Laurie Collyers Filmmakers Vows
Writer/director Laurie Collyer based her first fiction feature on a true story.< Sherry (Maggie Gyllanhaal) in Sherrybaby is modeled after Collyers childhood friend. Shes just been released from a three-year drug-related incarceration. Now, clean and sober, she wants to reclaim responsibility for her young daughter, whos 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 Sundances Filmmakers Lab and Cannes Festivals 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 filmmakingdoc 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 dont make sense and are, therefore, neither believable nor engaging.< I researched Sherrybaby as thoroughly as if Id 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. Whats your fascination with incarceration? COLLYER: I dont know Ive 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 whore physically trapped.< Also, its something cultural as Americans, were fascinated by crime. Look at television so many shows are about law enforcement and crime. Film noirs an American genre about crime and criminals. Its a national obsession, and I have my own take on it. I think criminals interest me because in the common perception, theyre doing life on their own terms. Thats attractive because freedoms our national pursuit. Its implanted in us from a young age that we should strive for freedom in our personal lives. So, its an icon. But Ive come to realize that crimes 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 thats not always the case. And, its not about being free. Its about being human, certainly, but its 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 were 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 youre 18, what you do is what you do. Im 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 Sherrybabys 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, Im a criminal. I know you want me to read books and change my life. Ill read and enjoy them, but Im still a criminal. I didnt 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 whod done time himself, told me I had the mother-daughter thing down, but didnt 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: Youre paying professional actors and have more control over them. And, in a way, the relationship is more honest. Youre 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 theyre usually very willing to do it. With docs, the actors and, yes, I do consider them actors arent getting paid. Theyre there because they want to tell their personal stories, which they may see differently from the way you ultimately do. Its 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, Id say I prefer working with professional actors. MERIN: Whats your next project? COLLYER: I actually have three in process. Im not sure which will come through first but I think it might be the one thats not be about crime, criminals, prison or drugs. (Published in New York Press)