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'Palmer' Screenwriter Cheryl Guerriero on the Role of Patience in Moviemaking

March 24, 2021
4 min read time

Palmer screenwriter Cheryl Guerriero knows something about patience when it comes to getting a movie made. She got the idea for Palmer's script back in 2007, but it would take 12 years for the film to finally see the light of day. 

"I would be visiting family back in New Jersey and they would ask me, 'So how's Palmer coming along?' And I would be like, 'Oh, God!'"

Starring Justin Timberlake as the titular character, Palmer is about former high school football star Eddie Palmer's road to redemption after serving 12 years in prison for stealing. He returns home to put his life back together and forms an unlikely bond with his young neighbor Sam, an outcast boy from a troubled home. 

The story was born from Guerriero's real life — "every character in the movie came from a personal experience, whether it was my own or [that of] a loved one," she said — and specifically, from her time around former convicts in her A.A. meetings.

"I was around a lot of men who had gotten out of prison due to drug and alcohol addiction, which is similar to Palmer's story," Guerriero said.

"These guys had completely changed their lives around and I remember thinking, 'How do you go from prison to buying a home in Los Angeles?'"

Guerriero said when gay men would stand up in the meetings and shared they had always felt different, "I would think, 'Of course you felt different.' But then one day a good-looking straight man stood up and said he felt different. And I was like, how can you feel different? Based on what someone looks like, you expect them to have such a good life and never feel depressed or feel different. It just caught my attention."

Which is why it was important for someone like Timberlake to fill that role.

"I purposefully wanted Palmer to look the way he does. But there's a lot of shame there. For me, it was about how do you write a character who's seeking redemption? It was about second chances. You did something you wished you hadn't," Guerriero said.   

According to the screenwriter, Palmer was a man who needed to be saved and in the film, it came from the most unlikely source: Sam. 

"He came to love this child and he became like a father figure to him. And in some ways they save each other. Sam is super comfortable in his skin and Palmer isn't, and that was part of the dynamic."

When it comes to creating characters Guerriero said, "I go with my gut, I go with my instincts. I typically have an image in my head of how they look and how they sound. Sometimes it comes from real life and people I've come across in my life." 

The screenplay for Palmer first appeared on the 2016 Black List.

"I was aware of the type of scripts that landed on the Black List. I love Manchester by the Sea, I love Silver Linings Playbook. I knew I couldn't control what script made the list but I knew Palmer lended itself to being that type of script."

Her first management team never sent it out, however.

"Like dating, I figured out this wasn't the partnership I wanted to be in and left," she said.

Guerriero soon hooked up with a new manager who, upon reading the script, said, "Cheryl, you made me cry three times."

"I knew this was the guy for me. He sent it out wide but warned me there was no guarantee, of course. And it ended up getting on the Black List." 

However, things still didn't move quickly from there. The film's eventual director, Fisher Stevens, came aboard in 2016. They were supposed to shoot in 2018 but financing fell through and the initial actor had dropped out. The script eventually went out to Timberlake, and they shot toward the end of 2019.

As for her advice for writers who find themselves waiting for their scripts to be made, Guerriero says prayer works for her.

"I don't pray to God like a Santa Claus in the sky. I pray to God for guidance. I pray to help me shift my focus and direction, and to help give me clarity," she said. 

Reading stories from other writers also helped because according to Guerriero, "there are so many examples of scripts taking years to make."

She also made another two films that happened "rather quickly."

But even if things were slow with Palmer, she kept believing in her screenplay. 

"I took enough steps to keep things moving," she said.

"I signed with another manager. I reached out to producers. I told friends."

She admitted she had a "come to Jesus moment" (which, she said, most writers almost always seem to have) and wanted to quit. 

Finally, she said, "Okay, God. I'll quit. I'll stop writing if that's what you want."

A week later she received a card from her sister in New Jersey, who was unaware of Guerriero's current struggle.

"In the card read, 'patience,'" Guerriero said.

"And I couldn't believe it."

She decided to hang in there. 

"That's my belief in something greater than myself. You have highs and lows. But when it clicks, it's something incredible."

Guerriero's journey with Palmer is a testament to the fact that screenwriters never know how and when their scripts will show up and get made. 

"When I saw that I made the Black List, I was so happy. I was skipping down the street," she said.

"But it didn't happen overnight. I always believed in Palmer. I knew it was only going to be a matter of time, but I didn't know it was going to take so long. But I believe in perseverance and patience, and, of course, some amount of talent." 

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