Interview Laurie Collyer, Director SherryBaby

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

Laurie Collyer’s first feature film, "Nuyorican Dream," was a documentary of the American nightmare as told through the eyes of an impoverished New York Puerto Rican family. The film premiered in competition at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, was broadcast by HBO as part of the Cinemax Reel Life series, and won top prizes at the Havana Film Festival, Cinema du Reel in Paris, Outfest LA, and the New York Latino Film Festival. It was also nominated for a Director’s Guild of America Award, an International Documentary Association (IDA) Award for best feature documentary, and an American Latino Media Arts (ALMA) Award for best television documentary.

Collyer, a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts’ film program, began the process of creating her next project, "Sherrybaby," when she and her script were selected to take part in the 2001 Sundance Filmmaker’s Lab in Sundance, Utah, where screenwriters and filmmakers meet each year to flesh out and develop promising projects. The Lab presented an invaluable opportunity for Collyer to finish her script and meet people that might help her see it to the screen. "The Sundance Lab gave me everything I needed to make my script good, to get the movie made, and to keep me humble for the rest of my life," she states.

"Sherrybaby" is a film about the hope of a young woman trying to reconnect with her child after a long hard road of drug addiction and prison time. Collyer elaborates, "It is a desperate, almost primal hope which exists beyond reason. But this is truly what hope is – an indomitable spirit that keeps us believing that life can be what we imagine. As a character, Sherry Swanson is the embodiment of hope because she has nothing left to believe in, and yet she still believes."

Based on a true story, "Sherrybaby" blends documentary and narrative film elements. Collyer explains, "One of my closest childhood friends went to prison the year I graduated from college. I based the story of Sherrybaby on her life. We used to party together in junior high and high school and I always looked up to her as someone who didn’t take shit from anybody. I think I became obsessed with her story because in the back of my mind I knew that it could have been me going down that path. Two other kids from my block died in their mid-30’s from heroin, between them was also one little girl left behind. People think that stories of prison and drugs come from the ghetto. It’s not true. We are a post-60’s generation. We’ve done a lot of drugs and reveled in a lot of negativity. Some of us survived and some of us didn’t. "Sherrybaby" is for my friend and for all the rest of us who have weathered the storm."

When Collyer left the Lab with her script and began to take it around to producers, all of them told her that she would need to get an experienced actor attached to the project before she’d ever be able to get it made. By this time, Maggie Gyllenhaal had had her breakout performance in "Secretary" and was now becoming recognized as an extremely talented actress in the independent film community. Collyer got Gyllenhaal the script, and shortly thereafter, they met for dinner in downtown New York to discuss the project.

Collyer immediately sensed that Gyllenhaal had not only the acting chops, but the character necessary to take on the weighty role. "She has a heart of gold, and with a project as personal and close to my heart as this is, I knew that was going to be very important," says Collyer. "I chose Maggie Gyllenhaal for this role because I believe she is the most exciting actress of her generation. She has a sparkling mind, a wealth of emotion and miles and miles of charisma. She has the ability to turn the darkest, most difficult characters into someone you would want to know. On top of all that, she has the integrity of an artist. I jumped at the opportunity to work with Maggie Gyllenhaal, and our collaboration is the reason I can call myself a director today."

Ms. Collyer recently sat down with Movies Online to discuss what it was like to direct "Sherrybaby." She appeared relaxed and happy to talk about her new film and her responses were thoughtful and well considered. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: So you kind of based Sherry on someone you grew up with?

LC: I grew up in New Jersey in this very sort of sleepy, suburban town where there wasn’t much going on, and when I was in late elementary school, I met this girl who I thought was just the coolest thing ever, and she was really smart and used big words like ‘premonition’ and ‘tribulation.’ But she could also really throw down in the school yard with the boys. She was pretty tough so I really admired her and we got to be close and my life became much more interesting, but then as time went on, the partying got more intense and I switched to a private school and she just became more intensely into partying and drugs and stuff like that. So when I went to college, she was pretty much on the path to doing time in prison. I found that out through a mutual friend of ours and it was a starting point for wanting to tell the story because I was really interested in what went wrong and why was it her and not me and also the tragedy of it because, like I said, she was really brilliant.

Q: Where in Jersey are you from?

LC: I’m from Mountainside. It’s about 20 minutes west of Newark.

Q: And where was this filmed in New Jersey?

LC: Mountainside. Outside Newark.

Q: Did you know what happened to this lady?

LC: She’s living in Florida with her two kids and she’s a born again Christian. She’s married.

Q: Has she seen the movie? What does she think?

LC: She’s really proud of it. She knows it’s fiction, too. I mean there’s all kinds of stuff in there that has nothing to do with her. Because I did a lot of research. I, myself, have never been incarcerated so I felt very responsible to tell the story very accurately and I met a lot of ex-convicts and worked with a lot of non-profits, parole officers, and stuff like that just to get the story right. So it’s kind of a lot of other people’s stories in it, but it was inspired by this woman.

Q. You said in the production notes that Maggie was the greatest actress of her generation. That’s quite a statement to make. Based on what movies did you come to that conclusion? Any particular one movie?

LC: Well, I saw "Secretary" and I’ve seen all of her movies before "Sherrybaby." I saw "Mona Lisa Smile." She was the best thing in that movie. I saw her play, her Tony Kushner play "Homebody/Kabul," but I had an instinct about her and people keep asking me why did I pick her, well she also picked me. I mean I’m a first time director of fiction film. It’s not like I had… you know, we picked each other. So I had an instinct about her and I was really happy to have her respond to the material and really lucky to get it to her, but I didn’t fully realize that statement that you just said back to me until I saw all this come together. I know that sounds like maybe I’m bragging or something but I’m not (laughs). I’m just saying I think her performance in this movie is so good. It shows such a range, such a depth, and such complexity. And that’s what I’m really proud of in this film. I just think she really committed and she really went there and took a lot of risks.

Q: What is she like to work with?

LC: She’s very strong willed. She’s very, very smart. She’s very analytical. She’s very honest. She doesn’t want to tell lies.

Q: She’s also known for rewriting her role, her characters. Did she do that on this film as well?

LC: No. There was room for her to enter the character, but she didn’t rewrite it. I mean the movie is the character. The script is the character.

Q: I’ve got to say that the little girl who played her daughter…. I’ve been impressed with Dakota Fanning for years and realizes she’s older now, but she started at that age. But, you know, even the best TV or movie kid actors – the characters they play seem much more rational than children at that age are and this girl just like really captured the kind of scatter shot thing of doing it. Was she actually like that or was she acting all that out?

LC: I just kept thinking on set that I, we should get her to a place… I call it the id zone where she was just very id because emotionally she’s had a real roller coaster for a six year old, you know. She had a mom who was sort of there and sort of not there for the first couple years of her life, then she really wasn’t there. She’s got these people taking care of her, but she calls them Bobbie and Lynettte, but they’re not mom and dad.
 
I mean all this stuff for a child that age is kind of huge so I wanted her to be a little bit stunted by the experience, a little bit wild from the experience, so that the way Maggie and I worked with her on set … I can’t really tell you now what specific things we did but I just remember the whole time thinking we have to get to the ‘id’. (laughs) And I think you see that, especially when Sherry’s telling her why she went to prison and she takes that newspaper and puts it on her head. Nobody told her to put the newspaper on her head. She was just in a space where all actors need to be, where she felt free and she trusted us. And I’m not exactly sure how we did it but …

Q: It’s really wonderful.

LC: I think we did.

Q: What did you mean when you said ‘Maggie also went for it.’ I mean, you said you wanted her and she read the script and she didn’t have to lobby you. What did you mean by that? What did you mean by that phrase, ‘Maggie went after it.’?

LC: Well, in order to get a movie like this made with this sort of material in the climate that we are in now, and with someone with relatively no track record. You know, I just made one documentary. I knew and I was told, I was advised a lot at the Sundance Lab actually by my wonderful advisors and consultants there to get an actor attached first before trying to raise the money.
 
They told me also at the lab that it was the sort of a part that actors love to play so that it wouldn’t be that hard but you know at the same time, I was very picky. There are all these TV shows that have young women actors on them but I didn’t really want a TV actress. I wanted…. Maggie came to my mind very early in the process and I went after her. And I just felt I was lucky that she responded to the material because she’s also a very serious actress who’s star is rising and she could have very easily been like, ‘not for me’ and still had a wonderful career. You know what I mean? She picked me too.

Q: What did they do to you at the Sundance Lab? I’ve always wondered. I was actually surprised when I read in here (referring to production notes) that you’ve been through the Sundance Lab because I thought, ‘Boy, this is a very specific approach.’ It’s not the most original story in the world but all the details of it are. And they all seem very real. And most Sundance Lab stuff I see seems to have been taken up the mountain and snowballed. I don’t know what to say about it.

LC: That’s… I’ve read that. I think this is sort of a two-part question. You know, the Lab is for emerging filmmakers specifically. And a lot of emerging filmmakers are young filmmakers. I personally was not so young. I’m not that old either, but I couldn’t call myself a young filmmaker. But I think, you know, early in anyone’s career, I think what you’re talking about in terms of a lab project seeming like a lab project maybe is just a film that’s very early in someone’s career seeming like a film that’s very early in one’s career. Because at the Lab you have a lot of freedom and it’s just a privilege because you’re working with industry professionals from across the spectrum.
 
You’re working with playwrights as well as the guy who wrote "Charlie’s Angels" in terms of across the artistic spectrum. And nobody is telling them what to tell us. They’re just reading our material and giving us their honest notes on it. And then once you get into the Filmmakers Lab, again you’re shooting scenes from your script. And then you sit in sort of a round table like I am now with you guys and they go by you one by one and they give you notes based on the scene that they watched on the screen but it isn’t like anyone who is running the institute is saying, ‘This is our mission. Make sure you get it across.’ And again it’s a very broad spectrum. You have very… I mean Allen Daviau is one of my advisors. He shot "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and then you get, you know, Robert Elswit who does more edgy work like "Good Night, Good Luck," and P.T. Anderson’s movies and so it’s just … There’s no agenda coming from the Lab, but then you’re working with very talented artists so there’s probably just a ton of like individual agendas, you know, if you could call them agendas.

Q: I have a question about the nudity in the film. Was it always intended or was it something like Maggie and you both decided was needed for the part or needed for the movie?

LC: Everything… pretty much … the script was written before we shot anything so all of the sex scenes were there. Actually, I think there was probably more nudity in the script. And I felt very strongly about her representing her sexuality the way I did because of all the research I had done and all the women that I have been around who use their bodies to get what they want. It’s a very street culture way to survive and so I just thought I didn’t want to pussyfoot around it.

Q: Did Maggie have any problem with that? I mean, she’s very comfortable with her body it appears. Is that what it was?

LC: She is very comfortable with her body. I mean, I think the scenes ultimately were really hard on her psychically because it is disturbing the way that Sherry uses her body sometimes. Even though she as Sherry doesn’t see it that way. Once Maggie stepped out of the role and was more objective, I think she …. You know, it made her feel bad. I mean like the scene with the job counselor…it’s degrading, you know. I actually think it’s the saddest scene in the movie.
 
The first time I saw it in dailies I cried. I just thought ‘Oh, she’s so desperate.’ But it was a scene that I wrote because I got it in an interview, you know, a woman told me like ‘if you go to this agency you have to blow the job counselor.’ That’s what she told me so I thought, ‘Wow, God. That’s so deep.’ And you know I really wanted to demystify or expose certain things about the way people live and the stuff you don’t see every day… It’s one of the things I like to do as a filmmaker is show things that you don’t always think about or see.

Q: Her love interest in this movie. Did you have him in mind?

LC: For years before finishing the script, I knew about Danny Trejo so maybe I had him in mind although the character was based on somebody else who I knew who was a real person. This Native American I met who (inaudible) was a Viet Nam vet and had a religious conversion in prison and became a medicine man. I hung out with him quite a bit and he inspired that character.

Q: Did you suggest that Maggie go to rehab? You were the one that suggested that?

LC: Uh huh.

Q: How intense was that? It looks like it was quite intense?

LC: Well, it was intense, but at the same time, I think her performance really comes from a place inside herself. I don’t think it’s like…she’s never ever … This is what I love about her and why I say she’s such a great actress. She’s never imitating anyone. She’s pulling it from her treasure chest of talent and wisdom and commitment that she has within herself. She spent a few weeks going to halfway houses and drug rehab like you said but she’s not really a method actor. She didn’t really move in anywhere like to try to become just like them. She just ..more just to enter into that world and see the behavior charts on the walls and the gates coming down and all that experience. But she’s not mimicking anyone.

Q: So how did you get interested in becoming a filmmaker? What is it like to make your first feature? How’s it feel now?

LC: It’s pretty exciting making movies. It’s really a privilege and an honor, you know. And I’ve had some moments where it’s been hard and you know, you struggle financially with material like this because it’s years and years before you get financing. You know, you’ve got to figure out how to live. And always in those moments, I think that I’m doing what I want and I want to do it because not only is it very enriching, but it’s a lot of fun. So it’s just been really fun. I got interested in it… I was working in social services for a time and I sort of accidentally made a film about one of my students in special ed and it accidentally got played in front of ten thousand people at a concert, a school benefit concert.

Q: The Neil Young thing?

LC: Yeah. She was a student at the Bridge School and his wife saw a copy of the film. They invited it to play and it was a 10-minute clip from it and when I was sitting there with the audience, I felt the power of the medium and that’s when I said ‘This is what I want to do.’ Because you just have this ability to reach so many people with such a small product and everybody who goes to the Bridge School’s benefit concert tend to go every year and also tend to know nothing about the Bridge School and watching this clip from my video had these extreme close-ups of this girl, Tan (Tron?), using her electronic talking device which was what the Bridge School teaches kids to do.
 
It’s extreme close-ups where sometimes I didn’t even have her face, just her hand coming down and like in real time, typing out ‘sometimes I get lonely and I need to talk to someone.’ And it was probably three minutes of screen time just watching… sort of excruciatingly slow, but at the same time it enabled the people in the audience to finally see, ‘Ah, this is what the Bridge School is about.’ You know, so it was really cool. It was 1993. My 27th birthday. I was psyched. It was a privilege.

Q: And what did you discover making this feature? What was the most rewarding thing?

LC: Well the most rewarding thing for me is the actors. I love actors. Trying to get my hands on them. Work with more actors and more talent. And the challenging part is the business part.

Q: What do you hope an audience will take away from your film? What are you hoping they’ll take from it?

LC: Well, I just hope Sherrybaby is going to make people think, ask questions, talk to each other about anything that they can find in the film: prison, reform, addiction, women, women’s sexuality, any of those things.

Q: What about the molestation?

LC: Incest, yeah. Those things. Make people think.

Q: When you got Maggie attached, they said to you ‘Laurie, how much money do you need?’

LC: I actually didn’t do that part. OK? I got a producer involved after Maggie said she was interested. She wasn’t officially attached pretty much until we started production. It doesn’t … Actors, you know, they have to survive too so she was still working on other movies and stuff like that but I got a producer, Lemore Syvan, who then she was the one who dealt with all the numbers. Like I said, that’s my biggest challenge.

Q: Were there any lighthearted moments with Maggie on the set since it was so nice.

LC: Yeah, oh yeah.

Q: Can you talk about one of those?

LC: Well, it’s two years ago that I shot this movie. We always ended our days and began our days with a hug and how are you and what’s going on. Like that.

Q: Was it cool to see her play the mom and now knowing that she’s going to be a mom?

LC: Of course. I was really excited to see her pregnant. She looks …

Q: Think she’ll be a good one?

LC: Absolutely. Oh my god, I was blown away with how good she was with those kids … they’re real kids. They came to the location. She just whipped them into their singing shape. (laughter) She’s going to be an amazing mom.

Q: Thank you.

"Sherrybaby" opens in theaters in Los Angeles and New York City on September 8th followed by a national roll out. I invite you to read my review of the film and my interview with the film’s star, Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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