“I’m stumbling my way through this every step of the way.”
Saratoga County filmmaker Spencer Sherry is talking specifically about his self-created fundraising and marketing campaign for his upcoming short film, based on a Stephen King story, but he might just as well be commenting on his entire budding career. One man’s stumbles, though, can be another’s steps in the right direction.
After graduating high school, Sherry left his tiny town of Laurens, just north of Oneonta in Otsego County, to attend the College of Saint Rose, but it wasn’t the right fit, so he headed homeward to Oneonta and another major, only to try again at the University at Albany.
Less than a full year in and a former student-turned-assistant director/producer returned to give a talk at the school, and he left with a newly dropped-out Sherry in tow as a production assistant on the Netflix romantic comedy, “Set It Up,” starring Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs, Zoey Deutch and Pete Davidson.
“The first week of shooting is finals week and I promptly dropped out and ran down to New York, and then worked down there for about a year.”
Growing up loving movies, Sherry had never entertained it as a career choice until he was around 21 and that led to his stint at UAlbany where he figured he could at least get some hands-on experience with the school’s equipment. The fortuitous sidelining of his education brought him into the big leagues, but without all the mechanical know-how.
“I’m still not very technically proficient with a camera,” he says, “I’m learning as I move through these processes and as I work with people on things. I never really had a love or desire for the technical elements of the filmmaking. It was more just the stories and writing. Most of the drive was just the writing and the storytelling and coming up with cool shot ideas and twists and then the actual narration of it all.”
And he finds the collaborative efforts of others in the film community – particularly in this region – extremely welcome and inviting. “Just putting it out there and just saying, ‘Hey, this is something I do, here’s something that I’ve written, anyone that wants to look at it and give me feedback or just talk about it is welcome to,’ and I think you just find those people kind of come to you when you just say what you want and shout ‘help’ for as long as you can.”
After laboring on his first short film project, one that was half destroyed when a storm caused his computer server to crash, he decided to have a go at horror master Stephen King’s Dollar Baby program.
The bestselling writer came up with the idea back in 1977 to give aspiring filmmakers and theater producers the chance to adapt one of his lesser-known stories for $1, with the stipulation that the films would not be shown commercially or for a profit. More than 125 filmmakers have taken up the challenge over the years, the most famous being a then 20-year-old Frank Darabont, who went on to direct “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile” and “The Mist,” all based on King works.
Sherry found a story that wowed him, “The Monkey” from the 1985 collection “Skeleton Crew,” wrote a screenplay based on it and submitted it. The response was humbling: “The Monkey” was not on the approved list of short stories available so the request was obviously denied. End of story, right? Wrong.
The now 27-year-old writer and director went against conventional wisdom, not to mention the explicitly laid out online rules advising denied applicants not to plead their cases, and asked for special dispensation allowing him to adapt “The Monkey.” A series of exchanges involving various agents and assistants followed and before long Sherry received a “we never do this sort of thing” e-mail saying that King himself had given permission for the first time ever to use a previously unapproved story.
The idea had occurred to Sherry to possibly option the story to make as a true feature film, even if he didn’t know all that it would entail, because there’s more he would like to explore with the plot and the characters than the 45-minute time limit allowed to make it a short. The “pipe dream at the end of all this,” as he puts it, would be that after Stephen King watches it – he watches all of them, good and bad; filmmakers are required to send him a physical copy – he’ll like it enough to grant Sherry permission to expand it.
Fun fact: the only other person who ever optioned “The Monkey” for a feature film was … Frank Darabont. But he let the option lapse.
Joe Gietl, 32, is another local filmmaker, Colonie born and educated in the Guilderland School district. His own short film, “The Void,” premiered earlier this year, but lately he’s been taking on producing responsibilities. There’s a documentary short about an augmented reality app called the Mariah App that virtually “hacks” museumgoers experiences, narrating the tale of 19-year-old woman who died of an opioid overdose while looking at Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits partially funded by the Sackler family, the controversial founders of Purdue Pharma.
And then there’s “The Monkey.”
“I felt a strong connection to the material and the script. As a local filmmaker myself, I wanted to do anything that I could to try to use my connections and contacts to help him see his vision through and get his film made,” Gietl says of Sherry’s project. Their friendship forged by a shared love of film a couple years back surely aided Gietl in his decision to come aboard as a producer.
He and another producer, Queensbury corporate hotshot-turned-actor and filmmaker Chris Gaunt, are the only two people Sherry has made deals with so far. “Other than these two people,” Sherry says, “I have not officially onboarded any crew or cast yet only because I don’t know what the budget’s going to be until the crowdfunding’s over.”
Both Gietl and Sherry want to make “The Monkey” locally, using as much homegrown talent as possible. “One of my tangential goals of this is to sort of put Albany on the map,” Gietl says. “Ultimately, if I can help support Spencer, if I can help support my friends get their projects made and not see it as any type of competition between us, if one of us does well that’s good for all of us. I’m just happy to be a part of the story.”
Sherry says, “I really like this area a lot. I’m definitely more of a rural, small town guy.” Although he loves to travel and would go anywhere work would take him, the Capital Region is home. “I think I will remain based in this area.”
“I’m very invested in making this film a product of the Capital Region proper, and trying to let as many artists and creatives in the area get a little piece of it and say they could be a part of it.”
As for the Dollar Baby program dreamt up by King, Gietl is impressed. “Having somebody of that status open themselves up to the public and allow young writers and directors a chance to prove themselves like that is a really unique opportunity.”
Now it came time to actually make this thing. Sherry did his research and soon launched a detailed and fun campaign on the Indiegogo crowdfunding site in early November with hopes of reaching his proposed budget of $35,000 by the campaign’s end on Jan. 7. As of this writing he had already made almost $20,000, with three weeks still left to go.
He’s peppered the fund drive with perks and giveaways, and is active as well on Facebook and Instagram. All this publicity has brought him offers from other creatives and film folk to participate on the project. He says that at least 20 composers, some local and some from places like Los Angeles and Germany, have offered their musical services, as well as cinematographers, actors, set designers and others.
And he recently announced a special event to cap off the campaign on the closing day. He’s hosting a “Jeopardy”-style movie trivia contest that night at Pint Sized Small Bar + Bottle Shop on Lark Street in Albany. You can apply to be part of the game show ahead of time and eight contestants will be chosen on the spot to compete.
And when Sherry wasn’t spending the pandemic writing a script, making an impossible pitch, launching and maintaining a fundraising site, planning an end-of-campaign event and fielding offers from scores of other creative folks, he also picked up what he called a “COVID hobby.” He started growing all different varieties of chili peppers in his front yard and they thrived.
This led to a self-taught course in hot sauce making, followed by teaming up with a friend in Ballston Spa with some property, where the two planted around 100 chili pepper plants.
“We’re just making hot sauce and found this weird little niche of supplemental income, more like just, you know, walking around money,” he says.
The two had planned to really lean into the pepper business, but the film careers they both hope to make their life’s work ramped up. Yes, Sherry’s best friend from high school, his partner in chili peppers, the one who started his own landscaping design and stone masonry business that employs them both full-time as their “day jobs,” he, too, is an aspiring filmmaker.
It seems like these days, every interaction Sherry has is in some way related to movies, and especially the one he’s trying to make. He recently went back to Oneonta and was posting and handing out the “Lost Pet” flyers he created and already decorated the Capital Region with, featuring a toy monkey with the clanging cymbals that is the eerie basis for both King’s story and Sherry’s script.
“I walked into the local bookstore to see if they would take one because it’s kind of thematically appropriate, Stephen King and all. The girl behind the counter that I’ve never met before, I told her who I was and what I was doing, and she went, ‘Oh my God, yeah, I heard about this!’”
Recalling the incident with a sincere chuckle, Sherry says, “Wow, that feels good. That’s really nice that your hometown is talking about you.”
“I’m happy that people are interested. It’s always so humbling and appreciated that people care.”
C.J. Lais Jr.
Dec. 24, 2021