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Interview: John Sayles Tells S&A About ‘Go For Sisters,’ the Future of Indie Film, and 5 Historical Projects That Should Come to the Small Screen

Interview: John Sayles Tells S&A About 'Go For Sisters,' the Future of Indie Film, and 5 Historical Projects That Should Come to the Small Screen

Now on DVD and VOD, indie thriller “Go For
Sisters” is the 18th feature from noted independent filmmaker
John Sayles. The film stars LisaGay Hamilton and Yolonda Ross as a pair of
estranged childhood friends who team up on a journey across the Mexican border
to find a missing son.

Sayles is one of those writer-directors that other artists
rave about, and who’s been mentioned frequently in our interviews with Alfre
Woodard, Joe Morton, Reggie Rock Bythewood and others, so it was good to finally
speak with him one on one to talk more about “Go For Sisters,” new
projects the he hopes to get made, and other insights from his prolific career.

JAI TIGGETT: We don’t see very
many thrillers led by black women. Tell me about your decision to tell the
story from the perspective of Bernice and Fontayne in “Go For Sisters.”

JOHN SAYLES: It’s an interesting thing, I usually try not to know who
I’m going to ask to be in it. Sometimes people can’t afford to work for you, or
they’re not interested or available, and you hate to have written the whole
movie with somebody in mind and not get them.

But in this case as I was writing, the three leads just
popped into my head. I had worked with LisaGay Hamilton on “Honeydripper,”
and then I had met Yolonda Ross when she came in to read for the same part that
LisaGay got, and I thought she was an incredible actress. And then Edward James
Olmos, I had met a couple times at film festivals.

So when I was writing I kept thinking, I hope I can get
these people. And who they were kind of informed who I was writing. And then
that affects the world of their past and some of the casting, who their
children and ex-husband are going to be. Finally though, it’s just human stuff.
I’d say there are certain rhythms about them being African-American, but most
of it is just these two people and knowing that I had these incredible actresses
to work with.


JT: When we interviewed
LisaGay Hamilton and Yolonda Ross
, they mentioned receiving very detailed bios
that gave the history of their characters. Can you tell me about those bios,
and generally about your creative process for the film?

JS: I had this basic plot of two people who used to be
friends, and time and social class and circumstance have separated them for a
long time. And then I wanted them to have to do something together and have kind
of a role reversal in spirit and in power, so that at the beginning you have the
parole officer who has an incredible amount of power, but all of a sudden she
needs something from the other side of the law.

That was the journey that I wanted them to take, and in that
journey what Bernice finds out is that Fontayne may have just gotten out of
jail and she has all these problems, but she’s awesome. When she gets out on
the street, she’s brave and resourceful and loyal and she’s in there for the
long haul.

Starting with that, then you want to get into the details. You
don’t always want to bog the script down with details, but they might be
helpful for the actress. And so I’ll end up writing these bios for the lead
characters that might be three or four pages long so that when you come to the
scene you don’t have to explain everything. As a director if you don’t do that,
the actors are going to do it. They’re going to fill all that stuff in and who
knows where that’s going to send them, because nature abhors a vacuum.

JT: There were no
rehearsals as well. Was that due to the limited time and budget, or was it a
creative choice?

JS: I never actually do rehearsals. That’s one of the
reasons that I write those bios and if I can meet with the actors I’ll meet
them or talk to them on the phone. What I want is for them to come on set
knowing their lines and knowing who the character is.

And then there’s some real value in the shock of the new. We
had four weeks to shoot this, about 19 days. You’re not going to get to do a
lot of takes of anything, and so what you want is really prepared actors,
really good actors who are going to have fun working with each other and it’s
the first or second time they’ve ever said these lines to each other. The
hardest thing about movies is doing take 12, 13, and 14, and finding new ways
to do the same lines. So the early takes are actually easier and I think
there’s more surprises in them.

JT: I wanted to get
your thoughts on where indie film is headed. You’ve spoken about there not
being an independent film business anymore. What do you think of some of the tools
that filmmakers are using now – whether it’s crowdfunding, or web content?

JS: In the last 10 years I haven’t been able to raise any
money for any of my movies except by writing screenplays for other people. So
my last three or four movies have been self-financed. They’ve also been self-distributed,
and that’s even narrower a bottleneck of getting a movie in front of people. There
are very few distributors left to do off-Hollywood movies, and those
distributors generally have got thousands of movies to choose from. So you’re
pretty lucky if you get one to even take your movie and it’s pretty rare that
they pay anything upfront.

I see very small movies being financed by crowdfunding. If
you’re a well-known actor or celebrity of some sort, you can probably raise
between one and two million. I don’t have that kind of cult [following], and
also I’m working with Screen Actors Guild actors and union crew in most
instances, and that starts to get expensive. This is a movie that was around
$800,000 and I’d still be trying to raise the money if I tried to raise it by
Kickstarter.

JT: What do you think
about television as an area of opportunity?

JS: A lot of my writing work now is in TV, usually limited
series. And quite honestly, some of the best writing and acting and directing
is happening in that format. There’s also the economics of it, which I’m just
starting to learn about. I grew up with only three networks and you had to get
30 percent of the audience to stay on the air. These days there are things that
are considered hits on cable networks and they’re getting four percent. Some of
the series are kind of the equivalent of an independent movie that’s not going
to appeal to everybody. Some of them are very specific in the niche that
they’re going after. So far nobody’s bought any of the series that I’ve created,
but it’s been a good source of employment for me to write these things for
other people.

JT: I’m curious about
the unsold projects. Sometimes when we talk to filmmakers, they’ll mention a
project and a demand will grow because the audience has a chance to hear about
it. Can you share some of the projects you’ve pitched that haven’t quite taken
off yet?

JS: There’s a story about [Civil Rights activist] Fannie Lou
Hamer that we’ve been trying to get off the ground with Alfre Woodard to play
the lead and Harry Belafonte as one of the producers. Another is a limited
series about the life of Louis Armstrong, which Charles Dutton and I took
around a couple years ago. I just pitched a TV series about James Michener’s Alaska, about the history of Alaska
right after the United States bought it, which people really don’t know much
about and would make a great miniseries. I’ve gotten to know the sons of Julius
and Ethel Rosenberg, who were given the electric chair for espionage in the ’50s,
and they’ve always wanted a movie or TV series about their parents’ case. So
I’ve actually written the script for that already.

I’ve always got five or six things that would either make a
good feature or TV show.  And you
just never know. You go and you pitch and it may be exactly what they’re
looking for, or they may stop you after two sentences and say, “Oh, we’ve
already done something just like that.” Something at HBO that Morgan
Freeman and Jim Pickens have been trying to make for a long time, is about an
African-American Deputy US Marshal in the American Indian territory right after
the Civil War, a guy named Bass Reeves, which I think would make a great
four-hour special for cable. So I’m never at a loss for new projects.

JT: You’ve been
prolific in the number of films that you make, releasing something new every
few years. Can you tell me about the legacy that you want to leave as a
filmmaker?

JS: I think I’m still trying to do what I started out doing,
which is to say, here’s all the stuff that I see in life that I don’t see on
the big screen. Here’s these people and these situations, and they may be
history or they may be everyday life, but I think they’re very dramatic, and to
understand ourselves and each other they need to be part of our storytelling
tradition.

When I read a story or see something play out in front of me
I say, how come nobody’s made a movie or a television show out of this? This is
something that belongs in the conversation. Certainly that’s what interests me
about a project. As a screenwriter I’m often writing in genres where there have
been thousands of movies; whereas when I direct movies they tend to be in
between genres. They tend to have a little bit of a genre to them, but they’re
really about the people, and they’re people we haven’t met before.

***
“Go For Sisters” is available on DVD and VOD now.    

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