July 7, 2002|There are a great many similarities between John Sayles and Billy Wilder (save, obviously, Wilder's affection for the Hollywood studio system). Both: are writers who became directors; exhibit a knack for developing strong characters and eliciting fine performances; are loyal to a small cadre of performers and technical crew; prefer simple shooting schemes that don't obscure the primacy of the script; generally detail the infiltration of a corrupt society; are fond of sports metaphors and analogies; and, despite some auteur hallmarks, are unbound by genre. One of the great lost Wilder projects is a professional wrestling picture called The Masked Marvel, which was to star Charles Laughton, while Sayles once wrote a professional wrestling play called "Turnbuckle"--curiouser and curiouser.
Sayles--again like Wilder--began in a multitude of blue-collar professions, doing time among various other sundry tasks as a meat-packer before spending a year or two hitchhiking across the United States. The stories he heard while thumbing through West Virginia fuelled a major subplot in his second novel and additionally provided the foundation for the first film of what I consider his "middle period": Matewan. Sayles's continuing interest in the plight of the blue-collar worker is another possible offshoot of his early experience; his affection for characters who work at gas stations and/or offer people lifts (favourite collaborator David Strathairn is twice introduced in Sayles's oeuvre as a Samaritan chauffer) is yet another. Sayles wrote two books (Pride of the Bimbos and Union Dues)--the second of which was nominated for the National Book Award--before trying his hand as a screenwriter, and a third Los Gusanos, for which he taught himself Spanish. The Renaissance scribbler invested the money he earned from novels, a short story collection (The Anarchists Convention), and the scripts for a few Roger Corman-produced genre flicks (Battle from Beyond the Stars, Piranha)--around $40, 000--into his hyphenate debut: The Return of the Secaucus Seven.
Exploding onto a relatively stagnant independent movie scene in the early 1980s, Return of the Secaucus Seven set the tone for Sayles's later work: extended ensemble, sports metaphor, dense dialogue, and concern with sociological division. After a few initial stumbles (the difficult to watch Lianna, the intriguing but unpopular Baby, It's You, and the too-didactic--if occasionally brilliant--The Brother from Another Planet), Sayles tore off a string of successes (Matewan, Eight Men Out, City of Hope, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, and Men with Guns) that run the gamut from just brilliant to incandescent to classic. (Lone Star, in fact, is one of my favourite films of all time.)
It was a great personal honour to sit down with Sayles and his long-time partner and producer Maggie Renzi last week in the bar area of Denver's swank Panzano Restaurant. Dressed casually, the pair appeared in high spirits, fresh from introducing IFC's "John Sayles Retrospective" (including new 35mm prints of Secaucus, Lianna, The Brother from Another Planet, and Matewan) at the Starz Filmcenter and preparing for an introduction of the pass-premiere presentation of his newest film, Sunshine State, at the historic Mayan Theater. Sayles, dressed in a pale blue unbuttoned workshirt, sleeves pushed up, at a muscular 6'4"--the most important voice in American Independent cinema--looked ready for a hard day's work and, in its way, the press junket is probably as gruelling as digging fence posts. Doubtless, the notoriously modest and interview-wary artist would prefer it to the endless string of idiotic critics (one of whom actually had the genius to ask why Sayles, one of the best writers of children, never featured children in his films) with their taperecorders and inane questions. Yet when presented with direct questions about recurring themes in his art and his artistic evolution, both Sayles and Renzi proved themselves magnificently self-aware and eloquent. Frankly, I could've used another hour.
Sayles speaks with his hands, his favourite gesture the gradual circling of thumb and forefinger in a pinching circle to augment the idea of precision; Renzi is more reserved in her expression, if no less precise. After warming up by asking if there's any chance that Night Skies, the screenplay he wrote for Spielberg back in the early-Eighties (and described as Drums Along the Mohawk with aliens), had any shot of being made (no) and if he had plans of completing his Jazz Age trilogy with a biopic of Fatty Arbuckle (a laughing no), I started by trying to draw a line from The Secret of Roan Inish, the first time the auteur addressed the subject of storytelling directly, all the way through to Sunshine State, which expands the storytelling motif to encompass mass advertising and the very real way that Florida was defined by that kind of fiction.
JOHN SAYLES: I think the specific point in Roan Inish was that I set the film when I did and [in Ireland] because most of those stories are being interpreted by this little ten-year-old girl who has never seen a movie or a TV show, so it was hooking back into the oral tradition of storytelling. And to me the oral tradition was something that told you very often why you as a people were here--something that bonded you to a place or a tradition, whether that be a social or religious tradition or, certainly, an ethnic tradition, where modern storytelling is much more of a smorgasbord. "I'm going to go to Blockbuster tonight and pick out a video and I'll enter the world of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, or a high-tech bank robbery in Las Vegas, or a Meg Ryan romance in New York City, or whatever, and then I'll rewind it and send it back." So modern storytelling, essentially, is actually about escaping anything that you are or were.
In each movie then I'm trying to play with storytelling in a different way. In Lone Star it's about a guy piecing together the past from this mosaic of people who don't even necessarily agree on things. At one point I had one person start a story and when we come back from the flashback I have a different person ending it so you can say, "Okay, they're basically telling the same story"--but it's often from slightly different points of view so you have to piece it all together. By the time I'm getting to Sunshine State a lot of it is both about advertising and history and how the two come together. Mary Steenburgen's character at one point says, "We hate history," and then Sam McMurray, the other guy in the scene says, "Ah, no, you got pirates, you got Indians, you got slavery, all this wonderful stuff, all you got to do is Disney-fy it a little and get yourself a hook and people will love it." And to me what I'm trying to play around with there is, Okay, this history exists, it's very complex, it's usually very bloody and awful, what do we choose to remember of it and take to identify ourselves?
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: There's a scene in Limbo that speaks to that where a tour guide walks through the Golden Nugget Lounge giving the kind of "soft" history that you describe, lending the events of the second half of the film a certain visceral irony.
JS: Right, when real stuff is happening and maybe if it got famous enough people would go see where three people starved to death in the wilderness. So take the character that Michael Greyeyes plays--he's a Native American but history doesn't mean that much to him so the scenes where we see him alone, he's just a guy who misses his wife and kid--and when the other guys start calling him "chief" and says, "Don't you know some Indian lore"--it just doesn't relate to his particular life. He would have to become a kind of "born again Native American" to go back and find his roots, which he could do, but that's his choice. What's also happening, and this certainly relates to that scene in Limbo, is the Mary Steenburgen character is inventing a tradition based on something that may never have happened, but she's certainly trying to make pirates cute and there was nothing cute about pirates. Anyone who did what pirates did back then, today--people like a Dahmer, or serial killers, biker gangs, whatever, you're not going to open a theme restaurant around them, but there are dozens of pirate-ship theme restaurants.
So a lot of what I'm dealing with is as a society what is there for us that makes any sense at all--do we have ties to anything except media culture? When you talk to kids and listen to kids talk to each other, they don't talk about where they came from or what's made there, but they talk about television shows that they may have both seen and that's their shared culture.
The sense of a true self is lost or corrupted.
JS: Right--that's what happens to your culture when you start to sell it. I think of the Navajos who used to have one rain dance for the tourists and one for themselves. What happens to that rain dance that you keep for yourself eventually when elements of the "fake" rain dance begin to find their way into the truth?
Part and parcel with the issue of storytelling is the question of language. Can you talk about language barriers and the mistrust of written communication in your films?
JS: I think one of the things that I'm always interested in is what separates people, what do people allow to separate them, and language is a huge one. It's not just language in the sense of you speak Spanish and another speaks English, it's how you use the same language. Very often when I'm talking to the black actors I'll say, "Okay, you may walk around just as a person, not even as a character, with two or three shades of black. You might be one person when you go home and hang around with the kids you grew up with, another person when you're going for a job with a black director or to play a street guy, another person when you play a black guy for a white guy, and another when you go for a straight job as a waiter in a very classy restaurant run by a white guy." You use the language in very different ways and when you're dealing with someone in your world you can use that to make someone more comfortable or less comfortable.
MAGGIE RENZI: You look at Jane Alexander's character, she's a professional southerner--she has more to do with Tennessee Williams than anything to do with growing up in Georgia. And then you see her daughter who doesn't go for any of that type of affectation.
One way you seek to address those societal divisions is through sports--basketball in Return of the Secaucus Seven, baseball of course in Matewan and Eight Men Out, and now golf in Sunshine State--one of the most traditionally segregated sports. Was Tiger Woods your inspiration?
JS: Yeah, I think that tennis and golf were the last holdouts because they were the country club sports. For me, very often, music and sports have been the places where people meet--maybe before it was polite for them to meet in other social situations. One of the things people were afraid of with rock-n-roll in the Fifties was that white kids and black kids were getting together and dancing to the same music and that freaked people out. And before that, even, white musicians and black musicians were listening to each other. A lot of music from 1957 found their way into Lone Star, "Since I Met You Baby" and things like that...
You use two versions of that song in the film...
JS: Exactly, and I did it as a way of sort of demonstrating how black musicians would listen to country music in that era and come up with their own version of the song--it's the past resurfacing and illuminating how those dividing lines shift over time. That kind of conversation happens in music and sports before it happens in polite society in large part because athletes and musicians weren't, for a long time, considered polite society. Baseball and basketball is not just black and white, it's European, Asian, Brazilian--and I think the barriers in golf and tennis are the next to go. I really think Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez really started the whole thing, they were caddies who worked their way up--but now there's stuff like Venus and Serena Williams's father who says that he's gonna take over tennis where before they wouldn't have even been allowed to participate in Wimbledon.
MR: Incidentally, Richard Williams was just down in Florida last week and was looking into developing American Beach in more progressive ways.
Last question about golf: the last shot of Sunshine State is of a golf ball pinging off a hamburger sign for something called "The Sheik, Hamburgers"--did that have anything to do with Vincent Spano's character in Baby, It's You?
JS: (laughs) It was there, I liked the name...we didn't paint it. (laughs)
"...Children aren't props, they're characters. I tend to avoid people who have children as props--in life and in movies."
Let's talk about the other aspect of that non-polite unification you talk about, the music--specifically your affection for characters who sing and perform: J.T. in Secaucus Seven, Mastrantonio in Limbo, you in Eight Men Out, Sheik in Baby, It's You...
JS: That's an interesting thing because what I'm interested in is not so much the beauty of the song, particularly if it's a main character, but it's another way to exhibit character. It's important say in Limbo that Mary Elizabeth get to sing live so the musicians behind her are on a track. Mary had a coil in her ear so they can stay in tempo, but what you hear from her we're shooting live instead of lip-synching because I said to her, "I need you to act through this--you're breaking up with your boyfriend or you see this guy in the audience and something's gotta change in you and it's gonna change the song." Vincent Spano, the fact that he's there, and he wants to be Sinatra and he can only lip-synch tells you something about that character, too. I had an interesting talk, I acted in this movie that Vondie Curtis-Hall directed with Tim Roth (1997's Gridlock'd -Ed.) and I said to Tim that while I wasn't crazy about the movie Rob Roy, I liked the sword fighting because it was in character. The fact that he was this effete guy but really good at it and Liam Neeson was this very honest, foursquare guy with a huge broadsword so that this fight was a character scene. The best movie I ever saw for that was The Duellist where as the world changes, the style of their duelling changes and that tells you something about their society and about their characters.
So for me, athletics--like that scene where the guys are playing basketball in Secaucus Seven is not just to have an interlude where they're playing some sport but as the women are actually speaking through the issues, the guys are either kidding each other or physicalizing and eventually it breaks down but not in a verbal tension but in stuff like the cheating or the cross-checking.
MR: Thinking about the singing, also, there's that scene where Frances comes in after spending the night with David's character and they only have to glance at each other before breaking into "Hey There" which tells a lot about how these people have talked about all this before and have this rich shared history and the way they express it is this way.
One of the exit lines that you have in that film, in fact, is, "I like being around people who I don't have to explain my jokes to."
MR: That's right, that's it exactly--and I think that touches on what we've been talking about in terms of self-identification and the past and how you are a product of the history that you've constructed.
Staying on the topic of music, tell me about your longtime collaboration with composer Mason Daring.
JS: Mason I met basically because he's a lawyer and was friends with some of the guys who were on the crew of Secaucus Seven--he came to do the contracts between us--and basically my car broke down on the way to a meeting and he came and helped out with a radiator hose and he said, "So what kind of music are you going to have?" And I said, "Well, I can't afford to buy anything," and he says, "I'm a folksinger and also I'm the lawyer for a lot of local musicians and they owe me favours." So gradually it comes out that Mason also composes music, was a musicologist and all this kind of stuff, so a lot of what I do with Mason now is I send him the script and then we start to talk about the musical universe--what's special about this place, the music of this place, and we listen to a lot of the stuff. For Matewan we listened to a lot of hill music and a lot of early delta blues and some Italian, and we'll do a lot of that stuff, but no banjo, that's too Flat & Scruggs, Bonnie and Clyde for the mood of this movie, so this is gonna be more of a Dobro, bottleneck kind of movie than a sprightly kind of movie.
Did you know during that process for Matewan that Haskell Wexler was going to shoot it so that you could marry the score to his visual style?
JS: You can, but we didn't. Haskell was a nice serendipity of us reading a book called Masters of Light while we were driving through West Virginia, scouting some locations, and Maggie said, "Well, he should shoot our movie" (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Right, "He sounds like the right guy!"
JS: I have no musical vocabulary so Mason and I will talk about the genre and the feeling and all that kind of stuff and he'll write some stuff on like a Casio or something, no musicians or anything, and send me that until I have melodies I feel comfortable with. And then I'll come to the sessions with the musicians and we always show them the scenes that they'll be playing against and not just for where the cue goes in but for the feeling of the scene. I'll talk to them about an emotion which they love, just like an actor, and then Mason will just convey the message to them in the jargon that I don't know.
In keeping with the scoring of your films, I wanted to talk about the sound choices you made in two of your love scenes--the one in Lianna and the one in Passion Fish.
JS: Well, y'know, you're going for different things because you've seen so many of those and what's going to tell the story in a different way other than people saying, "Oh, this is the scene where they're getting together and rolling around in bed." So in Lianna what I wanted was the most personal possible thing so there's no shot that somebody's face doesn't appear in it, no truncated body parts where a face doesn't come into it sooner or later. There's a lot of this kind of eyeball connection in there. And I wanted something that indicated a long night of not just love-making but some kind of communication between these women--I didn't want to necessarily hear what they said, but I wanted this murmuring whisper between them.
In Passion Fish, once again Alfre Woodard's character has been out of the race for a while so she's not lost in the moment. She's into it, but the violins aren't playing for her--this is an addict making love for the first time not stoned. She had a serious drug problem where it used to be there was this wooze of the guy, the music, the drugs--this is something I don't want to think about in the morning too much.
There's a shocking clarity to it...
MR: Right, as opposed to the scene in Lone Star where these two childhood lovers finally get together and there's nothing but the sound of passion.
JS: And it's hooked up with that song that took them all the way from following each other in the cars...
Shifting gears a little: tell me about the pervasiveness of single mothers in your films and how they play into your theme of resurrecting the past.
JS: Part of it is that I know a lot of single mothers or mothers who function as a single mother even though they have a husband who might not be around very much or is not living with them. But I'm also interested in the intensity of that relationship--the intensity of that relationship between Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Vanessa Martinez [in Limbo]--there's a lot of pressure on that kind of bond especially when you live alone for a while with each other, that person is a little more than just your kid, a little more than just your mother. There's a friendship thing that can get in the way of clearly defined roles and complicate things a lot.
MR: Or in Matewan, where he really becomes the father.
JS: Right--you literally had to have somebody in the family working in the coal mines or you got evicted, so if she wasn't still working as someone who puts people from the coal mines up they would lose their house when he walked out of the mine.
MR: And a lot of the reason for making Lianna, as I remember at the time the original intention was not necessarily, Let's make a movie about lesbians, but Let's make a movie about a woman who loses her children because of a decision that she's made. And that's one of the very typical kinds of single mother--there's a man in the picture but you know he's not going to be very helpful to that woman who may have just put herself outside of a certain "polite" society by turning her back on a traditional marriage.
JS: I also think that I'm interested, y'know, just very basically in the different dynamics presented by a triangle. You see the scene in Sunshine State with her two parents where she comes with this agenda to her dad to talk about selling the restaurant, but like a lot of kids who visit home they can't get a word in edgewise because the parents are still lobbing bricks at each other that they've been lobbing for forty years.
Let's turn to the children--Will Oldham's child preacher in Matewan, Martinez in Limbo, Jeni Courtney in Roan Inish, the black kids in City of Hope and Sunshine State, and particularly Conejo in Men with Guns.
JS: Well children aren't props, they're characters. I tend to avoid people who have children as props (laughs) in life and in movies--and Terrell (Alex Lewis from Sunshine State -Ed.) is kind of a kid looking for a family and he's lucky he's got this woman who's not even really his grandmother who's taking some care of him and he's desperate the minute he's around James McDaniel's character to hook into him in some way to the point where he calls him his father when he's talking to Ralph Waite. But each of those kids is a very different thing--Conejo's a kid who's basically become an adult. He has no parent figures, he's out there, he's just trying to survive and he doesn't even do it to be cute. He hangs out with the army and sort of become a mascot and in ten years he'll probably be in the army himself. He's more world wise than Federico Luppi's character and that's one of the central issues of Men with Guns is that it robs children of their childhood. He's not that afraid of anything and he should be. In Roan Inish--some of my favourite movies when I was a little kid were the pre-Disney Hayley Mills movies, not because there was a girl or a boy in the lead, but that they were kids in an adult situation and were in over their heads in some ways, but they were the ones who had to do something hard to get what they needed.
Plus there's always that undercurrent of darkness and danger.
JS: Right--often tied to her finding something out. Knowledge as danger. Then there are the other kids like the ones in Lianna who are just "kid kids"--slumpy adolescents who at one point probably thinks that their parents are trying to ruin their lives. Each of the kids has a personality and their own set of problems and I try to honour that.
Does that philosophy carry over into your mentally disabled characters, like Barbara Williams's child and Asteroid in City of Hope or Bunny in Lone Star?
JS: Well, once again they're very different people. David's character functions in its own way in City of Hope in very much the same way as the golfers in Sunshine State.
Asteroid is the first time in your films that I've seen you really confront the advertising theme that finds its fruition in Sunshine State.
JS: Exactly, plus he functions as a kind of roving Greek Chorus. Where the golfers are a little more like the Gods of Olympus, Asteroid comments in a much more metaphorical way. Barbara Williams's little boy in City isn't so much mentally challenged as physically challenged and what his character is is that she's got this kid and very early on as she gets involved with Vincent she lets him know that this is what she comes with.
MR: That's another love scene that's scored unconventionally--it's actually interrupted by the child's coughing.
JS: Right--that's what comes with the package--I might be hot stuff, but this is what you get with me.
In a very real way Chris Cooper of Lone Star and Mary McDonnell of Passion Fish are children as well in that they learn who they are late in their life.
JS: We all come with baggage--it doesn't matter what age you're at, some of the things that you're doing are because of how you were brought up and whatever unfinished business you're carrying from your childhood. There are people now, sixty years old, still trying to prove something to people who are dead.
Tell me about the movie references in your films--I'm not talking about hommage, but rather instances where you actually show or mention films in your films: Black Mama, White Mama in Lone Star, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in Passion Fish. Is film the new oral tradition, and do you honour it by retelling it in this way?
JS: They're cultural references absolutely. Black Mama, White Mama is one of those blondes with machine guns in the Philippines movies that would be playing at the drive-in. Even if you don't know the movie, you see it and you get the feeling of Texas in that era. With Baby Jane, for anyone who knows the movie it's about people in very close quarters kinda freaking each other out and Passion Fish very easily could have turned out that way. But Passion Fish resolves itself differently from what can be a very unhealthy situation--it ends up as a healthy thing in Passion Fish but I know a lot of people in that profession where there are these very strange relationships--they're like old married couples torturing each other.
That surfaces again with the opening of Men with Guns...
JS: (laughs) Can you imagine how difficult it was finding a Mexican character actor of that age willing to start his scene with a finger up his butt?
Tell me about your focus on feet and thematic groupings--were you influenced at all by Strangers on a Train?
JS: It's not so much the feet as that every character is important and you want them to have the right entrance. When we did the Springsteen video of "I'm On Fire," where he was going to play a character, we thought about, Well, what's a good way to introduce Springsteen, so we had him come out from under a car because he's a Jersey guy and he sings about cars and all that kind of stuff and it was good not just for the character in the video, but for Bruce. So every character you introduce you think about the first time you'll see him--the burning pirate ship and Terrell, the stark backdrop with Jane Alexander--it could be a ring, fingers on a curveball, whatever it is that's gonna give you a handle on the difference of this person and why they're being introduced in this way.
One way you differentiate Joe Morton in Brother from Another Planet is that he very literally is able of feeling the story of place.
JS: My idea of the character was a guy who felt things that emotion was attached to. If you talked to him and looked him in the eye he could understand, but if say Fisher Stevens comes up to him in a subway car and played a card trick that has no emotion, he wouldn't understand a thing about. Sitting on a barstool where someone was shot, that would certainly elicit something in him and so, very early maybe, I was interested in the stories that places had to tell.
So, finally, talk to me about the unearthing and burial imagery in Lone Star, Limbo, and now Sunshine State.
JS: Well certainly Lone Star is a movie that starts with bones being unearthed and that starts the action and the search of the movie and to me in Sunshine State the past catches up to people in that way. They're trying to Disney-fy it or ignore it or to say, "Y'know, that didn't really happen or, if it did happen, it happened so long ago it really doesn't mean that much to us anymore." And this includes Angela's mother, she doesn't even want to talk about it--that's old history, let's not deal with it, and Ralph Waite's character talking about how he could've been Lester Maddox, standing out there in front of his store with an axe handle--just doesn't mean that much to Marly (Edie Falco's character -Ed.). I think it's a nice idea in America that you can just pull up stakes and move on--start from scratch--but guess what, you never start from scratch. There's cultural baggage, people the minute you walk out the door who already don't like you and you haven't opened your mouth or done one thing. So this idea in America that you can build new things, get rid of the old stuff like Ronald Reagan's contention of "It's morning in America"--it doesn't happen, the past comes up and gets you. Anything that you ignore will come up and get you. So for me the bones thing doesn't go for just social history but for the family bones.
MR: There's this thing in Sunshine State in the cemetery where the Mary Alice character is so furious, here's this very controlled lady throwing the golf balls out and her daughter says, "Oh, mama, it doesn't matter," but it's left to the Mary Alice character to remind her that in fact it matters very much how you treat your history.