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Documentary style influences Dramatic Comp film

MATT JAMES Of the Record staff
Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Sherry Swanson in Sherrybaby, which was directed by Laurie Collyer. Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute.
011806-Sherrybaby

Writer and director Laurie Collyer approached her film, "Sherrybaby," much like a doumentarian.

"I did an enormous amount of research," she said.

Collyer’s second film, "Sherrybaby," shows a woman and an ex-drug addict, Sherry Swanson, just released after a three-year prison sentence, fighting to regain custody of her young daughter and desperately trying to preserve newfound sobriety while the world around her, including halfway houses, unemployment and parole restrictions, saps her strength and places obstacles before her, forcing her to either fail or learn how to succeed.

"I thought it was really important to tell a story on film about a woman coming out of prison," said Collyer.

The year she graduated from college, one of Collyer’s childhood friends was sent to prison. That experience led her to become involved with causes studying the increasing prison population in America, the exploding population of women prisoners and how that was affecting the children of those women.

Collyer also found herself asking why she was different from her friend. She made a film to examine the life of a woman who was recently incarcerated.

"I interviewed both convicts and ex-convicts I also shadowed a patrol officer. I did a lot of research about different issues that the protagonist is going through in day-to-day life," Collyer said.

"Sherrybaby" is the result of that work, a story inspired by Collyer’s friend and populated by the anecdotes and stories Collyer heard in her interviews."

"The story, the framework, came from an interview with a friend," she said, "but I made up all the scenes from my research."

Collyer said her working style comes in part from her filmmaking roots. She first came to the Sundance Film Festival in 2000 with a feature-length documentary, "Nuyorican Dream," which showed the life of a Puerto Rican family in New York City.

"I say in my heart, I’m a documentarian," she said. "The documentary thing very much influences me."

She said she started to write "Sherrybaby" shortly after she finished promoting "Nuyorican Dream," but the process still took its time. She said she simply had to learn how to put the project together.

"I think it’s typical for a first-time feature," she said. "I think a lot of it is just trying to get to know the system and trying to develop your talent and your skill."

Collyer attended the Sundance Institute Screenwriters and Directors labs in 2001, polishing her project there, and at the same time, mapping out exactly how she could have the movie made, and shortly afterward, she convinced Maggie Gyllenhaal to join the project in the role of Sherry.

"I was lucky to be able to get the script to her through friends and family," said Collyer, "and she jumped all over the role."

The part, she added, challenged Gyllenhaal.

"This role calls for such tremendous range," said Collyer. "She wanted to just embrace that work."

Collyer and her crew shot the film in 24 days, on location in New Jersey in August of 2004. In addition to Gyllenhaal, Collyer also noted the work of Brad Henke, as Bobby Swanson, Sherry’s brother, and Bridgett Barkin, who played Lynette Swanson, Sherry’s sister, although Collyer said all of the cast members performed well.

She did note the difference however, between the characters she envisioned in her mind and those she saw the actors portraying.

"When I wrote it," said Collyer, "I was thinking about my friends and about this person I knew that had been imprisoned all of his life."

But the actors brought their own interpretations to the roles, gradually bending the storylines as they brought the script to life. Collyer noted a saying from the movie industry.

"You make a movie three times," she said, "when you write it, when you film it, and when you edit it."

The final step of that process, after the filmmaking, will take her on another trip to Park City. She said she was excited for the opportunity to return to Sundance as the director of a Dramatic Competition film.

"It’s like the best thing ever," she said. "It’s always been my dream."

At the same time, she said her aims were fairly realistic.

"I want to get an agent," she said, "or at least start the process."

With student loans and a new family, she added, finding some work was high on her list of things to do. She said she had just begun work on her next project, and while her filmmaking remains rooted in documentaries, she said she was continuing with her current direction.

"I’d always like to do both, but my next film is going to be another narrative film," she said.

But she noted her desire to stay involved with the documentary process. Only working with Hollywood-type people and living with her family would leave her completely disconnected from the outside world she said. Documentaries offer a chance to remain connected to that world, which, she noted, will keep both her narrative work, and her perspective as close to real as is possible.

"Sherrybaby" will premier on Saturday, Jan 21 at the Racquet Club theater. For a complete list of screening times, and for more information, visit http://www.sundance.org.


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