After coping with the loss of childhood friends from overdoses and prison, writer-director Laurie Collyer let out her aggression the only way she knew how— through movies. Gaining recognition for her gritty documentary Nuyorican Dream in 1999, Collyer quickly began work on her first screenplay, Sherrybaby, to explore the deep-seeded issues of her past.

Accepted into the 2001 Sundance Filmmaker’s Lab, Collyer’s story of a young woman struggling to reestablish a relationship with her daughter after being in prison for three years blossomed into a harsh but realistic look at how second chances don’t come easy.

Laurie Collyer and Maggie Gyllenhaal
Laurie Collyer and Maggie Gyllenhaal on the set of of Sherrybaby (2006). Photo: IFC FILMS

The movie premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with much praise for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s powerhouse performance in the title role and its writer-director’s unflinching storytelling. MM chatted with Collyer about her narrative feature debut.

Jason Guerrasio (MM): What were some of the things going on in your life when you started writing this  script?

Laurie Collyer (LC): I made a documentary called Nuyorican Dream, which—thematically—is very linked to Sherrybaby. It deals with the same subject matter, just in a different social context. I also worked with a lot of kids whose parents were incarcerated or on the streets, so this story was coming at me from all different angles and seemed like it wanted to be told.

MM: Were you seeing things while shooting the documentary that you couldn’t flesh out in that format, but that could work in a fictitious story?

LC: I wanted to focus more on the family and the impact of the family on people who make these sorts of choices in their lives and I didn’t feel like I could go into all the dynamics of dysfunction with the family in Nuyorican Dream. We were in a way collaborating on the documentary and I just felt like it would be a really big betrayal of their trust, so I left that for the fiction.

MM: What kind of research did you do?

LC: 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.

MM: Did you research more on how ex-cons react to their new life out of prison or their relationship with their families, because the movie focuses on both?

LC: It all goes together. Especially when you’re talking about women, because most incarcerated women have children. You can’t really break apart how incarceration impacts the family and what it means for a woman to be locked up and then get out and really have very few resources or capabilities.

MM: Did you spend time in halfway houses?

LC: I did that and I interviewed a lot of individuals. I went to parole offices; I did a lot of research about parole because I wanted to create a parole officer who was also very dimensional and not just the stereotype.

MM: What sort of influence did the Sundance Lab have on the script?

LC: The Lab influenced it enormously in terms of the work itself. It’s an intense development of the work and I think Sundance had the most influence. It’s staffed by a bunch of volunteers, people who work in the business, and they had a lot of good advice about how to get a movie made which was really helpful.

MM: You also got Maggie Gyllenhaal involved through your time there, right?

LC: I didn’t manage to get her the script while I was there. I wasn’t really thinking of actors when I was working on the script. I didn’t get it to her until after she was in Secretary.

MM: Didn’t you meet her mom through the Sundance Lab?

LC: That really had nothing to do with Maggie doing this movie. I haven’t seen Naomi since the Lab; it’s sort of more a coincidence at this point that her mom was one of my advisers, but she definitely was helpful and really responded to the script. It’s weird for both me and Maggie; it makes it seem like we made the movie because we’re friends, when I think for both of us it was a big risk.

MM: Why would it be a big risk for you?

LC: I thought Maggie was a strong actress, but she’d never done anything like this in her life and she’s certainly not Sherry. That was a little bit scary for me, because I had spent so much time with this material. I more or less lived with the family in Nuyorican Dream and then I grew up with a girl that the whole story is based on, so I felt like this character was my friend. And Maggie Gyllenhaal—I don’t know her, who’s she? I thought she was really interesting, but to play a very streetwise young woman… I didn’t know. When the movie came together, that’s when I really saw the performance.

MM: So Secretary piqued your interest and then you started talking to her about the part?

LC: We were feeling each other out over the course of time. It took a lot of time to raise the money, so it was an ongoing dialogue. There was an instant camaraderie, which made the dialogue continue. But it’s never just one moment of inspiration or one moment of meetings.

MM: Because you wanted a realistic look, was it helpful that you had only 25 days to shoot?

LC: Yes. I mean, especially for Maggie’s performance. She didn’t have time to get out of character, let’s put it that way, and it really, really fueled her performance.

MM: I’ve read that you both fueled each other on set to get her where she needed to be for her performance.

LC: Yeah, we did what we had to—and it wasn’t always polite. 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.

MM: I’m sure there must have been some interesting down time between shots.

LC: 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.

MM: Most people want to make a shoot out to be all peaches and cream. It’s refreshing when someone puts a realistic spin on moviemaking.

LC: Well, the thing too that works for actors and directors in the end, even though you have two very headstrong people who don’t like to be told what to do. It’s different sometimes than the director and the producer. (laughs)

MM: You recently had a baby. Do you have a different point of view on the story now compared to when you originally wrote it?

LC: Well, I originally was going to dedicate the film to my unborn child, but after I had him and I watched the movie I was like ‘There’s no way I would ever dedicate this to my son.’ So I think my tolerance for things that are dark and creepy is different, not nearly as high as it used to be. I think I used to be drawn to that sort of material and I’m not so much anymore. Actually, the first play I saw after having the baby was The Pillow Man, which is about a child murderer, and I had to leave during intermission; I couldn’t stay for it. I thought that was funny, because the old me would have stuck it out. But I just couldn’t bear it, I bust into tears.

MM: So in your next movie we’ll see your softer side?

LC: We’ll see what comes out next. There’s one book I’m trying to option that could be very similar, story-wise, to Sherrybaby, but tone-wise it will be a lot more fun, if you can believe that. I’m also writing a love story.

Sherrybaby was released by IFC Films in September and is currently in theaters.