A previous Oscar winner for her 2007 documentary short, “Freeheld,” director Cynthia Wade is back in the race this month for her new film, “Mondays at Racine.”
“Mondays at Racine” is a 40-minute documentary following a Long Island hair salon that opens its doors every third Monday of the month to give free beauty services to women undergoing chemotherapy. More so than the salon itself, the film hones in on the daily struggles that these women endure – a battle that salon-owners and sisters Cynthia and Rachel know far too well after their mother passed from cancer.
“They didn’t like how dejected she felt and how much of a pariah she felt like in the community – in a different time when no one really said the word ‘cancer,’” Wade says of the two sisters. They will be accompanying her to the Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 24, an honor that Wade describes as “incredibly gratifying” for her.
The East Valley Tribune spoke with Wade as she was in transit to the Oscar nominees’ luncheon, which was held in Los Angeles on Feb. 4. In between flights, Wade spoke about “Mondays at Racine,” the unusual way she learned of her Best Documentary Short nomination and what films she enjoyed most in 2012.
Q: To begin, what inspired you to make this film?
A: I wanted to make a film that started out with a really simple idea and have the audience fall into a rabbit hole of a lot more complex stories of relationships. The idea of losing your hair when you’re diagnosed with cancer, and then your eyebrows and your eyelashes, is really such a trivial thing in the face of potentially losing your life, but I found that it was a good way of opening a door and falling through a rabbit hole, like in “Alice in Wonderland.” It allows you to see that hair being stripped away from somebody is only the first domino in a lot of dominoes and it affects everything in their lives – their marriages, their careers, their home life. That was kind of the beginning: to start with something incredibly small and follow that over the course of 2 ½ years.
Q: How long did you it take for you to make and what were some of the challenges you encountered in the filmmaking process?
A: It took about 2 ½ years, including all this publicity maybe about 3 years now, with the festival circuit. I would say in terms of the challenges, every woman who walked through the doors of the salon, we really didn’t know if that was going to be a story that ended up being in the film, and I actually had a similar challenge with a film I made about 10 years ago called “Shelter Dogs” where I was filming an animal shelter over the course of 2 years. If you don’t get the beginning of the story, then you really can’t use the middle or the end even if you have a great middle or end, so you just don’t know any time somebody comes through the door, and in the case of shelter dogs, people were coming in and surrendering their pets.
I’m in no way comparing an animal shelter to a beauty parlor or animals to humans, but it was the same process in that somebody coming through the door may have looked like they may not want to be filmed or followed or have a story that’d be able to be told through two years. We didn’t know but we shot through a lot of hours and we shot a lot of people and families that ended up not being in the film. That was probably the most challenging part: that you just had to shoot not knowing where each story was going to go.
Q: Was there anything that you learned while working on “Mondays at Racine” that really resonated with you or brought home the importance of this project?
A: Yeah, I would say a couple things. One is, I think as a woman, the idea of being diagnosed with cancer and losing my hair before I made this film seemed like the most awful and terrifying experience, and it seems less scary now. These women have a lot of courage, and it seems less scary and less intimidating to me. The importance of having a support group around women with cancer is paramount; the support of their friends, families, communities, spouses, siblings and children…that really drove home to me. That’s just really important.
Also, I think for a lot of people when somebody is diagnosed, they walk up and say, “What can I do for you?” and I think it’s a really passive question – “What can I do for you to help?” What I really learned watching the women is that it’s best when somebody says, “I’m going to make dinner for your family on Thursday” or “I’m going to take your kids to the museum on Saturday.” I guess if I’m ever in the situation with friends or family, I’ll strive to be more proactive as opposed to a passive question. “How can I help?” doesn’t really help anybody when they’re in the midst of a crisis.
Q: Where were you when you learned of your Oscar nomination and what was your reaction?
A: Well, the funny story this year is that I live in western Massachusetts, which is a very snowy and rural area and we would pretty much have to wake up before 6 every morning because it’s pretty much like a farm community, farm living and my kids go to rural schools that are far away. So when my husband and I woke up and it was pitch black outside, and he said to me, “There’s no heat, no electricity, no phone, and no Internet. The power went out last night during the windstorm.” I was like “This is not the morning for this to be happening” because I knew the nominations were being announced in LA.
So we lit candles that were candles at our wedding – they were literally candles on our tables from our wedding 14 years ago – and we still have the candles so we placed them around the house and I was making peanut butter & jelly sandwiches for the kids by candlelight and, you know, I was worried that in a rural area, I wouldn’t even get a text. So I put my iPhone against an old window in our house and slowly the sun started to rise and finally the window vibrated and I realized I got a text from my publicist in LA. It was just a one-word text from my publicist that said, “Yes.” I was probably the only nominee who had that experience.
Q: To wrap things up, what would you say were some of your favorite films of last year and why?
A: You know, I’m still plowing through them, I have to be honest with you. It’s a really strong lineup; it’s a really, really strong lineup. I mean I loved “Lincoln” because I’m a history buff and love Lincoln in general. I loved “Life of Pi” because of the metaphors in it and just the challenges that we have in life. I loved Naomi Watts in “The Impossible.” I’m seeing “Zero Dark Thirty” tonight, actually, I haven’t seen it yet. It’s an incredibly strong lineup, I would say, and “Argo” was also terrific. I really can’t pull out a favorite.
I’m just excited because I’m going to be at the nominees’ luncheon tomorrow with all of these incredibly talented nominees, and they don’t put a batch of filmmakers at tables, everybody’s just mixed up together. Last luncheon, I was seated next to Julie Christie, who was nominated for “Away From Her,” and Scott Rudin, the producer. I don’t know who I’ll be sitting next to tomorrow but I’m just drinking in all the films I can and trying to watch all of them so I can have smart conversations with whoever I’m sitting next to tomorrow.
“Mondays at Racine” and other Oscar-nominated documentary shorts are now playing at Harkins Valley Art in Tempe. They will be available on iTunes and video-on-demand beginning Feb. 19.