Authentic storytelling

An interview with Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker Cynthia Wade

Cynthia Wade is an award winning documentary and commercial director known for intimate and gripping storytelling. Whether in a remote village in Cambodia or a conference room on Madison Avenue, Cynthia has been recognized for her ability to find and capture moving stories. Her subjects range from the struggles of a dying policewoman aiming to leave her pension benefits to her life partner—another woman—in the Academy Award winning film “Freeheld”, to the illustrating how beauty is being redefined by youth in the short film “Selfie” sponsored by Sundance and the Dove Real Beauty Campaign. Both Cynthia’s documentary and commercial work show a deep connection between Cynthia and her subjects, and a commitment to authenticity in the telling of their stories. Peeps Editor Aliah El-houni sat down with her to ask how she creates that connection, and maintains it across both her creative and commercial work.

So, Cynthia, you’re a documentary filmmaker, but you also direct, and you film and you produce a lot of your work, right?


And we can see that your work has been recognized by tons of bodies, including an Academy Award nomination and win! So I guess my first question is, did you always know that you wanted to be a documentary filmmaker?

Pretty early on, I realized I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. It’s interesting. I actually was very much into theater in high school, and was in all of the plays, and did directing and stage managing and acting, and then I was a Theater major in college. But I had this very specific and definitive moment in my junior year of college. I actually went to the National Theater Institute—NTI—which is an intensive, amazing Theater program in Waterford Connecticut, and it’s a semester abroad for juniors. And you do Theater all day long, from 6AM to midnight, and you have to write a play, you have to direct a play, you have to be in scenes, you do bodywork, scene design – everything. It was an amazing experience. There were 40 students in the program, and it was probably one of the best educational experiences I ever had in my life. That being said, at the end of that semester, it was the most amazing experience; I loved every minute of it and I also knew, simultaneously, that I did not want to pursue Theater. I really wanted to be behind a camera, and I really wanted to be able to tell real stories of real people, and try to tell unexpected stories and find stories that would otherwise go unnoticed. It was a shift for me, and it really came out of that program. It’s interesting, I’m really close to those classmates, and some of them now are directors and run Theater companies, and they’re acting, but for me, I realized what I wanted was to be behind a camera, and also to really stay in the world of non-fiction.

So when you do create a new project, when you embark on it, how do you go about finding those stories and choosing those subjects?

Well, there are roughly two different kinds of documentary films, and I’m being pretty rudimentary right now, so forgive me because this is a very rough description. There are noun films and there are verb films. So when you think about a noun film, you may say, “I want to make a film about a particular theme.” And then from that particular theme, you try to find people who you can essentially cast in that film. Because there is casting in documentary; you are making choices about who you’re going to focus on. And you try to build a narrative around that theme.

There are also verb films where you hear of something happening in real-time, and it’s a drama that’s unfolding. And it isn’t necessarily the topic that interests you, as much as it’s the people that you are attracted to, in terms of telling their story and feeling like they have a really important narrative that the world needs to know about. So for instance, my film “Freeheld” wasn’t like I was saying, “Okay, I’m ready to make an LGBT film; I want to make a gay rights film.” I never approached it from that way, and even with “Mondays at Racine”, the same thing. I’m always approaching it from, “Wow, this is a moment in somebody’s life.” And it actually looks like a small moment in somebody’s life, but in that seemingly small moment, there are enormous things to be learned and to be said about sort of the human emotional experience. And I always come at it from the people first, and then I become slightly activist, because then I’d become so charged with the content then I say, “Okay, well then I need to organize screenings or outreach around this issue.” But I never come to it first to the issue, I always come to it first from the people—if that makes sense.

It does.

So I’m attracted to verb films.

And when you’re working with your subjects, they are telling spectacular, intimate and often heart-wrenching stories. How do you kind of build those connections? It can’t be easy to walk in the door and start dealing with these extremely emotional issues.

Well first of all, when you’re seeing the final film—“Mondays at Racine” can be an example; that’s a 39-minute film, and that distills 2 years of filming. So you’re right, it is really intimate, and there are moments that can be quite surprising, that somebody would reveal on camera. But what you’re seeing obviously is a very distilled, sort of nugget of the two years of work and pre-production and research, and forging the bond with the people.

The relationship between a documentary filmmaker and a documentary subject, I think there needs to be a mutual need between filmmaker and subject. The subject needs to feel like, he or she is valued and has a role in telling the story, and has an important message to impart. And there needs to be a sense of, either a loose collaboration or at least some kind of ownership in that story. And obviously for the director, for the filmmaker, there’s a need to tell through this very specific story, and through these individual people a detailed story that will shed light on a larger societal issue. So it’s a self-selecting group. I’m not in the business of trying to coerce or force or convince people to be on film if they don’t want to be on film. It’s a self-selecting group, and then you form this bond, which really is like family. You form this extremely, emotionally tight, sometimes emotionally treacherous relationship with your documentary subject.

I can imagine that it would be a very powerful bond, by the end.

It’s powerful, it’s also I think inherently rife with ethical landmines. For instance in “Freeheld,” I moved into Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree’s house in the last 10 weeks of Laurel’s life. It was an unexpected film; I wasn’t intending to make it. I read an article that this police officer, Lieutenant Laurel Hester had spent 25 years on the police force in Ocean County New Jersey, and was trying to leave her pension to her domestic partner – her life partner – who happened to be a woman, and that she was being denied, based on the gender of her partner. This was shocking to me—2005. I was living, at the time, in Brooklyn New York, about an hour to an hour and a half away from where they lived in New Jersey. New Jersey tends to be considered kind of a Blue Democratic state, and yet she was in a very conservative county. And although her county officials had the right, legally, to allow her to give her pension to Stacie, they were denying her that. And that was very motivating for me. It shook me and moved me, and I went down to a Freeholders meeting, not knowing if I was going to be able to film in there; not knowing Laurel and Stacie at that time, filmed the meeting and within 10 minutes realized my whole life was going to shift, and that I was going to tell this story. It did come in a great family sacrifice, risk for me, in that at the time I had a 3-month old baby and I had a 5-year old daughter at home, in our 4th floor walk up in Brooklyn, and my husband, who had been unemployed. And I’ve been hustling as a pregnant woman getting cameras on airplanes, trying to push that window, you can’t fly while you’re pregnant.

I kept saying, I can do this at seven months. I can do this at seven and a half months. And I was basically just trying to raise money to pay the bills in our family. And my husband had just, in the last couple months, it was just around the time that I had the second baby, he’d gotten a full-time job. And we really needed him to have that full-time job. We needed the health insurance, we needed him to have that regular income, after that year of his unemployment.

Cynthia Wade

The relationship between a documentary filmmaker and a documentary subject, I think there needs to be a mutual need between filmmaker and subject.

So for me to come back to our 4th floor walk up and walk upstairs, and he’d just put the 5-year old to bed, she just started Kindergarten and he’s holding this baby, and he’s you know, feeding her a bottle. And for me to look at him and say, “This is going to be enormously complicated for our family, but I need to figure out how to go down and move in with Laurel and Stacie.” And then to describe the scene that I witnessed, it turned our family life upside down. And as a documentary filmmaker, I think that one of the things that you learn very quickly is that what’s happening in the lives of your subjects dictate what happens in your life, and what happens in your family’s life. And Laurel was very ill, and she knew that she was not long for the world, and she felt very strongly that she wanted to tell her story. And so very quickly, I ended up moving in with them.

Now, back to the ethical landmines, that also then tests me in terms of my own ethics and my own morals. So for instance, early on in the filming, Laurel would sometimes fall asleep. And Stacie would be busy, or Stacie would be going out running an errand, or Stacie sometimes is at work. You know, as a documentary filmmaker, do you pick up the camera and you film somebody who is ill and sleeping when they’re at their most vulnerable, or do you put down the camera and say, “No, this is not right?” So you’re constantly being tested with moments of, “Wow, this would make a great moment in the film, but is it right?” You know, morally as a human being.

When Laurel became very ill, Stacie was such an incredible caregiver at night, in the middle of the night. I wanted the audience to see that this was a marriage; this was a commitment. Stacie was the most unbelievable caretaker I’d ever seen in my life, and I wanted to be able to demonstrate that and film that. On the other hand, if Laurel’s in pain, and this is an awkward moment, is it right to film it? Even if, in the larger picture, you’re showing this incredible bond, this marriage, this relationship, and Stacie’s amazing caregiving.

So yeah, it’s a really intense relationship between filmmaker and subject, but it’s also I think a morally complicated relationship, and you’re constantly being tested with what’s appropriate, what’s right, both in terms of when you’re filming, but then you revisit all of that in the edit room, when you’re making those decisions.

Right! So when you do your commercial work, I’ve noticed that a lot of it is also very intimate, and equally engaged. So do you find that you build those same connections and deal with those same issues?

Absolutely. Yes. I mean in the end, as a filmmaker, whether you’re doing an independent film, whether you’re doing a film for television or whether you’re doing a film for a brand, your job is to tell the most authentic and honest story that you can tell within the structure of what you’ve been given. That is your job. Your job is to show up and to be authentic, and to tell the most honest story that you can tell, because the audience isn’t dumb. And I do think that there is a lot of opportunity now to tell stories that may be unbranded or loosely branded for movements or for brands, where it can be a win-win situation. It can be a win-win situation for the brand, and it can be a win-win situation for the audience because it’s an authentic piece of storytelling.
I think that the marketers, the brand managers have more to lose than the audience. Because if it’s inauthentic, the audience knows it right away. So in many ways, you’re always identifying your audience, whether it’s an independent film or whether it’s a branded film. And you’re always thinking about your primary audience, because there’s no such thing as a general audience. You’re always thinking about the specific audiences you want to reach with each specific story, and your job is to show up and to be as authentic as possible.

Earlier you said that you began your career in the world of fiction, and you decided that non-fiction was really what you wanted to tell. What do you believe the value of others seeing these non-fiction stories is? What made you decided they were what you wanted to make and share with your audiences?

Well, why not? I mean, it’s interesting to me because a lot of people will quizzically look at me and say, “You didn’t want to make fiction?” Like they… a lot of people see documentary or nonfiction as a stepping stone to fiction, or sort of a poor stepsister to fiction. When I was choosing a place to study documentary, I wanted to choose a place where it was solely documentary, and that it wasn’t this poor stepsister to fiction. I didn’t want to be in that shadow when I was learning the craft of documentary filmmaking. I think that we’re living in a time now where, because of social media and because of our ability to film and photograph ourselves and upload and share, there’s this sort of power in the masses experience, where we really can tell our own stories. And our own stories, in many cases, are a lot more interesting than… When I grew up it was like there were few channels on television, and if I wanted to see an image of what I hoped I could be as a teenager whatever, I have to go to a drugstore and try to find a magazine. And then it was all airbrushed. It’s really messy and creative, and some it’s, you know, directed of course, but everybody has an opportunity to tell their own story, to share, and to upload, and to comment, and… I mean, part of this sort of cultural dialogue is, it’s very much in our hands. And I think that’s a really healthy thing. We’re seeing a lot more diversity and a lot more voices.

So for me, the real person story is a lot more interesting; it’s a lot more challenging and interesting most of the time. I mean I love fiction films, and love going to the movies and seeing fiction. And “Freeheld” is being developed into a fictionalized film now. Which is great, because that is a very specific story that is not… it’s going to reach a larger audience if it’s in that kind of a form. So it’s not that I don’t love fiction, but there is something so inherently chaotic and messy and exciting and challenging about working with real people and real situations where you don’t know where you’re going; where you’re like Alice in Wonderland and you’re falling down the rabbit hole and you don’t know where you’re going to end up. That’s, I think, the most satisfying and exciting to me.

Academy award-winning director Cynthia Wade has a proven track record for presenting dramatically compelling and emotionally gripping documentary stories. From tender coming-of-age stories of children for Sesame Street to emotional portraits of teens for the Sundance Channel, Cynthia has an unusual talent for revealing surprising human moments—all with unparalleled craft and creativity. Wade has won festival accolades all over the world—in the past four years alone, she’s won 33 film awards, including 2 awards at Sundance, 3 awards at Palm Springs, prizes at Aspen and the Hamptons, as well as film festival awards in Spain, Italy, Argentina and Belgium. She’s been making films and commercials for more than 15 years for clients such as MTV, HBO, Cinemax, IFC Channel, and PBS; her clients include Hershey, Bristol Meyers Squibb, the National Guard, Phoenix Children’s Hospital and the Boston Computer Museum. Cynthia just finished a feature length documentary for Sanofi/Regeneron, a global company, entitled “Heart Felt”, capturing the stories of people across the world engaged in a fight against cholesterol. Cynthia received a BA cum laude from Smith College, and holds a Masters Degree from Stanford University in Documentary Filmmaking. Her production company is comprised of a seasoned team of award-winning cinematographers, editors and producers, with offices in New York City and in Massachusetts.

Share Tweet about this on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Google+ Google+ Email to someone
TAGS /Cynthia Wade / Storytelling /