Freedomland: Controversial Movie, Starring Julianne Moore

Based on the best-selling novel by Richard Price, Freedomland is meant to be a gritty mystery of a carjacking, a missing child, and a torn neighborhood.

Late one night in a working-class New Jersey suburb, a bloodied woman staggers mute and dazed into the emergency room at the Dempsy Medical Center. After treatment for shock and hysteria, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) recounts to police detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) a horrific tale of being carjacked on the isolated strip of undeveloped land that divides Dempsys urban housing projects from the blue-collar town of Gannon, where she lives. Brenda claims that she was forced out of her car by a black man, but during the interrogation Council senses hes not getting the whole story. After hours of questioning, Brenda breaks down and makes a revelatory confession.

Led by activist Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), members of the communities of Dempsy and Gannon unite in a search for the missing child, but the criminal investigation into the alleged kidnapping by a suspect who is presumed to be a local from the projects soon ignites long-simmering racial tensions between the two towns.

Scott Rudin, the producer of such acclaimed films as The Hours, The Village and Closer, among many others, first met writer Richard Price when he served as a casting director on The Wanderers, the film adaptation of Prices first novel. Later, Rudin worked with Price when he asked him to write the screenplays for Ron Howards Ransom starring Mel Gibson, and for John Singletons Shaft starring Samuel L. Jackson.

Producer Scott Rudin optioned the film rights to Freedomland, a novel about the investigation of a carjacking, when Price was only about halfway through writing the book. One of the things about Scott, which I think makes him so successful, is that he knows exactly what he wants in a business where most everybody else is tentative and unsure, says Price. Then here comes Scott and hes completely unconflicted.

Rudin was eager for Price to adapt his novel to the screen because Richard is the preeminent writer of social realism working in movies today. This movie is completely, squarely in his wheelhouse. He wrote a tremendous script and worked terrifically with director Joe Roth in honing it for the screen.

Freedomland takes place in two Northern New Jersey towns: Dempsy, a predominantly African-American working-class poor inner-city community, and Gannon, a neighboring, largely white blue-collar suburb. Both towns had served as the setting for one of Prices earlier novels, Clockers.

When Gannons Brenda Martin (played by Julianne Moore) says that she was assaulted in a park next to a low-income housing project in Dempsy, and her car was stolen by a black man with her child asleep in the back, the hostility between the two disparate communities escalates. I created these two towns with very different types of people, says Price, and in this story, Gannons worst nightmare comes true ” the projects snatches one of their own.

When Brenda arrives at the Dempsy hospital with the tale of her terrible ordeal, it is Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson), big in size and personality, who handles her case. Price modeled the character of Lorenzo on Calvin E. Hart, a 21-year veteran of the Jersey City police force whom the author had first gotten to know while researching Clockers. Hart, a well-respected figure in Jersey City, not only enforces the law as a police officer, but also works with young people to help them find jobs and stay off drugs. Sometimes Im the only positive male role model they have, Hart says. So I do the things that I do to show kids that you can do anything that you want to do.

Like Hart, Prices Lorenzo is African-American and a pillar of the community. Lorenzo is especially beloved and respected by the residents of the Armstrong housing project, which is where the carjacking occurred. With this particular crime, Lorenzo finds himself under intense pressure to find the perpetrator. Its a simple carjacking that turns into what they call a red ball, explains Price, which is, all-hands-on-deck crime with tremendous media pressure, a missing white child and an alleged black abductor.

As if a red ball werent enough, Brendas brother Danny (Ron Eldard) happens to be a Gannon detective. The racial lines are then clearly drawn as the Gannon police move onto Lorenzos turf, the Armstrong Houses, arresting any possible suspects and blockading people in their homes.

Prices research into police procedures in cases of abducted children also led him to Donna Cutugno, the founder and leader of Friends of Jennifer for Missing Children, a volunteer group that searches for missing persons. In 1987, when a local child named Jennifer Schweiger was kidnapped in Staten Island, Cutugno organized neighbors to help police search for the missing child ” whose body was later recovered by Cutugnos group. Once we found her, we discovered we really helped give some closure to Jennifers parents, says Cutugno. So we decided to stay together and help other families. We have been doing that ever since.

Cutugno brought Price to the place where Jennifer had been found, the then abandoned site of the former Willowbrook State School, an infamous institution for disabled children that was shuttered not long after an expos by journalist Geraldo Rivera exposed the endemic overcrowding and abuse at the facility. She also took him to the overgrown ruins of the adjacent New York Farm Colony, a poor farm dating from 1903 and abandoned since 1975. She instructed Price in the procedures of searching and explained to him how her group teams up with police to support parents after a child abduction. Donna is such a compelling person, like some unblinking kind of hunter, says Price. Shes a very warm person, but theres also this bar of iron in her. Inspired by Cutugno, Price created the character of Karen Collucci (played by Edie Falco), whose group Friends of Kent is enlisted by Lorenzo to help find Brendas son.

Prices research was extensive. But he is quick to dispel any notion that the characters in the book and the movie are based on real people. I can obsessively absorb peoples conversations, and walk in their shoes and learn the nuts and bolts of their profession. But when I actually start writing the book, its all fiction, Price explains. I have to know the parameters of reality so now I can lie plausibly. All my lies will now sound completely plausible.

Freedomland became a highly acclaimed national bestseller when it was published in 1998. Price then spent the next two years adapting the 550-page book into a screenplay. His first draft totaled 300 pages, he admits, more than twice the usual length for a film. Then began the painstaking process of whittling it down to its most cinematic form. Youve got to find a visual shorthand, he says. What works in a book has nothing to do with what works in a movie. Theyre two different art forms, two completely different ways of telling stories. Characters Price had once considered indispensable to his story were found not to be essential to the script. I spent a year stripping away, constantly throwing things I had thought were priceless overboard in order to make the boat go faster.

For the role of Brenda Martin, the fragile mother whose son has disappeared, Rudin sent Prices completed script to Julianne Moore, with whom the producer had worked on The Hours, a film for which the actress received an Academy Award nomination. Richard is a wonderful novelist and a great screenwriter, says Moore about what attracted her to Prices riveting tale. Its beautifully written. Moore describes her character as the black sheep in a family of cops. Brenda dropped out of school and had a drug problem, Moore tells it. Shes a woman who thinks people wont notice or care about her unless she does something wrong. So eventually, she doesnt know how to do anything right.

Despite the stigma of having borne a child out of wedlock, in the film, Brenda confesses to Lorenzo that she felt transformed by the experience of becoming a mother. It was always about being the bad one, until she had this child for whom she had the ultimate responsibility, Moore explains. So in a way, hes the person who has shaped her, who has created the person that she is today: I am this childs mother has been her cause for being. Moore adds that Brenda also finds some contentment in her job, working at an after-school program in the Armstrong Houses.

Once her son goes missing, Brenda watches helplessly as the community of Dempsy is thrown into turmoil over the carjacking. Brenda is a particularly isolated person, so I think the biggest shock for her is how much she affects everyone else, says Moore.

The danger of isolation was just one of many themes in the story that attracted director Joe Roth to direct Freedomland. At the time Roth read Prices script ” at Rudins urging ” he had several successful comedies under his belt as a director and was in search of a different kind of challenge for his next directorial outing.

I was looking for a meaty, dramatic property, says Roth, who hadnt helmed a drama in 20 years. I had read the book and just loved it. It really spoke to me. Roth enjoyed a long-standing relationship both with Price and producer Rudin. Roths directorial debut, Streets of Gold, was co-written by Price and he had greenlit such Rudin projects as Ransom and A Civil Action when he was a studio head. Scott is someone who has great taste in material and who also has been a long-time supporter of Richards, says Roth. I think he is one of the two or three top producers in the business, and certainly the premier producer in New York.

Another theme that attracted Roth to Prices script was the persistence of racism in our society. When something goes wrong, our prejudices against others quickly rises to the surface–thats been true throughout history, Roth observes. Ill bet you when cave men were in two different caves and an animal got lost, they immediately went and blamed the people in the other cave. So its not just about today. Unfortunately, I think its in our nature. Roth was also fascinated by the storys inherent mystery. The idea in the script which compelled me is that need to find out what really happened, he says. Its like peeling away the proverbial onion, with many surprises along the way.

Since Moore was already cast in the role of Brenda, it made Roths decision to commit to the project even easier. Julianne is as good an actress as is working today, he says, the kind of gifted performer who can bring range and nuance to a character who, throughout the entire story, is in a state of shock over having lost her child. Once on board, Roths first assignment was signing the right actor to portray Lorenzo Council, the patriarchal Dempsy detective. As I was reading the script I already knew that Sam Jackson was the only guy for the part, he admits. Like Lorenzo, he is compassionate and virile and has a lot of charisma. You can completely understand why he is somebody the community responds to.

Jackson saw Freedomland as an opportunity to star opposite Julianne Moore and work with Roth, he says. He also responded to Prices writing. Richard has an extremely good ear for cop-speak, the theater-trained actor says. And he writes big speeches for you to do, which is a lot of fun for an actor.

In regards to his character, Jackson notes that the intense pressure on Lorenzo to find the perpetrator is not uncommon in crimes when another police officer is involved ” in this case, the victims brother. When Gannon police begin to lay siege on the Armstrong houses in their manhunt, Lorenzo finds himself in a difficult position, trying to protect the people of Armstrong and, at the same time, find the person responsible for the childs disappearance. Lorenzo is on a ticking clock in terms of how long it will be before things explode inside the projects if he cant get the crime solved in time, Jackson explains.

However, Lorenzos hands are tied. He is assigned to Brenda and cannot act as a buffer between the police and those who live in the projects, where he is affectionately called Big Daddy and his personal problems are well known (he has a son in prison). Lorenzo is as much a protector as he is an enforcer, says Jackson. The overwhelming police presence at the Armstrong Houses causes a rift between Lorenzo and the residents. Hes helpless to do anything, even though hes always been sort of like a white knight in this particular community.

Lorenzo also suspects that Brenda is not being completely forthcoming about what transpired on the night of the carjacking. Lorenzos partner Boyle (actor William Forsythe) reminds him that in the majority of child abductions, the perpetrator is the person who reported the child missing. If Lorenzo were to accuse Brenda of perpetrating a hoax, all she would have to do is say the word lawyer, and he could never talk to her again, and no one would ever know what happened to her son, explains Price. So, although he sees havoc breaking out in his community because of Brendas claims, Lorenzo must act like her friend, her confidante, her confessor. And its ripping him apart, adds Price.

One of Lorenzos tactics for dealing with the bereaved mother is to bring her to the titular Freedomland. He takes her to an old orphanage, which was a pretty brutal place in its day, says Jackson. Its abandoned now and legend has it that when youre in there you can hear the kids crying. Lorenzo and Karen, the head of a volunteer search team, bring Brenda into the creepy ruins of Freedomland and leave her alone inside, in the hope that she might reveal more about her sons fate.

For the role of Karen, Roth immediately thought of Edie Falco, star of the Emmy award-winning HBO series The Sopranos. When I came to New York and met with Donna Cutugno (the model for Karen), I just felt Edie was ideal for the part, he recalls. Like Cutugno, Edie has this hypnotic quality to her and great power. The Brooklyn-born actress says she was immediately comfortable with her real-life counterpart. Meeting Donna Cutugno was great because she reminds me a lot of my family members, explains Falco.

Both Karen Collucci and Donna Cutugno are strongly determined mothers who are expert in finding children and counseling the parents of the missing, according to Falco. I think Karen is very effective at what she does. She has a personal emotional stake in the situation and I think she knows how to get things done. (Unlike Cutugno, the character of Colluci in Freedomland is herself the mother of a missing child).

Roth cast Ron Eldard, the recent star of the series Blind Justice, in the role of Danny Martin, Brendas pugnacious brother and a Gannon cop. Even though he has a troubled relationship with his sister, Dannys main concern is to defend his family and his turf ” whatever the impact on the town of Dempsy. Hes a guy who really believes in protecting his people, says Eldard. I picture Danny as being like a shark who, once he gets in the water, smells blood and refuses to leave. Hes not gonna quit, hes not gonna sleep, hes just going to keep circling and, eventually, hes gonna find out who did it.

For the crucial roles of Billy and Felicia, a young black couple whose troubles are a distraction to Lorenzo, the filmmakers cast two up-and-coming stars: Anthony Mackie, who recently starred Off-Broadway in McReele, and was seen in Million Dollar Baby, assumed the role of Billy. Aunjanue Ellis, who had a leading role in Ray, opposite Jamie Foxx, portrays Felicia. Anthony Mackie is a guy who well be talking about for a long time, says Roth, who is equally effusive about Ellis, recently cast to star in The E-Ring, a television drama from producer Jerry Bruckheimer. They are two truly outstanding New York-based actors.

Before principal photography began on Freedomland in late March, 2005, director Roth, producer Rudin and their production team scouted every low-income housing project in the New York/New Jersey area to find the right location for the films Armstrong Houses, where much of story takes place.

Prices model for Armstrong, the Jersey City housing complex Currys Woods, had been demolished several years previous. They finally settled on Mulford Gardens in Yonkers, New York states fourth largest city just across the Hudson River from New Jersey. Built in 1939 as one of the nations first low-income housing projects, Mulford Gardens consists of more than 550 apartments in 17 groupings of three and four-story buildings that sprawl over a Yonkers hillside. Itself scheduled for demolition in the fall of 2005, Mulford Gardens was still 75 percent occupied when the production filmed there for almost four weeks, close to half the total shooting schedule.