“Men Becoming Fathers” Screenwriter Cheryl Guerriero on ‘Palmer’
For the bulk of Cheryl Guerriero’s life, she was involved heavily with sports. She was a Nation Lacrosse Champion, then worked for a sports agent and a sports apparel company. Despite this success, Guerriero felt unfulfilled and wanted to move back to her true passion: writing.
“I had an idea for a movie and I just started reading books,” said Guerriero. “I didn’t study screenwriting in college. I started reading scripts, reading books about scripts, watching movies, and I just kept writing and writing and writing.”
This learn-as-you-go technique worked for the screenwriter and led to somewhat of an untraditional next step: cold calling. “I just wanted to get people to read it and it ended up on the desk of an agent who liked my writing, but didn’t take me on.”
Even though the agent didn’t take on the screenwriter, the agent’s assistant took the screenplay to another agent and decided to option the script. Guerriero got several scripts optioned, but she’s far from proud of the first one that got made.
“When I watch Palmer, I cry from tears of joy. When I watch Pledge This!, I cry because it was just so bad,” she joked about the National Lampoon movie that stars Paris Hilton. “The reviews were funnier than the movie.”
Palmer: A God-Inspired Script
Guerriero got the idea for Palmer in 2007. Since the initial concept, there have been many ups and downs, twists and turns to get the movie made.
“It’s been a journey. I pray a lot,” confessed Guerriero. “It’s [prayer] more for guidance, but I truly believe Palmer was a God-inspired script for me. There were things that had happened in my life and anything you see in that film came from a personal part in my life or someone I had known intimately.”
Listing traits like “perseverance” and “patience” as a requisite for becoming a working screenwriter, she said she’s now at a place where she’s very happy with her career. “I was very grateful for every time I got fired from an assistant job,” joked Guerriero, “because it just led me to where I needed to be.”
“For anyone who is in a job that they don’t want to be in, or that is sucking your soul, I hope that you get fired,” she added (a former boss at New Line Cinema actually “fired” the screenwriter so she could go on and do bigger and better things).
Getting fired from New Line led her to Los Angeles, where she not only found her footing as a writer, but sobriety. “That’s what led me to wanting to write a character like Palmer. I was around men, who through their alcohol and drug addiction had ended up in prison. Seeing them change their lives is pretty miraculous.”
This character eventually became Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake), a man who found freedom after spending twelve years in jail. Palmer’s story, one of redemption, involves an ex-con going back home where people are more likely to talk about him behind his back than offer him a handshake, much less a job.
He eventually ends up living with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb). In this new location, he meets Vivian’s neighbor Shelly (Juno Temple) and her son Sam (Ryder Allen). Shelly too is battling addiction and Sam is her little boy obsessed with princesses and fairies.
The Difficult Path
“It’s like dating and marriages,” she said about her journey. “I’ve had divorces, foreclosures, dogs running away. There have been different collaborators like in dating, but finally I met Fisher Stevens in 2015.”
Before Fisher, the script almost got made several times, but fell through for a variety of reasons. “I’m grateful for the money that fell through,” said Guerriero about other directors who didn’t work out. “I’m grateful that this script was given to Justin Timberlake.”
In one particular path, a manager asked Guerriero what she was working on so she pitched the idea of Palmer. She was in her first act and was advised, “Don’t write that. Write something with a twist.” Luckily, she followed her gut and rejected this advice. “When I got off the phone with him, I knew two things. 1) He was not the manager for me. 2) There was no doubt in mind that I was writing my version of Palmer.”
When things did work out, actor Justin Timberlake and director Fisher Stevens jumped on board, as did her new manager. He said, “‘Cheryl, you made me cry three times.’ I knew this was the guy for me. He sent it out wide and it ended up getting on the blacklist. Then I met Fisher.”
Many audiences would recognize director Fisher Stevens for his acting work, where he’s been in Wes Anderson films like Isle of Dogs, Coen Brothers films like Hail, Caesar!, and countess shows like Lost, Damages, and Succession. Fisher is also known for directing documentaries (he won an Oscar for The Cove in 2010), along with movies like Stand Up Guys and Just a Kiss.
“It was a very collaborative process. We did go through the script together with his Director Eye. I love the idea where you don’t want to change anything, just enhance things.” Small changes, like changing the fair to a bowling alley, were needed to save money on the film.
“We had a lot of budget restrictions. Things had to move around. We shot this in 25 days. The money we had to shoot it, I mean guys like [Christopher] Nolan shoot $5-6 million in a day. We had that budget to shoot in 25 days.”
Casting Ryder Allen as Sam
Logistics aside, this is a story about people and perhaps equally important to the role of Palmer was the role of Sam. “Casting Sam was also incredibly crucial.” Whenever anyone read the screenplay, the big question was how to cast Sam. “Some people would get scared that we wouldn’t find him, but you have to have faith. I knew there would be a kid out there who was supposed to be Sam.”
“Fisher likes to take credit for Ryder, but I’m going to take credit for Ryder,” joked the screenwriter. “This kid! There was a chemistry read and the minute Ryder walked in, I knew this was Sam. He was seven. He was innocent. He’s confident. He’s likable. And, seeing him with Justin — they did the root beer float scene — and he was Sam.”
“Fisher and Timberlake both have young children at home and my manager, at the time, was expecting his first, and I think it speaks to men who were becoming fathers. They responded emotionally to the script. It’s about love, acceptance, being a parent, and second chances.”
As a character, this path wasn’t something Eddie Palmer expected to happen, but once he interacted with Sam, he saw something of himself in the boy. “He would end up fighting for this kid and falling in love as a father for this young boy.”
Pitching a Human Story
Guerriero joked that she’s horrible at pitching stories, but with a movie like Palmer, there needs to be a way to express the human element and inspire others to pick up the screenplay. “Some are easier than others. In my first script, a husband hires a young man to test his wife’s faithfulness. That’s pretty easy to pitch. My girl gang script that I wrote into a book was about a girl who infiltrated a gang in order to get revenge for the girls who murdered her sister.”
“With Palmer, I mean that’s why the first manager said, ‘No, no, no.’ But, I instinctively knew better.” In another example, a producer said ‘no’ multiple times until Guerriero finally just said, “Why don’t you just read it?” This got him to open the script and the page itself is what made him keep reading.
“You read the logline [An ex-convict strikes up a friendship with a boy from a troubled home] for Palmer and it’s not that. It’s a strong character piece. These are harder movies to get made.” She also listed movies like Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Moonlight, and Silver Linings Playbook as similar character studies.
Guerriero also said that people like David O. Russell can essentially do what they want, so perhaps her advice is to get other, more viable, films made while pushing your passion project to the finish line.
She also looks for producers who make movies like the movies she want to make. She reached out to the producer of the Jennifer Aniston movie Cake and simply sent him the script. “He read Palmer, but his partner wanted to do something bigger. But he said, the door is always open.”
Perseverance and Patience
When someone does agree to the script, the first few pages need to be phenomenal. “I read a lot of scripts and I usually know if I’m going to like a movie in the first 5-10 minutes. Here’s the Litmus test: if I don’t get bored and can read it over and over, and it holds my attention, there’s a feel to it.”
“I know when I write something that feels good and I know when I write something and think, I can do better. I felt very confident in the script and the writing. It felt authentic because it was authentic. It came from honesty and vulnerability. Even when I meet people in the world, when someone is honest or vulnerable, I just connect. Because I’m not trying to fake it. It’s real. One of my high compliments is that I grew up in New Jersey, but people who read this script think I’m from the South. That’s a lovely compliment.”
In the end, Guerriero went back to a sports metaphor. “You have to step up to bat. I’ll step up to bat and swing as hard as I can and I’m okay if I strike out. I would prefer to hit the ball over the fence and get a home run, but my feeling is that you can’t be afraid. What’s the worst that can happen?”
“You can’t be afraid,” she repeated. “In this industry, there are so many managers, so many agents, so many producers. So what? I have stacks of emails that I sent and I hold onto them like a badge of honor, because thank God that God made me an athlete first. It really is just perseverance. This town is filled with them and they turn over. I know I have stamina so I’m only competing with myself. If one manager says No, my feeling is, Next.”
This article has been condensed. Listen to the full audio interview here.
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