Sundance Film Festival

Interview with Cynthia Wade, director of LIVING THE LEGACY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF MILTON HERSHEY SCHOOL

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Oscar-winning documentary director Cynthia Wade.

On May 17th, Sundance Channel will screen LIVING LEGACY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF MILTON HERSHEY SCHOOL which follows four young students as they separate from their parents and enroll in Milton Hershey School, a residential school in Pennsylvania. The film follows the children during their first school year – a turbulent, dramatic and eye-opening experience for the students and their families. Director Cynthia Wade speaks with Sundance Channel about her experience working on this film.

SUNDANCE CHANNEL: What first drew you to the story of Milton Hershey School?

Wade: I’d recently finished FREEHELD, a 38 minute film (which won the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary in 2008 and 15 other film festival awards). I was directing another short documentary in Cambodia (BORN SWEET, which won Honorable Mention at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival). With those two short films as my latest endeavors, I was eager to move back into long-form documentary and direct another feature-length film.

It’s a completely different experience directing a feature-length film, as it demands so much more material, time, patience, and energy — think “marriage” as opposed to “long term relationship.” I was ready for another “film marriage.” When I was approached by Milton Hershey School as a director for this project, I jumped at the chance. It was exciting to think about staying with a project on a long-term basis, following characters over an extended period of time.

SUNDANCE CHANNEL: How did you choose which children you would focus on in the film?

Wade: This was a challenging project in that I was telling the story of a school with a 100 year old history, a school that serves nearly 1,800 students every year. How do you even begin to focus a film on a school that has one hundred years of history and serves nearly 2,000 families each school year? Every child, every family, every alum has a story. The depth and breadth of Milton Hershey School is extensive, but telling a broad, sweeping, historical story is not my style. My typical directorial approach is to follow the intimate details of one or two characters. My hope is that through experiencing the small moments in very personal stories, audience members can draw their own conclusions about larger societal issues.

When choosing the children for this film, I cast a wide net. You never know where each story will take you, so I chose many students from elementary through high school age. We started filming in August when the Hershey school begins its academic year. My crew and I followed many students intensely for the first three months. It was not until Thanksgiving when I knew who I was following, and I narrowed down the characters. This allowed me to be more focused, careful and deliberate with the shoot days ahead so that I could really craft a strong arc for each character.

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Working on LIVING THE LEGACY.

SUNDANCE CHANNEL: Did you encounter anything unexpected that affected the final film?

Wade: To be honest, I was really inspired and amazed at the Hershey School’s vision and trust. The school let an outside documentary director come in and make a film that was not a promotional piece. I am known for tackling tough subject matter, and they knew that this was not going to be a film about silver-wrapped Hershey kisses. This was going to be a serious documentary about the students, their families and the school. I was going to be there during the good times and the hard times. I give Milton Hershey School credit for trusting this long process, even when, along the way, it was a little scary or uncomfortable. In the end, the school is pleased with the final product, and several alumnae have commented that the film is the most honest depiction of the school that they have seen. Ultimately, this was a process that required collaboration and trust.

SUNDANCE CHANNEL: You have made a film about divorce in your own family, so you’re obviously willing to delve into difficult personal territory. Were there any moments during filming that challenged you personally or emotionally that your comfortable sharing?

Wade: One of the students, a 10-year-old girl named Jerrica, had a mother with a history of drug addiction. Her mother, Gail, was extremely open, and filmed her struggles with addiction with a small HD camera that I loaned her. Some of Gail’s footage was quite raw and dramatic — she was incredibly honest and actually had great cinematography instincts. Gail sent me many, many tapes filled with stark, eye-opening and well-shot footage. While some scenes may have made for terrifically provocative television moments, I held back a lot of Gail’s footage because I didn’t think it was fair to her 10-year-old daughter to show her mother’s every transgression on national television. There were lots of discussions in the editing room about what ultimately would be fair to the students. The students were aware of their parents struggles, but that doesn’t mean that it is in their best interest to have every detail chronicled for public consumption. That was a line that we walked a lot.

SUNDANCE CHANNEL: How do you approach filming children? Do you find it harder or easier to make them comfortable with a camera around than adults?

Wade: We gave the children and the parents their own small HD cameras, so that they could be active participants and collaborators in the documentary process. This allowed everyone to have some control and ownership over their narratives. I think this helped in allowing both children and parents to open up.

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Director Cynthia Wade and producer Vanessa Roth win the 2008 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject for FREEHELD.

SUNDANCE CHANNEL: What do you think ties all your films together? Are there consistent themes you find yourself drawn to? Did you discover those through experience on your own and other’s films, or did you set out to make certain kinds of films about certain subjects?

Wade: One of the themes that keep recurring in my work is death and dying. I am not sure what that is about. I was not even aware of this ongoing theme until a couple of years ago. This has not been a deliberate choice, and to be honest, it’s a disconcerting. Quite literally, the last five films I have directed have addressed death or dying on screen: GRIST FOR THE MILL (Cinemax, 1999) focused on the death of my grandfather as well as the death of my parents’ marriage; SHELTER DOGS (HBO, 2004) was a story about dog euthanasia at a “kill” shelter; FREEHELD (Cinemax/LOGO, 2008) was about a dying policewoman fighting for equal rights; BORN SWEET (Sundance Film Festival, 2010) is about a Cambodian village dying of arsenic poisoning.

I had no intention of focusing on death or dying in a film that featured a happy school in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Very unfortunately, there was a student at the Hershey School, a senior named Chloe, who was sick with cancer and fighting for her life. When the school mentioned Chloe to me, I did not want to film her. I am a mother of two daughters; the theme was too scary, and I just didn’t think I could face telling another story about dying. On a narrative level, I also felt that Chloe’s story was extraordinary, and that my job was to tell the more typical, ordinary stories at the school.

However, the Hershey School was really amazing in the way the entire community rallied around Chloe and her family. Chloe was supported in every way: medically, academically, and socially. In the end, Chloe’s story was included in the film because it showed the great lengths that the Hershey School goes for its students, and it showed a family-like atmosphere at the school.

SUNDANCE CHANNEL: What’s next?

Wade: After two decades of working in the independent documentary world and running a production company in New York City, I am moving to Los Angeles to pursue new documentary projects and to work as a producer on a fictionalized film version of FREEHELD. I am looking forward to the change in lifestyle and weather, as well as the opportunity to discover new stories out on the West Coast.

Visit the official site of Milton Hershey School.

Check out the rest of Cynthia Wade’s work, including the Oscar-winning FREEHELD, via her official site.