So how did you pick Edie Falco to be in Sunshine
Were you a big Sopranos fan?
Sayles: Its funny, I had seen her play her
character on The Sopranos for about ten minutes.
Id 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 [1997s 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
was the right age, a natural blond, which I thought was
important since the movie is set in Florida, and shes
got this quality of inner strength. Edies 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 shes not
defeated. I still havent seen that much of The
Sopranos, but I knew she was about ten years younger
than what she plays in the show. Im also always
interested in using good actors and having them do what
I have never seen them do before.
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.
Shes really good in the infomercial in the movie;
shes got a whole other career going on [John laughs].
But I also knew her from theater, and Ive 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.
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?
necessarily. The nice thing about working with actors
youve worked with before is that you dont
have to find out how to work with them. Very often we
dont 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 dont know. We
dont have the money, inclination, or time to get
together and read the script. We dont rehearse,
so people are coming in with a bio of their character
I sent them and then its all me. I have to learn
very quickly how they work. Is it someone who needs a
warm-up or someone who doesnt want a lot of information?
There are fifty speaking parts in Sunshine State
so its great that there are eight or nine people
Ive worked with before and I know how they work
and they know how I work.
there a reason David Strathairn [who has appeared in seven
of Sayles films] wasnt in this movie?
just wasnt 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 theyre
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!"
a lot of actors say they can do things like, "Oh,
I can fly fish" [laughs], but then a hook gets stuck
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. Its
interesting that youre doing this within the confines
of a studio film.
this is Sony Classics. When they made their deal with
the parent company of Sony, it was "Well invite
you to the premiere, you get to audit our books, and well
operate the way we always have." Though they are
mostly an acquisitions company, when they produce movies
its because they know the director and they just
want him to make their movie. They only get worried if
you go over the budget.
only truly studio movies Ive made were Baby Its
You, Eight Men Out, and Limbo for Sony. In
the case of Baby Its 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 youll
notice the movie is one hour and fifty-nine minutes and
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
it isnt like somebody said, "Jesus, hey, lets
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 couldnt
get prints, whether it was for a benefit, film series,
or festival. When youve been around as long as we
have, its 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 dont know where
the material goes. You dont 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.
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 didnt know it.
They had bought a company, which bought a company.
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.
it like watching those older films again?
Well, since I edited them and helped with the restoration
Ive already watched them backwards and forwards
many times. They were fun to watch though. Its not
like theres any surprises, and the stuff you didnt
like you still dont like. But I still feel good
about the stories they told and the acting in all of them.
more coming soon?
since Baby Its You was a Paramount release,
I dont think that will come out due to anything
I do. We may release some others, which were financed
in more hook and crook ways.
a big movie buff. Have you seen many DVDs?
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, hes lost weight and shes
lost weight." Then we realized we had it in the wrong
format and it was all squeezed. We didnt realize
peoples heads werent supposed to be that pointy.
So Ive seen only three DVDs, and Im going
to have to start paying more attention to them now.
said the first DVD you saw was Robert Altmans Gosford
Park. Did Altman or more specifically Nashville
influence you? Because so many characters interact in
think I was influenced more when I made my first film,
Return of the Secaucus 7, in that its 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 werent in the Screen Actors Guild yet. So
I could afford them. I wasnt going to have much
money or time to move the camera much. To get some motion
I had to cut a lot, and whats a good reason to cut
a lot? Well, if you have a lot of subplots like in Nashville,
theres a reason. You have to cut to the different
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, its the same as in
Gosford Park when he almost makes a joke about
how uninterested he is in the murder mystery. But really
its about the place and the community.
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.
you consider yourself a writer or a director?
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 doesnt have any meaning to me.
Some novels have a lot of dialogue, some dont.
talented directors who are as acclaimed as you arent
in such good shape. With your genius money [in 1983 Sayles
won a MacArthur grant] did you get a gym membership?
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, Ill swim and run. I have to be told to
sit down. Im developing a project with Robert Carlyle
[star of Angela's Ashes and The Full Monty],
and hes done two movies with Ken Loach [director
of Carla's Song and Riff-Raff] and hes 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].
many of your films are autobiographical?
almost never feel that theres a character thats
me. It gets dispersed. Im not very interested in
doing anything autobiographical. I spend so much time
with myself, Im not that interesting. Im much
more interested in eavesdropping. A lot of the stuff Ive
done has come out of me asking the basic question, "If
thats what theyre 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 youve got your
lines and thats your evidence and then you have
to figure out the worldview of this character, and each
character is different.
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 its all about
his puppy and wheres 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 didnt see
before because I didnt have to.
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 Falcos
character and the character of her father [played by Ralph
Waite], theyre 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 Waites 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 wouldnt. Well, he finally
does fold, and then he says it wasnt a big deal
his daughter is running the restaurant now that hes
blind, and its 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 Angelas character comes into the restaurant
to only use the bathroom, she doesnt care.
could be where you grew up too. James McDaniel [who plays
Reggie, the husband of Angela Bassetts character]
has seen In the Heat of the Night, and thats
the closest hes ever come to the South. He wont
get out of his car unless his wife, who grew up in Florida,
says its okay. Because hes never been to the
South, to him its a very scary place for black people,
and eventually he chills out and becomes more comfortable.
a left-wing filmmaker but a right-wing businessman, and
this film is anti-corporate. Its a losing battle
in America at the moment. How upset does this get you?
think we just have to deal with what we can and cant
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 hes golfing
or shooting birds with that daynot in an open forum.
We just have to accept that.
we dont have to accept what the official story is.
Thats the hard thing to get out and have people
believe. Sometimes you can say, "Wait a minute, whats
going on here? Wait until I know whats going on,
and now that I know whats going on there are things
I dont 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 theyre 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. Its very hard for us, with the information
given to us, to see these big changes until theyve
already hit and its too late. The corporate tourism
is a given. Economically it will be able to buy everyone
else out or freeze them out. Im 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 theyre 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 its not going to work unless we
do it internationally. Because these industries could
just go to Third World countries, and thats 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.
seems like you did a lot of historical research.
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
Matthiessens 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.
specific research I did was talk to people in American
Beach, which is where the setting in the movie is based
on. Thats kind of what drew me there. I was bummed
out because I wanted to do something on the West Coast
and the location just wasnt 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. Its not what it once was, theres
no nightclubs there, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles dont
appear there anymore and theres no restaurants open
most of the year. But theres 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.
read some books about development and landscape architecture.
Also I do one more screenplay draft after showing it to
some locals if its about their lives in any way
and ask if theres 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.
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?
the time it was because nothing was out there. Probably
today Im not sure I would have made it, in that
there is such a thing as queer cinema today and some crossover.
Theres stuff on television. An awful lot of what
motivates me to make movies is that I havent seen
this on a screen. I see this all around me, I have friends
that are going through things like this, but I dont
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. Ive also
gotten a lot of personal feedback over the years from
gay and straight people who went through similar situations.
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 didnt 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 couldnt program it because theres
nobody famous in it. If it had Meryl Streep and Susan
Sarandon they could program it because it would tell their
audiences that it cant be that upsetting.
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
Ferraras Bad Lieutenant and Quentin Tarantinos
Reservoir Dogs]. Now actors 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 theyve 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.
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 its not necessarily
the focus of it.
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?
have a couple of ideas right now. I did do a series called
Shannons 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. Im not sure if I could get
that for the things Im interested in.
you tell us about your upcoming films, The Alamo
and Casa de Los Babys?
Alamo is a Ron Howard film that I worked on for
a while, and Im not working on it anymore. I assume
if theyre going to make it theyll 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 dont know if they have a green light
on it, but I had fun working on it. Its great doing
all that research and working with Ron.
de Los Babys is about a bunch of American women in
a South American country fulfilling their residency requirements
before they adopt babies there. Its 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.
will probably shoot it in Acapulco in the state Guerrero.
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. Lets see
if you can still do it. What is the last line of dialogue
in 1960s The Time Machine?
[Without even blinking an eye] "We have all the time
in the world" [laughs].