Shorts are starting to garner a new respect they didn't really have before, and the short-form documentary genre has exploded in recent years to new acclaim. No longer just a calling card for a filmmaker looking to do a longer-form project, the short (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences considers a running time of under 40 minutes a short), presents an opportunity for a director to craft a film with an immediacy and an economy of scale that stands certain stories in very good stead.
Because of the circumstances under which she was shooting her latest project, Freeheld, documentary filmmaker Cynthia Wade knew, instinctively, that the story of Laurel Hester's fight for the rights that were being denied her and her domestic partner, Stacie Andree, and their battle to right those wrongs before Laurel's imminent death, gave this film an intensity and an urgency that was a natural fit for a short-form length.
After a lifetime of public service and with less than six months to live, Laurel confronts the Ocean County, New Jersey Freeholders (their elected board of county officials) about its denial to allow her to leave her hard-won pension to Stacie, something which heterosexual married couples, of course, take for granted. The film beautifully juxtaposes the very public community battle in the courtroom and the private, very intimate scenes of love, commitment and intense emotional pain the couple experience, as Stacie cares for and comforts her dying partner.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at the '07 Sundance Film Festival, the 38-minute doc has won multiple prizes and accolades everywhere it's been screened. A long-time advocate and social worker, Wade tasks herself with telling stories that speak to much larger issues--and the myriad of issues surrounding the life and death of Laurel Hester are not easy to deal with for anyone. As we sat and talked about the incredible journey of making this project, Wade spoke about the intense submersion she experiences when she's shooting with her subjects, and the advantages of being female in circumstances that require the very delicate operation of filming someone's most intimate and private moments. With an unflinching gaze, Wade's camera lens hones in on the heart of the matter in a very lean and economical way. Her films, for that very reason, hit quite close to the bone. A lean, intense person, herself, Wade speaks passionately about her work and the reasons she makes the films that she does.
Still in Motion (SIM): How long have you been making films?
Cynthia Wade (CW): Well, this is a bit embarrassing; I had a big birthday this year. This is actually my 20th year.
SIM: So you started when you were about 10?
CW: No, I was 20. You do the math!
SIM: Was documentary always the focus?
CW: Yes. I was a theater person in high school — the president of the drama club and usually the lead in the school plays. I took private drama lessons for eight years and I studied in theater programs in New York. I was a theater major in college. As an undergrad, I went to Smith, the largest all-women’s college in the country. When I was about 20 and a junior in college, I discovered that I really liked directing.
As an actor, I would go to auditions and wait on long lines and not get the part. I was really frustrated that one audition would determine whether or not I could participate in a creative process. I discovered that Smith had video cameras that the students could use, and I started experimenting with them. So in a backwards way, I fell into documentary film. I felt that it was a process that I could have more control over.
I was one of those filmmakers that saw Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March in 1987 and it blew me away; I couldn’t believe that documentaries could be made like that. So that film changed my life. I made a film as a sophomore about one of my friends at Smith who discovered she was pregnant and this was shocking to us because we all considered career before family -- it was a very feminist environment. She decided she was going to drop out of Smith, go back to California and have the baby and get married to the baby’s father. It was kind of stunning. I made a film profiling her departure, and then profiled my roommate who was trying to hold onto her boyfriend who, ultimately, broke up with her. It was just a little film, handmade.
In my films, the stories are, usually, told through the eyes of a strong female character and are, usually, a very personal look at a larger issue. I am attracted to controversial social issues—that’s my “brand,” if you will, where there’s a lot of drama, there’s a lot at stake on screen and it's unfolding in real time. But I usually stay in the world of one character.
SIM: That combination of ingredients is what packs a wallop for the viewer, in my opinion. To me, that’s really utilizing the power of documentary—the ultra-personal connection. I think women feel somewhat more comfortable insinuating themselves into that kind of situation where we’re immediately able to navigate quite easily in that kind of intimate environment.
Laurel and Stacie, the subjects of Freeheld chose you, in particular, to document their story and there was, obviously, a need to do it quickly since your main character was about to die. That takes a certain fearlessness to dive in like that, to not shy away from that kind of powerful emotionalism. Is that something you innately possess? Is that something you've honed over the years?
CW: I think I’ve been pretty unflinching in situations in my life. I think about my career before making films, of working on the front lines of the homeless shelters. I worked full-time in those shelters for six years of my life, as I was trying to figure out how to make a living as a filmmaker. People died, children died, there were a lot of gunshots and drug abuse, poverty, domestic violence. In some ways, I feel like I was forcing myself to relive some kind of trauma. I don’t even know what that trauma is. With my films, I feel like I throw myself into these really emotionally raw, risky situations where I am almost reliving the trauma. Grist for the Mill, Shelter Dogs, and Freeheld all have active death on screen. I didn’t even realize that that was a theme for me until we were editing Freeheld. In some ways, I’m a scaredy-cat! I haven’t been to Iraq. I made a film in New Jersey.
SIM: There are war zones everywhere—Iraq just happens to be sanctioned by our government. That courtroom in Freeheld felt like a war zone—there was so much at stake; people were putting themselves on the line in a real life and death situation. Considering your background and your upbringing and your education, why even put yourself in situations like that? Can you explain why you do that?
CW: I grew up with a really strict father who is six foot seven and could have a temper and expected a lot from my sister and me. But he’s the reason, in a way, that I’m a filmmaker because he was a very talented amateur cameraperson and he did a lot of shooting when I was a child. [A lot of Father Wade’s footage is in Grist for the Mill.] We’d sometimes have to wear the same clothes two days in a row so there wouldn’t be any continuity errors in our home movies. He was very particular, in that way. He had very high standards. My mother’s a psychiatric nurse and she runs a unit at a major hospital here in New York and so she’s on the line every day. So there’s a sense of service in the family and high expectations. It probably took me 20 years to realize this, but I also think that forcing myself to work in homeless shelters for six years, full-time, was self-punitive in a way. It was like being in the army.
[If you want a treat, watch Wade's Grist for the Mill. It's one of the most stunningly intriguing family portraits I've seen and it seems that there might have been the very first use of Jennifer Fox's Passing the Camera technique as she and a girlfriend share the camera during lunch hour at work to talk about their private lives. Some of her mother's bon mots from the film: As Cynthia is filming her: "The machine is reliable. And you're ethical." It was posed as a question, but really came out as a directive. And, "Are families going to be sacrificed at the altar of your art?" she asks her young adult daughter that continues to film her. Hmmm. Brilliant stuff.]
SIM: And now?
CW: I think I am less self-punitive now. In shooting Freeheld there was something that broke through that made me realize I was setting myself up for trauma. That won’t change what I go after, but at least I’m aware of that now. I become so enmeshed and immersed in the material that it’s a very deep relationship. The film becomes more real, in a way, than my real life. I identify so strongly with Meryl Streep's character in Adaptation because her work makes her forget her life and her husband in New York. Her journey, her pursuit becomes more real for her than her real life. That’s the way I feel when I’m making a film. That world becomes more real than this world. Luckily, I’m married to someone who knows that he’s temporarily going to lose a part of me from time to time. And there’s a lot at stake because we also have two small children. He understands it probably more than I, and he tends to be more supportive of me than I am of me. I have a strong voice of conscience that pushes me to work really hard and immerse myself in the work.
SIM: Did the very real built-in urgency in the case of Laurel's story in Freeheld change the way you normally work?
CW: I was losing my main character every day, really rapidly. So, I was constantly thinking, “Am I asking her everything I need to ask her?” I was afraid I was going to get into the editing room and realize that there was some question, some issue, that I didn’t ask—I wouldn’t have the answer and would never be able to get that answer—she wouldn’t be there to ask. That was a pervasive feeling throughout the shooting. All my projects entail a story where there’s something major at stake. In the last two films I’ve done, there are, literally, lives hanging in the balance. And that’s exactly why I went after those stories. And there’s never any funding at the outset of these films, so there better be a hugely compelling reason to do it. The tension, the narrative arc is there in those stories. It’s quite overt.
But for the first time, I found myself turning the camera off while shooting Laurel’s story. I’ve never done that before. I usually keep the camera rolling, constantly trying to get more, to push myself more, negotiate with people to get more from them. In all of those cases, you can shoot all that and later discuss it with your subject. In the case of Laurel Hester, there was no later. I wouldn't be able to ask her those questions later because she was going to die before I finished filming. Increasingly, I felt uncomfortable shooting in a way that was new to me.
SIM: What was her response to that? Was she aware you were having those issues?
CW: By the time I was having those ethical dilemmas, she was pretty sleepy and very, very sick; she was sometimes with us and sometimes was not. I gave Laurel and Stacie a little camera to keep at the house, partly because I couldn’t be there full-time, and partly to give them a bit of ownership in the film. The sense of collaboration, in a way, purges guilt. If she’s filming, too, and invested, too, then some of my guilt is ameliorated. They understood the larger picture. Laurel, especially, understood that her story could mean something to other gay people and same-sex couples, other closeted gay and lesbian professionals. Some of the best stuff in the film was shot by Stacie, not me. They gave me free reign, but that didn’t mean I felt like I could take it.
I was living with them. I was sleeping in their guest room. There’s a way in which I almost inhabit the characters in my films. In the early days of the shoot, it was just us girls—it was very intimate and personal. It was nice; she wasn’t too sick yet. And I felt myself taking in, and taking on, all the details of their lives. They would tell me that I was their filmmaker; I was theirs. There was some kind of proprietary connection. But then, as Laurel started to slip away, I was questioning myself a lot.
SIM: Why isn’t this a feature-length film? Why 38 minutes?
CW: I had 10 weeks with Laurel. That, essentially, dictated the shorter length or a non-feature length. Honestly, I think most documentaries are at least twenty-five percent too long.
SIM: I agree.
CW: There’s so much fat in them and filmmakers are asking people to sit through 110 minutes or more, when you could be telling the story in a much more economical, leaner and meaner way. And I really think that there is a leanness to all of my films. I’m pretty ruthless in the editing room.
My husband [Matt Syrett], among other things, is a statistician. He crunched the numbers for 2500 films—what gets into festivals and what doesn’t. And he did these fascinating bar graphs showing the length in minutes for films showed this year in 18 festivals. He’s a marketing genius when it comes to independent film. He’s really good at this stuff. On these bar graphs, you see these spikes around 15 or 20 minutes, and then there’s this huge trough where it drops off and then pretty much nothing happens until about 75 or 80 minutes in. Then, there’s a spike again around 90 to 100 minutes, and then it drops again. His argument is, you should commit your film’s run time to one of these peaks.
With Freeheld, we decided to break the rules. I didn’t really think I had enough for a television hour; it would have been really padded. And for competition’s sake, keeping it under 40 minutes was intentional so I could compete in festivals as a short film.
We never would have gotten into Sundance if it had been longer or if it had been entered as a feature. We got in because it was a short and we won the prize—it was the longest short there. In a way, you have a better shot [in competition] with a longer-form short. And that was very much my intention from the outset. And I want this to be used as a tool for training and for panel discussions about equality, especially as we head into the 2008 elections. And because it’s got a short running time, audiences can participate in an hour-long panel discussion afterwards and it's not so exhausting. It’s also a good educational length. So I just decided to commit to that. I don’t feel like every film is a feature-length documentary. Most documentaries don’t warrant a 100-minute running time. If you can have a feature-length experience in a short period of time, why not? It was a risky decision, but in this case, it was the right decision.
Shelter Dogs was a film where I felt that I could get on HBO America Undercover. I thought I could sell it as a television special, essentially as a film about ethics and death. It has a television feel to it. Freeheld is more of a festival favorite. Partly that’s due to the length and where it can compete, and partly it’s because it’s a different product. I think a lot about the product at the outset before I start making the film—figuring out where its home might be, what the desired demographic is, what my marketing plan is, and I work backwards from there. You’re not supposed to talk about that as an independent filmmaker, but I think it’s essential to your survivability. I’ve got people working for me; I need to pay them.
SIM: You’re also thinking about outreach and the life the film will have beyond exhibition before you shoot anything. Is that correct?
CW: Yes, definitely. I’m thinking about all of that from the outset of any potential project. I’ve been doing what I like to call these “blind dates.” I go to meet with people to see if there’s a film project.
SIM: Things you hear about or things that come across your radar one way or another?
SIM: And what kind of litmus do you use to say “yes, I’m going to pursue this more,” or “not really interested”?
CW: Well, there needs to be a “there there.” In some cases, it’s theoretically really interesting, but I need to know if there’s a particular drama happening that’s relevant and timely. Would it be something that sheds light on a larger issue? Is there something at stake in that immediate drama? Getting exclusive access is also key. That’s something I fought very hard for in Freeheld. Very hard. People were just clamoring up until the end [to get to Laurel], right up until her funeral.
So for new projects, I keep looking and traveling around and doing research trips. You wait for the chemistry. It’s like a relationship -- when you meet the right person, you know it’s right and you fall in love. Making a film means being in an intense relationship. Not necessarily with the people, but with the subject matter.
SIM: As you grow and mature as a human being and as an artist, do the same things compel you, interest you? Or do you find that changing?
CW: I think it’s just going to get deeper. And because I have a young family, for the next few years, I’ll be a domestic filmmaker. I do have this weird sense of guilt for not going to Iraq or Afghanistan or other places other filmmakers are going to make films right now. They’re really putting their lives on the line. And here I am trekking to places like New Jersey or Oklahoma or Arizona. There’s a little part of me that feels like a slacker! That voice again—“weak,” “slacker.” [laughs] The truth is, Arizona right now is far enough. Because of the way I ensconce myself so deeply, that’s the way things need to be right now. It will change in the future.
SIM: But what’s happening in New Jersey or Arizona or Oklahoma is what’s happening in the world at large, in a way. I think that’s one of your stronger skills as a filmmaker—you so intimately portray a story that speaks on a meta-level about the human condition, where we are as a species right now and what’s causing certain people to fight for change—a fight to the death, in Laurel’s case. In your unmitigated emotionalism and unflinching gaze, you’re strengthening that cause for change. I don’t think your approach would be any less effective no matter where on the globe your story happens to be.
CW: I think you’re probably right—it's very visceral and micro. Laurel’s situation is happening all over.
SIM: There’s something very satisfying for me to stay with one character throughout a film and not be constantly shuttled back and forth between stories. As a viewer, I have a chance to build a relationship with a character that only deepens the longer they’re on screen, the longer your camera stays with them. I like taking that kind of journey.
CW: It’s that organic, visceral marriage thing I spoke about before where you get married to the subject. During a film, it feels like I’m married twice, truly. My husband, Matt, shares a life with me and, for instance, Shelter Dogs, because that’s all I’m dreaming about. That’s where my brain is. Again, that’s why that movie Adaptation meant so much to me—I could so identify with her and her state of mind. The process of losing oneself becomes very tactile.
SIM: Would you ever put yourself at the center of a story, as the main character, again as you did in Grist?
CW: Not after that experience, no. That was somewhat traumatic. I was in my twenties. It felt very important to me, at the time, to push myself and be in vulnerable situations in that film. My father said to me, “Well, the question is, will you be able to get over this—get over yourself and go on?” I wondered if I could. And I did. It was a really important film for me to make, but it was painful, too. The most painful thing, actually, was looking for funding. No one really cares if you make a personal film. I applied to a foundation and one of the funders there told me that she found “the people” really annoying, they found me really annoying. And even though it’s a film, it was really painful to hear that. That was me and my parents and my sister. She was really harsh with her comments. I hung up the phone and just cried.
And literally, that same afternoon, the phone rang and it was Geof Bartz from HBO telling me that he thought about my film all the time, that it reflected so much of his own life and that HBO was going to pick it up for Cinemax. Total opposite ends of the spectrum in less than a day. He didn’t know what I’d been through and I told him about how upset I was. He told me, “Oh, you can’t worry about those people. You’ve got a really nice film.” So, that helped me realize that there’s no such thing as a general audience. A filmmaker should never delude him- or herself into thinking that that exists. You should be thinking about who’s going to want to see your film. I look at who buys Shelter Dogs five years later and 99% of them are women--99% of my demographic is female. Even when I teach cinematography, the female students are the most engaged—they’re hungry for every word, they’re hungry for more knowledge; it’s really intense when we do those workshops. It’s a different experience for the women. It just is. They need mentors.
Making Freeheld has been an emancipating experience, in particular, because it’s been an exercise in independence and autonomy. It could have been on television in 2007. It could have been. And I think it would have sunk like a stone because my feeling was it was too early. We really wanted to release it in an election year. And, it was scary because we had no money. By the time I got on the plane to go to Sundance, I owed my editor $30,000, I owed my sound guys about $10,000, and I owed my musician, maybe, $7,500. Really, I couldn’t afford to go! But there was this scarcity model that was happening that was just totally unacceptable.
I thought, “Damn it! I got into Sundance. I don’t need to stay in some fancy place, but I’m not staying in a dump, either.” My husband says that we’ve been playing chicken with the universe all year. He told me to just get on the plane, get on the plane, go, go, go! At that first screening at 8:30 in the morning, there was a funder in the audience. I was thinking, “Who the hell is going to show up to an 8:30 screening?” But, as you know, they line up at 7:45 with their coffee and they’re so serious. And this funder that was there not only gave me money, but he opened the doors for other money and flew me to three cities to meet with other funders. Within 48 hours of that screening, I had a text message from him saying that he was going to get me some money and help me find more.
And there was also the fact that these broadcasters wanted all kinds of changes—changes to the title, just arbitrary stuff, because they could. I just really wanted to do it my way. And if that meant being broke, that meant being broke. I wanted to take that kind of risk for this. Laurel deserved to have this done the right way. Even if it meant we were going to temporarily suffer. We raised the money independently to put it on 35mm and to do a release this year and to do these roundtable discussions, to keep going with our festival strategy. It’s all been so liberating. Like being on a tightrope, you just can’t look down or be distracted in any way.
SIM: Well, in this case, you walked a mean tightrope. I think your experience stood you in good stead. I don’t think a less experienced filmmaker would have been able to have that kind of clarity and fortitude to stay the course and not be distracted. I think that’s difficult for any of us.
CW: Another thing I learned, from before doing Shelter Dogs, was that you need really great stills. You need those to promote your film at festivals, to be able to be on the front page of a paper or publication, for articles. Even though we had no funding, I sent my favorite photographer down to Laurel’s. I told her that I’d figure out how to pay her, but just to get down there and spend the day with Laurel. And thank goodness, because we have beautiful stills and it’s something that’s nice for Stacie to have, those photos of them together. But you wouldn’t know how important stills are, unless you’ve made the mistake—which I did in the past —of not getting them.
SIM: I think this film and this experience might impact the trajectory of your career in a positive way.
CW: You think so? I do think I’m more fearless. Just the experience of making the film made me more fearless. Also, being in such close proximity to a death like that has made me think more about my own death. Let’s say, God forbid, I have a year left. Am I doing exactly what I want to be doing? I’m trying to be fearless about it. Who knows? Laurel taught me that life is short and sweet. I feel like, emotionally, I’m taking bigger risks, at least in terms of following things that don’t necessarily have a clear distribution path, but seem like the right thing to do. Who knows about the distribution on this one? But I’m on the train.
SIM: Do you have more confidence in yourself as a filmmaker?
CW: Yes, I think so. It’s a funny thing. Having won at Sundance is major. And it’s silly to say, in a way, because I’m still the same filmmaker I was before, but it enables me to say that I went to Sundance and I won an award there. It does make me feel stronger and more empowered, even though it’s just one festival and it’s not going to change what I do or how I do it.
I don’t want to do anything else. This is all I want to do. I love teaching, I love shooting for other people; I really get obsessively into that. And I like making my own pieces. But, I also worry at the end of every project. Alan Berliner said something funny to me one time. He said that after every film, he retires. He’s empty, he’s spent. And then something kind of creeps back in after a while and he has to make something again. And I worry at the end of a film because I’m empty. I feel like I can’t ever make another film again.
SIM: But, to me, that’s a great parameter. I think that’s where you want to be and how you want to feel—depleted—because you’ve given everything you have.
CW: There’s a lot of pressure. There’s always the “So, what are you working on next?” industry-standard question. But all this is like a treasure hunt. There’s something so exciting about making something out of nothing. Yes, the hunt for money can be demoralizing. But, to me, it’s like trying all these doors, just like in Alice in Wonderland. Eventually, one of those doors opens and you slide down the rabbit hole. That’s really exciting to me—I love that part.