How did you come to this story?
I was not expecting to make a film about Laurel Hester. I read an article in a local paper about Laurel Hester's fight to leave her pension to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree, and I decided to go to a town meeting in New Jersey where she was protesting her elected officials, the Freeholders. Laurel was going to ask the Freeholders to allow her to leave her pension to her life partner.
I walked into a room that was so still and tense. There were probably a hundred and thirty people there, silently holding red signs that said, "Don't let Lieutenant Laurel Hester die like this". And the five elected officials, the Freeholders, entered the room. What unfolded in front of my eyes was so staggering to me that I knew instantly that the direction of my life was going to change, and that I was going to do whatever I could to tell her story.
I drove back to Brooklyn, New York, where I live and work, and went into my apartment. My husband had been taking care of our four month old daughter and our five year old daughter. He had just started a new job, and he knows that when I start a new film it typically means I go live with the subjects and I leave the family temporarily. With an infant at home, it was not necessarily the right time to be leaving the family. But within three days I was with Laurel and Stacie in the hospital, and for the last ten weeks of Laurel's life I lived with them on and off in their home. It was very important for me to tell the story from the inside, to tell it as a love story first, as a political battle second.
What was it about that first hearing that convinced you?
What unfolded in front of my eyes was so staggering to me that I knew instantly that the direction of my life was going to change.
I think, unfortunately, that there are many Laurel Hesters in communities across this country, and there are struggles against discrimination that are being played out every day. With this story, I felt like I could say something larger and possibly more universal about the state of rights for same sex couples in this nation.
I tend to make controversial social issue films, usually told through the eyes of strong female characters. Laurel herself was so full of integrity and honesty, and so was Stacie. The more time that I spent with them, the more I felt that their relationship was no different than my marriage. Why was it that I, as a heterosexually married woman, would be able to inherit my husband's pension but Laurel couldn't leave her pension to Stacie?
So it became very important to me to tell this story because I felt so moved, and a little shocked that this was happening an hour and a half away from where I live. It felt a little bit like I entered a time warp, that I was in Kansas in the 1950's, and yet here we were at the end of 2005 in New Jersey in what is typically a fairly liberal, blue state.
The film stirs different emotions. One is outrage at the injustice, the other is the empathy you feel for the relationship. Was that a conscious choice?
We struggled a lot in the editing between how much this would be a story of politics versus how much it would be a love story. And we had many different openings for the film. It was difficult because there were so many different directions the story could take.
One of the things that really moved me about witnessing Laurel's struggle was that she had unlikely supporters. There were heterosexually married male cops - guys who would not have considered themselves prior to this event "gay activists" - and yet some of them were her strongest allies. In telling the story, I wanted to be able to hit the heterosexual audience in America as much as possible, hit the unexpected allies, people that normally don't think about the discrimination that gay and lesbian couples face, but in watching the film could understand that there's a discrepancy in this country.
I wanted to be able to hit the heterosexual audience in America as much as possible, hit the unexpected allies, people that normally don't think about the discrimination that gay and lesbian couples face.
What were the most difficult things you faced while shooting?
The hardest challenges were ethical. Making a documentary can pose ethical questions along the way, but when your main character is dying rapidly, it opens up a giant Pandora's box of moral issues. Laurel and Stacie gave me access to their lives in an extremely vulnerable and emotional time. I did not want to hurt them in any way. We all felt that the film was important, and that it could be used as a tool for social change, but we were dealing with real life too. Respecting them was extremely important to me. I was constantly asking myself, "Should I shoot this? Should I put down the camera? Is this too much?" As Laurel got sicker, I put down the camera a lot. There were definitely things that I didn't film because it felt too invasive. I also gave Laurel and Stacie a small video camera so that they could be part of the filmmaking process. In this way, it was a collaboration. Some of the best footage came from Stacie - she filmed herself calling doctors during her lunch break, in her car. And the last three shots of Laurel on her deathbed were shot by Stacie.
Discrimination is a huge issue in society. In making Freeheld, were there any universal truths you discovered about the subject?
I think that Laurel's battle was part of a changing tide, particularly in New Jersey. Nine months after Laurel died the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that same sex couples must have the same rights as married heterosexual couples, and then civil unions were created in New Jersey. Now we've actually found out that civil unions don't work because some companies are not validating the civil unions the way you would a marriage, so there's further to go in New Jersey. And certainly in many other states, there's much further to go.
But you can see that people are realizing that there is a huge landscape of discrimination that needs to be addressed and changed. I hope, as a wife and a mother, that my children will inherit a society that is more equitable and just and there will come a time when people will look back and say, wow, was there really a time that gay and lesbian couples were denied rights?
My greatest hope for the film is that it's message will be able to reach what I call the unexpected audience - folks who wouldn't deliberately Tivo a gay and lesbian film about a dying police officer, but happen to stumble across the film. My hope is that they watch it, and understand Laurel and who she was, and Laurel and Stacie's relationship, and become involved in their story on an emotional level, not as a political tool, but really as a love story, and in seeing the film, they think about what really makes, "in sickness and in health, till death do us part" -- what really makes a relationship in the dead of night. That's probably my greatest hope, is that it's a starting point, and it's an opportunity to move into a world you didn't know before, but after entering that world, you're affected after having witnessed it.