John Sayles Interview

Independent film icon talks about his penchant for capturing a personality-driven sense of a place

Independent film icon talks about his penchant for capturing a personality-driven sense of a place

Director John Sayles looks his age -- 52 -- but he gives off the dynamism of a much younger man. It's a combination of his muscular physique (which comes through subtly in his denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up part way), his slightly off-balance but powerful gait as he enters a room and the way he speaks -- not the words he uses, but the tone and energy in his voice.

He's a quiet man, but he has a politely imposing presence that fills a room, not unlike the way Kris Kristofferson did as a macho, greatly-feared corrupt sheriff in Sayles' "Lone Star" -- just without the bullying, hell-bent personality. He also seems to personify the pure spirit of independent filmmaking.

In the last 22 years Sayles has written and directed 14 films that have mostly been driven by remarkably three-dimensional personalities ("Brother From Another Planet," "Matewan," "Eight Men Out" and "The Secret of Roan Inish" just to name a few). His most recent films, like "Lone Star" (which took place in a dusty Texas border town) and "Limbo" (which begins in an Alaskan fishing port) have also captured such a complete sense of the communities in which they're set that when you're done watching them you feel as if you've personally lived there for years.

"Sunshine State," Sayles' latest, draws the audience just as completely into the life of a quiet island township off the coast of the Florida panhandle where the community is struggling with a choice between their rich heritage and selling out to resort developers who are offering big money for properties in their fading pocket berg.

When the director visited San Francisco recently, I spoke to him about his talent for bringing a place to life through encompassing several strata of its culture in his stories. But first I had to tell him a story about seeing his brilliant 1999 film "Limbo," which has a deliberately nebulous (very nebulous) ending that polarized audiences, angering people who expect a pat ending for their filmgoing dollar.

Q: One of the most fun times I've had at a movie in the last 10 years was arguing with people after "Limbo."

A: Oh, yeah. We'd hoped some of that would happen.

Q: At the screening I went to, about two-thirds of the audience went berserk at the end, yelling "no!" and saying things like, "That was a terrible movie!" I grabbed everybody I could who was grousing on their way out of the theater and asked, "Did you think it was a terrible movie until two minutes ago?"

A: Yeah! Exactly!

Q: They would reply, "Well, no..." So I would say, "So what's the problem then?" They inevitably wanted to see a happy ending and would say, "It just left you..." And I'd finish for them by saying, "In limbo?" Then I'd watch the recognition creep across their faces. It was very satisfying.

A: Yeah, it was an interesting reaction (the film received). I was actually a little surprised by just how many people couldn't deal with it. Some of that is that it's not 1972 anymore. In 1972 there were dozens of films that would have ambiguous or open-ended endings. Like "The Graduate." Today "The Graduate" would have ended with a freeze-frame with Benjamin grabbing the girl and kissing her or something, instead of the real ending, which is them sitting on a bus, looking at each other going, "Who is this?"

Q: Right. "What do we do now?"

A: Exactly.

Q: So let me start with something a little bit obvious. Your films always have an incredible sense of place -- more than that, they have a personality of place. How much time do you spend in a place before you start writing about it?

A: Sometimes we've been there before I start writing about it. In the case of "Limbo," we'd been to Alaska 10 years earlier. In the case of Florida, I've been going to Florida since I was 4 years old, so all the things that get into the movie I'd been thinking about for a long, long time -- specifically northeastern Florida, in the area where we shot. I went down there once before I started writing for a couple days, just to see, OK, is this really what I want to write about? And is there anything unique about this place that I should work into the screenplay? So I didn't just write, oh, that (one character's) ex-husband is a re-enactor at an old fort, then have to build one. There was a fort there. There were re-enactors there. That gave me some ideas.

Then once we get the money, I usually go down and do another little bit of a revision after we've been there for a couple weeks and gotten some feedback from local people. It's often very, very specific things. With Florida what's interesting is there are so many people from somewhere else. A second-generation Floridian is a rare thing. So many people go down there to retire, or on vacation and they stay, or they get transferred there. And so there's people from the Northeast, from the Midwest, from Haiti, from Cuba, from other Southern states -- and they don't necessarily agree on who they want to be or what they want to do.

Q: Which is all part of the way characters interact in the film.

A: Yeah, yeah.

Q: I love the opposing parallel of the Angela Bassett and Edie Falco characters. One's starting to realize that she may be able to return home, live there again. And the other one is...

A: ...I want to escape before I drown!

Q: Yes.

A: And they spend maybe 10 seconds on screen together, those two characters who are my sort of engine for the movie. They don't cross paths but almost everyone they know has to deal with each other in some way.

Q: I really like the character construct of your movies. I love the way there are no big moments of excitement that drive the stories, yet you're just completely absorbed in the people. Almost nobody makes such character-driven films in America -- at least not with so many characters.

A: Yeah. Robert Altman I think is the other American filmmaker who has made several movies about groups of people, you know? Starting with "Nashville." Certainly "Gosford Park" or "The Player."

Q: Is there something about your creative process that makes you want to take on so many narratives at once?

A: Well, sometimes the story is really about community and things that are happening to a whole community. And when you have parallel communities -- like you often do in American cities where there might be a Cuban community, and a white community, and a black community, and a Haitian community -- they have some things to do with each other, but they're really living parallel lives. If you really want to talk about what's happening to all of them, there's a whole range of people, even within those communities. There are the richer and poorer people in each community. There are the happier and less contented people within all those communities. So automatically it starts multiplying and you start getting more people.

I think also, one of the things I'm often dealing with is a story in which the audience member can get the big picture while each of the characters is just dealing with their personal drama (and) is only seeing one little piece of it. I'm interested in that -- that way in which we often don't see these big changes until they've happened.

Q: Let me ask you about casting. Do these characters' personal dramas evolve after you've cast actors to play them? Do you redevelop the characters at all based on who's playing them?

A: Not really. In this one the only people I had in mind while I was writing were Angela Bassett, who I've worked with before, and Edie Falco. With Angela it's just because I've seen her in plays. She's from St. Petersburg, you know. She has that grounded quality the character needed but also the kind of glamour that you'd believe she could get a job as an infomercial hostess. She's very good at that too!

Q: Oh, god. She's great at that. Her infomercial scene got a big laugh at the screening.

A: Yeah. And Edie is someone I'd seen in a couple movies and a little bit on the "Sopranos," and she had this inner strength I needed for the character. A quality like she'd lost a lot of rounds but she hasn't been beaten. With the rest of them we really just started lining up people and trying to get the chemistry right. But I don't rewrite the parts after I cast them. We try to just cast good actors.



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