Hester in the last days of her life, which she spent fighting the Ocean County, New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders to allow her partner, Stacie Andree, to receive her pension after she inevitably passed away from terminal lung cancer. 

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Less than a year after the documentary win (and two years after Laurel’s passing), word came out that Ellen Page (then 21) wanted to star in a feature film based on the true story. Ron Nyswaner (who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Philadelphia) penned the script, and in 2010, Cynthia Wade told AfterEllen slow progress was being made with Double Feature Films and Endgame Entertainment attached.

“I remember sitting on the bed with Laurel,” Cynthia told us, “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. “

Freeheld struggled to find financing for those few years, though, and it wasn’t until 2012 that they secured director Peter Sollett who said reading the script while on a plane brought him to tears.

“Having Ron Nyswaner’s name on the front page was a big deal to me. He’s somebody I’ve known for a long time and whose work I really admire,” Peter said. “And I read it and was just really devastated. I read it in public on a plane and was crying and felt like making a mess of the trip for everyone but really just thought it was gorgeous and immediately wanted to get involved and told everybody, right away, that minute.” 

The next big step was securing Julianne Moore to play Laurel, as Ellen was already in place as the younger mechanic, Stacie.

“I think Julianne agreeing to do the film and then the combination with the sort of dramatic center of the film being Juliane and Ellen, I think that was irresistible, along with the screenplay,” Peter said. “That’s what triggered our financing, and sent us into making the movie and attracted [Steve] Carell and Michael Shannon.”

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