Sunlight in Her Eyes – Laurie Collyer Introduces Sunlight Jr
In this guest post, Cinereach grantee Laurie Collyer puts her latest film, Sunlight Jr., into the context of her body of work, and shares how she crafts fictional stories inspired by real injustice.
Sunlight Jr. is available on iTunes and other VOD platforms now. It opens in theaters November 15th.
Sunlight in My Eyes
a guest post by Laurie Collyer
I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed somewhere around the time Sherrybaby was in distribution. It fired me up. A journalist went “undercover” as a minimum wage worker in America and discovered first-hand that you cannot live (and can barely survive) on a minimum wage income. Her stories reminded me of Tati from my film Nuyorican Dream. She worked in a Dunkin Donuts and lived in a motel. I got it. You can work full time and still be homeless.
I learned the term “working poor” and went on to read David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America, as well as Dale Maharidge’s Someplace Like America. Dale and I made friends, drank some beer, talked about saving the world, drank more beer. Writers, filmmakers, social workers, journalists, doctors, poets, lawyers – can any of us save the world? I don’t know. I just wanted to call bullshit on the injustice of working for nothing. I started writing the script in 2009 thanks to Cinereach.
My first film was the documentary Nuyorican Dream which Ernest Hardy in the LA Weekly described as “a film about the construction of identity, public and private, and about how all our source material — family, sexuality, race, class, the government’s role in our private lives — can collapse on top of us. At its core it’s about how we respond to that collapse.” I could say the same for Sunlight Jr.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to direct Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon, Norman Reedus and Tess Harper in this film. To watch talent of this caliber descend into their roles with such all encompassing, fearless dedication was humbling and profound. Naomi plays Melissa, a convenience store worker in her late 30’s who’s been around the block a couple of times. At this point in life, she’s not looking for trouble. All she wants is to be a good worker, a good girlfriend, and maybe some day she’d like to go back to school and better herself.
Matt plays Melissa’s boyfriend Richie, a paraplegic with a heart of gold and a drinking problem. He’s magnetic and smart, but prefers to avoid reality instead of commit to some kind of self-improvement plan which may or may not lead to making a decent living anyway. Their only escape is the love they make.
Melissa’s mother Kathleen is played by Tess Harper. Her backstory is that she was a teenage mom who raised her children on a welfare check. She now raises foster children for a living. And like Richie, she drinks too damn much. It seems that no matter how far Melissa tries to go in life, she keeps finding the same people with the same problems.
Norman plays Melissa’s ex. The “bad guy” who, in the end, turns out to be the only one who can help Melissa. When I first started writing the script and pitched it to one of my friends the only characters were the hard luck couple living in the motel. This particular friend grew up in Florida and said, “listen, I know this girl and there’s always an ex lurking around. You have to write the ex.” She was right!
The whole script came alive with the introduction of Norman’s character, Justin. He is sprinkled throughout the film like a wonderful spice, but his role is pivotal. He loves Melissa but when he gets angry, he can’t help but hit her. It’s his sickness and, sadly, he’s not looking for a cure.
Florida is the state where drug dealers from all over the East Coast flocked for years to buy Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin in “pain clinics” you find all over the state. A pain clinic is where you get a medical doctor to write you a prescription for hundreds of painkillers at the point of entry. You basically walk in the door, complain of an injury, fork over the cash and they write you a scrip. I’m not sure if they’ve cracked down on these places yet, but when we were shooting there, they were everywhere. I gave that detail to Norman’s character. He sells blackmarket Oxy’s. And buys cheap real estate with his profit. It’s the American Dream.
Some people have asked, “where is the hope?” But in its essence Sunlight Jr. is a love story. And there is no greater hope than love. Love can exist anywhere and under any circumstance. It can grow even when everything around us falls apart. Love is hope and love is a miracle. That is also the story I wanted to tell.
Sunlight Jr. is my third film after Nuyorican Dream (2000) and Sherrybaby (2006). I see these as a kind of trilogy exploring the American Dream and its underside, the nightmare. I grew up protesting nukes and going to Dead shows, shaving my head and camping out with anarchists outside a cruise missile base. These films come from that place. That activist place. So now I’m talking to my friend’s uncle who founded this little operation known as Greenpeace. We’ll see where that leads…