‘Freeheld’ screenwriter talks about how timely the news is for new gay film

One of the most heart-wrenching documentaries in recent history, 2007’s Freeheld chronicled the intense fight of a terminal lung cancer-stricken police detective, Laurel Hester, to secure pension benefits for her surviving domestic partner, mechanic Stacie Andree, from New Jersey’s Orange County Freeholders board, which will only grant them to legally-married spouses.

Winner of the documentary short Oscar that year, Freeheld has now been adapted into a dramatic feature starring Ellen Page (who also produced) as Andree, Julianne Moore as Hester, Michael Shannon as Hester’s detective-partner and ally Dane Wells and a scene-stealing Steve Carell as sassy Garden State Equality activist Steven Goldstein.

No stranger to films that change hearts and minds about LGBTs and their struggles for justice and equality, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, Soldier’s Girl) penned the Peter Sollett-directed feature. In our interview, Nyswaner discusses how Freeheld was shaped by its makers and budget, how the Kim Davis news cycle makes it even more topical and how he would feel about a movie version of his 2005 memoir about his obsessive affair with a hustler, Blue Days, Black Nights.

— Lawrence Ferber


BASED ON A TRUE STORY | Julianne Moore plays a cop with cancer and Ellen Page is her domestic partner looking to be treated equally in the new movie ‘Freeheld,’ now playing in North Texas.

Dallas Voice: How did you come to be involved with Freeheld?  Ron Nyswaner: I was contacted by Ellen Page and four producers. They sent me Cynthia Wade’s wonderful documentary in 2008 or 2009, and it moved me very, very much. I said I would love to do this as a feature. There was a process of thinking a bit about what my approach to the story would be and sharing that with that group of producers, and they were very happy with that. Then I went in and did research, talking to the actual people involved. I made trips to New Jersey, phone calls, quite a bit of time. The script took a few years.

How did the script change and evolve over the years?  Early drafts had more of Laurel’s family and the Ocean County community and more of Stacie’s past and friends. The politics of the town were a bigger part of the film. The movie became more intimate [in scope] as we financed it, for budget reasons. But to me, the most important aspect is, it’s a love story. I wanted to tell a story about people who loved each other. Also, I wanted to tell of a different kind of love, a friendship, which Laurel had with Dane and how the love she had for Stacie sometimes challenged the love with Dane.

Screen shot 2015-10-07 at 4.08.28 PMWhat were some of the stronger notes from the producers and stars?  This wasn’t a script where the development process was fraught with disagreement. For the most part, my early drafts did not change that much. People made good suggestions. The suggestions were just to help let us know the characters a little bit better, let us make sure the audience really feels them fall in love. That maybe we can have another romantic scene between them. It’s a love story between these two women. No one ever suggested that we make some egregious false element of the story or manipulate it in some way because that might make the audience like it better, and I’m very proud to say that. Everyone always said we’re telling the truth. Did Dane really do that? Did Laurel really do that? Yes? Great, if they really did it, Ron, we’re happy with it. So I was blessed with a very brave group of producers that didn’t feel they had to manipulate the story to please the audience — they felt the story would please the audience as it was, and it does.

It’s interesting that Freeheld is coming out while Kim Davis is still in the news, and it perfectly illustrates why her obstruction of LGBTs obtaining their legally married status and documents is so dangerous and deserving of removal from office.  I’m very happy to live in a country where people don’t have to agree with me and I’m a real First Amendment believer. As laws change, people have to obey the law. But I don’t bear any hatred or fury or rage to Kim Davis. We live in America where you can believe whatever you want, you just don’t have the right to take other people’s rights away from them! That’s where Kim Davis has erred. I’m not seething with rage over Kim Davis. I think there are far more insidious things we should worry about. There are countries in this world where you can be tortured to death for being gay. Countries in Africa, in the Middle East, in Russia. I think the AIDS crisis isn’t over. Bullying of kids in school for being gay.

You sponsor a film collection and archive in Kingston, N.Y., at the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Center. What are some must-see films in there?  It’s the fourth largest LGBTQ film archive in the U.S. That’s a really good question. The Celluloid Closet, and not just because I’m in it, to understand how long it took and the struggle to get gay images onscreen. Not even positive images! But even the struggle to get someone to play gay in a movie. Especially for younger readers it would be great to see it. And also The Times of Harvey Milk.

How would you feel about a film version of Blue Days, Black Nights?  How nice of you to know about that book. We’re reprinting it this spring. It’s an intriguing thought. I’d be open to a movie of it and mainly because it’s not about me. When I wrote that memoir, and even when I knew [the hustler], I realized this is the kind of person you write about. A larger-than-life, hilarious character that came into my life. To see someone be me onscreen, I don’t know I can handle it, but for someone to embody him would be great.

Dream casting for your alter-ego?  I can’t even do that. Sorry. It brings up all of my false modesty combined with my latent self-hatred… Probably Johnny Galecki. That’s me!

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 9, 2015.