INTERVIEW: Traveling Indie-Auteur John Sayles Sails Through "Limbo"
by Erica Pennella
John Sayles knows little about what it's like to be in a state of limbo. Since his 1978 feature film debut, "Return of the Secaucus 7," the pre-indie auteur has constantly been in a state of flux. In between writing, directing and editing his twelve features, he's somehow found the time to pen a handful of novels, lend both credited and un-credited screenwriting skills to Hollywood ( "The Clan of the Cave Bear," "Apollo 13"), create a crtically-acclaimed television series ("Shannon's Deal") and dabble in acting.
Because of his diverse talents, Sayles' cinematic tales also take on a life of their own. His most recent project, "Limbo," builds on the production wanderlust Sayles captured with Irish-made "The Secret of Roan Inish" and the Mexican "Men with Guns." Set in Juneau, Alaska, "Limbo" follows Joe Gasteneau (David Strathairn), a salty former-fisherman whose sordid past has him clammed up emotionally, until he meets vagabond lounge singer, Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Inspired to take De Angelo and her belligerent teenage daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) on a frontier-style boat trip with his drug-running but earnest half-brother, Gastineau must recapture his skills for survival when things go awry. Talking via telephone from Los Angeles, Sayles expresses passion for that which he's best known: probing, insightful characters.
indieWIRE: "Limbo" was made for $8 million -- a wee bit more than your past features. What made it more expensive?
John Sayles: I think shooting in Alaska -- and shooting exteriors in a place where it rains 12-14 feet a year. But we came in quite a bit under budget, actually. The movie ended up costing something like $8 million and the original budget was more like $9 million.
iW: So you expected the weather to be problematic for shooting?
Sayles: I certainly wrote rain into the script. But paint takes a long time to dry in Alaska when it's raining. We were lucky. We got two weeks without rain just before we started shooting. Once we were shooting, it rained almost every day, but that really didn't stop us ever. And, you know, you're on boats -- it's very remote up there. Everything has to come up on a barge, so there's shipping costs on top of everything. Pretty much unless it's a halibut or a salmon, you know, it came up on a barge. The real difficulty is always how to shoot in the wilderness and still have a hotel nearby.
iW: There's some unique editing in the film, and I know you edit your own films. Can you talk about that?
Sayles: Of the two big crowd scenes in the beginning, one is the wedding scene where really what I'm doing there is trying to meet a lot of people. Finding these parallel stories, but you don't know who's going to be the most important character. Certainly, in the beginning, the guy who seems like he's going to carry the movie is the guy who has lost his boat [Leo Burmester]. We see him in the fish processing plant, he shows up at the wedding, he's yelling, he's upset....But then all of a sudden, this singer breaks up with her boyfriend on stage and it's almost like here's all the school of fish going this way and we start to notice that there are a few people going the opposite way -- and those are the ones that are going to separate. We follow her. That's kind of what the editing is there. It's very mobile; it's not very cutty. People take the camera like in a cocktail party from one place to another. Also, there's a real effort in the staging and the editing to keep your geography....Here I wanted to orient people. That's part of what's going on there.
Then when I got to the scene where you first walk into the bar and all the Alaskans are telling stories -- I wrote all the stories -- but I always knew that I was going to cut these things into smaller and smaller pieces. So that what's important is not any one story, in fact, you're not going to hear one story all the way through, it's the fact that everyone's telling stories. And from the little snippets we get, they're all about plane crashes and shipwrecks and bear attacks and dangerous things -- we are the Alaskans, we're the people who take risks, we live with danger and this is how we express ourselves.
iW: It also connects the community?
Sayles: And each shot is a little tighter and a little shorter, so you build up to this thing when the woman says, "The scene of many a dangerous confrontation" and then there's Kris Kristofferson and David Strathairn and we don't even know what they're about yet. But there's some tension there in the way that it's cut. A lot of that stuff is planned. But once you get in the editing room with the material . . . for instance, what I found with that sequence is I originally thought it was going to be in 8 pieces and it ended up being something more like 32. I kept cutting more and more and more and finally, the rhythm of it was right and I felt the audience could deal with smaller and smaller snippets. Here, the geography wasn't important. You get it later.
iW: Any other discoveries in the editing?
Sayles: I think rhythm is the thing you discover the most. When you haven't worked with an actor or worked with them much, you discover very early on, is this somebody whose rhythm I really like in this character and I don't have to cut much or is this somebody who I want to shape, make them faster or slower later on, make them bolder or meeker later on. And sometimes you can do that with the cinematographer, and you say, let's go a little wider and make them a little smaller, or let's make them a little bigger in the frame or let's stage it so they're coming toward us and give them a lot of power. Or let's do it both ways and I can choose it later on. And I think what you discover then is what your actors bring to it that you could not have foreseen that now makes some of the dialogue obsolete or expendable. So, generally, things that I direct from the first cut to the last cut get about 10-12 minutes shorter. Sometimes only 5 minutes. And I don't cut out whole scenes. What it tends to be is that I just pare away at things, and get them tighter and tighter. Usually, it's because actors personify the characters so much that I don't need those lines. They may have needed them on the day, to know who they were and to get where they got, but in the movie we don't need 7 out of 20 lines.
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio seems pretty choosy with her roles these days. Did you have her in mind for singer Donna De Angelo when you wrote the part?
Sayles: I had all three of the leads in mind. David Strathairn I had worked with many times, so he was someone I had in mind. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, I had always really admired her acting, and I had met her a couple times through Pat O'Connor, her husband, who's an Irish director -- who was actually very helpful to us when we were about to make "The Secret of Roan Inish." She mentioned in passing that she had been trained classically as a singer, and a bell went off. I wanted some kind of occupation where there was an emotional content -- where, even if you weren't successful at it you might want to keep doing it. And even if they don't make the best living in the world, they can't think of anything else they'd want to do. I had already offered Mary Elizabeth the part and she had accepted, before I had ever heard her sing. And about half the crew after her first take singing, turned to me and said "I'd pay to hear her sing, wow."
iW: Vanessa Martinez plays her troubled teenage daughter, Noelle. How much did Vanessa contribute to her emotionally charged role?
Sayles: I had worked with Vanessa Martinez and just been blown away by what a good actress she was, having not done that much. But what a direct emotional actor I found her to be. I read with her when we auditioned her for "Lone Star." She came down from Dallas to San Antonio to read for some small parts. And I usually act when I do that kind of audition to see if people will react if I do something different from one take to the other. And I got chills -- it was just like "Whoa, where did she come from?" She's, I think, like most good actresses, a good observer, so it doesn't have to be her immediate experience, but she certainly grew up in our modern times. She's only a couple years older than the character she's playing -- she's seen a lot of girls go through these things.
iW: Each of these characters is experiencing their own emotional limbo and the ending really drives this point home. Although the outcome is left ambiguous, it signifies the end of this Limbo for these three very emotional people.
Sayles: Yeah. I think it's about over because they've come together as a family, and now they at least have those other people to lean on a little bit. Mary Elizabeth's character is someone who has dealt with her failures by -- maybe a little recklessly -- just jumping back on the horse again and saying "Okay I'm going to try to ride." She's not the best judge of character, she doesn't wait long enough before she jumps in, but when she finds herself in a bad relationship, she doesn't keep treading water and saying "Oh well, this is better than nothing." She says "This isn't good, I'm getting out." So she's been in this kind of revolving door of relationships for a long time, which has kind of terrified her daughter. But the arc of change is the most pronounced in David Strathairn's character because he's the guy who has really been treading water for 25 years. He's not drowning but he's not going anywhere either. And there is no end in sight until he runs into Donna De Angelo.
iW: How much of yourself is in these characters?
Sayles: You know, I'm not a very autobiographical filmmaker. I'd say in terms of my background, "Baby, It's You!" and "City of Hope" are the closest to my own experience. But I've had situations where I've felt like "This is devastating -- what do I do next?" I've had situations where I've had people that I believed in that end up not working out. You have those kind of very general human reactions that get into all of your characters. So I can never really point to one person and say "Oh, this is me."
[Anthony Kaufman contributed to this article.]
[Erica J. Pennella is the Calendar Editor for the Philadelphia Weekly, where she frequently writes about film.]