Written by Laurie Collyer
Directed by Laurie Collyer
Produced by Elevation Filmworks/ Big Beach Films
MPAA rating: “R for strong sexuality, nudity, language and drug content”
Running time: 96 minutes
Should I Care?
Maggie Gyllenhaal picked up a Golden Globe nomination (her second) for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Drama” in SherryBaby and it’s a citation that doesn’t come close to giving the film the cred it deserves. SherryBaby is one of the better ‘70s movies to be released in the last decade. Tracing the ups and downs of a recently paroled young woman, the movie is an assured, refreshingly candid answer to Straight Time (1978). Instead of Dustin Hoffman reasserting himself on the streets of L.A. following parole, SherryBaby uses the suburbs as its arena and focuses on the reconciliation between an ex-con and her daughter. The narrative feature film debut of writer-director Laurie Collyer avoids cheap moral lessons, with an actress game to explore less than flattering aspects of her dysfunctional character.
As acutely as Straight Time portrayed the temptations available to an ex-con on the streets, SherryBaby traffics in the domestic minefield that awaits a woman trying to piece her life back together following time behind bars. Collyer manages to convey a high degree of tension with little or no violence and if it all feels small in scale, the movie surpasses expectations by rooting itself in reality. Russell Lee Fine — serving as director of photography between stints shooting MTV’s The Real World and HBO’s The Wire — lends the docudrama a rich look. As for Maggie Gyllenhaal, her salience has less to do with any ability to transform into character, but to come across as real and spontaneous and transform the audience into seeing the world from the point of view of that character. This is her best work yet.
So, What’s This About?
Sherry Swanson (Maggie Gyllenhaal) climbs off a bus somewhere in New Jersey and makes her way to a halfway house. After checking in with parole officer Hernandez (Giancarlo Esposito), Sherry uses her feminine wiles to urge a male employment coordinator to overlook a drug history and give her the job she covets: working with kids in an afterschool program. She’s visited by her gentle brother Bobby (Brad William Henke) who drives Sherry to the suburbs for a reunion with her 4-year-old daughter Alexis (Ryan Simpkins). Sherry’s honesty and hard luck story are lost on her sister-in-law Lynette (Bridget Barkan), who has raised Alexis as if she were her own daughter and does not approve of an ex-con coming into the child’s life.
Unable to cope with the halfway house and refused quarter by Lynette, Sherry moves into a motel. She attends rehab meetings and meets a steady Native American named Dean Walker (Danny Trejo) who remembers Sherry from her topless dancer days as a teenager. Enduring a sexually abusive relationship with her father (Sam Bottoms) and unable to reach her daughter, Sherry relapses into heroin use. A surprise visit from Hernandez compels Sherry to ask him for help; the p.o. offers her the choice of getting clean at an in-patient rehab facility or getting clean in prison. With her life falling apart, Sherry convinces Bobby to let her spend the day with her daughter. Sherry breaks parole, crossing the New Jersey-Delaware border with Alexis for destinations unknown.
Who Made It?
Laurie Collyer grew up in the suburban idyll of New Jersey. Graduating from Oberlin College with the ambition of translating German literature for a living, she moved to San Francisco instead and went to work at a residential treatment center for disturbed children. Social work burned Collyer out within six years, but her love of filmmaking brought her to a film production class, where an assignment to make a 3-minute short about a chair turned into a 25-minute film about a girl confined to a wheelchair. Titled Thanh, Collyer’s short was enthusiastically received when screened at the annual benefit concert for the Bay Area’s non-profit Bridge School. She enrolled in the graduate film program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where her thesis film Nuyorican Dream chronicled the life of a Puerto Rican family in New York. The documentary would compete at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.
Nuyorican Dream won Collyer an invitation to the 2001 Sundance Filmmaker’s Lab. Assisted by research she’d conducted with both ex-cons and the social workers in charge of them, Collyer wrote SherryBaby. Using her Sundance connections, Collyer got the script to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who’d just broken out in the cult hit Secretary (2002). With Gyllenhaal attached, producer Lemore Syvan of New York based Elevation Filmworks got involved. After a year and a half, Syvan finally snared financing in producer Marc Turtletaub, a founding partner of Big Beach Films, who agreed to bankroll SherryBaby at a budget of roughly $2 million. Shot in Collyer’s old stomping grounds of Mountainside, NJ in the summer of 2005, her narrative feature film debut would be acquired by Netflix and garner critical accolades when released a year later.
How’d They Do It?
Laurie Collyer recalled the origins of SherryBaby by stating, “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 schoolyard 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.”
After her NYU thesis documentary Nuyorican Dream (1999) was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, Collyer was invited back to Park City the following year to participate in the prestigious Sundance Filmmaker’s Lab. She began workshopping a 30-page short script that she’d drafted as early as 1994 titled Shall Not Want. Like Nuyorican Dream, the material drew heavily on Collyer’s interest in people living on the margins of society. “I had a mentor early in the process of writing Sherrybaby, a gentleman named Richard Stratton, who is a producer and a writer but also spent 10 years in a penitentiary. He introduced me to a lot of ex-convicts and people working with ex-convicts in New York and helped me get the realness of the script by introducing me to this world. I just interviewed a ton of people — but it was through Richard opening that door for me.”
A friend of Collyer’s would inform the character of Sherry. “Some of the language, actually, from letters he wrote to me. When she talks to the women in the halfway house, she’s sort of talking street. I just sort of picked that up from the way he talked. But it was more of a temperament. The combination of the self-destruction with the — I don’t want to say narcissism but self-absorbed combined with the self-destruction. That whole thing. You know, when you’ve been on drugs since you were 14 or 16 years old and then in prison or on the streets on or off the rest of the time, you haven’t really lived as an adult, so there’s a certain amount of childhood you carry into your adulthood. It’s like you stopped living, you know? So Sherry in a lot of ways is like a 16 year old.”
Collyer began the odyssey of securing the financing to turn her script SherryBaby into a film. She revealed, “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.” One of Collyer’s advisors at the Sundance Lab was screenwriter Naomi Foner, whose daughter Maggie Gyllenhaal was attracting notice opposite James Spader in the edgy Secretary (2002).
With Maggie Gyllenhaal interested, SherryBaby appeared on the radar of producer Lemore Syvan. Collyer recalled,“It was hard to find the money. Lemore Syvan came on as producer, but it took about a year-and-a half to find the financing. In the meantime she made a couple of movies and I wrote a couple of other scripts. Another challenge is trusting your collaborators. If you are new at the game, you are not used to giving your creative work over for others to translate and/or modify.” Syvan ultimately locked a financial backer in Marc Turtletaub, a founding partner — with Jeb Brody and Peter Saraf — of New York based Big Beach Films. Turtletaub agreed to finance SherryBaby at roughly $2 million.
With a 25-day shooting schedule kicking off in May 2005, SherryBaby was filmed entirely in suburban New Jersey. Collyer stated, “It all takes place in a very middle-class milieu. That was actually very important to me, to place the story in a suburban context. I wanted to explore more what happens to the family that leads people to make these sort of choices.” The filmmaker’s old neighborhood of Mountainside was the site of Sherry’s brother and sister-in-law’s home. Collyer mused, “I always had a love-hate relationship about having grown up in such a white-bread sort of environment. The thing about shooting where I grew up, I think it was my way to make peace with it once and for all.”
Coming less peacefully for Collyer would be getting along with Maggie Gyllenhaal. “We would have differences of opinion quite a bit. Sometimes she would pick on me so I would make her mad on purpose, too. It sounds so premeditated, but we did have differences of opinion about the work sometimes and sometimes she would win and sometimes I would. There was a lot of battling over the little girl that plays Sherry’s daughter. She didn’t want me to direct her; she knew best, everything about the girl. But that was her being Sherry in the most classic form, because that’s Sherry’s conflict. She’s the child’s mother and nobody else should tell the child what to do.” Collyer added, “I think all directors and actors, when there’s material that’s dramatic, maybe even with comedies, if you’re taking your job seriously, there’s going to be conflict. I think it’s natural. It’s sort of built into the relationship.”
Maggie Gyllenhaal later admitted, “When you’re the lead in a movie, when you’re in every moment of the movie, it’s hard not to live it. We shot Sherrybaby in 25 days. I was never in my own clothes. I would get into her clothes, be her all day, come home, fall asleep, wake up, go back to work. I do better in that kind of work.” She added, “So I shot all these fucked-up scenes that were really horrible, but I didn’t experience them that way. Obviously, I understood that all the things that happened in the movie were painful for her, but I didn’t really let that into the work. Then all the terrible things I’ve had to go through surfaced after we’d finished filming. And I got over it. I don’t think I could play that part now. I don’t know that I could be okay with the things I had to be okay with in order to play her.”
Critics posted rave reviews. Tony Scott, The New York Times: “What screenwriters call the arc of the story is visible from the outset, and some of the scenes in Sherrybaby have a familiar look and feel. But what distinguishes the film from its many peers is the quality of Ms. Collyer’s writing — which rarely reaches for obvious, melodramatic beats — and the precision of Ms. Gyllenhaal’s performance.” Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune: “There’s a schematic, workshopped quality to Collyer’s script, detailing the intertwined setbacks and small triumphs in one woman’s struggle to recover a life for herself. Yet the film works. It doesn’t go soft or inspirational in its later stages, when most films would. It doesn’t pump up the redemption or the melodrama.” Dennis Harvey, Variety: “Gyllenhaal, in her most substantial role since Secretary, does a fine, unshowy job of lining Sherry’s faults without alienating the viewer or pleading for sympathy.”
In January 2006, SherryBaby screened at the Sundance Film Festival. In May, it was announced that Netflix had acquired North American distribution rights under their Red Envelope Entertainment banner. The Silicon Valley based distributor has picked up a number of low budget films on the bet that one — like Capturing the Friedmans (2003) — will hit with audiences. SherryBaby would not be one of those sleepers. Opening September 2006 in the United States, it grossed only $199,176 domestically and $423,630 overseas. But Laurie Collyer summed up the experience by admitting, “I really didn’t have any expectations. I didn’t expect that it would get bought. It was just a lot of hope: I hoped that it would make the producer’s money back; I hoped that people would like it; and I hoped that Maggie would feel good about having done it. All those hopes have been realized, and then some.”
Where’d You Get All of This?
“Director Shows You Can Go Home Again” By Anita Gates. The New York Times, 27 August 2006
“indieWIRE Interview: Laurie Collyer, director of Sherrybaby” By Brian Brooks. indieWIRE, 7 September 2006
“Hollywood Loves You, Baby” By Daniel Robert Epstein. Film Stew, 19 January 2007
“Maggie Gyllenhaal” By Tim Blanks. Interview, May 2008