John Sayles: Genius on a Budget

When Hollywood comes calling, John Sayles usually answers.

And yet for more than two decades he has managed to remain at the vanguard of the independent film movement. This apparent paradox is only part of Sayles’ genius and his myth. The other part is that most of his movies are brilliant and thought-provoking.

John Sayles has been making the movies that he wants to make for a long time now. But he doesn’t make his living as a director. He earns his living primarily as a writer-for-hire, essentially helping Hollywood tell its stories so that he can afford to tell his own. With 13 films to his credit (as both writer and director) and a new film in production, it’s clear that Sayles has a lot to say.

With the release of his first film, The Return of the Secaucus 7, Sayles established himself as a true maverick, consistently able to accomplish his brand of storytelling within the confines of an often miniscule budget.

He could be considered the ultimate moviemaking pragmatist, recognizing that the studios usually can’t help him make his movies because they’re not the kind of films that attract large audiences.

But it’s a popular misconception to think that Sayles
is anti-Hollywood;
he has no major problem with studios. He’ll write their scripts
and he’d gladly let them finance his pictures as long as he were
granted final cut and casting control. Since that rarely happens,
Sayles will continue to make movies on his own with small budgets,
torrid shooting schedules, intense preparation and actors who work
for scale. He will deftly create new and inventive ways to get his
movies made, despite limited resources.

The Secret of Roan Inish (1994);
Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980); Matewan (1987); and City
of Hope (1991) are just a few of Sayles’ efforts.

In an industry in which most non-conformists are eaten
alive by the Hollywood monster, Sayles has remained elusive-and
ultimately inedible. This summer, Sony Pictures Classics will release
Sayles’ latest film, Sunshine State, starring Edie Falco and Angela
Bassett, about the changing emotional and physical landscape of
a Florida beachfront community. And in cooperation with IFC Films,
a retrospective of some of Sayles’ earliest works is touring the
nation. In this recent interview with MM, Sayles talks about his
latest adventures, his moviemaking philvosophy and the satisfaction
he derives from playing God.

MM: How has the process evolved for you over the
years?
Has it become easier with each new project, or is
there still that gnawing fear that comes with a new film that this
might be the one that I run out of money on, or don’t finish on
schedule, or that doesn’t get proper distribution?

JS: It’s not really fear as much as
it is anxiety. That’s why I like editing more than anything else.
By that point, you know you have the money to make the movie and
you don’t have to worry about the weather or the time. I can put
in as much overtime as I want. I can wake up at three in the morning
and run to the garage and cut a little bit of the movie because
I can’t sleep and no one is going to charge overtime to the movie.
In general, I think that I’m better at playing the instrument, so
I can get more out of a week of shooting now than we used to be
able to. We can be a little more ambitious on the same kind of budget
level.

MM: Do you edit your films out of economic necessity
or because you want that much
more control over the final product?

Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980)

JS: It’s about half control and half
fun (laughs). As I said, it’s my favorite part. But I also feel
you’re still writing when you’re editing and you’re still directing
the actor. You’re really affecting the rhythm of their performance
quite a bit in the editing. I feel like the deal I make with the
actors is, ‘Look, you know you’re getting paid scale or pretty damn
close to it.’ Most of the actors I’m working with can make more
money on a different job, but I tell them ‘This is just a deal between
you and me. It’s not a deal between you, me, the studio and a focus
group in Milwaukee. I’m going to do my best to bring out the best
of your work, the best moments of you, and you’re going to feel
better about your performance when it’s done.’ And I really feel
better about it if I’m there with my finger on the button. But also,
it’s just fun for me; it’s the most satisfying part of the process.

MM: Why did you choose to hire an editor on Matewan
and Eight Men Out? Was it difficult to relinquish that
control?

JS: Basically, I was kind of interested in what the
difference would be working with an editor. I had worked with Sonya
Polonsky on Baby, It’s You because the studio wanted me to
have an editor. They didn’t want me to edit it myself, and that
was the same situation with Eight Men Out. I liked working
with Sonya and so we did Matewan. I felt like, well, maybe
it would be interesting to work with an editor again. In the case
of Eight Men Out it was John Tintori, who had been my script
advisor once and a grip on another film.

Matewan (1987)

In both cases I was there every day, very often on
a parallel machine. I might be working on montage sequences while
they were working on straight sequences. We might switch chairs
every once in a while. So I kind of work with the editor a lot like
the way I work with an actor, which is, ‘Okay here are the takes
I want you to try to use, and here’s what I want.’ And then you
look at it and you say ‘Okay, here’s take two’ and you make a few
adjustments and see what they come up with then. Eventually I just
felt like this isn’t saving me any time and I like editing myself,
so I might as well do it myself if I’m allowed to.

MM: What’s the difference in writing a script for
a studio versus a script you plan to direct yourself?

JS: There’s certainly less of an emotional investment,
even though I work harder. I’m trying to help them tell their story
up to the point where I don’t think I’ll do a good job anymore.
Sometimes there comes a point where I’ll say ‘You know, I just don’t
believe in this story anymore and the direction you want to take
it-or at least I’m not the person who can take it there for you.’
Generally I ask ‘Is this a movie I would go see if it was done well?’
Sometimes I get something and I say ‘I just don’t know how to do
this. I don’t know how to make it better.’ Occasionally I’ve said
‘I think you should shoot the version you have now.’ Sometimes they
want to take it in a certain direction and I say I’d rather see
the movie you’ve got now than the one you want to make.

MM: Do you use your acting as a way to learn
from other directors?

City of Hope (1991)

JS: Sometimes it’s just fun. It’s always
a good thing for the perspective it gives you; to think about how
the production works and see the technicians at work and meet other
actors. Acting is a very good thing for writers to do because one
of the main things an actor has to do is think about ‘How does my
character see the world?’ And when you’re writing, it’s important
to not just have characters talk with a different rhythm, but to
think about their psychology and how they see the world. And then
when you put them into the scene, how would they react to a situation?

MM: Do you enjoy and allow for improvisation from
your actors on the set?

JS: I don’t change lines. I don’t change dialogue.
Generally what you do though is see how the actor is going to play
the scene. I’m always interested in seeing what the actor does first.
If it’s not what I want or I don’t think it’s going to work, then
I’ll adjust it or direct it. But a lot of times you’re hoping that
people come up with interesting stuff that you haven’t thought of
yet. So I don’t do a lot of directing on the first couple of takes,
but then I may start adjusting from then on.


JS:
When you get actors to say the lines, that changes
before turning to film. What’s the appeal of articulating a story
visually? Why make movies?

everything. I write a lot of dialect when I write fiction, but that’s
different than having an actor inhabit that character. There are
pros and cons to showing a story instead of telling it: When you
write fiction you’re God. If you want the sun to shine, the sun
is shining. When you’re directing a movie, even on a low budget,
you’re at the most, kind of like an enlightened despot.

You may be doing good things and you’ve got a lot
of control but you’re not God. If the sun doesn’t want to shine,
it’s not going to shine.

On the other hand, you have all these people who can
do things that you can’t do-composers, actors, cinematographers,
production designers, costumers. They come in with their specialties,
you set them off on a path and they come back to you with choices
and you literally get to direct their talent, whatever it is. And
they’ll come up with all kinds of stuff you never would have thought
of, but you get to put that in your story. And that’s very
attractive to me.

I can do all kinds of things in fiction, but it has
to go through your head first. And when you’re watching a film there
are just things that go straight to your guts-that are just visceral-and
there’s something great about that. Depending on how you use it,
it can just add so much to the storytelling, to the feeling that
you are living this, you’re not reading about it, thinking
about it and imagining it.

MM: Where do your story ideas originate? What,
to you, makes a story captivating enough to want to spend millions
of dollars to tell it?

JS: Generally it’s something that I’m still interested
in, and that I don’t feel like I’ve seen in other movies a hundred
times. In fact, I don’t even know the story totally. In many cases
I don’t even know how I feel about it, so in the process of writing
the script there’s a lot of discovery there. And occasionally I’ll
finish something and I just say, ‘You know, I’m really having a
hard time with this and maybe it’s because I’m just not that interested,’
so I don’t finish it. The ones that I finish and that I spend a
lot of time on are the ones in which I’ve discovered things, whether
it’s a historical story or a contemporary one that kept interesting
me.

John Sayles directs Sunshine State (2002);
starring Edie Falco; Bill Cobbs and Angela Bassett

I don’t see that many movies, but I see enough to
know what’s been covered to death. When I start down the path with
something like Men With Guns, I know that not many movies
have dealt with the same things at all. Sometimes I just know what
world I want to get in and I just start writing scenes. With Lone
Star
, I knew throughout the movie that the two main characters
were brother and sister, but I didn’t know who shot the sheriff
until the third draft. Then, finally, it was ‘Well, of course it
was the deputy!’ Because it finally made sense for my main character.

MM: What sparked the idea for Sunshine State?

JS: I’d been in Florida scouting locations for another
movie I was thinking about writing based on a short story I’d written
about treasure hunters. And I just couldn’t find the Florida that
I remembered anymore-it had changed that much in 10, 15 years. So
I just started thinking about what that change was about: First
of all what tourism does to people, but then that very specific
kind of corporate tourism where you don’t even own the restaurant
anymore-you just work in it and you kind of become an employee.

I’m also interested in what happens when you sell
your own culture and your own history and kind of alter it to make
it more sellable. Does it have any meaning to you anymore or is
it just a product?

MM: Sunshine State, like all your other films,
displays a serious interest in the history of a place and its people,
culture, etc. Why is history, especially American history, so important
to you?

JS: A lot of what I am interested in is the tension
between the promise of America-what we’re supposed to be, what the
politicians always call on when they’re waving the flag and asking
people to go out and fight and to vote for them-and the reality.
There are countries in the world that may have a national identity,
but they don’t try to sell those ideals so hard. They may be a little
more world-weary than America.

I’m also very interested in the way people manipulate
history. Not just political or social history, but family history.
We often make up stories to feel better about ourselves, or we make
people into legends. I’m always interested in that tension between
the story we settled on, or that people want to hear, and what actually
happened. Certainly when we did Lone Star a lot of people
talked about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance-the John Ford
movie. I think there’s an awful lot of fertile field for drama there,
and it can even be on a very personal level.

MM: How was Sunshine State financed? Do
you find that the more politically charged your idea is the harder
it is to find financial backing?

JS: I don’t think, generally, it’s political; I think
it’s more castability. On Sunshine State we were actually
very lucky in that we got financing right away from Sony Pictures
Classics, and we worked with those guys when they were United Artists
Classics and Orion Classics. So we’ve worked with them before and
every couple of years we’ll have something that they are interested
in financing. The budget for Sunshine State was about $6
million, which is high for us but low for everybody else. It’s still
a very ambitious movie for that much money, but we’ve done it a
bunch of times so we were able to get a lot on the screen.

Actually, when we have trouble financing things it’s
more often the racial content of the movie. I’d love to make a movie
about the Philippine insurrection. However, a lot of the characters
are black and we just kept hitting this brick wall with people saying
that we can’t get any money from overseas for that. The Germans
aren’t interested, the Italians aren’t interested, the French aren’t
interested, the Japanese aren’t interested and it’s just too expensive
for us to do here at home. So it’s usually been a matter of race
or language.

Sunshine State (2002); starring
Edie Falco; Bill Cobbs and Angela Bassett

The other time we have problems raising money is when
it’s not all in English. My next movie, Casa de Los Babys, is
going to be half in English and half in Spanish. It’s about a bunch
of American women who go to a South American country to try to adopt
babies, but it’s also about the people who live in that country
and their feelings about the whole thing and their lives. So this
is one where the budget is going to be close to $1 million, and
we’ll have only four weeks to shoot. If you look at American moviegoing
habits, generally less than one or two percent of moviegoing is
to subtitled movies-and generally 80 to 85 percent of that
is to one movie. So it might be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
or it might be Amelie, but there’s rarely more than one or
two that break through every year.

MM: Mainstream American moviegoers don’t like unhappy
endings-and they dislike ambiguous endings even more. When you make
a film, who are you making it for? What are you expecting from your
moviegoers?

JS: All I ask is that they come with an open enough
mind to try to get involved with the character. I expect most of
them will have preconceptions from all their years of moviegoing
that may or may not be filled. It’s another reason why we try to
make movies that are very low budget.

Certainly in the ’60s and ’70s there was a lot more
openness on the part of audiences. You could have movies like all
those early Jack Nicholson movies, Five Easy Pieces kind
of movies and Easy Rider and certainly a lot of the Arthur
Penn movies. Many of them have ambiguous endings. The Graduate
has a very ambiguous ending and it was still enormously successful.
I think only in the last 15 years have moviegoers been kind of pushed
and seduced away from accepting a more real-to-life kind of ending.
And I wouldn’t even use the word ambiguous, I would say a more “complex”
story. One of the things I’m interested in is stretching the envelope
as far as the complexity of the story that people will accept.

MM: Your films take place everywhere
from the beaches of Ireland to the jungles of Central America. How
does shooting in such vastly different locations affect the moviemaking process.
Do you ever have to reinvent yourself as a director
to suit the location?

JS: The place can become a character
in the movie, and it certainly affects the visual storytelling. If what you’re
talking about is what’s happening in the world around you, what
you see in the world affects that story. So City of Hope,
which is in this kind of funky urban landscape, is going to have
a very different feeling to it than Lone Star, which is out
in the Texas desert. You may even change the format of the picture
or change the stock or whatever. Often it’s as important where
a person is as what they’re doing and what’s going on around them.
There’s that whole fish-out-of-water genre, one of the first of
which was The Brother from Another Planet. By having a guy
from outer space walk around Harlem you actually kind of see it
through new eyes. And the thing about reinventing yourself as a
director is I think every time you go out, you’re telling somewhat
different of a story.

MM: You’ve worked with such celebrated DPs as Haskell
Wexler, Ernest Dickerson and Roger Deakins. How much do you allow
them to experiment?

JS: We talk about the ‘philosophy’ of the look of
the movie, and the feeling that I want-the emotion that I want from
scenes. So I often will give them a scene breakdown and I may just
put emotional words on it, something like ‘tense’ or ‘breezy’ or
whatever; something that’s a bit more of a suggestion for a feeling.
But working on the kinds of budgets that we have I have to be very
specific about the coverage and the camera movement, and really
plan that out.

Sometimes I’m lucky enough that the cinematographer’s
around and we can plan it out together. On something like City
of Hope
with Bob Richardson, we had all these Steadicam shots
and we would walk them through with a video camera. Production assistants
moved where the actors were going to move so we could figure out
if we were going to be whirling the Steadicam around 360 degrees
and where we could possibly put lights.

MM: Have you ever felt that you did not do one
of your scripts justice because of budgetary constraints?

JS: Occasionally I’ve felt that way
about a scene or an aspect of a film, but never the whole film.
For instance, we made Eight Men Out before CGI was really
available. With more money we probably could have filled the stands
with real people. So the lack of people in the ballpark kind of
handcuffed us as far as the camera movement was concerned. We only
had a couple of days where we could pan the camera during the coverage
of the baseball.

MM: As your budgets have grown, has your approach
changed?

JS: They haven’t grown. They’ve grown and shrunk
and grown and shrunk. Sunshine State cost $5.6 million; Limbo,
the one before, cost $8 million, and the next one, Casa de
los Babys
will cost $1 million. Your approach changes movie
by movie. Generally your approach is that the more time you have
the more youget to cover things luxuriously and then pick what you’re
going to use later in the editing room. And the less money and time
you have the more you have to plan ahead and the more careful you
have to be with your coverage. It’s like a gas; it expands or contracts
depending on the size of the container.

MM: You’ve been restoring and re-releasing some
of your earliest work. How did this come about?

JS: We started hearing that people were trying to
show prints of those movies at benefits or film festivals and they
couldn’t find prints. The rights to several of the early movies
were starting to revert to us; they were seven or 14-year contracts
with the distributors. So it was clear that since most of those
distributors had gone out of business that the movies just weren’t
going to exist anymore unless we personally did something about
it. So we started tracking down where the elements were.

MM: Have you ever been tempted to sell your independent
vision or your autonomy as a moviemaker, considering that the financial
rewards for conformity in the industry are so high?

JS: I’m really lucky in that I have this great
job, which is writing screenplays for other people. And I’ve been
lucky in those that I’ve always got to work on things that I was
interested in and work with people that I wanted to work with. I
make enough money, even just as a screenwriter, so there’s nothing
attractive to me about making a bigger movie where I don’t have
final control. It just wouldn’t be fun or rewarding to me. On the
other hand, nobody’s offered me that many jobs! (laughing) MM

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