In 2006, filmmaker Laurie Collyer made the indie “Sherrybaby,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as an ex-heroin addict trying to re-enter society. Due to a number of factors, it's taken her seven years to make another indie starring name actors playing the working class. In “Sunlight Jr.,” Naomi Watts plays Melissa, a convenience store clerk who lives in a hotel with her paraplegic boyfriend (Matt Dillon). Their meager lifestyle is upended when she winds up pregnant.
Was this a story you had read or heard about somewhere?
I think I dreamt this story, to tell you the truth. When I made “Sherrybaby,” I was pregnant. After it I took a minute off, which translated into a few years, so I could be a mommy. But then I couldn’t come up with any original stories. I had a moment of extreme disillusionment, and I was thinking I should just be a social worker. The night after I got the application to NYU’s School of Social Work, I woke up and said I have one more story to tell. It was about this woman who works in a convenience store and she lives in a motel with a guy who’s paraplegic, and they get pregnant. I just rattled off the whole thing.
What inspired this subject specifically?
I think it was inspired by different things I had been reading on my own. There was “Nickels and Dimes” by Barbara Ehrenreich. The milieu of this story was very connected to that book. I had traveled in the west to Wyoming and Nevada, and there was one woman working in a convenience store. She became the model for Melissa. I didn’t know her at all. There was just this residue of things I had been reading and concerns I had about what was happening in our country.
It definitely isn’t a rosy portrait of a couple. They might even be bad for each other.
I don’t think that you should walk away thinking they’re doomed, necessarily, but it was never my intention to tell a love story in which love triumphs over everything. Or that their relationship is destined to go on forever. That’s not real life, especially for these characters.
What about the role of alcoholism in the film, where unemployed characters spend their days drinking?
It’s escape. It’s a web. Addiction is part of this web you get trapped in when there’s so much hopelessness. When you’re so out of control, the only control you can get is to make yourself more out of control.
You also worked with Maggie Gyllenhaal on “Sherrybaby.” How do you get pretty big-name actors to get into the working class vibe?
I had less time with Naomi in prep [than with Maggie]. With Maggie I could send her off with all these real life “characters.” I sent Maggie off with someone who had literally just gotten released from prison the day before I met her. Naomi’s a very busy actress. She’s also a mom. I gave her a very extensive character bio. I wrote Melissa’s life from the moment she was born until the minute the story begins. It was six pages, single-spaced. But when she got to set she just melted into the role. With Matt I did have him the way I had Maggie. He came to Florida first. He had worked in New York with a wheelchair consultant. He learned how to get in and out of spaces both in the chair and from the chair into the car or onto the bed. It was very intensive.
Do you get intimidated around actors of their stature?
I think between Matt and Naomi they’ve made over 100 movies. This is my third. I just learn from them.
What is the independent film scene like now, especially compared to when you made “Sherrybaby”?
You have less money now. I know that going from “Sherrybaby” to “Sunlight Jr.” we had a smaller budget. At least for the kinds of stories I want to tell, there’s less financing. There’s also this new microbudget thing that happens. I feel really funny about people working non-union. I appreciate a movie that was made lean and the director had complete creative control, and you can feel it and taste it when you watch it. But at the same time I just worry about the labor part of it, because we all need our benefits. Some of us have kids. It’s a profession. These are craft people. They work really hard. They work long hours. They travel a ton. And they should be making enough money to save a little and have benefits. It’s not a hobby.