Laurie Collyer is best known for writing and directing Sherrybaby, for which actress Maggie Gyllenhaal received a Golden Globe nomination. She also directed the documentary Nuyorican Dream (1999). Her latest film, Sunlight Jr., stars Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon as a hard-working convenience store clerk and her disabled boyfriend. The two are trapped in a generational cycle of poverty, though they hope their luck may be changing when they learn that Watts’ character is pregnant. But as soon as she loses her job and they get evicted from the motel they live in, their joy vanishes. Through this adversity, the couple realizes that they can never lose everything as long as they have each other. Her “unflinchingly honest” drama is out November 15.
Woman and Hollywood: Please give us a description of the film in your own words.
Laurie Collyer: Sunlight Jr. is a film about how love can grow, love can heal, and love can simply exist under any conditions anywhere. But even love is not enough to get by. Without it though, you are lost.
WaH: What made you decide to write this script?
LC: One quarter of all working Americans makes $10 or less per hour. This puts them in the category of the “working poor.” These people are your cashiers, your childcare workers, your security guards. The people who cut your hair or wax your bikini line, park your car, or sell you beer. They are telemarketers, waitresses, dishwashers, maids, stock boys and nurse’s aides. They are blue-collar workers in industries that have eliminated staff in favor of “contract workers.”
Statistically they work more than 40 hours a week, and they still can’t afford basic needs. You see them everywhere, yet their plight is invisible. They live in motels and shelters, they live with other families, they bounce from one place to the next. They have no health benefits. They send their children to lousy public schools. In its intimacy, Sunlight Jr. shines a light on lives of the working poor. I wanted to tell this story because it is my sincerest hope that as a society, we come together to restore the American Dream for those who are working to support it.
WaH: You are very interested in the interlocking themes of women and economic hardship and motherhood. Why is that so important to you?
LC: Sherrybaby was about a woman reentering society after serving prison time. Sunlight Jr. focuses more on economic instability and how it impacts the choices people make. I like to make films about characters we don’t necessarily see in mainstream movies because I think these characters should have a place at the table or a voice in the conversation.
As far as motherhood goes, I am a woman and a mother so I am just writing what I know. There is a song from Free to Be… You and Me that has the chorus, “Mommies are people, people with children,” and for some reason, this is what I’m thinking about right now. I write what I know and put some of my concerns about our country and the world inside of that.
WaH: The movie is very reflective of how many people on the margins live, yet it is quite a challenging film to sit through. It’s bleak. How can you get people to pay attention and see this movie?
LC: I never saw it as bleak. I saw it as sad, but not bleak. I actually spent a lot of time with a family living below the poverty line when I made my documentary Nuyorican Dream. I also read a fair amount of long-form journalism on the working poor as research – Nickeled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, The Working Poor, Invisible in America by David K. Shipler and Someplace Like America by Dale Maharidge, to name a few. The fact is, the reality of living in poverty is much tougher and much bleaker than the lives I represent in this film. When I’ve screened Sunlight Jr. for non-film industry audiences, they have not responded to it as “bleak.” I think so many Americans today have family or friends or people who work for them who are living this life. Sunlight Jr. is a sad story about having to make a choice that goes against your heart. I think we can all relate to that.
As far as getting people to see Sunlight Jr., a film of this size always needs a team behind it to get the word out. I am very excited that Majora Carter has offered to screen the film with me in Harlem as a community event addressing issues raised in the film.
Sherrybaby was screened in colleges and nonprofits all over the country as a means to educate and discuss issues related to re-entry. I heard that they use it at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is enormously fulfilling: the fact that Sherry’s story resonates enough as truth to educate future police officers or parole officers or corrections officers. So I hope to do the same with Sunlight Jr. As far as mainstream audiences, I think they’ll see it in theaters if their local critics champion the film. I think there will be a separate audience that will view it online or on cable based more on the marquee cast. Either way, I am happy with audiences finding the film by whatever means they can.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
LC: Getting it financed! But we did, obviously and hats off to Ariel Elia and his team for having the nerve to do it!
WaH: What advice do you have for women directors?
LC: I have given this advice before and it is not really super feel-good advice. If you’re a woman and a director and you want to be a mother or you are a mother, you will have to put your children first. Whatever that means for you. But it’s real. And it can perhaps impact your career. I personally think it’s worth it. It’s a tough business for all of us. It’s competitive, sometimes cut-throat, and the expectation that people work all the time exists. Aside from that, tell the stories you love to tell and good luck!