Just a Storyteller
A conversation with independent director John Sayles about
his body of work and his new film Sunshine State
By Dan Epstein

Gadfly: So how did you pick Edie Falco to be in Sunshine State (www.sonyclassics.com/sunshinestate/index_flash.html)? Were you a big Sopranos fan?

Sayles: It’s funny, I had seen her play her character on The Sopranos for about ten minutes. I’d seen her in a couple of other movies like Judy Berlin and another movie I can never remember the title of, she rides into town on a motorcycle [1997’s Cost of Living directed by Stan Schofield]. I knew some actors that had worked with her and really liked her. She just seemed right for this part. Angela Bassett and her were the only ones I was thinking of when I was writing this.

She was the right age, a natural blond, which I thought was important since the movie is set in Florida, and she’s got this quality of inner strength. Edie’s character of Marly takes a lot of hits; she really loses again and again with men and has to do all these things in the movie. But I wanted this feeling at the end that she’s not defeated. I still haven’t seen that much of The Sopranos, but I knew she was about ten years younger than what she plays in the show. I’m also always interested in using good actors and having them do what I have never seen them do before.

With Angela [Bassett], I had seen her in all these glamorous roles, and I wanted that part of her because you needed to accept that she would be hired to do an infomercial. She’s really good in the infomercial in the movie; she’s got a whole other career going on [John laughs]. But I also knew her from theater, and I’ve worked with her before on movies [City of Hope and Passion Fish]. She mentioned to me once that she was from St. Petersburg, Florida, so I also felt it would good to see her be a grounded character again.

You work with so many of the same actors that it seems more like a theater troupe sometimes. Do you send your scripts to those actors first?

Not necessarily. The nice thing about working with actors you’ve worked with before is that you don’t have to find out how to work with them. Very often we don’t get to shoot in sequence. People come in and do their few days and leave, so I really have to spend most of my time with the actors I don’t know. We don’t have the money, inclination, or time to get together and read the script. We don’t rehearse, so people are coming in with a bio of their character I sent them and then it’s all me. I have to learn very quickly how they work. Is it someone who needs a warm-up or someone who doesn’t want a lot of information? There are fifty speaking parts in Sunshine State so it’s great that there are eight or nine people I’ve worked with before and I know how they work and they know how I work.

Is there a reason David Strathairn [who has appeared in seven of Sayles’ films] wasn’t in this movie?

There just wasn’t a part. I thought he was a little too old for the parts that he might have been suited for. But certainly there are actors like Chris Cooper [Oscar nominated for Sayles’ Lone Star], David Strathairn, or Joe Morton [star of three of Sayles’ pictures including The Brother from Another Planet] who I always think of when I finish the script because they’re so great to work with.
There are also actors like Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio [star of Sayles’ Limbo] who is somebody I always wanted to work with. I just kept her in mind, and she mentioned that she started out as singer and was in musical comedies before she did straight acting. She said that her range was almost in opera range. When I was writing Limbo I was interested in working with her and I also thought I could have her be a singer, which is a good itinerant job for her character. But I had never heard her sing, and I was taking her on her word, and we sent her some songs she might sing, and she sent us this tape of her singing them, and we thought, "Are we in luck!"

But a lot of actors say they can do things like, "Oh, I can fly fish" [laughs], but then a hook gets stuck in someone.

One of your main themes in Sunshine State is the homogenization of culture, the way the corporation wants to buy up the land this community is on and put mini-malls there. It’s interesting that you’re doing this within the confines of a studio film.

Well, this is Sony Classics. When they made their deal with the parent company of Sony, it was "We’ll invite you to the premiere, you get to audit our books, and we’ll operate the way we always have." Though they are mostly an acquisitions company, when they produce movies it’s because they know the director and they just want him to make their movie. They only get worried if you go over the budget.

The only truly studio movies I’ve made were Baby It’s You, Eight Men Out, and Limbo for Sony. In the case of Baby It’s You [1983 release starring Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano], we had a big fight over the cut, and the other two were perfectly pleasant experiences and I had the final cut in my contract. For Eight Men Out, having the final cut was tied to me making the film run less than two hours. So you’ll notice the movie is one hour and fifty-nine minutes and forty-eight seconds.

Four of your films [The Brother from Another Planet, Lianna, Matewan, and Return of the Secaucus 7] are being released in a retrospective(www.johnsaylesretro.com). How do you feel about that, someone restoring your early work?

Well, it isn’t like somebody said, "Jesus, hey, let’s pat this guy on the shoulder. We really had to do it ourselves. We were finding that people that wanted to show our [Sayles’ producing partner Maggie Renzi] early movies couldn’t get prints, whether it was for a benefit, film series, or festival. When you’ve been around as long as we have, it’s not unusual for half or more of the companies that distributed your movies to not be in business anymore including the guys at Sony Classics [which is releasing Sunshine State]. We worked with them when they were UA Classics, which went out of business. We worked with companies that were in business for one or two years, but when they go out of business you don’t know where the material goes. You don’t even know where the contracts go sometimes. They get eaten by another company, which gets eaten by another company that may or not be in the film business.

So it was clear if these movies were to continue to exist we were going to have to do something. We did a legal search, which was very expensive, and found out if there were any outstanding rights on these movies. Then we did a physical search for the elements themselves, trying to find the negative, the soundtrack, or any publicity materials. For The Brother from Another Planet there was a 20-minute reel of negative missing and luckily there was a thing called a CRI [Color Reversal Intermediate, a particular kind of reversal (original) film that can be struck directly from another negative], which still existed. So we made a new negative out of that. UCLA, which is the state of the art of this kind of restoration, did a really good job on that. We found the soundtrack mislabeled, we found that Matewan [Sayles’ 1987 film starring Chris Cooper and James Earl Jones] belonged to MGM even though they didn’t know it. They had bought a company, which bought a company.

We put all these things together, and to finance the restoration we got a couple companies involved, the main one being the Independent Film Channel, which is doing the theatrical run of these things from city to city. Then the movies are all going to be on DVD for the first time next year separately and in some kind of John Sayles package. All four from the retrospective will be in the package.

What’s it like watching those older films again?
Well, since I edited them and helped with the restoration I’ve already watched them backwards and forwards many times. They were fun to watch though. It’s not like there’s any surprises, and the stuff you didn’t like you still don’t like. But I still feel good about the stories they told and the acting in all of them.

Any more coming soon?

Well, since Baby It’s You was a Paramount release, I don’t think that will come out due to anything I do. We may release some others, which were financed in more hook and crook ways.

You’re a big movie buff. Have you seen many DVDs?

It’s funny. We just got a DVD machine when we were editing Sunshine State, but it took us two months to hook it up. The first movie we watched on it was Gosford Park [directed by Robert Altman]. As I watched it I kept saying, "Oh, he’s lost weight and she’s lost weight." Then we realized we had it in the wrong format and it was all squeezed. We didn’t realize people’s heads weren’t supposed to be that pointy. So I’ve seen only three DVDs, and I’m going to have to start paying more attention to them now.

You said the first DVD you saw was Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. Did Altman or more specifically Nashville influence you? Because so many characters interact in Sunshine State.

I think I was influenced more when I made my first film, Return of the Secaucus 7, in that it’s one of the few movies where the budget came first and the idea second. One of the things I knew was all these good actors weren’t in the Screen Actors Guild yet. So I could afford them. I wasn’t going to have much money or time to move the camera much. To get some motion I had to cut a lot, and what’s a good reason to cut a lot? Well, if you have a lot of subplots like in Nashville, there’s a reason. You have to cut to the different stories happening.

One of the main reasons for the style of Return of the Secaucus 7 was having seen Nashville and seeing how well Altman pulled it off. Even though there was kind of a plot running through it, it’s the same as in Gosford Park when he almost makes a joke about how uninterested he is in the murder mystery. But really it’s about the place and the community.

But also my novels are that way. All three of my novels have been mosaic; they all have fifteen or twenty main characters. You have chapters that not only follow those main characters and tell their story, but the chapters are from their point of view.

Do you consider yourself a writer or a director?

Just a storyteller. When I was writing novels, the critics called them cinematic, and when I made movies they called them novelistic. The whole thing of a movie being novelistic, does that make it Catcher in the Rye, As I Lay Dying, or Thomas Pynchon? Novels are so different that that statement doesn’t have any meaning to me. Some novels have a lot of dialogue, some don’t.

Most talented directors who are as acclaimed as you aren’t in such good shape. With your genius money [in 1983 Sayles won a MacArthur grant] did you get a gym membership?

To think well, I have to not be in terrible shape. I actually train before I make a movie. A couple weeks before I start shooting, I’ll swim and run. I have to be told to sit down. I’m developing a project with Robert Carlyle [star of Angela's Ashes and The Full Monty], and he’s done two movies with Ken Loach [director of Carla's Song and Riff-Raff] and he’s never seen Ken Loach sit down. I have to be told to sit down because I get cramps in my legs otherwise. But physically you do have to be in good shape to direct a movie. I was a jock before I was anything, not a good one, but I always used to be in shape. I belong to the Hoboken YMCA [laughs].

How many of your films are autobiographical?

I almost never feel that there’s a character that’s me. It gets dispersed. I’m not very interested in doing anything autobiographical. I spend so much time with myself, I’m not that interesting. I’m much more interested in eavesdropping. A lot of the stuff I’ve done has come out of me asking the basic question, "If that’s what they’re doing, what could possibly be going through their minds?" Certainly I was an actor before I was a writer or director, and one of the main things you do as an actor is you’ve got your lines and that’s your evidence and then you have to figure out the worldview of this character, and each character is different.

I was once in two different productions of Of Mice and Men. In one I was the slow character of Lenny, and in the other I played Candy, the old guy who has lost a hand. You walk into that bunkhouse and you see totally different things. When Lenny walks in it’s all about his puppy and where’s George, and he hardly notices anything else. When I was in the other part as Candy, I walked in and noticed all this stuff I didn’t see before because I didn’t have to.

So a lot of what I do as a writer is try to channel these other characters. The differences between them may be racial, class, or ethnic. In the case of Edie Falco’s character and the character of her father [played by Ralph Waite], they’re almost generational. For the father one of the big crises of his life was integration and what he was going to do about it. I kept thinking of Lester Maddox who in 1964 became lieutenant governor because he stood in front of his restaurant with an ax handle refusing to let black people into his restaurant. That made him so popular in his district that he used to hand out little ax handles. Ralph Waite’s character, who also owns a restaurant in the South, came to this point. He was worried about all his buddies in the chamber of commerce, how they would feel if he let people into his restaurant when he said he wouldn’t. Well, he finally does fold, and then he says it wasn’t a big deal anyway.

Well, his daughter is running the restaurant now that he’s blind, and it’s not a deal to her at all. She would have been in high school when integration and busing hit Florida. It would have been something that she saw, but when Angela’s character comes into the restaurant to only use the bathroom, she doesn’t care.

It could be where you grew up too. James McDaniel [who plays Reggie, the husband of Angela Bassett’s character] has seen In the Heat of the Night, and that’s the closest he’s ever come to the South. He won’t get out of his car unless his wife, who grew up in Florida, says it’s okay. Because he’s never been to the South, to him it’s a very scary place for black people, and eventually he chills out and becomes more comfortable.

You’re a left-wing filmmaker but a right-wing businessman, and this film is anti-corporate. It’s a losing battle in America at the moment. How upset does this get you?

I think we just have to deal with what we can and can’t affect. Certainly for me the golfing characters in Sunshine State, whom I think of as gods up on Mount Olympus [played to perfection by Alan King, Clifton James, and Eliot Asinoff, they expound endlessly upon how great their real estate deals have been], represent that an awful lot of our future is determined by Dick Cheney and whoever he’s golfing or shooting birds with that day—not in an open forum. We just have to accept that.

However, we don’t have to accept what the official story is. That’s the hard thing to get out and have people believe. Sometimes you can say, "Wait a minute, what’s going on here? Wait until I know what’s going on, and now that I know what’s going on there are things I don’t like." Certainly NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] has taken a lot of that out of our hands. One of the things I was thinking of when writing Sunshine State was that here are these developers on the golf course and they’re planning the future of Florida and here are these other developers bribing people here and making secret deals there. They all have a vision for this coast which will affect the people there, but the people, like all of us, are caught up in personal dramas. It’s very hard for us, with the information given to us, to see these big changes until they’ve already hit and it’s too late. The corporate tourism is a given. Economically it will be able to buy everyone else out or freeze them out. I’m interested in how do we deal with it. Is there a second act?
I know people that are trying to organize people that work in Wal-Marts, and they’re depressed because they might be able to create a union of all the unskilled workers working less than 40 hours per week and getting no benefits, but it’s not going to work unless we do it internationally. Because these industries could just go to Third World countries, and that’s the end of that union movement. It could be depressing, but I also feel that if there are no final victories then there are no final defeats either, and a lot of what you want out of a movie is for people to think about things.

It seems like you did a lot of historical research.

I actually had done a lot of research for other things about Florida, so I knew quite a bit about the history of Florida. I did the research about the relationship between the United States and Cuba for Los Gusanos [a novel by Sayles, released in 1991]. I had adapted one of Peter Matthiessen’s books, Killing Mr. Watson [about Edgar J. Watson, a real-life entrepreneur and outlaw who appeared in the lawless Florida Everglades around the turn of the century], which is kind of a history of the Thousand Islands region of Florida from 1900 on. I spent a lot of time in Florida. I read stuff about the Seminole Indians and the African Americans who escaped slavery and joined them before I did Lone Star.

The specific research I did was talk to people in American Beach, which is where the setting in the movie is based on. That’s kind of what drew me there. I was bummed out because I wanted to do something on the West Coast and the location just wasn’t there anymore. I was reading the Lonely Planet guide to Florida and there was a sidebar about American Beach, which I had heard about from a couple of friends who had grown up there. They described it as a famous black enclave during the days of segregation. I thought like many of those places it would have disintegrated or fallen into disuse after integration came in. It’s not what it once was, there’s no nightclubs there, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles don’t appear there anymore and there’s no restaurants open most of the year. But there’s still a residential community and big condo development on one side of the beachfront and another big condo development on the other side. Everybody swears that they move one foot every night.

I read some books about development and landscape architecture. Also I do one more screenplay draft after showing it to some locals if it’s about their lives in any way and ask if there’s anything that seems glaringly incorrect. We got a lot of good information about that, it just makes it realer. We also may hook the actor up with someone at the location that does their job.

You mentioned that Lianna [the story of Lianna and her husband Dick in which Lianna falls in love with Ruth, a teacher] is going to be part of the retrospective. It was groundbreaking for gay and lesbian films when it was released in 1983. Gay-themed films like Jeffrey and Kissing Jessica Stein are the norm nowadays. Do you realize how important it was?

At the time it was because nothing was out there. Probably today I’m not sure I would have made it, in that there is such a thing as queer cinema today and some crossover. There’s stuff on television. An awful lot of what motivates me to make movies is that I haven’t seen this on a screen. I see this all around me, I have friends that are going through things like this, but I don’t see them on screen. We were just out in San Francisco and Seattle. They were having gay and lesbian film festivals, and Lianna was in both of them. I’ve also gotten a lot of personal feedback over the years from gay and straight people who went through similar situations.

It was interesting at the time what the reaction was when we were trying to raise money for it. We were trying to make it for $800,000 in 35 mm, and a year and a half later we still had not raised that. We decided to make it for whatever I had in the bank in 16 mm. I didn’t have it. Return of the Secaucus 7 had made some money but not enough to finance Lianna. So we did what was called a public offering where everybody and their aunt can invest in it. We pieced it all together. It broke even for $300,000 seven years later. Even though it did well theatrically, the HBO and Showtime-type venues told us that they couldn’t program it because there’s nobody famous in it. If it had Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon they could program it because it would tell their audiences that it can’t be that upsetting.

That’s changing, and it started to change even more ten years ago. Even though I never met him, I credit Harvey Keitel with this, the fact that known actors are willing to be in films by unknown directors [such as his turns in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs]. Now actor’s agents have realized that they should get their clients to do that because it can show a whole other side of your actor, and they can get a lead when they’ve mostly done supporting parts. I think especially after Nicolas Cage won an Oscar for a three million dollar movie shot on 16 mm [Leaving Las Vegas by Mike Figgis] about a guy whose breath smells like alcohol and vomit.

Would you do another "message" film like Lianna?
I would do another kind of message, definitely other than homosexual because, like you said, there are other films tackling that now. One of the things with black and Hispanic actors especially is a lot of them come in and love to read parts where they are, for example, a city commissioner with a family and in which being a certain ethnicity is not what the part is. So many of the gay people that I know are not professional gay people [laughs]. They work in city government or the movie industry, they have their lives and being gay is part of it, but it’s not necessarily the focus of it.

After the films are over, it seems like many of characters can keep on going on and living. Have you ever thought about doing an HBO series where you could concentrate on characters for a whole season?

I have a couple of ideas right now. I did do a series called Shannon’s Deal [for NBC in 1990 starring Jamey Sheridan as hard drinking private detective, Jack Shannon]. It was kind of the witness protection program for TV shows because it was on a different night every week. They let us do a good job, but we only did thirteen episodes. If I did another series I would like the same kind of control that I do in my movies. I’m not sure if I could get that for the things I’m interested in.

Could you tell us about your upcoming films, The Alamo and Casa de Los Babys?

The Alamo is a Ron Howard film that I worked on for a while, and I’m not working on it anymore. I assume if they’re going to make it they’ll keep having writers on it because Ron usually has someone write on it right up until the last minute, if not through the production. I don’t know if they have a green light on it, but I had fun working on it. It’s great doing all that research and working with Ron.

Casa de Los Babys is about a bunch of American women in a South American country fulfilling their residency requirements before they adopt babies there. It’s about people in that community and that country. They have very mixed feelings about this phenomenon of foreign adoptions. Nobody comes to the United States, adopts our babies, and goes back to their country. We just accept that our military and government can go anywhere and do whatever they want to do. So we can do the same thing. It is usually a good deal for the babies, but it gets into that stuff.

We will probably shoot it in Acapulco in the state Guerrero.

This is just for fun. You attended Williams College, which has a trivia contest every year. In 1972 after 12 years the contest ended in its first tie. You broke the tie in overtime by answering this question. Let’s see if you can still do it. What is the last line of dialogue in 1960’s The Time Machine?

JS: [Without even blinking an eye] "We have all the time in the world" [laughs].