Interview: Peter Sollett talks Freeheld , Vinyl and Steve Carrell

Peter Sollett is the acclaimed director of Raising Victor Vargas (2002) and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008).

With the upcoming DVD release of his latest film, Freeheld (2015), he talked to the Iris’ Joseph Doumit about returning to romance, LGBT rights, and how the truth set him free.

How did you get involved with Freeheld?

This is a project that was a fictionalisation of a documentary, directed by Cynthia Wade. That documentary, which won an Academy Award, was optioned by Michael Shamberg and Stacie Sher, who are wonderful producers here, to turn into a feature film. Ellen (Page) had the opportunity to meet with directors and she was interested in me coming aboard, which was a real honour for me.

What attracted me to the material was, first and foremost, the beautiful love story at the centre. This is the third film that I’ve made that has a love story at the centre of it and I think a love story is a powerful thing to give an audience and it’s something I appreciate when I’m in an audience.

Of course, beyond that, what the movie is talking about, equal rights, is something that is of paramount importance to me and I think should be of paramount importance to everyone. And I think it’s a very current issue and pressing one. Particularly in this country and particularly this week in this country.

What happened this week?

In the state of North Carolina, a law was enacted to protect the rights of people to discriminate against LGBT citizens. Of course, as we say at the end of our film, marriage equality was granted in the US last summer, but now we see the inevitable backlash of some of the population against those equal rights.

Given that it is engaging with this bigger issue, what do you think you brought to the project that personally came from you?

I come from an environment that is very much like the ones that our characters exist in. I grew up in working class New York, just on the other side of the river… with a lot of police officers, and brought a great credibility to their environment, which, I thought, was critically important to this film. Because their environment dictates the fact that Laurel (Julianne Moore) is living in the closet. It meant the world needed to be right for Laurel’s character and her motivations to have credibility.

With regards the Ellen Page who, since becoming involved (in Freeheld), has stepped up and become a spokesperson for LGBT rights, to what extent was she involved in the way the relationship was portrayed?

Well, I think with a cast like this, everybody’s got a lot to contribute. We were really in luck with the ensemble here.

First and foremost, our loyalty, in terms of realising the characters, was to Laurel and Stacie (Page), the real life ladies who lived these events. I think that, for Ellen – not to put words in her mouth – it was liberating and exciting and fulfilling to be an out, gay woman playing an out, gay woman. That was a new experience for her and we think that’s a new experience for any movie. You’d have a hard time thinking about another performer for whom that’s been true.

To what extent was Stacie Andree involved as a consultant?

Well, obviously the film could not be made without her blessing. And then, once we had that blessing, she was a member of the team in terms of consulting, and she also appears in the film as an extra. She is in the final courtroom scene sitting right behind Ellen.

Obviously Julianne Moore and Michael Shannon are two great talents. But what about Steve Carrell… was he chosen based on the character or to give the movie a bit of humour?

Interestingly, the man that came into Laurel and Stacie’s lives was very much like the character you see Steve portraying in the film. You know, he relied on very theatrical means to get what he wanted. Sometimes that was by provoking politicians he was taking issue with, sometimes it was by mocking them, and often times the result was very humorous. So, of course, in trying to get that right, we took the opportunity to work with a comedic actor. And, when you’re talking about comedic actors, it’s very hard to do better than Mr Carrell.

One of the things that you’re always encouraging yourself to do when you’re writing a… a purely fiction movie, is to be honest. You’re always asking yourself, what would really happen? That’s what will be most involving. And when you’ve got a true life story, every time you come up against a road block, rather than invention, you’re driven back into research.

You always seem to come back with a solution or a piece of plot or a piece of character that is more interesting than anything you could have invented. Even if it’s a little bit of a coincidence, even if it’s a little bit off the wall. It’s true. It really happened. And having that limit to the truth… is liberating in a way. I think a lot of people think that it’s restrictive. But I found it liberating.

So did you find a lot of times, during the shoot, that you would run into something and you would have to consult the truth? Or was a lot of that done in the script beforehand?

Well, an awful lot was done in the script beforehand, but of course you do get there on the day and you realise there’s more research to be done.

For example, with the courtroom scene, we had Stacie Andree there; we had Laurel’s sister present. We had the real man that Steve Carrell is playing there. And we’d rehearse the scene and get their feedback.

Of course, every single time there was something – from the tiniest detail, like where Steve Carrell’s character puts his bullhorn during the scene, or when he gets on his knees and drops down to embarrass the freeholders. I mean these are things that really happened that we were able to call upon on the day.

What about the police aspect? You have that arresting opening scene. Is that something based on an actual case or were they…

Yeah, that really happened. All of the police things are based on real events Laurel participated in. Laurel and Dane (Shannon) used to do a lot of undercover work on and under the boardwalk at Seaside Heights. Underneath the boardwalk was where a lot of drug hand-offs happened. And Dane would often play, as he described it to me, ‘a high roller down the shore’, from Atlantic City. And Laurel would play his girlfriend. You know, they had characters (laughs)… characters and character designs they used in different situations. But that really happened.

And Laurel really did get dragged by that car you see later in the film. And Dane really did shoot out the tires of that car.

Wow.

True story. That’s how it happened.

I saw that you directed an episode of Vinyl, how was that?

Oh, totally amazing. To have the opportunity to work with Martin Scorsese is obviously a dream come true. He’s very hands-on on the show. And to sit in a room and have someone of that stature, and someone with that legacy treat you as an equal and as a collaborator is an honour that is, truly, a once in a lifetime event for me.

Then, of course, I’m also a major music fan and devotee, especially of that era. And that’s a lot of what my previous feature, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, was all about – music fandom. And to be able to explore that under the advisement of somebody who really contributed to that, like Mick Jagger, was a thrill. It’s a wonderful show, I’m very proud to be a part of that piece.

Cool. So, what’s next? Maybe some more TV or do you have something else that you’re writing…

I’m doing a bit of writing. I also found working on this true story truly fascinating and inspiring and I’d love to find another true story to do in addition to the fiction I’m preparing. So… we’ll see. And obviously TV is, right now, a very interesting medium to explore. So… I’m pursuing all areas (laughs).

Freeheld is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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