Jennifer Merin interviews Laurie Collyer re “Sherrybaby”

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Laurie Collyer’s Filmmaker’s Vows

Writer/director Laurie Collyer based her first fiction feature on a true story.< Sherry (Maggie Gyllanhaal) in “Sherrybaby“ is modeled after Collyer’s childhood friend. She‘s just been released from a three-year drug-related incarceration. Now, clean and sober, she wants to reclaim responsibility for her young daughter, who’s been cared for by relatives– her brother (Brad Henke) and his wife (Bridget Barkan)– who adore and hope to adopt the child.

NY-based Collyer, an NYU Tisch School of the Arts grad, began filmmaking after pursuing a career in social services. “Nuyorican Dream,” her award-winning feature- length documentary, premiered at Sundance in 2000. She then developed “Sherrybaby“ at Sundance’s Filmmaker’s Lab and Cannes Festival‘s Cinefondation Residence.

“Filmmaking requires telling the truth, even in fiction,” says Collyer. “That commitment comes from my social and political convictions, and from my NYU training, which emphasized truth-telling as the basis for all filmmaking–doc and fiction. Our first year film assignment was an eight-minute observational doc without interviews. We were taught to use true-life stories as the basis for all our scripts– in order to focus us away from making purely invented stories about things we really know nothing about– that ultimately don’t make sense and are, therefore, neither believable nor engaging.”< “I researched “Sherrybaby” as thoroughly as if I’d been preparing to make a doc– speaking with ex-cons, visiting halfway houses, attending twelve-step meetings. Maggie did the same.” MERIN: “Nuyorican Dream: and “Sherrybaby” are prison-related. What‘s your fascination with incarceration? COLLYER: I don’t know– I’ve actually asked myself that question. On a personal level, things in my life make me feel trapped– never having enough money, for example. I grew up middle class, but sort of made this unspoken vow of poverty when I left college– going into social services, then becoming an artist. Minimal income made me feel trapped. I identify with people who’re physically trapped.< Also, it’s something cultural– as Americans, we’re fascinated by crime. Look at television– so many shows are about law enforcement and crime. Film noir’s an American genre about crime and criminals. It’s a national obsession, and I have my own take on it. I think criminals interest me because in the common perception, they’re doing life on their own terms. That’s attractive– because freedom’s our national pursuit. It‘s implanted in us from a young age that we should strive for freedom in our personal lives. So, it’s an icon. But I’ve come to realize that crime’s something totally different than our national perception, glamorization and understanding of it. MERIN: How so? COLLYER: I perceived of it as a choice people make, then realized that’s not always the case. And, it’s not about being free. It’s about being human, certainly, but it’s less about taking life on your own terms then about following a different set of rules. MERIN: How does this pertain to “Sherrybaby“? Did your childhood friend have a choice? COLLYER: Yes. We all have choices– certainly when we’re adults. But you see common threads in the lives of people who become criminals. A family history of addiction and abuse, for example, which pushes a person in a certain direction. Of course, when you’re 18, what you do is what you do. I’m excusing of certain behaviors up to a point, but I believe we make the decision to rob someone or not– and that, to a certain extent, is what “Sherrybaby‘s“ about. However, personality factors– perhaps even genes– combine with environmental factors. Nuyorican Dreams is about a family where three of five children were criminals. I became friendly with the youngest– and he became part of Sherry. I visited him in prison, first for the doc– then because I wanted to save him. He always told me, “I’m a criminal. I know you want me to read books and change my life. I’ll read and enjoy them, but I’m still a criminal.“ I didn’t believe that until he showed it to me in other ways– by conning me. MERIN: I think you can only be conned by someone if you want something from them. What did you want? COLLYER: Well, after I finished the doc, I kept visiting him because I thought he could help me with my script for “Sherrybaby“– because one of my mentors, someone who‘d done time himself, told me I had the mother-daughter thing down, but didn’t know shit about being an ex-con. I thought this kid could help me get it. MERIN: What was the difference between working with professionals on “Sherrybaby” and non-actors on “Nuyorican Dreams”? COLLYER: You’re paying professional actors and have more control over them. And, in a way, the relationship is more honest. You’re all there for the same reason– to make the film. Professional actors have instincts and opinions and are strong-willed, but you can be direct in telling them what you want from them, and they’re usually very willing to do it. With docs, the actors– and, yes, I do consider them actors– aren’t getting paid. They’re there because they want to tell their personal stories, which they may see differently from the way you ultimately do. It’s certainly more challenging to get elements you need to tell the story, and their expectations may be extraordinary– even in matters not relating directly to the film. In general, I‘d say I prefer working with professional actors. MERIN: What’s your next project? COLLYER: I actually have three in process. I’m not sure which will come through first– but I think it might be the one that’s not be about crime, criminals, prison or drugs. (Published in New York Press)

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).