The true story behind “Freeheld”

Ten years ago, Cynthia Wade read about the dying police officer whose partner was being denied her pension benefits, and felt compelled to document the story of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree. Earning their trust, Cynthia left her husband and two young children to move into the couples’ New Jersey home for the last 10 tumultuous, emotional weeks of Laurel’s life.


Cynthia captured the highly-publicized battle against the Ocean County Freeholders alongside the personal moments Laurel and Stacie shared in the home they built together and were hoping to hold onto after Laurel’s inevitable passing. And when the win finally came, Cynthia’s cameras were front and center, the footage being turned into an Oscar-winning short documentary, Freeheld

“In 38 minutes, you have this experience—you get what’s at stake and you understand the personalities and you understand the personal cost of something political,” Cynthia said. “It puts a very real face on it.”

Cynthia (far right) with Stacie (middle) and director Vanessa RothPerrier-Jouet and Women In Film Honor Female Oscar Nominees

After the Academy Awards, Hollywood producers came calling. Anyone who took interest in Laurel and Stacie’s story had to go to Cynthia because she owns Stacie and Laurel’s life rights, as well as those of Dane Wells, Laurel’s former partner in police work and her biggest ally in the battle for her pension. 

“Dane and Stacie decided ‘We should do this because, quite frankly, anybody could take our story and fictionalize it enough that it’s our story, but it’s far enough that they don’t need our permission. And better it be told accurately and have Cynthia involved since she was living it,'” Cynthia said. “It was better to try to do it authentically and honestly as possible.”

Dane Wells (right) with Michael Shannon, who played him in the film
2015 Toronto International Film Festival - "Freeheld" Premiere - Red Carpet

So when Cynthia was courted by producers like Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sherr, she was thrilled to be getting the chance to have Laurel’s story out in the world on a broader scale.

“Making the documentary allowed the feature to be made,” Cynthia said. “It’s one thing to talk about the discrimination that Laurel and Stacie faced, and to read an article, but I think because I was living inside their home and the last 10 weeks of Lauren’s life is a very visual experience, to watch it, and to see the real people. And I think honestly, if the film hadn’t been nominated and won an Academy Award, I don’t think I would have gotten the same kind of attention from high caliber producing groups as I was able to meet with, starting in 2008.”

It took several years (mostly due to the fact Hollywood is still a “sexist and heterosexist” environment, Cynthia noted), but the feature film adaptation of Freeheld finally went into production in 2014. Starring Ellen Page, Julianne Moore and Michael Shannon, the film takes a “journalistic approach,” Cynthia said, and she was heavily involved from the beginning, helping to make sure the script, the locations, and other facets of the real story were spot on.

Ellen Page with Stacie Andree2015 Toronto International Film Festival - "Freeheld" Premiere - Red Carpet

“I did a lot of consultations in terms of what the subtleties were, what the relationships were: How did Laurel feel on this particular day? What were some of the conversations? What was she wearing? Coats, sweatshirts, the kinds of cough drops she had beside the bed,” Cynthia said. 

Ultimately, Cynthia said the feature is “very, very accurate.”

“I went down this path to produce this fiction film because the documentary could only be for a limited and selected audience,” Cynthia said. “I promised Laurel I would take her story as far as I could take it, and it will end up in multiplexes in suburban areas that the documentary is never going to show up. And it will, I think, infiltrate communities where this has been experienced over and over and over again. And it will resonate with those friends and family members and community members and that’s really what she wanted.”

But because feature films are, ultimately, fictionalized re-tellings of true events, we asked Cynthia about some of the moments in the film, and for the reality behind them.