Thirty Minutes with John Sayles
Believe it or not, John Sayles has been writing and directing films for nearly 25 years. Sayles says that he still struggles to get money for his films, fitting for a man who shot his debut film, Return of the Secaucus 7, over 25 days with a $45,000 budget. Sayles has stayed true to himself, making films he wants to make largely outside studio control, and becoming a seminal figure in modern independent film. He tells challenging stories that examine larger issues in an intelligent and honest way. Sayles's films often explore unique cultures in America and abroad. His attention to dialogue and character have endeared him to actors. Testament to this are the many performers, such as David Strathairn, Joe Morton, and Chris Cooper, who have worked with Sayles frequently. While never huge box office draws, his films consistently garner critical acclaim. Some of Sayles more notable work includes The Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, and Eight Men Out (one of the best sports films ever made). Sayles also received Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominations for Passion Fish and Lone Star.
Sayles latest effort is Silver City, a political mystery. Chris Cooper stars as a Dickie Pilager, a dim-witted Colorado gubernatorial candidate. While Dickie is shooting a campaign ad at a local lake, a dead body floats up. Concerned about the political fallout, Pilager's ruthless campaign manager Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) hires private investigator Danny O'Brien (Daniel Huston). Danny's job is ostensibly to find out about the body but actually to smoke out any of Pilager's enemies who might have used the body to sink the campaign. As you might expect, Danny discovers more than he bargained for about the body, Pilager, shady business dealings, government manipulation, and a mysterious power baron named Bentel (Kris Kristofferson). Like many Sayles films, Silver City touches on broader themes and boasts a stellar ensemble cast. Joining Cooper, Huston, Kristofferson and Dreyfuss are Darryl Hannah, Michael Murphy, Ralph Waite, Tim Roth, Thora Birch and Maria Bello.
Last month I had the privilege of sitting down with Sayles to discuss his new film, his politics, and his career:
Adam Spector - Tell me about the idea for Silver City. Where did it come from and how did it evolve?
John Sayles - I'd been thinking about doing something very much about politics and especially electoral politics since 2000. The last presidential election we were in Florida shooting Sunshine State and talking with people, some of the people in the crew about the feeling that the real story down there wasn't hanging chads or the ballot. It was how many African-American people didn't get to vote and that there seemed to be some thought behind that, that it wasn't just an accident. So I started thinking about that. I started reading some stuff about the effects of deregulation on various industries, including the meat packing industry, which I used to be in, and I think the first thing I started to think about is that a lot of this stuff trickles out of the news media almost as if it were a natural phenomenon. This just happened; it's an accident. It falls out of the sky or something like that. In fact most of it is the result of careful planning. Somebody said "Look, we don't like the way things are legally. We can't change it legally; It won't run past the public if we tell them what we're doing. But what if we redefine this or what if we rephrase this or what if we spend a lot of money to get this politician to change his mind about this whether it's through getting money to his campaign or hiring lobbyists to bug him to death, or just getting rid of that politician? Just put enough money into this one-time thing. Get this guy out of there. Get a new guy in there."
AS - Like the Ralph Waite character in Silver City?
JS - Yes, he's a thorn in someone's side at the EPA, so they just blow him out of there. So I started thinking about that and how would you make a story that could follow a lot of these things. What if I used the mystery genre? So there is an investigator who stumbles upon this stuff and that's not what he's looking for but that's what he keeps finding. And then I started thinking about the idea of somebody working for an candidate and the trail starts to turn back on that candidate. Quite honestly, it was only about a year ago that we started focusing on making this. I wanted people to be able to draw lines not only between the characters in the movie, but from the movie to what's going on in the country now. That's when I decided, "What if I give this candidate some attributes of George Bush when he was running for governor of Texas the first time?" He's a new candidate, his father is a famous politician, he hasn't been up to much in his life. But he's got all of this money behind him and he's learning how to be a candidate. His character arc is that by the end of the movie, he's better. He's at least sticking to the script. People can say "OK, is the stuff that's going on in the movie stuff that's going on in the country or our state, or our local kind of politics?"
AS - So was the plan always to release Silver City in the fall of an election year?
JS - Two things. The pain commercial thing is if you've got a sports movie it's pretty good to release it near the end of that sport, when people are really thinking about the playoffs. Not on the night of the playoffs, but leading up to it.
AS - Did Eight Men Out (about the 1919 Chicago White Sox throwing the World Series) come out in October?
JS - No, it came out, I think, Labor Day, so people were thinking about the pennant race and all that. But you don't want to compete with the sport. You certainly don't want to come out the week after the World Series. I wrote The Howling and they always play it around Halloween. So there's that and also we wanted people to think about this election and think about this administration and hopefully you get people started and they say "Well it's not just about one election; whoever gets in you got to stay on people's case. There's big systemic problems here." One of the biggest is how campaigns are financed and that it's almost impossible for us to have politicians who think that their constituents are voters if they're getting all their money from corporations. . .
Another is this immigration policy we have, which is tied in with a lot of things. But it's been accepted, even encouraged in some ways. Even though it's made difficult to get across the border, certain industries are subsidized by illegal aliens, that these people you don't have to pay scale, you don't have to pay benefits definitely. And if you don't pay them at all when the job is over what are they going to do? The construction industry certainly, the restaurant industry certainly are full of people and if all of a sudden they had to pay everyone minimum wage and any benefits at all, they'd be in deep sh-t. And we have to make that question of do we need those industries or do we need those industries on that level. Are we willing to have people come up here and get ripped off? Or can we live with that hypocrisy, that we don't want these people here, but we need them here?
And then there's the environmental stuff, which has been pretty egregious in this administration, especially, I think, some of the most creative naming of bills that are really to cut back on environmental protection. The "Blue Sky Act" or the "Clean Water Act" or whatever . . . and I get used to that, which all politicians do no matter what side they're on. That kind of "What can we call this so that people won't really know what we're doing to them?"
AS - In another interview you said you made political films, not ideological films. Would you say that holds true for Silver City?
JS - I do think that it's an ideological film in that it's a pro-democracy film and one of the questions that it asks is how you define your democracy. What do you ask of people when they're going to have a democracy? What responsibility personally do you have to take for it and are we anything close to having a democracy or are we further away from having a democracy than we were 15 years ago. So it's very ideological in that way. It's really just considering one system and its ideas about itself.
AS - Silver City starts off very satirical, with some comic moments. But as the film progresses it becomes darker and more dramatic. Was that something you were looking for or is that just how the film played out?
JS - It's pretty much what I was going for. If you look at Danny's arc - at the beginning he's kind of hapless and kind of a loser. He's doing a job he doesn't care for and his way of dealing with that is to do a really bad job of it. He's not a good detective . . . he eventually does find some things out not because he's that brilliant at it and he finds most of them out toward the end when he gets more serious about it . . . The arc is from somebody who is apathetic, who is cynical, who is half-assed, who is a bit of a loser, somebody at the end who . . . doesn't win the battle. He doesn't even win a skirmish in this one. But at the end he's gotten his girlfriend back and he's gotten his sense of moral outrage back, and that's a big arc for a character. It's more than most people go through in a 3-4 day period. And therefore, in the movie also, like a lot of mysteries, a lot of film mysteries, you think it's a simple murder or maybe even an accident and it could turn into The Trouble with Harry, about a stiff that won't go away. And there's that kind of morgue humor at the beginning of it and as you put a name to this person you can't be quite as funny anymore . . . You have to say "Well wait a minute, that's a human being and he's dead now and he's got a family somewhere and I can't be quite as blithe about that as I used to be." And the same thing happens with Danny. At first it's like "Aughh!! " There's this job, there's this politician and he's (Pilager) paranoid and he thinks that these people are after him. He drew a body in a lake, which is pretty far-fetched and then when he (Danny) starts discovering is, wait a minute, something did something to someone here. And he starts getting upset and at the end he's got a conspiracy theory that hits way beyond what actually happened but he's hooked. And I hope that the trip that the audience takes is pretty much like the one Danny takes . . .
AS - In another interview you referred to television as a type of drug. In a film like Passion Fish, it's an opiate for May Alice to forget about her troubled life. In Silver City it appears to be a drug in a different way. Almost a mind-controlling drug. Is that the way you see TV?
JS - With any drug it's how you use it. Here it's not just television it's media in general, media news in general . . . unquestioned, it can lull you to sleep. . . At some point you have to get up and say "Well, wait a minute, I've got some practical things to do here. I can't just listen to this stuff. This is not what is actually going on in the world." They would like you to think that's what's going on in the world and just stay within it's reality. I've had a lot of scenes with people watching TV in my movies over the years. At one point in this film people are watching it with the sound off and there's an important part of the movie where that's happening. Who he (Danny) is talking to at that moment is the guy that questions mainstream media, Tim Roth's character. And the minute you turn the sound off, or just turn the picture off and listen to the sound, you analyze what's on there and not just accept it. You're starting to question what that thing is. And just that act of turning the sound off already is a step toward Danny's thing of getting his moral outrage back. He's not just saying "Hey, it's TV, what are you going to do?" . . .
Yeah, I do think that unfortunately the news just wants us to be hooked on it rather than on what is really going on in the world. So if you remember the coverage of both of the gulf wars, that the major networks, they got a theme song, they got a logo, they got a name for it. So every night it was this kind of semi-improvised, quickly edited miniseries that they were doing. They were not necessarily looking to what was happening out in the world. They were looking at each other. "What's Fox doing? That seems to be working. Let's put more American flags on the corner of the screen. Let's make sure our people have American flags on their uniform while they're embedded. What can we put them in front of because MSNBC is gaining on us?" That is network television, the sitcom world, the world of very Monday you live and die by the numbers. It's not reporting what was going on there. They didn't say "What's going on there that these other guys don't know?" They were saying "How do we present what the Army is telling us in a more interesting, more stimulating way than our competitors?"
AS - Related to that is the issue of media consolidation, which Silver City also touches on. Bentel's company buys the paper that Maria Bello's character is working for. Your film is being distributed by Newmarket, one of the true independent distributors out there. Do you think it could have been distributed by one of those pseudo-independents with ties to major studios?
JS - Yeah, I think Sony could have done it. I think Sony Pictures Classics could have done it. Miramax would not have been allowed to, probably, by Disney for the same reason they didn't do Michael Moore's film (Fahrenheit 9/11). I think Focus could have done it. I think New Line could have done it. I don't think Fox would have done it, Fox Classics. I think they would have gotten a nasty letter from upstairs. There is a culture there, and they know what is expected of them. It would have been uncomfortable for them to but that. But I do think they could have. Sony Classics is the least controlled of those. They really have autonomy and they do what they do. They really don't get in Sony's way. Sony doesn't get in their way. They're within a certain mandated budget and stuff like that. Others that are a little more closely held, it's more about personalities than corporations. It's still a pretty marginal world, those companies.
The people in the big studios, if they're political at all, it's about "This isn't going to make us money. Some people are upset by this and this isn't going to make us money." I think there might be one or two studios who have connections to somebody, but that's probably pretty rare. While in 1969, Haskell Wexler, who shot this movie, came out with Medium Cool and somebody basically called the studio up and said "Give us a break. Get this movie off the screen." I saw Medium Cool in Washington, D.C. here during a march to protest the bombing of Cambodia. There was tear gas in the street, and it was like "Well, do you want to go to the Justice Department and get arrested, or do you ant to go to this movie? I want to go to this movie." I wasn't into throwing sh-t around in front of cops. I went to see this movie with a tear gas smell in the theater, and I said "My god, this is going to make a fortune! Every college kid in America is into this stuff. This is a movie exactly about what is going on." And it was off the screen everywhere in America in the next week. They could have made some money and they chose not to . . . That kind of thing does go on a little bit. Sometimes the motives are bigger motives. With our little movie I think there's only a couple of places where the corporate parents would have said "No, we just didn't want to get involved in that."
AS - A couple of things that were said in the film, I was wondering if those are things you believe or know people who believe. Bentel says that Americans like a winner more than they like the underdog. Do you think we're at that point right now?
JS - I think we've seen that in sports. I think we've seen it in movies a lot more. Certainly this phenomenon of "Entertainment Tonight" or not (just) the trade papers but the regular magazines posting who won the weekend. I hear kids saying "It made the most money last week. Let's go see that one." Just to be part of something. Coca-Cola has certainly done advertising on "You want to be on this team. The soft drink that the most people in the world drink" And you just see it in advertising a lot more. "This is the #1, this is the favorite." . . . And I do think some of it is, there's a lot of product out there, and people don't want to but consumer products and look up what's the best one and they don't really have much of an opinion. They just say, "Well, this must be the best one. We've got to go see something at the mall, Let's go to that movie. Everybody says it's good." And that's what advertising becomes. Nobody says "Hey, nobody has seen this cool new movie and were the underdogs. Come and see us." It just really doesn't work with people anymore. . . I think you still see it in movies, the underdog stuff and sports stories still have some of that stuff too. But I think the way that sometimes even people vote. "Well, this is the guy who seems more powerful. It seems like he's going to win. I'll vote for him because I don't want to be a schmuck" You really feel that change since I was younger, and certainly in the movies you see it. The golden age of movies for me was the 70s. There were a lot of movies about guys who didn't win in the end. A lot of anti-heroes, a lot of ambiguous endings and you don't see many of those anymore. You usually see a freeze-frame on somebody doing "We're number one."
AS - Let's talk a little bit about your films in general. Most of your films, in addition to the basic story, and who the characters are, also touch on larger systemic issues. Is that something you look for when you're thinking of what film you want to do next?
JS - It's often something that interests me . . . sometimes it's a question of "Is this really happening? Are these connections I see really there? Is this a trend that I see?" But I have to break it down to a human level and that's where the characters come in so they're not just allegorical, they're also psychological and individual but they fit into a bigger thing . . . Everybody's motives are a mixture of these things. You look at any political movements, if you really study it . . . let's say one of the problems with this movement is that this guy was an alcoholic or he couldn't delegate authority or this guy was very jealous. . . whether it's Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera, there was an antagonism between them because of who was the superstar of the movement. But there were also political differences. So you can say "Well, yes they represented two political things here but there's also just personal problems between the two guys" and that's a line I always try to walk which is yes, I'm interested in personal psychology but what's the context? Because your personal history is so tied up in the context.
I think a good example is Baby, It's You, which is about the Jewish upper class girl who goes from Trenton High School to Sarah Lawrence, and on her way, her senior year, she dates this kind of meatball Italian guy who is not going to even finish high school for a while. Well, that's . . . not quite Romeo and Juliet, but a star-crossed lovers kind of story. It's about growing up and all that kind of stuff. But it also takes place in 1966, and you could go from a high school that was like the 50s and then go from you high school drama teacher speaking with a very cultured English accent and talking about deportment and how you hold yourself on stage and within two months be crawling on the floor doing Grotowski (theater) exercises with a guy who was sleeping with half his students. That's a catapult not just from high school to college but from one era to the other, so that's one of the things that made that story interesting. I wouldn't have been interested if it was set in 1955 and 1956, as interested. But the times made it even more interesting because that pressure on what's always a kind of personal, growing, difficult thing is increased by the times. You had to grow up really, really fast and deal with all this new stuff, and everybody thought it was cool, even though it seemed really kind of strange to you. And all of a sudden someone hands you a joint and in 1966 nobody you've ever known has ever smoked a joint. Nobody ever heard of except for some hippie on Life magazine has smoked a joint. And when you puff on that joint you don't know if you're going to go crazy and never get to come back. You don't know that it's different from LSD. You're a pioneer. That context to me really changed the story, made it a more interesting story.
AS - Speaking of context, all of your films seem to have a very distinct sense of place. I couldn't see a John Sayles film being shot mostly on a soundstage. The locations, the flavor. Is that something you look for? Do you do a lot of scouting?
JS - Quite a bit. And sometimes like the stuff that's set in America, it's about culture and what culture is there that's different from mainstream culture or what associations do we have with that landscape. So with the Rockies we think of miners and cattlemen and so do the people who live in the Rockies, even though that's less than two percent of the income made in Colorado. It's just not big industries there anymore. But people still wear the boots and adopt the style of libertarianism, rugged frontier thinkers out there. In the case of the movies I shot in Mexico . . . there you have to go around and say "What region in Mexico? What does this look like?" Acapulco (where Sayles shot Casa de los Babys), with the beautiful hotels and a beach, but also if you keep going up the hill, really poor people in shacks, evokes one thing. Being in the wilds of the Chiapas where there are no beautiful hotels and there are no shacks, there are Indian villages and the people don't speak Spanish, evokes a different thing . . . It's jungle around you not Pacific beach, so there I was looking for something even more primal during Men with Guns. You go from sugar cane to banana fields to mountains and you start in a glass or plastic city, so it's very generic kind of things that I literally drew a map of the movie from this kind of environment to this kind but it wasn't about specifically Mexico.
AS - You've had a long career. You're credited as one of the pioneers of modern independent film. Are you happy with where your career is now, with the type of work you've been doing?
JS - I like the movies. I feel good about the movies we've
made. I feel good about the people we get to work with. You just never know .
. . I rarely know if I'm going to get to make another one or what it will be so
I don't know what we do next. So it would be nice to have someone who said "Look,
I really like this movie. Here's $10 million. Whatever you want to do. Put that
toward what you're going to do next." That just never happens and that's
too bad in some ways and in other ways that's good in that you never get complacent
and say "Oh yes, I haven't done anything in a year. I don't have a really
good idea, but I'll do something." You've got to really want to do a movie
to have to struggle as much as we do to get them made. But that's the good thing
about them not being easy.