Filmmakers Find Nerves Still Raw When Scouting Gay-Rights Story

  • Certain U.S. locations `didn't want to have us film there'
  • `Freeheld' with Julianne Moore and Ellen Page Debuting at TIFF

The makers of “Freeheld” weren’t exactly welcomed when they began scouting for locations in New Jersey to shoot the real-life story of a lesbian couple that fought state officials for equal rights a decade ago.

“There were certainly locations that didn’t want to have us film there because they weren’t a supporter of the material,” Peter Sollett, the film’s director, said Friday at Bloomberg’s Business of Entertainment event in Toronto. Scouting in New Jersey was also “sensitive” because some of the officials still work in the same jobs depicted in the film, he said.

Partly to benefit from tax credits, the drama, which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend, was ultimately filmed in New York state as a stand-in for Ocean County, New Jersey.

“Freeheld” is based on the 2004-06 fight of a police officer dying of cancer who wanted her pension to go to her same-sex partner. The film is reaching the big screen the same year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the remaining state bans on same-sex marriage.

‘Filmmakers Responding’

“This is a film of the moment,” TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey said last week in an interview. “Sexual and gender identities have become a more prominent part of pop culture lately, and we’ve seen filmmakers responding.”

The festival organizers have scheduled more than 15 films that have gay themes, including “Stonewall,” about the 1969 riots in Greenwich Village that pushed forward LGBT rights in North America. Another dozen or so films deal with issues of gender, sexuality and identity, such as “The Danish Girl” starring Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne, and “About Ray,” the story of an American teenager with gender issues that also stars Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon as the mom and grandmother.

“Freeheld,” written by Ron Nyswaner, Oscar nominated for his script for “Philadelphia,” chronicles the unfolding relationship of two women, police investigator Laurel Hester, played by Oscar winner Julianne Moore, and a young mechanic Stacie Andree, played by Ellen Page.

The two eventually move into a house together in Ocean County. When Hester is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, she begins an uphill fight against local officials for her partner’s right to inherit her pension benefits.

Little Diversity

Moore won her Oscar for playing a professor struggling to cope with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in last year’s “Still Alice.” While having an award winning actress on board will boost the movie at the box office, finding backing for a film with female leads can be difficult.

“Female driven projects are a challenge these days and they have been for a long time,” said Sollett, 39, whose previous directing credits include “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” “What got us over the hump was Ron’s wonderful script and Ellen and Julianne’s participation in the project.”

Page, who rose to fame in the critically acclaimed “Juno,” came out as gay early last year and was a producer of the film.

Hollywood has been criticized for its lack of diversity both in front and behind the camera. In May, the American Civil Liberties Union asked U.S. and California civil-rights agencies to investigate alleged bias against women in the Hollywood film and TV industry.


A study of the top 100 films of 2014 by the University of Southern California showed that of the 4,610 speaking characters only 19 were lesbian, gay or bisexual. Not one transgender character was portrayed.

North American distribution rights to “Freeheld” were sold at the Berlin festival earlier this year where Santa Monica, California-based Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. beat competitors to acquire the distribution rights.

Bailey said he was certain he wanted the film in this year’s lineup as soon as he saw a short “teaser” of the work-in-progress at an event set up for film buyers in Berlin early in the year.

‘Really Irresistible’

“Even from that nine or 10 minutes that we saw, we knew there was something powerful there,” Bailey said. “It’s a very powerful story, it’s a love story, it’s a story of injustice, people fighting injustice. Those kinds of things are really irresistible I think for most audiences.”

The film, which took just 27 days to shoot and had a budget of $7 million, opens in the U.S. on Oct. 2.

Bloomberg’s Business of Entertainment event on Friday was held in partnership with the Independent Filmmaker Project.