Lone Gun: A Conversation with John Sayles
by Anthony Kaufman
With twelve films under his directorial belt, you would think it would
get easier for indie living legend, John Sayles. For the past
twenty-five years, this New Yorker with an eye for social cause and
personal drama has written novels, short stories, plays, screenplays,
developed projects for television and music video and of course,
directed, edited, and acted in numerous feature films. With his
landmark 1978 feature “Return of the Secaucus Seven” made for only
$60,000, Sayles established himself as one of the best new
writer-directors around and would come to define what we mean in this
business as “independent.”
Now with “Men with Guns” (Spanish title, “Hombres Armados“), Sayles
commits his investigative, moral gaze on a region mostly neglected by
U.S. filmmakers and distributors: Latin America. Besides finding there
a profound parable about a doctor’s journey from ignorance to perilous
knowledge, Sayles encountered, among other obstacles, the Zapatista
rebellion, 11 hour bus rides, bad breaks, and constant disagreements
with a last-minute Polish cinematographer.
indieWIRE: I was just at the Miami Film Festival where I met some
Spanish-language directors and I felt how frustrated they were in
getting their films seen here.
John Sayles: Oh absolutely. One of the ironic things, I think, about
this movie is that if you were a Hispanic filmmaker and made this exact
same movie with the exact same cast, it would be very difficult to get
distribution here. As it is, I think that if I had made this movie
after “City of Hope” or even “Passion Fish“, movies that did fine but
didn’t break any records, it would have been harder for us to get
distribution. The quality of the movie is only one small factor in
getting a movie into the United States. Is there an actor who Americans
already know in it, so if you got Antonio Banderas, you’ve got a shot or
Gerard Depardieu, you’ve got a shot. It’s always great when someone
makes a splash, so there’s three old, good movies that can now be
released in the United States, because they have Irene Jacob or someone
like that, which gives the distributor some kind of hook.
iW: Has “Men with Guns” already been bought for those South American
Sayles: Many of them. We know we’re going to go and do some publicity
in Argentina, and Mexico City. I know it’s going to open in Venezuela.
We’re working on Columbia. There are certain countries where there are
just no cinemas. You may have talked to these guys about how hard it is
to get their own movies released in their own countries. And how many
of the theaters down there are owned by chains that are North American
owned and they’re going to show “Twister” and they’re not going to show
an Arturo Ripstein movie? So there are some smaller countries that
probably. . . but I don’t know if we’ll play Honduras or even
Guatemala. What I’m hoping is that we get picked up by one of the big
webs, TV things, Televisa or Telemundo, and that they show the movie
relatively uncut and uninterrupted, and so it can sneak into those
countries in that form. But the theatrical world down there is tough.
There are a lot of good filmmakers down there and one of the reasons
it’s hard to raise money (is) because everyone knows how hard it is
to show a Mexican film in Mexico.
iW: How hard has it been for you with a Spanish-language film? What
obstacles did you come against with getting the money together — or to
distributors and financiers, was it just another John Sayles film?
Sayles: I think I knew that this was not an appropriate movie for a
studio to finance or release, it’s just too low on the radar for them.
I thought well, maybe I’ll have to finance this myself and shoot it in
16mm and do a much less ambitious version of it, than what we have
here: with maybe some of the same actors, but even fewer weeks to shoot
it — four instead of six — some compromises in the locations and certain
less time to shoot everything and light it.
Luckily, fairly early on in the game, Maggie Renzi and Paul Miller, the
producers were able to get financing for it. We made it for two and half
million dollars, which is very low by American standards and healthy by
Mexican standards. We basically made it as a Mexican production with
a Mexican art department and crew and largely Mexican cast. And so it
turned out not to be a huge obstacle. It still meant that we had a very
tight. . .
it’s a very ambitious movie for two and half million dollars and six
weeks of shooting.
iW: Your shooting schedule was pretty insane, wasn’t it? [40 locations
in 37 shooting days]
Sayles: We were shooting in three different states of Mexico that are
not next to each other, so the art department was spread out, location
scouting was spread out. We didn’t have the money to be flying people,
so very often it meant getting on a bus and riding for three hours, or
going all the way to Chiapas which is a 11 hour bus ride for everybody.
It was very much like, we only had five weeks to shoot “City of Hope”,
so that was frantic, but at least, it was all in one 20 mile area around
Cincinnati. So we had 40 locations and 30 days on that one. We had a
few more days in Mexico, but some of them were travel days. All of them
have been difficult. In many ways, they are very ambitious for a
low-budget movie. The visual part of it is very ambitious. And the
amount of story I’m packing in.
iW: How do you manage to work so quickly? Have you developed a
shorthand, a method?
Sayles: I think it helps that I’m the writer, director and editor. So
I’m editing constantly while I’m directing. If you’re the director and
you’re not going to edit and you’re interpreting somebody else’s story,
you’re a little less likely to be able to say:
“Okay, that’s enough of that angle” after two takes, and the actor turns to
you and says, “But I blew the line both the times.”
“Well, you blew a different line both times and the acting was terrific.”
“I got what I need. I’m cutting this together in my head, we’re going to a
different angle. Chill. Keep up the good work and we’re going to get this.
I’m going to put it together. I’ve been doing this a long time now, so if
you think of running a movie set as a complicated musical instrument, I’m
better at playing it. I plan better. I don’t change my mind about the
I ask a lot of the crew and the production people. If the light is totally
and is not going to match at all, I may just say, “Now we go to Scene 12.
That will be on the call sheet, be ready for Scenes that, that and that. There
may be six different scenes that you have to be ready for and depending on
what the wind is doing and the light is doing and where you happen to be that
day, you may have to jump into any one of them at any moment.”
And that’s tough on a crew. And it’s tough on actors. So I ask a lot of
people, in terms of flexibility. And I often have to kind of fall back
on Plan B. So something like in “Men with Guns” — the little scene where
they’re trying to pass the troop transport truck — I have about a third
of the shots that I would have liked to have had. We did one take. And
when we got to the bottom of the hill, the breaks on the car pulling the
picture car were on fire, literally. That was the end of that day.
iW: How did this Polish cinematographer [Slawomir Idziak, “Blue”,
“Double Life of Veronique”, “Gattaca”] deal with it and how did he come
Sayles: “No hicimos buenas migas.” We did not make good crumbs together
is the idiom. We didn’t get along very well.
Haskell Wexler was going to shoot it. He fell out at the last minute. I was
looking for a Hispanic D.P. and all the really good ones were working,
most of them up here [the U.S.] and one of the producers Paul Miller had
worked with Idziak on “The Journey of August King” and I had seen some
of his Kieslowski movies and I thought they were good. But basically I
think the movie looks fine; it just doesn’t look the way I wanted it to look
or the way he wanted it to look. We just didn’t agree about anything.
And I think, he had a hard time with the Mexican sun — the intensity of
that light. He just kept putting more and more in front of it. And the
color white — he really had a hard time with that. And that was an
essential part of my plan for the way the movie was going to look.
So we just kind of fought all day, every day. Because he’s talented, and
he’s competent, it looks fine, but I’m sure it doesn’t look the way that
he would have liked it to look and it absolutely doesn’t look the way
that I would have liked it to look.
iW: What were some of the details that strayed from your vision?
Sayles: The color scheme, I wanted light to attack, the further he got
away from the city, to even attack the image. There’s a hard white
light in Mexico, a midday light that is very unforgiving. All you can
do as a cinematographer is to give into it. And Slawomir didn’t want to
give into it. You’ll have a blaze of white on the side of a building,
cause a lot of things are painted white-washed down there and then the
people in the foreground will be in sillouhette. And I just think that
was not part of his aesthetic at all, he just couldn’t see shooting it
We also had very limited means to a certain extent. We didn’t have cranes.
Very often, it wasn’t possible to do any kind of tracking shot. And he had
the extra difficulty of one guy on his team who spoke English — who
was kind of his interpreter for a terrific Mexican crew — who without having
him say anything knew how he worked and would already have things built
for him. So that wasn’t a huge problem, but I think it also made him feel a
little more isolated.
I was working with everybody else in Spanish, and really only speaking
to him in English and English was his 5th or 6th language, so I’m sure he
felt a little isolated in the process.
iW: I read in the press notes that they didn’t speak English or
Spanish, they just spoke Grip.
iW: I have heard people say that the limitations on a set breed creative
solutions. . .
Sayles: They may be creative solutions that aren’t as good as what you
could have done if you had more money and time, you know. I will
sometimes whack my head in the editing room and say how stupid — I
should have done that a different way. Very often, on the set, when
we’re shooting it, I know there’s a better way to do it, it’s just not
possible. So what you do is you find a creative solution to make it
work. It’s just not what would be nice to do. You come in with 12
storyboards and then something goes wrong in the morning, the breaks
catch on fire, there’s an army barricade and you can’t get to work or
And all of a sudden you’re down to, “what eight shots could I
tell the same story with.” And then by after lunch, “what four shots can
I get cause we only got one.”
You’re forced to make creative solutions and sometimes they’re great
and they’re better than what you could have done before. Very often,
they’re just fine and it’ll work. To a certain extent, if you obsess
about those, you’re missing the point. I think the important thing to do
is come into every sequence and say, “What is this scene really about?
And how does it fit into the whole movie?” Rather than falling in love with
a certain shot or a certain, “I wanted to do a crane move here or whatever.”
what is the sequence about is much more important and having it somewhat
consistent with the rest of the movie.
iW: So if you had like 25 instead of 2.5 million, would it have changed
Sayles: In this particular movie probably what I would have done — it
wouldn’t have taken 25, but even if I had 5 or 6 — was shot it in a bunch
of different countries, rather than just in Mexico.
Shot the first scene in Buenos Aires, and then gone to a more
spectacular desert somewhere, maybe Northern Mexico, then gone down to
the Dominican Republic to shoot the cane-cutting scene and got the
people more African looking, to make it even more of a parable. Maybe
the last scene we would have shot in Bolivia or Peru, where there’s
still some jungle left, because in Mexico, we couldn’t find any, any
that we could do a wide shot of, so our last shot is a lot narrower and
a little less, I don’t know. . .
Sayles: Yeah, mystical than it would have been if we could have gotten
up where you can barely breathe, in the Andes or something like that.
And I would have paid people a little better, and I would have
gotten more sleep. That’s the first thing you try to do if you have
a little more money is pay people a little better, but also schedule
things so that you’re not balls to the walls for the entire shoot.
iW: The locations really dictate the feel of the movie. Can you talk
more about that?
Sayles: I had the locations before I wrote the movie. So I went down
with the producers to scout in Belize and Mexico, before I conceived of
and wrote and directed “Lone Star”. Cause I had the idea, I could
verbally tell it, I could a draw the outline of the movie, and I knew
that it started out in this “skyscrapery” city, then went across the arid
plain, and then got into cane country — that is flat and humid — and then
started into hilly river country with bananas and coffee, and then
eventually climbing into mountain jungle. That was the journey this guy
made. And I knew that along the way he would encounter those people
who sell salt or charcoal in the middle of the desert, and you say,
“Where the fuck do these people live?” You can’t see any habitation for
100 miles. And then he would meet people who pick coffee beans and then
he would start to climb, and eventually meet people who are slashing and
burning in the steep jungle to make corn fields because they were pushed
up that high, pushed out of the flatland.
iW: It’s interesting you have this visual outline — I’m curious if any
of your other films came out that way?
Sayles: Usually, there is a graphic. For instance, my graphic idea for
“City of Hope” was a bunch of parallel stories of people [puts
his hands out] who think they have nothing to do with each other, and
then you start to literally cross them on frame, [crossing over his
fingers] and realize there are connections here and then at the end,
it’s like that. [His hands are tightly wound.] It’s like a knot.
Nobody can fart at one end of town without somebody going, whoosh,
what’s that on the other end?
I had a graphic for “Matewan“, which was this V, [pointing his hands
together] of these kind of escalating atrocities between the confrontations
between the good guys and the bad guys, basically a kind of classic
gunfight structure and then it all meets at the center of Main Street on
high noon and there’s a shootout.
The graphic for “Lone Star” started with this, it’s like a board game,
[circling his finger on the table] with this dead body at the center,
and then rays going out — these are the possible people who would have
disliked Charlie Wade and there was this maze that went out through all
those rays that the Sheriff had to find his way through. So sometimes,
it’s not a geographical one.
For the next movie which we’re going to do which is called “Limbo”
set in Alaska, I have some pretty strong visual ideas about what it should
iW: You are a writer and a novelist, but in talking to you, I realize
how visual you think — how do you divide the two?
Sayles: You know what divides them for me is sometimes complexity. So
the novels that I’ve written are very mosaic. They’re told from many,
many, many, many, many, many, many points of view, instead of many, many
points of view. So in something like [the novel] “Los Gusanos”, there
are 15 or 20 characters who have at least one chapter from their point
of view and it might contradict a chapter from another person’s point of
view, so there’s this tension. And the whole story is the accumulation
of all these people with all their agendas and points of view. And the
reader is the only one who gets to be omniscient. In a movie, I don’t
think you can, maybe in a miniseries you could do that, but I don’t
think in a movie, an audience in two to three hours can really handle
that many points of view.
In something like “Men With Guns”, I hand the baton off to the priest
and we’ll get into his point of view for awhile, or we’ll hand it off to
the flashback, Domingo the deserter has a couple flashbacks, but then it
basically goes back to the doctor. So some of it is that the scope of
the complexity of the story determines it. But also what I’ve found, if
I’m doing it well in fiction, I can make an audience, the reader, feel
anything, just as I can in a movie, but it has to go through their head
first. Whereas movies can go straight to your viscera. And that’s
often if I feel like there’s a strong visceral element to a movie. And
place is often the strongest one — that if you write beautifully about
places is one thing, but it’s going through somebody’s head and is being
interpreted as something. There is just a feeling about a place if you
can really make it a character in the movie. Whether it’s the west
coast of Ireland or the Cajun country in the bayous, or Alaska, or that
journey I just described in Latin America — I can describe all those
things, but there’s something more visceral about being in them and
having them around you on a big screen.