by director Peter Sollett
“How did you know you could trust me?” That was the question I posed to Stacie Andree moments after the hugely successful world premiere of our film Freeheld at the Toronto International Film Festival.
I’d come to know Stacie well, having spent the previous three years striving to bring her personal story to the screen. Stacie shrugged and met eyes with Dane Wells, a retired cop. “Dane said you were alright so....” Dane shrugged and added, “I can tell most things about a guy in under a minute. Laurel was good at that too.”
Dane, who is played by Michael Shannon in our film, was referring to Laurel Hester, the lead character in our film and his former partner in the Ocean County Police Department. Julianne Moore plays Laurel to perfection.
Laurel and Stacie were the subjects of a powerful documentary directed by Cynthia Wade. Master producers Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher took note of that film when it won an Academy Award. They hired Ron Nyswaner to fictionalize the story and sent it to me for my consideration to direct. Ellen Page was already on board to play Stacie.
The script perfectly captured the unforgettable story of Laurel’s romance with Stacie and the discrimination they faced at the hand of their local government when Laurel made the case that her pension benefits should be extended to Stacie in the event of her death—a standard benefit for heterosexual couples in their area.
Simply put, the message of the film was perfectly articulated: we are all entitled to equal rights no matter whom we decide to love.
I joined the project and soon thereafter found myself shaking hands with Dane Wells in the driveway of his home in Ocean County, New Jersey. I wondered if it was this first impression he recounted to Stacie.
That day, Dane gave me a tour of what was once his and Laurel’s beat. He showed me the boardwalk in Seaside Heights where they went undercover to bust drug dealers. He took me to the health food store where he and Laurel would buy avocado sandwiches and stuff them in a cooler for all night stakeouts. He told me about the unreliable equipment they were forced to depend on even when their lives were on the line.
We met Stacie during her break from work at the local auto garage where she worked as a mechanic. We talked at length about how she and Laurel met, how the relationship developed and the tragic turn it took.
Dane and Stacie struck me as people with enormous integrity. They share a quiet strength and an admirable, disarming directness.
Their qualities crystallized my vision for the film. The style of our movie would be deliberate. Precise. Technique would not call attention to itself. The film would be quiet like Dane when he was at the wheel of his pickup truck. It would be direct like Stacey when she explained how she came to love Laurel.
During the making of this film I felt enormous responsibility to our real life subjects. The whole point of making the movie was to extend the reach of their story to a wide audience. The film had the power to widely alter the public’s perception of who they are. We needed to render their characters in a way that honored them without idealizing them. We needed to pay respect to Laurel’s incredible legacy and do it responsibly... with the kind of dignity she displayed while she was alive and fighting for Stacie, the woman she loved.
Dane’s words hung in the air. “I can tell most things about a guy in under a minute. Laurel was good at that too....” Dane looked me hard in the eyes and shook my hand just like he did in his driveway years earlier. I wondered what he saw in me this time. I hope it was my gratitude.