It’s a harsh reality of America nowadays.
Every time one turns on the news, they are highlighting about the struggles of people trying to survive on the minimum wage or obtain health insurance.
“Sunlight Jr.” premiered this weekend as a fictionalized look about a middle-aged couple living in a motel and barely surviving below the poverty line. And then the couple had to deal with an unexpected pregnancy.
The movie stars Matt Dillon, Naomi Watts and Norman Reedus. It is directed and written by Laurie Collyer (“Sherrybaby,” “Nuryoican Dream”).
Latino-Review had an exclusive phone interview with Collyer to discuss about “Sunlight Jr.” We talked about the casting, books on poverty, and American struggles.
“Sunlight Jr.” is in theater limited release and VOD.
Read the transcript below.
Latino-Review: For this film that you wrote and directed, what is the inspiration behind this movie?
Laurie Collyer: I read a book in 2006, a while ago, called “Nickel and Dimed” by [Barbara] Ehrenrich. That was the real genesis of the project even though it took a while to make it into a documentary. I just woke up one morning and just write it. Oh, I’m a writer.
So I read this book “Nickel and Dimed” on getting by in America. The journalist went underground with the cover as a minimum wage worker in different regions all over the U.S. She came to the conclusion every single time with every single job that you can’t survive—you can barely survive living on minimum wage. You can’t afford housing. You can’t afford adequate foods. You can’t afford transportation. It all became basically an enormous challenge. I was really struck by that.
And then I read another book called, “The Working Poor: Invisible in America” [by David K. Shipler]. I read all the time. At that time, I was looking for a book to option. Both of those books inspired me for sure.
Latino-Review: Did you have to do any special research regarding the lives of the people in the minimum wage sector? Or did you experience it yourself?
Laurie Collyer: No. After college, I had some crappy jobs. We all did. As for the final outcome on what to do with the rest of my life, I never really had to live like that. I did make a documentary, which was my first film. This film is called “Nuyorican Dream,” which I feel that is somewhat related to this one. That one is very up close and personal examination of growing up in poverty.
The look of this son with three generations of this New York Puerto Rican family takes us home with him to meet his family and the world he grew up in. And comments on the whole time. We see him in his life being a successful educator in West Village and being a happy gay man. It’s a very interesting family portrait. It’s a perfect documentary looking at many generations of a family living below the poverty line.
I had experience with this certain demographics.
Latino-Review: The characters, themselves, I found it interesting that you chose an older, middle-aged couple. And one of them was handicapped. Why did you choose these types of characters? It could’ve just been a young couple somewhere.
Laurie Collyer: It’s not the feel for a generational poverty or entrenched poverty. If you say look at the kids [on minimum wage] then you can say that they have time and go to college. Melissa (played by Naomi Watts) talked about going to college, but she never makes any moves to make that happen. It’s more like lip service and this food chain that she doesn’t know how to access it to make it a reality.
I think it’s a lot more tragic to come from who’s thirty-five than at twenty-five. I just really want to bring home that it’s the poverty that you can’t escape.
The idea of Matt [Dillon]’s character came from the personal experiences I had working with people with disabilities. I thought it would be cool to have a disabled character that not thinks about being disabled. It wasn’t consciously inputted. I had this dream about this couple living in this motel. After I analyzed it, I can see what I was doing to have him in the film as a paraplegic.
It’s cause that’s what life is like. There are all kinds of us. There are all these different ways we live on this planet.
Latino-Review: Yeah. It’s very grounded. It’s very realistic and down to Earth that a lot of people can relate to this situation. Now the setting for this movie is a gasoline station. Why did you choose that type of minimum job? There’s a tons of other jobs out there, especially on the news they talk about fast food workers.
Laurie Collyer: I know there’s a movie that I’m dying to see called, “Compliance.” That film takes a look at the flight of the fast food workers and the abuse of power.
I literally dreamed this story. I woke up and said, “There was a couple. They live in this motel. There is this convenience store. He’s handicapped. They’re in love with each other, but this live in a motel. And they get pregnant.”
I see the convenience store as iconic in this country. They are institutions. They’re all over the highways. They became a part of the American landscape.
Latino-Review: There was a reference about a book in the movie called, “Crime and Punishment.” What’s the link that you were trying to go with that?
Laurie Collyer: The idea was that she picked up the book because she relates to that world that has a lot of contact in the criminal justice system. There are a lot of people that participate in the underground economy such as drug dealing and prostitution when they’re living below the poverty line. It means that more people will go to jail.
She’s attracted to the book. He’s going to become a dad. He could go to jail at any moment siphoning gas. And then she finally gets the book, but she can’t read it.
Latino-Review: Could you talk about the casting of the movie? Explain why you chose these folks into the movie?
Laurie Collyer: I thought that Richie’s character needed to be played by an actor who is sexy and charismatic. But, who could also play something that is marginalized. That’s not an easy set of qualities to find in one person. Matt [Dillon] really embodied that for me.
We then came to talk on whom to play Melissa. We made a list and brainstorm—then we both really liked Naomi Watts. She has so much depth even when she’s not speaking. You can see the wheels turning in her mind. You can feel what’s going on in her heart. She’s that kind of an actor. I was really lucky to get them.
As for Norman [Reedus], he was on board during “The Walking Dead.” We shot this movie two years ago, so he didn’t become this phenomenon like today even though it was popular. I was watching at the time and my casting director suggested Norman. And I was like “Oh, cool. I know who he is.” I remembered him when he was a model and truly handsome. So I set a meeting with him in SoHo, and as soon as he sat down…..I knew he was Justin. We had a really nice meeting, conversation and a good vibe. That’s what you look for in actors that you have an easy communication with. It’s because the pressure to working on set especially to any challenges to your communication. This was a low budget, 22-day shoot. There’s no time for misunderstandings.
Latino-Review: Do you have any future projects? I know with this film that it’s been quite a few years since the last film you’ve made. Do you have anything in the works? And are you still going for more poverty-themed movies?
Laurie Collyer: I don’t think so. I can tell you what I’m writing right now. I have optioned this book with my producing partner Annie Marter. It’s called “Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women” [by Alexa Albert]. It’s about a Harvard medical student who went to a legal brothel. The student went there to do research and fell into that world and came out of it six years later with this book.
So we’re taking her story and fictionalizing it. I’m really excited about it. It’s sort of an outsider looking in. It’s a woman not only learning about the ins and outs of selling sex legally, but learning new things about herself as a woman.
Don’t worry. There will be men in the movie. [Laughter] Yes, there are men in the movie. And they come to brothels all the time. I feel it’s a world we haven’t really seen.
And thank you for being interested and getting the word out.
Latino-Review: Thank you very much.