Laurie Collyer‘s “Sherrybaby” is the story of Sherry Swanson, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Three years after entering prison for robbery as a 19-year-old heroin addict, she begins her first day of freedom, clean and sober. Unprepared for the demands of the world she’s stepped back into, Sherry’s hopes of staying clean, getting a job, and becoming a responsible mother are challenged by the realities of unemployment, halfway houses, and parole restrictions. She immediately sets out to regain custody of her young daughter Alexis (Ryan Simpkins), who has been cared for in her absence by her brother Bobby (Brad Henke) and his wife Lynn (Bridget Barkan). Bobby and Lynn’s concerns about Sherry’s ability to care for Alexis, and her inability to prove them wrong, threaten to destroy the already delicate relationship she has with her daughter, as well as her newfound sobriety. Disillusioned and haunted by wounds from her childhood, Sherry is eventually confronted with life-altering questions about her own survival and what it means to be a good mother. The Sundance ’06 film won the best actress prize for Gyllenhaal at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in July.
Please introduce yourself. Where were did you grow up and what did you do prior to being a filmmaker? Did you go to film school?
I was born in Summit, New Jersey exactly one year after the Velvet Underground played their debut concert at Summit high school. I lived all my life in Mountainside, New Jersey until I went to Oberlin College at age 17. Early day jobs included the very glamorous 1990 census where I went door to door in San Francisco. I was a pizza maker in Berkeley, CA, and also did some restaurant hostessing and data entry at Mother Jones magazine. I worked in group homes, residential treatment centers and special-ed programs — all with fucked up children and teens. This was a career path for about six years until I hit a breaking point. It was too hard for me. I still give it up to all the social workers in the world because I just couldn’t handle it after a while. I became a filmmaker slowly — at first it was just a hobby, with weirdo Super 8 films I shot with friends. But after I made a short doc called “Thanh,” I decided to go to film school and try it as a career. I was 28 when I went to New York University and used a lot of the life I saw in the various institutions I worked in to tell my stories.
One of my teachers, Boris Frumin, became a mentor. I learned a ton in film school. I am not one of those people who says, “don’t go to film school” — at the same time, if I went to film school straight out of college, I’m not sure I would have had anything to say. You can’t tell stories without having anything to say. Usually. Directing movies is a privilege and an honor. It may stress you out at times, but I would never say it is difficult. Negotiating peace in the Middle East is difficult. Directing movies is a pleasure.
What other creative outlets do you explore?
I am a filmmaker because I knew I’d never make it as a rock star considering I never learned how to play an instrument and hate to be on stage or in front of an audience. But I love music. These days I am learning about jazz. I believe that maybe John Coltrane was the Messiah.
How did the initial idea for “Sherrybaby” come about?
It is hard to pinpoint. There were a lot of forces coming together in my life that pointed me in the direction of telling a story about a woman coming out of prison… [There were] a couple of people I liked who themselves were incarcerated — or maybe I had been trying for so long to become a writer and director that I felt trapped, and this story is a metaphor for that. There were also the institutions I worked in with all those motherless children. [Plus there was] my own desire to have a child, or the child I unofficially adopted, who I had to part with. All of these things came together in the telling of this story. It is never only one idea, at least not for me.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?
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. I wasn’t used to this and it was hard to give up control. But in the end, that is what this medium is about — collaboration.
How did you finance the film?
Marc Turtletaub [from] Big Beach Productions.
What are your biggest creative influences?
These are a few from a massive list:
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, John Cassavetes, Pierpaolo Pasolini. Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, Lucrecia Martel, Vincent Gallo, Ulrich Seidl, Lynne Ramsey, Johnny Cash, Julio Sosa, The Modern Lovers, Thomas Struth, Richard Kern, Nick Waplington, Anna Mangnani, Georg Friedrich, Asia Argento, Benicio Del Toro, Die Zauberfloete, Zarah Leander, Thomas Hardy and Latin Boogaloo.
What are some of your all-time favorite films as well as your recent favorite films?
All time favorite movies – “Honeymoon Killers,” “Drugstore Cowboy,” “Buffalo 66,”
“Taxi Driver,” “Stroszek,” “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,” “The Rose Tattoo,” “The
Misfits,” “Punch Drunk Love,” “Paris, Texas.”
Recent favorite movies – “Taxidermia,” “Dreaming in Numbers,” “Syriana,” “Jarhead,” “Me and You and Everyone We Know.”
What are your interests outside of film?
My main interest outside of film is my family. I love to read and listen to music. I am a big fan of nature, camping, also cooking, but the most important thing in my life is my little family.
How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
Well this goes back to the film school question — success for me is very simple — doing what I love and also paying off my student loans. Once I get a grip on the latter, I will feel successful. I mean, I feel successful about “Sherrybaby” getting made and getting such a strong reception, but I still worry about the bills and it eats me up sometimes. Independent filmmakers struggle quite a bit economically but because it is such a privilege to be able to do this as a job, we really can’t complain.