An Interview with John Sayles
I met John Sayles, the man sometimes referred to as the godfather of bootstrap cinema, in an old Irish pub in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. Over the course of an afternoon, we pored over Sayles’s entire creative life, beginning with his current film, Honeydripper, and going all the way back to his stint as a screenwriter for the “king of the B’s” Roger Corman. Considered the cinematic heir of John Cassavetes, Sayles played a pivotal role in launching a new independent-film movement with his first film, Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980). Since then, he has released fifteen more feature films, all of which he wrote, directed, and edited. In the interim, Sayles earns money to finance his films by working on Hollywood screenplays, such as Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic, and the recent Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the popular children’s fantasy books.
Characterized by what some describe as a lunch-pail populism, Sayles’s films vary in subject but are unified by their deep-rooted social consciousness and hopefulness. Sayles’s expansive social panoramas and thoughtfully rendered characters illustrate how various social issues—class (Casa de los Babys), labor (Matewan, Eight Men Out), gender (Lianna), generation (Return of the Secaucus Seven, City of Hope), race (The Brother from Another Planet), culture (Men with Guns, Lone Star), and politics (Silver City)—produce people who are marginalized by an American culture that worships the notion of the individual.
Sayles’s empathetic technique finds its roots in another craft he practices: writing. He is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of novels and short stories, including Union Dues, Los Gusanos, and Dillinger in Hollywood, which, like his films, serve as counternarratives to distorted and forgotten historical events. Throughout his career, he has also directed theater and has acted, appearing in such films as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. With all of his endeavors, Sayles remains committed to a distinctive DIY approach, and, like his characters, he maintains a resolute place on the fringes of American culture. “Oh, I’ve always felt like I was on the margins,” he’s said. “Once upon a time that’s what independent used to mean.”
I. “I NEVER HAD A COKE HABIT. SO, WE KEPT MORE OF OUR MONEY AND MORE THAN A COUPLE TIMES I WAS ABLE TO THROW IT IN TO MY OWN FILMS.”
THE BELIEVER: In your 2002 IFC retrospective you said, “My main interest is making films about people…I’m not interested in cinematic art.”
JS: What I meant is that to me the story is about the people and I use everything I can to tell that story, including all the art and craft available. I try to control everything on the screen to support the storytelling, but I’m not going to make a picture just to make a picture with a lot of nice wide screen angles or shoot something with a specific lens, etc. The ideas I get are not about a cool shot but rather people in a certain situation and exploring that aspect of their lives. Everything is secondary to this. Once I’ve done this, then I can explore all the other things at my disposable—cinematically, dramatically—to help tell the story intellectually and viscerally.
BLVR: I think this unpretentious approach really underscores all your work both as a writer and a filmmaker.
JS: I certainly saw more TV shows and movies than I read books as a kid. In both situations, I didn’t know anyone who made a movie or wrote a book. Thinking of doing those things was outside of my reality and I’ve never lost that sensibility.
BLVR: In college you did act and direct theater but still had no interest in pursuing film.
JS: When I got out of college all I had done was taken one film course, which was a film appreciation course. There were only about three film schools back then and I didn’t go to any of them. I’d been an actor in theater, directed theater, and was working in hospitals and factories and places like that but I was always writing stories.
BLVR: How did you come to writing?
JS: When I needed to get my grade point average up I would take a writing course. I wrote fast and I wrote a lot, so just by sheer poundage they couldn’t turn me down and had to give me an A. I think I gave them ten pounds of fiction one semester. With all this writing, I started sending stories out because all it cost me was the paper. I had a typewriter and some carbon paper. The idea of making movies was not at all present then.
BLVR: Writing seems to be the foundation for all your work as a filmmaker.
JS: In writing a book you can do all kinds of things but it all has to first go through your head. With a movie it also goes through your gut, then your head. But I would say that it goes back to me being an actor more than me being a writer. Having done theater both as an actor and director has helped me to think about what would helpful to the actor’s that work with me. Actors do talk to other actors and since I have that background, actors are able to trust me a bit more easily and quickly than a director who may not have that understanding. As a director you don’t teach anyone how to act, your directing his or her talent.
BLVR: In 1975 you won the O’Henry prize for “I-80 Nebraska, M. 490-M.205”, a story that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. But you were living this dual life in between working in the hospital and factories and your theater work.
JS: A buddy of mine, Jeff Nelson, was running a summer stock company. We just knew so many good actors. During this time I published a few novels and got a literary agent, John Sterling and he informed that my work was being represented as a property by a Hollywood film agency. I asked him for the guy’s phone number at the agency and called then him. They asked to see an example of my screenwriting.
BLVR: Had you written any screenplays at this time?
JS: I had about twenty pages that I was playing around with. It was a script of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which he never wanted turned into a film. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able use that but I had just read Eliot Asinoff’s Eight Men Out. I didn’t have the rights to it but I thought this would make a terrific movie, so as an example I wrote a screenplay of Eight Men Out and sent it to them. It turns out that the head of the agency had been Asinoff’s agent 25 years before.
BLVR: What was his response?
JS: He said I did a nice job but “you’ll never get this thing made.” He then advised to come to Hollywood and write these ‘creature features’ for Roger Corman and make a little money.
BLVR: Using the money you earned the Corman films, you financed your first film, Return of the Secaucus 7, which is about a reunion of 1960’s political activists. It gained a national theatrical release and won the LA Film Critics Award for Best Screenplay.
JS: Jeff Nelson said to me that we should make a movie. We had no idea how much it would cost – it ended being $40,000 – all we thought was that this would be fun. So, we made this movie with a crew that never made a feature and only made commercials in Boston. The actors had acted only in theater and knew nothing about movie acting. But we stumbled through it for five weeks, invented the wheel several times and at the end we had this thing. Editing was interesting because I knew how to cut but technically I didn’t how to work the machines. Yet, still and all we got distribution almost accidentally.
BLVR: With Return of Secaucus 7, you were hailed as being the leader of a new American Independent film movement.
JS: We kind of invented the wheel at the same time a bunch of other people were making features outside the system. We were in on the vanguard of what got called the ‘independent filmmaking’ movement. I think it was serendipity that the film got released in 1980 (it was made in 1978) when home video started to explode. All those theaters that showed films like the 400 Blows for two weeks in August realized that people are now going to buy the 400 Blows. They needed new films to screen so they took a chance on little movies like Secaucus 7. I learned a lot from the process of Secaucus 7 especially on financing my own films. WE live within our means. You know, we don’t get the swimming pool, the three cars and stuff like that. And I never had a coke habit. So, we kept more of our money and more than a couple times I was able to throw it in to my own films.
BLVR: You’re often linked to John Cassavetes as an independent filmmaking pioneer.
JS: I never met Cassavetes but I’ve met a lot of the people who worked with him. I was always impressed with his movies because they were written and work-shopped sort of like Mike Leigh’s films. What was very good and very human about Cassavetes’ movies is that he’s like the poet of inarticulate people. In his films, what the characters are trying to say often times is very simple like “I love you” or whatever but they are really bad at saying it. They’re just trying and trying and a lot of their frustration is that they can’t articulate their emotions. A good example of this is his film A Woman Under the Influence.
BLVR: You seem to be a bit uncomfortable with the mantle of godfather of American independent cinema.
JS: It’s important to remember there was people way before Cassavetes and me. I was aware of Melvin van Peebles or Robert Young. They were out there before Cassavetes and before it was called a movement. They were making them one at a time and they were interesting movies. Occasionally, I got to see something like Frank Perry’s David and Lisa or Delbert Mann’s Marty, which were independent films as well.
BLVR: In 1975 you wrote Pride of the Bimbos and in 1977 Union Dues, which was nominated for both National Critics’ Circle and National Book awards and then you had tremendous success in 1980 with Secaucus 7. How did the success affect you?
JS: It spoiled me because I was able to control the process, especially on Secaucus 7. Why would I want to go back and work for a studio? If I didn’t have control over the casting and the final cut, I was just an employee again. As a screenwriter I get to be an employee all the time and we know what that’s about. Sometime you want your name off the project. In the last ten years I’ve asked to have my name taken off the project much more often than it’s left on. They’re only more than happy to take your name off the project.
BLVR: I’ve heard rumors that you had the original idea for what became Steven Spielberg’s E.T.
JS: I did this script called Watch the Skies where the last page is about an extra terrestrial being left behind on earth. It became the first page of the script for E.T. While I think it didn’t inspire them I did write the script for Spielberg’s company. They asked if I wanted any credit and I said no since I felt that I really didn’t have any part of the final script. I also thought that it was a nice script and if they kept the budget down it could be a nice little Disney movie. Now you can see why I’m not a studio executive.
II. “WE’RE NOT GOING TO GET INTO THIS VIETNAM QUAGMIRE WITH THIS MUCH MONEY”
BLVR: The most difficult thing is financing your own films, which you’ve done for most of your films. How do you deal with the tenuous balance between staying true to your vision and acquiring financial support for your project?
JS: With Matewan we were a day from getting on the plane, going to West Virginia, opening up the office and starting preproduction. The people who said they were going to finance the movie for a million seven or whatever called us and said, “you know that formality of the bank loan we were going to take out to give you the money…they turned us down.” So, I’m sitting with Maggie Renzi and the other producer and we have all this momentum and we have no movie now and I say “ok I’ve got three, four hundred thousand dollars in the bank I’ve got this idea about a black alien from outer space that crash lands in Harlem.” Maggie says “but you hate to shoot in the snow.” I say, “hey you start producing and I start writing and we won’t have that much time to shoot it anyway…we’ll get it done before it snows…and so six weeks later we were making Brother from Another Planet.”
BLVR: This illustrates why you have been such an important model for so many filmmakers of how to get films done on your own terms.
JS: Some of it is about being adaptable and having more shit to throw against the wall and some it is more likely to stick if you have ten things to throw against the wall and I usually have at least two or three. Some of it is about being honest with yourself. Sometimes we look at the project and say “we cannot make this well for the amount of money we have now – we’re not going to get into this Vietnam quagmire with this much money and no way out.” It’s also about how can I rethink this project or how I can rewrite this project and still have it be good while costing less.”
BLVR: After Brother, you didn’t make a film for another three years but acted in The Glass Menagerie with Joann Woodward and directed music videos for Bruce Springsteen including “Born in the USA,” “I’m on Fire,” and “Glory Days.”
JS: I will always act because that’s how I started out. Also, music is a huge deal for me in all my work. Most of the time I hear a song I think of the visuals that go with it. With Bruce it was easy. Just listen to his music. His songs are stories almost mini movies. Before I did videos for him I used his songs in Baby It’s You but the movie that is most based on his music is City of Hope, which is the only movie that I didn’t do any kind of research for. A lot of it came from Bruce’s early songs when he was in his Jersey period.
BLVR: In terms of music, it’s big part of Honedydripper, which is set in 1950 and looks at a transitional time in American music with the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and the introduction of the electric guitar. How important is music in your work?
JS: Movies are visceral as well as intellectual. Unless you give someone a CD to listen while reading a book you don’t have the same experience you do with film, which allows you to use music in incredible ways. In a movie you have this whole other thing you can do – rhythm [is] the spine of the story. I use music sparingly though and this is the reason some people come out of my films saying what was that. We don’t have wall-to-wall orchestral movie music telling them how to feel. In doing that, I do lose some people but it’s really, really important to use music to support the story.
BLVR: Let’s explore some of your influences.
JS: I’ve been influenced by everything I’ve seen both good and bad. All those westerns I saw growing up. I was very influenced by the Italian Neo-Realists because I could not believe the stuff they got away with. John Sturges is another great filmmaker. Kurosawa was big for me as was David Lean. There was something about their movies even Lean’s early Dicken’s adaptations because there was a great pictorial skill in how he told stories. Now these filmmakers all make films very different than mine, but there is a humanism there that resonates with me. Nelson Algren also influenced me, again because he was able to publish things like The Man with the Golden Arm and I thought if he could publish then I had a shot.
BLVR: With your Secaucus 7, you ended up influencing a whole new generation of filmmakers. One film that seems to have taken more than a direct influence from your film is Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983)
JS: People are always asking me about that. Both Larry Kasdan and I have both been quoted as saying that the late Pittsburgh Pirates’ star Roberto Clemente was one of the biggest influences in style on our work. I think it’s mainly because of the spirit of how he played, how he committed himself to every play, how he threw himself into every play, and the style he played with. Clemente had a certain kind of chi when he played. Another enormous influence on me I have to say here is Bruce Lee. This may have something to do with me being a jock when I was younger and the physicality that so defined my life early on.
BLVR: I think many people would find it surprising to hear that Bruce Lee is one of your great influences.
JS: You need focus and a strong, grounded emotional content. The model of that for me comes from this great scene in Enter the Dragon. Lee is explaining his style of kung fu to a young pupil. During the lesson the kid tries to hit Lee and he blocks the punch. Lee explains that to overtake your opponent it’s about emotional content not physical content. The kid tries to hit Lee again and this time Lee slaps his hand away and then slaps the pupil in the face. Lee explains that it’s not anger but emotional content. And without moving anything the kid stands there and fills with chi and with the next attempt he almost hits Lee. The lesson is over. So, for example, if you have a fight scene in a film you can’t really act the scene with anger no matter how well you say your lines. The emotional content needs to be there for whatever you’re doing in film to be authentic and honest.
BLVR: Your new film, Honeydripper, is great example of how tightly you weave the interconnections between people- in this case in 1950’s Alabama-and what is going around them politically and culturally.
JS: One of the things I try do in my own films rather than those I write for other filmmakers, is to move the story forward but not by using shorthand. Many of the films you see today are the rock video versions of the story. For example, I just saw Atonement, which is a very well made movie, but it’s a rock video version of that novel. It hits all the high points, it’s very emotional and grandiose but it’s done in shorthand as far as all the social stuff. There’s an assumption we understand who these people are so we don’t need any of the side characters. We’ll just have the stars, which are these beautiful looking people. All that life around them is cut away because that gets in the way of the story their telling.
BLVR: Have you been asked to write in this style for other directors?
JS: Absolutely, but it’s not at all what I prefer to do. I start getting interested in what the spear-carrier guy behind Henry VII is thinking. When he goes home does he think that he will get killed when they go to battle? He’s like a button man in the mafia who will get thrown to the tower or get killed if they go to war.
BLVR: The secondary characters play almost as an important a role as the primary characters.
JS: Yes. I pull my secondary characters forward and give them more depth. As a result, they get more three-dimensional and that changes everything.
BLVR: I think Albert Hall’s preacher in Honeydripper is a great example of this, but it can be seen in all your films like Silver City and Sunshine State, which both had more than thirty speaking parts.
JS: Albert is a great actor. He was in Apocalypse Now playing the guy who is driving the boat and takes a spear in the neck. He also was memorable in Malcolm X as the guy who turns Malcolm into a Muslim in jail. What I always want my actors to do is play that part as if the camera was following you off-screen so they feel like there is a whole movie there with their character. I don’t really give them much ammunition to do that but they have to inhabit their character that way.
BLVR: I can see how this approach couldn’t work for many filmmakers making a Hollywood film.
JS: It does get in the way of a certain kind of generic storytelling. Every movie is a world. When you enter that world you should learn very quickly what are the rules of this world. I often use Steven Spielberg, who is very good at tone, as an example. In the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Harrison Ford is getting chased there is comic violence when he pulls out a gun and whacks this guy with a sword. The same filmmaker did Schindler’s List. There is no comic violence in that film. It’s a wholly different world. The rules are set right away: this is real and nothing is going to happen here that we’re going to laugh at.
III. “I’M INTERESTED IN THE STUFF I DO BEING SEEN AS WIDELY AS POSSIBLE, BUT I’M NOT INTERESTED ENOUGH TO LIE.”
BLVR: In your pursuit of telling the truth in your films and creating an honest account of a particular situation like the murder of student activists in Men with Guns or generational issues in City of Hope or political corruption in Silver City, you’ve risked limiting your audience.
JS: I know that my approach is going to make it tougher for a simplistic reaction to the movie, which is often what people are satisfied with the most. For instance, much of where my film Men with Guns comes from is the first Gulf War. I heard about a survey where people were asked if they were getting the full story of what was going in the war. Like 70-80% said absolutely not, whatever we’re getting is very controlled, etc. The follow-up question was if people thought this was a good or bad thing. 65% of the people said it was a good thing. That’s a lot of people saying that they don’t want to know the truth. I learned recently that this is cognitive dissonance, but when I made Men with Guns I called it willful ignorance.
BLVR: The historical context that resonates throughout your work is another defining element of your filmmaking.
JS: This is an interesting American deal. American’s like to think that they we were born yesterday, that we’re all self made, that we don’t come from anywhere, they have not past. The thinking is that I’m an American, maybe even an Italian-American, but forget all that shit. The way I feel is that actually none of us get to start from scratch. Everything that we are and that we have came from somewhere. There are all these suppositions that are misleading and often harmful and often find their way into American filmmaking.
BLVR: Is this a failing in American cinema?
JS: The historical details get cut out of American movies. Some of this is because movies are meant to take us out of our lives. To me it’s like walking through a neighborhood. I got to get from here to here. There may be some funky stuff in that neighborhood and some people want to avoid that, but I don’t. In 1980, I covered the Republican National Convention in Detroit for a magazine. The Republican’s put most of their delegates across the river in a hotel in Canada. They put cardboard over the windows of the buses so when they went through the funky Detroit neighborhoods they wouldn’t see them on the way to the Joe Louis Arena. These delegates from Kansas and other parts of the country did not even see these neighborhoods so in effect they could never admit that these areas exist. They never saw them. This is what your asked to do for most American films, and it may be appropriate for certain movies, but it’s one of the reasons that American’s don’t know anything about their own history. I’m interested in the stuff I do being seen as widely as possible, but I’m not interested enough to lie.
BLVR: You’ve written a broad range of characters while touching on difficult social issues of race and class (Passion Fish, Casa de los Babys) or rendering a sensitive portrait of family (Secret of Ronan Inish) – and now with Hondeydripper you tease out the complexity of the interaction between Blacks and whites in the 1950’s deep south.
JS: I’m reminded of a phrase I’ve heard over and over again: In the south you can’t get too high and in the north you can’t get too close. In the south, it’s personal. It may be condescending, it may be violent, and it may be awful, but it’s personal. The white sheriff in the film knows your granddaddy. You may have the same last name as the other race and you know why but it’s never spoken between you but it’s understood between you. That’s how far you go back. In those small towns it’s absolutely personal and there is no kind of hiding anything from each other.
BLVR: The way you approach your work reminds me of something Marlon Brando expressed about his acting, which is that it was more about craft than art. Understanding that you are always honing your craft and never taking yourself too seriously as an artist but rather always striving to be a committed craftsman.
JS: You have to be practical. It’s craft in service of something. It’s like that old saying from the Vietnam War: “We have to destroy the village to save it.” Well, sometimes when I talk to other filmmakers they say they had to destroy their film to make it or politicians had to water down the bill to the point it useless in order to get it passed. Sometimes you just have to say, fuck this. I’m not willing to water anything down, destroy anything or whatever. It’s not worth making if that’s what it takes to make the film.
BLVR: I find it very interesting that with the level of control you bring to the entire process that you don’t rehearse.
JS: We do blocking rehearsals or talk over the phone if the actors need to, but no rehearsals. I do give each actor a bio of their character and they should come to the set knowing their lines and who their character is. What I really like is the shock of the new when they encounter that other character. Often times what your seeing on screen in my films is the second take.
BLVR: To always work hard and keep producing something whether it’s scripts, short stories, etc. seems to be part of your overriding attitude as a filmmaker.
JS: Sure, you could say everything we’ve been talking about is part of my philosophy or credo. First, be disciplined and always honest with yourself in knowing what you want to do. Some of it is just an emotional or gut feeling mixed with an intellectual understanding of what you’re trying to achieve. Second, when you’re on the set you really have to know what it is your trying to accomplish on that day. Whatever comes up that day you never lose sight of “what’s the point of this scene?” or “what’s the point of this day?” Third is just do it until you get it right. Hold on to your vision even to the point that someone is offering you money but are asking for a few changes to be made. You can go in to these situations with an open mind and listen, but you must know where your line is and absolutely not cross that line.