Independents In Limbo? The John Sayles Interview

By David Michael
Posted 09/12/99 17:29:27

When it comes to indie film, John Sayles is at ground zero. Since 1980, when he made his auspicious debut with the cult favourite Return Of The Secaucus Seven, he has been a man on the outside, only venturing inside the studio fence on his own terms. One bitter, demeaning deal at a studio (1983's Baby It's You, a film that retained its raw emotional power despite tampering from a studio jonesing for a hit), left Sayles soured on Hollywood, and he's done his own thing ever since. He gets his own back at the gaudy, over budgeted world of Hollywood by taking work as a script doctor on their inflated projects (most notably Apollo 13), and funnelling it back into his own deeply personal works.

A tough, grounded, but exquisitely literate filmmaker, Sayles swings effortlessly from genre to genre, changing moods and scenery but always burning his films through with a fiery honesty. Along with Martin Scorsese, he's probably the only director now working with a resume totally clear of dud product.

His works range from rich, idiosyncratic character studies (the lesbian themed Lianna, and Passion Fish, a beautiful tale of friendship in the Deep South) to science fiction (the allegorical Brother From Another Planet) to sports scandal (the brilliant Eight Men Out) to Robert Altman-style cityscape (City Of Hope) to western mystery (the breakthrough hit Lone Star) to children's film (the poetic The Secret Of Roan Inish) to flat out masterpiece (the proudly political Matewan). Whatever genre he's working in, Sayles always makes it his own. His characters are constantly real and fully rounded, and his humanist approach takes centre stage.

After the obscure but appreciated Men With Guns, John Sayles finally returns to studio filmmaking with the thriller/character study Limbo, starring long time regular David Strathairn and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio But this time John Sayles had more muscle, and got himself the right of final cut. This challenging, passionate, keenly intelligent and fiercely independent writer/director humbled us all when he spoke to us from Australia's Noosa Film Festival.

"The only movie that has a similar structure to Limbo is Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. That started out as a screwball comedy, but all of a sudden it gets to be a kind of tense thriller and my purpose in that is to really get the audience to identify with the characters in a different way. There's a phrase in the movie when one of the characters says, "what do you get when you get on a rollercoaster - not real risk but the illusion of risk," and you know most movies, at the end they're not gonna kill off Mel Gibson. What I wanted was the audience to be wrenched out of the kind of everyday world just like the characters are and all of a sudden not know what's gonna happen next."

"Very early in writing the movie, I realised that there was only really one way I could end it. The ending that Limbo reminds me of the most is The Graduate. That ends up with these two people and they're facing a real uncertain future and if you would cut 40 seconds to a minute earlier it would have been a triumphant thing where he grabs her away from the wedding and they live happily ever after. An ending should send you back into the film."

"One of the things I try to find in actors, and when I find it I tend to work with those actors again and again, is the ability to play a text and a subtext. So David Straithairn's character is a guy who's just haunted. He's like a Joseph Conrad character. He has this surface and he's not a happy go lucky guy, but there's always these deaths and drownings weighing on him. I have a number of actors I've used a number of times. I like to work with actors who can play that thing of saying one thing and meaning or feeling another."

"Sometimes it's been literally my own money. I was one of the major investors, if not the only investor, in several of our earlier movies. Whenever you're making a movie that's unusual, you're walking this line where you're trying to get the audience involved but not so much as to water the story down to the point where you're not interested in it any more. I really want to entertain an audience but not enough to lie to them, and when you're not doing the generic movie your taking the risk of losing some of the audience and I'd say almost all of our movies are somehow in between genres. Even the ones that come close like Lone Star, which isn't quite a western. That's the risk I think I'm always willing to take, which is to make the audience do at least a little bit of the work even if it's only to pay attention."

"I did several drafts (of the Mummy) when John Dontay was going to be the director and they were going to set it in contemporary Los Angeles. The way the American Writers Guild works is when a movie finally comes out they inform every writer who worked on that project and say do you want to apply for credit. I didn't think anything was left of what I had done so I didn't apply for credit. I work as a writer on so many different kinds of things, Mimic, Apollo13, I've done things that are straight dramas, I've adapted novels, I've worked in science fiction. I'm doing a rewrite on an animated feature write now. Writers can be typecast just like actors, but I've been very lucky and I've both written and directed things in a lot of different genres."

"There is a phenomena that you see in a place like the Sundance Film Festival or an independent feature market in New York, where somebody can go in, they can be working as a bus boy in a hotel or a production assistant at a TV station and all of a sudden this movie they made on weekends on video gets picked up by a studio and they are transformed. That idea of overnight transformation is a very attractive one to people. If you talk to the people who run the Sundance Film Festival who probably got about 800 feature films this year they would say about 750 of them were pretty much unwatchable. Where American independent film is right now is about where novel writing was when I started as a novelist in 1975. Which is that every publishing house would get thousands of manuscripts and every once in a while there would be one that was worth reading, and then even more rare would be one that was worth publishing. That didn't used to be the case, it just wasn't that accessible, you couldn't just plunk down your credit card and make a feature film and get it seen even by somebody low down at a distribution company."

"You know I have a very definite one, which is an independent filmmaker is somebody who makes the movie they want to make according to the story and they can get their money anywhere. Martin Scorsese made Kundun for Disney; to me that's an independent movie. Spike Lee makes independent movies, he doesn't let the studio recut them or recast them. Whereas you can get your money from your uncle, but if he says " look you've got to use my girlfriend in it " and she's not right for the part, it's not an independent movie any more."

"I think we made a couple of Dogma movies without knowing it! I think that's actually a very good discipline. I don't know if you have to be quite as dogmatic about it but any discipline that makes you really think about story and character, and you're not going to be able to dazzle the audience with technology is a good thing to think about. I think the other thing that's interesting coming out of Europe is that you're getting the first generation of filmmakers whose film tradition is American action adventure movies. So you get something like Run Lola Run, which I wouldn't say there's anything specifically German about it, I'd say it's a bunch of kids who grew up watching American films and videos and they've made a really kind of tight half little video half movie." ---David Michael

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.