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Rapping with John Sayles

Rapping with John Sayles

Articles - Directing

PAULA NECHAK (MM): You’re phenomenally
multidimensional. Do you have a particular area of filmmaking that
you primarily look forward to with the greatest sense of anticipation?

JOHN SAYLES (JS): It’s editing, actually.
So often when I write a movie I have no idea if I’m going to get
to make it — or make it in the next decade. It’s taken us so long
to get some of our movies made, and I’ve had to do other lower-budget
things first, that you can feel like a real sap when you sit down
and write. I like a lot about directing, but it’s really stressful
because there is always disaster looming with each new shot. The
sun may go away, or you might have an actor who starts a new film
tomorrow and you still have five scenes to shoot with him. So many
things are totally out of your control. It’s a bit like trying
to write something very serious with a taxi meter next to you.
You just see the money ticking off every second you’re thinking.
When you get to the editing, you’re still making the film, you’re
still working with the actors, their performances, the rhythm of
the film. You’re still rewriting, but there’s not that pressure.
It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining or not. I know, at that
point, I’m gonna make the movie. I know it’s not going to fall
apart and the money isn’t going to disappear from the bank if we
get it that far. It’s one of the reasons I continue to edit. It’s
more fun.

MM: Every filmmaker has a place where he
or she believes the movie is "made." James Ivory swears
by the casting. Scorsese has the brilliant editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.
Others might say it’s the script. What is it for you?

JS: I think most documentaries are made in
editing. I think in features, the editing is part of the writing.
To me it’s just the third draft. The directing is also part of
the writing, part of the storytelling. In a documentary you can
take two different editors with two different points of view who
weren’t there when the footage was shot, and give them the footage
on two different AVIDs and come up with enormously different films.
One will say this is true, the other will say the exact opposite
is true.

MM: You often use the same actors again
and again in your movies — Chris Cooper, Joe Morton, Vincent
Spano, David Strathairn, Maggie Renzi. How do you cast? Do you
write roles with actors in mind?

JS: I think I very often just start writing,
and about a third of the way through I say, "I know who can
play this." It really only happens as I’m writing that I might
say, "It would be great if I could get Frances McDormand to
play this part." Then if it seems the person might do it,
it influences what I do. Usually I think I might expand the part
because the actor is so good or can bring something personal to
it. For example, Joe Morton grew up in a military family and on
army bases. So when he took the role of Delmore and got to the
set of Lone Star, he was the guy who knew who saluted who.

The Secret of Roan Inish (1994).

MM: Your movies are never thought of in
terms of production design, but in terms of story and narrative.
How important is the production and art design in your movies
for you?

JS: I can’t separate any of that stuff from
the storytelling. Even when it doesn’t seem like anything is going
on, that’s a choice. Sometimes it’s a practical choice. It’s traditional
and it looks fine, nothing special, because I want people paying
attention to the actor. It’s labor-intensive. But those elements
are just as important as the music, the dialogue, the blocking
and camera movement. Production design has to go with the storytelling,
so it must be accurate to whatever you’re talking about, as well
as being a question of tone. If you’re making something non-naturalistic
or slightly exaggerated in some way as far as dialogue, you want
to do something stylized. If you’re doing realism, it can look
realistic and everyone will say, "Oh, that was gritty realism," but
you may have carefully chosen each item in the room and it may
not be absolutely realistic. The Coen brothers, while shooting
Fargo, said, "Well, the architecture is kind of ugly here
so let’s just go with that and have everything be fake wood paneling
and everything you would not want in your own house."

MM: Because of your entrance into the film
world through Roger Corman, do you feel better equipped to handle
any emergency which might arise on set, or to work with any size
budget?

JS: Corman once said you could make Lawrence
of Arabia for $500,000, but it would happen in a tent and someone
would just come by and throw sand into the tent once in a while.
So I guess my answer would be yes. Part of that is putting things
we get from the community into the last draft. The other thing
I do in the last draft is very practical stuff, and sometimes it
means taking a production value-oriented scene and asking if there
is a way to say the same thing in terms of storytelling, get the
same thing across, but not spend nearly as much money. It might
mean eliminating extras or shooting in daylight instead of at night,
or just using a different location. You may have to find that way,
because if you can’t afford to do a scene well and it turns out
badly, it’ll either be stuck in the movie and be no good, or you’ll
cut it anyway, so why bother? It’s something I’m very conscious
of. Anybody who works in movies eventually has to be conscious
of that. What can you do well?

MM: Is it easier for you to get financing
now?

JS: Movie by movie it’s easy or hard. I have
been the major investor in many of the films, including The Secret
of Roan Inish, which was horrendously hard to raise money for.
Lone Star was really easy. Basically what we can count on is people
answering our phone calls, and we might get a good, honest "no" right
away so we can move on and look for something else. We get prompter
service, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that with any given
movie it’s gonna be an easy road. One thing I continue to do is
write for other studios, so if there is a movie I want to make
that’s not commercial enough to get someone to invest in, I might
be able to make it on my own nickel. And it will be a nickel. (Laughs)

Angela Bassett and Joe Morton in City of
Hope
(1991).

MM: You alluded earlier to getting input
from the community. Are you ever surprised by what occurs around
youwhen you go on location, by what might be indicative of the
community but is miles apart from your thinking and beliefs?
Do you seek out ways to integrate it into your film?

JS: Yeah, I leave room for that surprise.
With Lone Star we went through the jails in La
redo and Eagle
Pass with the sheriffs and talked about what being a Mexican-American
sheriff means. In terms of timing, what happens in the imaginary
border town of Frontera happened in most of the real towns 10
to 12 years ago. The torch has passed out of the hands of the
Anglos, and almost all the judges, sheriffs and mayors are Mexican-American.
But it’s only been in the last 10 years. We spent a day with
the forensics guy, and talked to the border patrol to get that
point of view. We talked to the community about how they felt
about people coming over. Many would say things like, "They
make the dogs bark," or "They leave toilet paper on
my grass." Others felt economically, or in terms of image,
it was bad. Some said, "Hey, that’s how I got here, so more
power to them." So it’s not really surprise; you know you’re
not going to be totally accurate, and some of the guesses you’ve
made are just guesses.

MM: An interesting component of Lone
Star, and nearly all your films, is the presence of two prejudice-free
characters placed in a somewhat hostile environment. Is this an
ethical exploration for you?

JS: I think my movies are about people who
are insiders but outsiders. Of course the obvious case is The Brother
From Another Planet. I wanted to take people into a world that
is very much like another planet to them, but I didn’t want the
guy to be someone who was an outsider in terms of how people reacted
to him. So it had to be somebody who passes as an African-American.
The dynamic changes if a white guy walks into a black bar. That
is, until they figure out who the person is, and then they forget
about him. Sam Deeds, the sheriff in Lone Star, is somebody who
is accepted as an insider in Frontera. But as Pilar, his high-school
girlfriend, says, "You don’t want to be sheriff." He
is so alienated from it in spirit that he’s kind of the Hamlet
of the piece. He’s very torn. It’s an interesting way of looking
at a situation. Faulkner did it, a lot of people have done it.
Somebody feels alienated from their society, yet they come from
it or are accepted within it so they know how it works. You have
intimacy and perspective at the same time.

MM: Sam is searching throughout the movie
for his legacy and who he is. What was your childhood like? Did
you feel compelled to heal the "sins of the father" in
order to go on with your life?

JS: Actually my parents were both teachers
and their parents were both policemen, so there were a lot of cops
in the family. But no, I don’t feel I’m going to deal with much
that’s autobiographical. The most autobiographical movie I’ve made
is Baby It’s You and probably City of Hope, and that’s really just
the milieu. I see many people still in the trap of trying to please
or displease their parents. It was never that big a deal for me.
They had their problems and I had mine and they weren’t the same
problems very often.

MM: So making films was never an oblique
form of therapy for you?

JS: No. It’s therapeutic in that I get to
think about things I’m interested in. So I work more on my interests
than my problems. Sometimes my movies are my problems. (Laughs)
Sometimes it’s the story that attracts me to a theme, and sometimes
a theme attracts me to a story. Generally I carry it around for
quite awhile thinking about it. For example, I had the idea for
Passion Fish from the time when I worked in hospitals and was in
college and saw Persona. I knew I would do an American version
of two women somehow locked together.

Sayles on Passion Fish (1992).

MM: In Lone Star, which contains
a rich tapestry of a Texas border town community, both the film
and the protagonist have a heavy air of the unspoken. There is
minimal text juxtaposed against this richness of opposing cultures.
You’ve created a situation in which the viewer must see instead
of hear, which could be construed as antithetical to your usual
role as a storyteller.

JS: To a certain extent. Thinking about what
the spine of the movie is going to be, I try to find something
that is on a personal level. So I wanted there to be two parallel
things. First we’re going to learn about the social history of
this place. But we’re also going to deal with people’s personal
history. One can be a metaphor for the other, but they both seriously
affect you. If, for example, they decide it’s the depression and
we have too many Mexican workers in the United States, and the
Anglos are running things at the border, what if they decide to
round up your entire town and send you to the other side of the
line? What if you were born above it? That’s a political and social
impact on your life. It also can be about the fact that your father
doesn’t want you going out with a Mexican girl, which can seriously
alter the course of your life if your father is the sheriff of
the town. I wanted it, as you said, with visual rather than vocal
signals. Sam has to dig to get the vocal signals. That’s just the
way things are understood because they’ve always been that way.

MM: Though you give your characters in
Lone Star equal expository time, for the most part they push
and pull, like puzzle pieces, and in a sense create the ethnicity
of the town, the different worlds at odds. I think this is true
of your films in general, and I liken it to the term "segregated
integration."

JS: There is a tension in the films between
the "movie-movie" plot and where I really am interested
in going. So I’d say the form of Lone Star is more like a Raymond
Chandler novel. It’s not so much about who did it, it’s about the
trip and what you learn about society on that trip. I wanted to
make a movie about history and examine different ethnic groups
within a small community of ethnic groups, [but] the spine is a
murder mystery. Who gets to go into all of those groups as an investigator
for me? Of course, a cop or detective of some sort. I wanted him
to go into the past, so I thought I’d have him try to solve something
that happened in the past. Sam becomes our guide, and he’s not
necessarily very interesting. As you said, he knows what the situation
is. But as he goes there, we who are not from the border learn
about what is going on in each community. That tension between
the plot and what I want to do thematically is always the trickiest
thing for me. To not have it just turn into theme, or a lecture.
So then when there is a lecture, like when Pilar is talking about
Texas, there’s really something else going on.

MM: Perhaps more than any other contemporary
filmmaker, your films stand on a wide moral base. You seem concerned
with history, with creating something, a sense of the self we’ve
forgone with the rush of technology. This is a tall order, being
a storyteller of contemporary myths. Do you ever worry it might
make the films a little bit imperious?

JS: No, I don’t think you can worry about
that stuff and tell stories to other people. Basically, any time
you tell a story other people are going to see you’re being pretentious.
You are pretending, and you may or may not know that it’s worth
telling to them, instead of just saying, "Hey, they’ve got
eyes, they’ve got ears, they can figure it out for themselves." (Laughs)
The minute you tell a story you’re being imperious. It goes with
the territory.

Chris Cooper in Matewan.

MM: Lone Star utilizes an interesting style
to pull it from past to present. It uses lighting and same-shot
temporal pans and could, really, almost be put on in a live-theater
atmosphere. Did you plan the theatricality of the time shifts
in order to add another level of intimacy with the audience?

JS: No matter what you do, the moment you
put something on film it’s not theatrical anymore, even if thelanguage
is heightened. It’s a different visceral experience than being
in a room with an actor. Certainly the technique of going from
past to present without a cut is a more theatrical technique, but
not a theatrical technique that necessarily draws attention to
itself. If you see something like Robert Altman’s Come Back To
The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, you’ll notice that is
a much more self-consciously theatrical movie. You see the lighting
changes, though you don’t see the camera. You see the scrim.

MM: That film was based on a play.

JS: Yes. And there are certain scenes within
it that tend to be more theatrical. All of my movies somewhere
have a soliloquy — usually not by the main character. In this
one, the scene is with Bunny, Sam’s ex-wife, who is the person
who is a prisoner of her history. She’s the warning for Sam. In
Passion Fish it’s the woman who makes the anal-probe speech, which
is a metaphor for the whole movie. What’s interesting is there
are all those books of audition pieces based on movie monologues,
and they usually sniff that speech out and ask if they can use
it because it is a self-contained piece that can be done onstage.

MM: When you write, do you utilize a stream-of-consciousness
approach, or do your characters drive your story? Or, does your
story drive the characters?

Alfre Woodard and Mary McDonell in Passion Fish (1992).

JS: Generally I work from a very, very specific
outline. It’s a box that you put people in, and you say, "Okay,
this is where we’re going to get to and these are the scenes we
need." Once I get into the scene, there is much more free
association. It’s kind of like letting your ego, id and superego
all have a chance at doing a draft. So I might write a scene like
the one for Bunny in Lone Star and it may initially be 12 pages
because I’ve just let them all go. Then I say, "Okay, that’s
a short play. Now let’s make it fit into a movie." Then you
bring around your superego and edit what you’ve done. Often I just
play all the roles and think about what I would need to have a
part I can hang onto and be three-dimensional in this thing if
I were an actor. How would I see the world? How would I have my
day in court if I were this character? Then you may cut it down
because the character doesn’t need to be quite so expansive.

MM: Return of the Secaucus Seven has been
called "arguably your best film" by critics like David
Thomson. It was also your first film as a director. Do you feel
you have grown as filmmaker from that inceptive effort?

JS: I’ve grown as a filmmaker. I think if
running a movie set is like playing a complicated musical instrument,
then I’m better at playing it. I get more on the screen for the
amount of money and time that I have. Whether the stories are better
or more interesting really depends on whether you’re interested
in that story or not. I’m talking about moviegoers, not critics.
If you have something you respond to in that particular story,
it’ll be more interesting than if you don’t. As far as audiences
reacting to each movie, you just have to know it’s a conversation
and the other person in the conversation brings something to it.
Whether your particular movie affects them has to do with what
they bring into the theater as well as what is there on the screen,
which isn’t going to change. MM

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