INTERVIEW: The Return of John Sayles; From "Secaucus" to the "Sunshine State"
by Anthony Kaufman
[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE originally published this interview in April. John Sayles’ “Sunshine State” is currently in theaters].
John Sayles looks like he’s running for president on the patriotic red, white, and blue poster for IFC Films‘ retrospective of the director’s work, which is currently touring the nation (with stops this week in Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Philadelphia). With his class-conscious milieus, active political views, and acutely drawn characters, Sayles definitely has my vote. From 1980’s “The Return of the Secaucus 7” to his upcoming “Sunshine State” (opening in June), Sayles continues to prove himself a dream candidate for the unsung and under-represented in America, providing this country some much-needed humanity, not to mention a healthy dose of corporate criticism. Okay, so maybe the presidency isn’t necessary, but at the very least he deserves steady funding.
Sayles is a long way from the $40,000 he raised to make his 1980 debut, “The Return of the Secaucus 7.” Twenty-two years, 13 feature films and countless studio screenwriting gigs (from “Piranha” to Ron Howard‘s upcoming “Alamo“) later, Sayles and producing/life-partner Maggie Renzi still find it remarkable they are still able to make their movies. And their work is distinctly their own. Where else can you find stories about black aliens (“The Brother from Another Planet“), 1920s labor unions (“Matewan“), racial and familial conflicts in a Texas border town (“Lone Star“) and the gentrification of the Florida coast (“Sunshine State“)?
The John Sayles retrospective, including newly restored prints of “Secaucus 7,” “The Brother from Another Planet,” and “Lianna,” will tour throughout the summer, landing at the Cannes Film Festival, New York’s BAMcinematek (June 13-16), and Los Angeles’ NuArt theater (June 14-20), among other venues. Sayles will also be busy this summer shooting his next film “Casa de Los Babys,” about women who travel to Latin America to adopt children. The American maverick speaks to Anthony Kaufman about history, politics, character, and financing.
indieWIRE: So how do you feel about your early movies being re-released now? Can you believe you’ve been doing this since 1980?
John Sayles: There’s this amazement that we keep being able to make movies. We started so marginal, and in some ways, we’re still marginal, but it continues to be possible that we’ve been able to make a movie once in awhile. I’ve been lucky. I look at these people who have one or two stories they want to tell, and they can spend years to get them financed. Certainly, I’ve had to put things on the shelf and come back to them, and not finance this one, try another one, but we truly came out of left field. And in those days, that just didn’t happen.
iW: Then and now, I think you’re one of the rare movie directors that deal with class issues in America. Can you talk about that?
Sayles: The British are obsessed with class. But in the U.S., because we’re more socially mobile, and money moves you up in class quicker than it does in Britain, people believe that it’s not so true. However, there is still class in an enormous way, and it’s getting to be a bigger demarcation. It is a rare thing for American movies to deal with. There’s this book “Fear of Falling,” and the thesis of it is that we all want to think of ourselves as middle class and nothing lower. There’s this great fear of falling below that, and if you are afraid of falling, you’re very aware of classes below you. So Americans are very aware of class, they just don’t like to think about it.
iW: It’s also rare to find movies that deal with history like you do.
Sayles: One thing that is difficult about our movies is that most of them deal in simplification. Some movies, that’s they’re power. They refine something into a very simple situation. But history is complex and it’s not black and white. It’s hard to find a situation where there are just good guys and bad guys. Usually, when history is used in American movies, it’s like “The Patriot.”
iW: How much back-story do you give your characters before you start writing?
Sayles: I get an idea about who they are and where they’re coming from and then I outline what the plot may be. And then there’s certain scenes that I know that I need to have to bring out what’s going on in this community. In the case of “Sunshine State,” there’s the unifying factor of Buccaneer Days, so you can say here’s what’s happening over four days: you see things being put up, you see things in full swing and then you see things being torn down. Some characters, that’s their story; other people, that’s just the background and it’s a nice device to glue people together. I organize those scenes and then very often in the second draft, I think: Here’s a character I don’t know enough about, or the audience isn’t going to enough about, so let me think them through a little more. With the actors, I always send them a bio of their characters, a page or two, which places them in the community and talks about their relationships to their family, where they were before the movie started, how they got there, those kinds of things. It helps quite a bit. So you have to do less of that on the set.
iW: “Sunshine State” returns you to the kind of movie you started out with, like “Secaucus 7,” with an ensemble cast and without the kind of violence that has propelled your last three movies.
Sayles: It’s always difficult to get a movie made when there isn’t violence or sex in it. The story happens. With “Men with Guns,” that’s the title and that’s what it’s about. In something like “Lone Star,” it’s part of that community and it’s part of that story: the violence between Anglos and Chicano people. In “Limbo,” this violence breaks into what is essentially a family story, and Alaska is a place of plane crashes, bear attacks, etc.
iW: Is it more difficult to get financing for projects like “Sunshine State”?
Sayles: I have things sitting on the shelf that we can’t finance. We’ve got an epic that I wrote about the Philippine insurrection after the Spanish American War, but most of the characters are black people and it will cost more than 10 million dollars. When we were looking for money, the one thing that they’re not interested in is black people. I generally write them first and then we figure out how to finance it.
iW: How was “Sunshine State” financed?
Sayles: Generally, we don’t go looking for money until after I’m done writing the script. And it was clear that we could scrape it together from independent money, but it was big enough that I didn’t want to do it that way and we didn’t want to use private money. But it was small enough that Sony Pictures Classics was interested in right away and financed it. They had just had “Crouching Tiger“; I think a lot of filmmakers have Ang Lee to thank for a lot of things.
iW: Can you talk about this recurrent theme in your work, from “Secaucus 7” to “Sunshine State,” of characters who have essentially had their dreams broken?
Sayles: American is a country based on winners and losers. The young kids in “City of Hope,” they’re surrounded by billboards telling them they should have those things, and they’re a loser if they don’t have those things. With American culture, you have someone who is poor, and it’s going to be rubbed into them daily. What’s “Survivor” about? There’s one winner and everyone else is going to be loser. How do you deal with that: what might not even seem like a failure in another culture is a big failure here?
iW: It seems like some of your recent films have felt more allegorical or fable-like.
Sayles: Well, maybe in “Men with Guns,” because there’s not a specific place. But I do feel like in “Limbo,” “Lone Star,” and “Sunshine State,” there’s a very specific place and that you can extrapolate from that very specific place, and see what’s happening to that very specific place and you can feel like: that’s happening where I live or the human behavior is something that I can recognize. Allegory just means that this stands for something bigger. Fable means that the characters are more archetypes. If they stand for something else, they are also a person, who is pretty unique and who comes from specific place.
iW: Do you consider your movies actively political?
Sayles: Our movies are political in that they deal with how people affect each other, and how governments affect people and how people affect governments, but they are not ideological. I would say they just recognize that there are politics involved in a lot of things. There are politics involved in sports, it may be racial, sexual or economic, but they are there and they are affected by history and they are changing constantly.
I wouldn’t have made “Sunshine State” 20 years ago. What was happening when I first started making movies, with “Secaucus 7,” was there was this community of people who didn’t live near each other, and they were trying to keep this community going. And they might not find a community in the place that they lived that was as strong and as nourishing as this community of thought that recreated itself when they got together.