“One of the bright spots of 2006 was working on a film called Sherrybaby with Maggie Gyllenhaal,” veteran character actor Danny Trejo writes in his brilliant autobiography Trejo: My Life Of Crime, Redemption And Hollywood. “The film was written and directed by a woman named Laurie Collyer, and I don’t mean to generalise, but I got the same kind of feeling working with Laurie that I got working with Allison Anders on Mi Vida Loca. Both of those women brought a beautiful and perspective in their films about gritty subjects.”
It’s a fitting comparison to another richly gifted Unsung Auteur and high praise from Danny Trejo, who also slots Collyer alongside Michael Mann when naming the directors for whom he has the most respect and admiration. Truly adept in crafting stories driven by truth, honesty and the aforementioned gritty subjects, Laurie Collyer also bravely tells the stories of those so rarely showcased on screen in three dimensions: ex-convicts, people struggling with addiction, the working class (and the working poor), and those dealing with difficult and complex life histories and mental issues. She tells these stories not only with a bruising lack of sentimentality, but also a dynamic authenticity and true sensitivity. Laurie Collyer is most at home in territory that the majority of filmmakers choose to blissfully avoid.
Born in Summit, New Jersey in 1967, Laurie Collyer grew up in Mountainside, New Jersey and attended Oberlin College. After working at a series of odd jobs, she went to film school at New York University. “It was a wonderful and amazing experience,” Collyer has said of attending the prestigious college. “I financed my studies, as well as my student films, by borrowing excessive amounts of money. I don’t think I would recommend taking this route.” Collyer worked in various capacities on a number of short films before making her debut in 2000 with the little seen documentary Nuyorican Dream. A portrait of a Puerto Rican family in New York City, the film broached themes that would later resurface in Collyer’s features: prison, drug addiction, identity, and abandonment.
Collyer channelled much of what she experienced during the making of Nuyorican Dream (particularly some of the more intimate, personal moments that she chose not to include out of respect for the family at its centre) into the screenplay for her 2006 debut feature film, Sherrybaby. Accepted into the 2001 Sundance Filmmaker’s Lab, Collyer shows an incredible lack of compromise with the resulting film, the tough tale of Sherry Swanson (another transcendent turn from the brilliant Maggie Gyllenhaal), a recovering heroin addict just out of prison desperate to reconnect with her young daughter. But despite her best efforts, and even with the help of a fellow recovering addict (Danny Trejo), Sherry’s damaged psyche and troubled past send her on a savage journey of self-discovery. It’s an incredibly gritty and unforgiving film, and Collyer navigates the material beautifully.
“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,” Collyer told Moviemaker on the film’s release. “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. The Sundance Lab influenced it enormously in terms of the work itself. It’s an intense development of the work and 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. We shot in 25 days. Maggie didn’t have time to get out of character, let’s put it that way, and it really, really fuelled her performance.”
While it received strong reviews and some awards, Sherrybaby didn’t really get the acclaim that it deserved. Collyer’s next film, 2013’s Sunlight Jr., suffered a similar fate, despite being equally impressive. Starring Matt Dillon and Naomi Watts in near career-best performances, the film follows a working class couple (with Dillon’s Richie confined to a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident) struggling to make ends meet in Florida while they await the birth of their first child. “My big interest was to set the movie against a backdrop of one of the biggest issues facing America right now: poverty and income inequality,” Collyer told Filmmaker Magazine. “Minimum wage work represented 21% of the labour lost after the bank crash of 2008, but 57% of the jobs created since the crash represent minimum wage work. You can’t live on minimum wage work in this country. You can barely survive. Barbara Ehrenreich documented it in her book, Nickeled and Dimed.”
In some ways even tougher and more immediate than Sherrybaby, Sunlight Jr. remains one of the great films on the under-discussed issue of working poverty in America. Though the milieu remained gritty for her next big screen effort, 2018’s Furlough was a decidedly sweeter affair for Collyer. Written by Barry Strugatz (who penned Jonathan Demme’s cult fave, Married To The Mob), the film follows a rookie prison guard (the excellent Tessa Thompson) charged with escorting an aggressive inmate (Melissa Leo in typically spirited form) on a furlough to visit her dying mother. Surprise bonds are formed, and Collyer delivers a fascinating tale of unlikely female friendship, while also edging more into comedic territory than she has previously.
Though busy directing episodic TV (Billions, Law & Order), writing the script for Kyra Sedgwick’s 2017 directorial debut Story Of A Girl, and helming the 2015 TV mini-series The Secret Life Of Marilyn Monroe (“I hope to get more TV work,” Collyer said of the experience. “2.2 million people watched the miniseries”), Collyer has been disappointingly quiet on the big screen since 2018’s Furlough. “I think that in some ways my projects choose me,” Collyer told Indie Activity. “Lately, I’m looking for challenges. I want to do things I haven’t done before. I want to direct a comedy. I want to direct action. Genre films. But it always comes down to the story. Is it a story I understand and feel deeply? Is there something I need to learn from this story? If so, then it’s for me.”
Hopefully, that project finds its way to Laurie Collyer very, very soon…
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.