"Casa de los Babys": John Sayles Examines the Balance of Trade for Six American Women in Latin America
by Claiborne Smith
If you were familiar only with the bare-bones premise of John Sayles' new movie and not the actual film, you'd be forgiven for thinking that he has taken a turn towards screwball comedy: In "Casa de los Babys," six American women -- some utterly baffled, some self-assured -- piddle around in a Latin American country while waiting to adopt babies. But Sayles' sensibility is poignant, not zany, so as his characters linger by the phone for a call from adoption officials or as they argue with those same officials, we acutely sense the anxiety and vulnerability these women undergo in order to obtain the children all but one of them have been trying, and failing, to have.
Sayles' characters have always seemed more fleshed-out and indelible than characters in many other movies. Using one of the finest ensembles of actors he's ever assembled, Sayles leavens the gnawing tension his characters experience with deft little glimpses into their personalities. Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is seething with regret and anger on what is essentially an extended wild tear in a Third World country she hoped never to visit. She also steals toiletries from the maid's cart at her hotel. "Why do you think they have us down here so long?" she says to one of the other Americans. "They're trying to make us earn our babies ... it's part of the balance of trade."
Meanwhile, Gayle (Mary Steenburgen), a born-again Christian and former alcoholic, is busy mustering all of the serene contentment she can while trying to make Leslie (Lili Taylor), a crabby New Yorker, lighten up a bit. Daryl Hannah's Skipper makes the other women jealous as she over-exercises to compensate for her body's inability to produce children. Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is lost and unprepared to have a baby, while Eileen (Susan Lynch) is the most emotionally prepared of all the women for motherhood but suddenly becomes awkward when her baby is about to arrive. Senora Munoz (Rita Moreno), the exasperated innkeeper, sternly watches over the women's passage from alienated foreigners to sudden mothers.
Sayles manages to balance the dilemmas of those women with storylines about local residents whose lives are both intimately and tangentially affected by adoption. indieWIRE contributor Claiborne Smith spoke with Sayles about "Casa de los Babys," which IFC Films released on Friday.
indieWIRE: This movie actually started out as a long short story, didn't it?
John Sayles: Yeah, it was a very, very long short story and that's a problem getting published because it's too long to be a short story and really a bit too short to be a novel or a novella. And then I started thinking about this as a movie. And one of the main things that I really liked about it is just that there are so few movies about groups of women interacting. There's a lot about groups of men, whether it's sports movies or gang movies or army movies or whatever. Except for "chicks and chains" flicks, which usually don't have much to do with women -- they usually have more to do with machine guns and underwear.
iW: This is a pretty perfect ensemble. Why is it that none of the actors steals the show?
Sayles: Well, some of it is just that they don't have the time to steal the show. And it's written that way. It's written so that the audience is always going to know more than any one character does. So there's not a catalyst character, there's not a character who is in every scene who brings us to those characters, through whose eyes we see the whole thing.
iW: There's a scene where Eileen is talking to Asuncion, one of the hotel's housekeepers. Eileen seems to know that Asuncion doesn't understand her but she keeps on confiding her thoughts to her anyway. Why does she do that?
Sayles: I talked to the actresses about this. There's some sense you often have with people that, you know, if we spoke the same language, we'd probably be friends. There's some affinity there. One thing I said to Susan Lynch, who plays Eileen, is, "When you first came to America, you did her job. You got paid better than she did, but you did her job. There's no class difference here." And Asuncion has sensed something about her so that they have these conversations.
There's also this phenomenon of when you're talking to somebody who's not in your regular life, you can tell them things that you'd never tell anybody else because you're never going to see them again. I used to hitchhike across the country in the '70s and I used to get rides from people who'd been in Vietnam who confessed terrible things to me. I had a guy confess a murder one night. I had people tell me all kinds of wacky shit, but they were going to let me off and say, "Have a nice life," so I wasn't going to show up in their life again. I wasn't going to be somebody who had something on them. And so I was working with that phenomenon a little, too.
iW: When you say that you told Susan about her character's life, you mean the short biographies you give actors about their characters?
Sayles: Yeah, or just on the day you might add something if you think it's going to help them. But usually with bigger characters, it's usually at least a page, maybe a couple of pages, and they vary and I just write them free-form, thinking, "What might help me if I was acting this part?" It's just a little more of a feeling of how this character's mind works, because I don't do rehearsals. I don't have people come early. We don't have the money, but even if we did, I wouldn't do it. I actually prefer to have the acting and all the mistakes and the things that people try on camera. I often like the stuff that you see in that scene with Vanessa [Martinez] playing Asuncion, that's her first take. And it was just the one that I preferred. It's very emotional and she has a hard time getting through it and it's a wider shot than I had planned. I was going to do a wide one and then do a close one and mix them and I just liked the wide one so well that I just stayed out there.
iW: How many takes did you do, though?
Sayles: That's another thing that I'll do. It's something very emotional, I like the actress to have an idea of how the day is going to go so they can help pace themselves. In those cases, I'll say, "We're only going to do this three or four times and if you want to do it again, we'll do it again, but don't hold back. I'm not going to do a lot of coverage on this, I'm going to keep it very simple, so really just hook into that other actor and let it rip." If something's a little more technical, I may just say, "Look, we're going to have to cover this from a lot of angles, so save yourself for the close-up because this time we're going to be behind your back," for example.
iW: And the actresses stayed in the same place during the shoot?
Sayles: Yeah, that was a nice little thing that happened that was not originally planned. I think Mary Steenburgen, after the first day or two, said, "Look, it would be really nice for us to stay in the same place," and we found a place that we could afford to put them all up in, which is something that I really like the idea of just because they get to naturally spend more time together and not have to make dates or anything like that. I think actors actually do quite a bit of work just hanging out with each other and it's not necessarily that they're talking about the movie or talking about the parts, but they become very familiar with each other and if you spend that kind of time, you get used to people and you trust them a bit more. And the younger actors who don't have as much experience feel welcomed so that they're more willing to take a chance.
Some actors are less generous than others and these are all very generous actors so everybody felt like they could try anything in a scene where they're all in it and nobody's going to go, "Oh Christ, what are we wasting time with that for?," which can happen. I know actors who have come back from working with actors they really admire and just feel like, "Well, geez, I just felt like I had to serve instead of doing anything for myself."
iW: You shot the movie in Acapulco, but anyone watching it wouldn't know that.
Sayles: Yeah, we tried to avoid the things that say "Acapulco," so we avoided the guy diving off the cliff. I did a lot of research and got the adoption laws for every Spanish-speaking country in this hemisphere and they're all different and they all change all the time. What I wanted was something more general than one specific country. The most important thing was, here's a bunch of women in a country where they don't speak the language. There's something interesting about being in a country that is nominally Catholic where there's a tradition of big families, where even in Acapulco there are street kids. Our kids [the child actors in the movie], who are not wealthy kids, but they have parents, would be in those neighborhoods and we'd be shooting and the street kids would come over to them and stand this far from their face, and it wasn't that it was, "Oh, who are you, this movie kid?" it was, "What are you doing on my turf? This is where I panhandle, not where you panhandle." And we'd have to kind of walk in-between them and walk them away. Our kids were like dogs next to wolves.