Long regarded as one of the fathers of American independent film, John Sayles has slowed his pace in recent years; Amigo, due out later this summer, is his first feature since 2007’s Honeydripper. As a climate that favors high-concept hooks and internationally recognizable stars has grown inimical to his sprawling ensemble pieces, Sayles has turned to writing novels instead. Or rather returned, since his first novel, Pride Of The Bimbos, was published in 1975, five years before he directed Return Of The Secaucus Seven.
As his filmmaking career took off, Sayles’ prose writing took a hit: Since 1977’s Union Dues (part of which found its way into Sayles’ Matewan), he’s published only two novels, 1991’s Los Gusanos and the new A Moment In The Sun, a turn-of-the-century epic encompassing two wars, the Alaskan gold rush, and the dawn of the cinematic art form—and that’s just for starters. Following four major characters and dozens of sharply drawn smaller ones, Moment jumps from a horse thief’s prison break to a Filipino revolutionary secretly photographing a government execution, creating a story so big that even the larger-than-life characters that Sayles weaves into his narrative are dwarfed by comparison. Pick up McSweeney’s gorgeous mock-leather-and-gilt tome—taking care to lift with your knees—and you’ll find that the 950-page book moves far more quickly than its bulk might suggest. Moment also served as the starting point for Amigo, a more compact tale set in a Filipino village during the Philippine-American War. While in the midst of a book tour, Sayles talked to The A.V. Club about keeping track of Moment’s massive story, writing science fiction for James Cameron, and why he’s now financing his own films.
The A.V. Club: How do you keep a story this big in your head as you’re writing it? Even reading it, it requires a good amount of effort to keep track of what’s going on.
John Sayles: Some of it is, you don’t necessarily know where you’re going. I had an overview of the chronology of the history and some idea of where the characters were going to end up. But as far as how they were going to get there, no. As I would do the research for various things, I would find out, “Oh geez, I’m gonna need to go somewhere else and find this out. And they’re going to have to get into this if I’m going to tell the story.” So I really just followed the characters and the story. That means that sometimes you take a detour and you don’t know where it’s going to end up. And every once in a while, you realize that doesn’t need to be in the book, so you take it out or you use a little part of it and you go somewhere else with it. But sometimes, it really opens a whole other area up to you. I have a rule that I only can do one week of research before I actually sit down and write some fiction. So what that means is, I come to a new chapter, ask myself, “What don’t I know that I need to know?” Then I do about a week of research, and then I’ll write the chapter, although often there are some question marks and I’ll come back.
Doing that research, sometimes you discover a connection you didn’t know about. For instance, I got into the 25th Infantry because I knew I wanted them to end up in both Cuba and Philippines, but I didn’t realize that those were the guys that were the Bicycle Corps, which is just such a wacky thing. There’s pictures of these guys with their rifles on their backs, bumping over the wilds of Montana where there were no roads, and they went all the way to St. Louis. I just happened to stumble upon the fact that it was a North Carolina unit that shot Stonewall Jackson. And I had this character, the judge who was this old Confederate, and I wanted him to have this dark secret. That was a good dark secret. Every once in a while, there’s a connection you don’t even know exists, and you’re able to make it from your research. So it kind of grew in a lot of directions. And then, when I finally landed it with McSweeney’s and they assigned Jordan Bass to it, a lot of our talk was not about making it shorter, because the difference between an 800-page novel and a 900-page novel wasn’t that much. It was really about how to sequence things, move chapters around, things like that. Maybe take one incident from one chapter and put it in another one. Jordan, three or four times, said, “I think we need another chapter here. We’ve lost track of this guy, and I want to know why and when he re-enlisted.” So that happens. Things grow. The whole thing evolved out of a screenplay I had written years earlier that only dealt with the 25th Infantry and the character of Royal, and none of the other three major characters were in it. [The 25th Infantry was one of several all-black regiments known as “Buffalo Soldiers.” —ed.]
AVC: Just to clarify, the screenplay that A Moment In The Sun grew out of isn’t Amigo, even though that movie is also set during the Philippine-American war.
JS: No. Actually, Amigo grew out of writing this novel. I had gone back to the Philippines to look at some locations that appear in the novel that I needed to look at with my own eyes and not just read about. Our friend Joel Torre, a very well-known actor in the Philippines, was driving around with us, and he started talking about not only the history, but the film business there in the Philippines. From that, I kind of started getting a feeling, “Geez, we could afford to make something here.” But it would have to be on a very, very small scale. So Amigo is basically a micro-history based on some of the same research, but none of the same characters.
AVC: One of the principal advantages of doing A Moment In The Sun as a novel is that there’s almost no limit to how many of those threads, characters, and historical events you can follow.
JS: Yeah, and the trick is, once you get that size, once you’re bigger than the white whale, you figure your audience is going to be able to take a break and walk around a little bit inside the novel. You’re not writing a thriller, where every page brings you closer to the only conclusion that could possibly happen. You’re talking about a whole era, and a bunch of people with very, very different agendas and points of view. It’s almost the era that is going to close rather than, necessarily, their stories, because their stories go on.
AVC: What drew you to that turn-of-the-century time period?
JS: Really, it was two things that come together in the book. One was the final nail in the coffin of Reconstruction. So you felt like—I’m sure for African-Americans, this comes across more strongly—“Okay, we’re not slaves anymore. In fact, the men can vote.” And in many places, they voted in numbers above 95 percent. In the case of North Carolina and Wilmington, they were getting city councilmen and firemen and policemen and all that kind of thing, and finally moving up in the world and taking their own place. And then in the former Confederate states, there was this state-by-state slamming the doors shut and bringing in the Jim Crow laws and disenfranchisement, which, in the case of North Carolina, was the last of the Confederate states to get a grandfather clause. So that was one thing, allowing this change in the direction that we were allegedly going toward, being a more democratic society and including black people as human beings.
The other thing was this change that happened in a couple of months, not so much in our behavior, because we had been, certainly, bumping off Indian tribes and fighting with Mexico and stuff like that, but we always considered ourselves, up to this point, anti-imperialists. In fact, that was a lot of the language used to justify starting a war with Spain over Cuba. “Oh, we’re not gonna take Cuba over. Really, this is just those poor people, they’ve been oppressed for so long. We’re gonna help ’em out, because that’s who we are. We’re the people who love liberty.” And then within a couple months, we’re fighting against the Filipinos to take the Philippines away from the natives. How does that happen? How do you justify that? How does a nation make a 180-degree turn? Some of what the book is about is how that does happen. What is the news media of the time saying? What is the mindset of the people? What are the racist underpinnings of the society that allows people back home to say, “Geez, I hope our boys straighten those little brown buggers out, because the real Filipinos are dying for us to run their country. It’s only a few soreheads who are keeping them from their masters.”
AVC: You’re dealing as well with the dawn of the quote-unquote “American Century.”
JS: It’s when so many of the political cartoons of the time are Uncle Sam looking much bigger, with muscles bulging, joining John Bull and the French guy and the Russian guy and the German guy proudly at the table of players. It’s hugely in China, but it’s also on the world stage.
AVC: There’s a thread running through the novel about the power of images. You devote entire chapters to describing political cartoons, and the story eventually works its way to Thomas Edison’s film studios. And then you have two wars defined by staged events: the Spanish-American war, which was instigated by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, and the Philippine-American war, which begins with a mock battle to hand over the islands from Spanish to American control.
JS: Which none of the soldiers know is staged. Some of what I’m trying to do for the reader is, I often see that when you talk to people about their lives during World War II, when you read personal accounts of being caught up in big events, I always see it as a flood. There’s a flooded river, and if you’re on that flooded river, really, all you care about is that one hunk of wood you’re hanging onto. You know the river is flooding and you know it’s dangerous, but you don’t know which way it’s going to turn and when it’s going to go down. So for the reader, what I want is both the experience of that overview and of seeing the river and why it’s flooding, but then also the experiences of a couple dozen people who are just lost in the flood.
AVC: It’s a complicated balancing act. We don’t see history as we’re living it. Whatever the geopolitical concerns about our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re not the same as those of a soldier on the ground.
JS: Well, you even see it in the difference between Junior and his friend Royal. Royal joined [the army] to impress his girlfriend’s father. Junior joined to move the race up, which is a much more abstract and almost impossible thing to do. Junior reads books. He has an analysis of what’s going on. It may not be a correct analysis, but he’s trying to ride the whale, in a way. Royal, at some point, is just trying to tread water, and then at some point, he wants to drown. [Laughs.] He just lets the whole thing sweep him away and ends up living with a Filipino woman on the coast and would probably live there forever, except the war comes and gets him again.
AVC: A number of historical figures enter the narrative, either physically or as political presences, or by proxy in the case of Teethadore, who’s a vaudeville caricature of Theodore Roosevelt. What’s the balance there? You don’t want it to feel like a man walks in the door and someone shouts, “Look, it’s Mark Twain!”
JS: In the case of Mark Twain, he serves the same purpose as the guy who’s just called The Correspondent, or The Cartoonist. He’s an observer. What he is is somebody with a little more perspective and honesty than most of the observers, who are trying to make their name. At the same time, they’re working for Hearst or Pulitzer, and they know what’s going to get rewarded and what’s not. They’re kind of feeding the master, whereas Mark Twain had gotten to a point in his life where he could get away with saying an awful lot of stuff that people didn’t want to hear, and they’d take it because it was Mark Twain. Now, he was always aware that he couldn’t stretch that too thin. There were all these things that he wrote where he said, “Please don’t publish this until after I’m dead or my family is dead.” There were things that he wrote that he’d just scribble out that were very political, and really, some of it was, “Look, I got a living to make, and if I get too serious on these people about what I really think is going on, and what, really, our nature is, they’re not gonna think I’m funny anymore.” It’s what every Lenny Bruce did, or any of those comedians who skirt that line between what’s funny and what’s true. It’s funny partly because it’s almost true. It’s exaggerated. And he was one of the first guys to do that.
With some of the other characters, they become actors in the drama. There really was a meeting between [Wilmington Daily Record editor] Alexander Manly and William McKinley, and from all reports, McKinley had forgotten or didn’t know that [Manly] was African-American because he was so light-skinned, and totally freaked out when he heard it—not so much because he was afraid of black people, but because he couldn’t be seen to be giving a private audience to one of these people. It was such a bad political move at that time. Only a couple of years later, when Teddy Roosevelt had Booker T. Washington to dinner, the whole South freaked out. He lost a lot of states just for that simple thing of having this very moderate black man sit at a dinner table with him.
AVC: The book has a rolling, ever-expanding sort of prose. How did you find that style?
JS: Technically, one of the things that’s unusual about the novel is that 95 percent of it is in present tense. Usually, things written in the present tense are short thrillers. Detective fiction. There’s almost no first-person in the book. Every once in a while, you get a chapter that’s in first-person, the most notable being the one where Damon Runyon actually describes the boxing match that’s fixed. And I went into Damon Runyon’s style. I just lifted his style for that. But usually, I’m thinking, “Who’s the character. Whose eyes are we seeing through? What are their locutions? What would they see?” So that’s a form of acting. It’s not quite the same as putting on an accent, but what an actor would try to do, to say, “I’m gonna walk around all day thinking like this character thinks. I’m only gonna be interested in the thing my character’s interested in. I’m only gonna have the information and the prejudices or hopes that this character has.”
Also, I read a lot, from newspaper journalism to magazines to diaries to letters home to fiction written of the period, and you pick up locutions and you say, “Okay, with those locutions, who’s going to be Junior when he writes home to his dad?” [Which] is very flowery and articulate, and that’s in the style of some of the letters I saw of the time in the black newspapers, of the Talented Tenth kind of guys that were educated at Hampton. Another character might be much choppier. Like Hooper, who probably can’t read and write, you’re going to use the language in a different way. And then sometimes you’re writing omnisciently, which happens every once in a while when I’m describing a cartoon or whatever. Some of it is picking up some of the rhythm, but not all of what was written at the time. Some of what was written at the time was just awful. Some of it’s really good. But there’s a style to it. It’s not as casual. “Okay” was always spelled O.K. back then. People did not use conjunctions in print. You said “cannot” instead of “can’t.” So you observe some of those conventions. And really, it’s a kind of seat-of-the-pants feel that you eventually get of “Does this sound like this character or not?” What I did with the four major characters, which are Royal, Hod Breckenridge, Diosdado Concepción, and Harry Manigault, I separated their chapters out of the book and then read those chapters as the book of Harry or the book of Diosdado in chronology, to make sure they were consistent with themselves so that character’s style of describing the world didn’t change throughout the book. Their point of view might’ve changed, because, especially in the case of Diosdado, he just sees so much. His character is the guy who sees everything. He’s a very different person by the end of the book than the beginning. But his point of view doesn’t change. He’s still an educated young guy from the provinces.
AVC: In terms of approaching a film story, do you try to do something similar?
JS: Certainly for the characters. I always read the characters out loud as if I had to play them as an actor. And I’ll just go through and highlight that character, and I’ll say, “If I was an actor, a) Is this consistent, and b) Is there enough to play here? Is there some little thing I could add? If I was an actor, what would I want to make this guy more three-dimensional?” Man, woman, or child, I’ll read those through. And then I’ll want to make sure that everybody isn’t talking the same. You can get away with that in maybe Neil Simon, or there’s a style of writing—in those screwball comedies, everybody’s very witty. They’re throwing one-liners, and that’s a great style, but for more boilerplate realism stuff like I do, I want people to express themselves differently, characterize themselves by the way they talk. The other thing you do in movies is, when you change point of view, you think about the psychology of “Whose eyes are we seeing this through?” The obvious thing is if somebody’s stoned, maybe things aren’t as sharp, or they’re over-sharp or they’re over-loud. If somebody’s scared, it’s going to be creepier. If somebody’s confident, maybe it’s going to be smoother. When you change points of view in a movie, which you don’t nearly as much as you can in a novel, and it may even just be the mood of a character you followed all along, you do quite a few things. You change the soundtrack, you tighten the screen, the editing might be quicker. Things that were familiar become unfamiliar because you’re hoping that you get the audience into the mind and the guts of the character.
AVC: Before a recent reading of the book, you were described as an editor of Hollywood scripts, which isn’t a term you hear much. Was that your description?
JS: I’m not an editor. Occasionally they’ll call me a “script doctor,” which is not very accurate. I’ve done very little of that, where you come in and you just change the dialogue of one character. What I am is a working screenwriter for hire. The norm, rather than the exception, in Hollywood is multiple writers. So I’ve written on movies—well, for instance, the last one I got credit on, nine different writers worked on it, and three of us finally got credit. The Spiderwick Chronicles. I worked on The Mummy at one point, and there were 15 writers on it. And I chose at some point when they went in a totally different direction to say, “Oh, don’t even bother to read my screenplays. There’s not that much that I’ve done left. You know, there’s gonna be sand and bandages because it’s a mummy story, there’s nothing of mine left that’s unique.” So really, what I am is a technician who is brought in sometimes right away and sometimes late in the day, and you know, you’re trying to help the people who are trying to make the movie get a green light from the people who have the money and tell the story they want to tell. That may change, which is one of the reasons you often get so many writers on it. It will sit still for two or three years, and then somebody says, “Wasn’t there a script?” And they read it again and they say, “If we made this for this kinda guy, maybe we can get Johnny Depp to do it. And if we switch it to a woman, maybe we can get Sharon Stone to do it.” You know, those kinds of things happen, and then all of a sudden it really does need a rewrite.
I remember I was working for Rob Reiner, writing a script when he was right in pre-production for The American President. And then, right at the last minute, Robert Redford decided to stay on as producer, but not play the part. They got Michael Douglas, and Michael Douglas is willing to do something that Redford never really does, which is to play a guy who’s got a lot of faults. He plays a great heel, like his dad did. So all of a sudden, you don’t have Redford, who’s always the guy who knows, not the guy who finds out, but you’ve got Michael Douglas, who might be a very flawed president, even if he’s a good one. So it opens up all kinds of possibilities and necessities for the script because you just changed the guy who’s playing the president. That happens so often in Hollywood. And you know, it may not just be actors changing as much as, “Okay, this thing’s been around for a while, disco isn’t hot any more, so you set it in a different music world.” I rewrote a movie that was made in Italy about people fighting the mafia, and they wanted to reset it on the California-Mexico border. So you’re always rewriting, but you hope you’ve got a clear mandate for the people you’re working for.
AVC: Is there any overlap between that and what you do on your own?
JS: Yeah. To me, it’s like cross-training. You use a lot of the same muscles. A lot of the work is problem-solving. So I think you do, eventually, get a little bit better, especially if you keep doing it. It’s a little like an athlete who needs to stay in shape. Quite honestly, sometimes you don’t get credit, the movie doesn’t get made, but you get to write on an interesting subject, and something about that stays in your head and gets into your later work.
AVC: Can you think of an example of that?
JS: Oh, some of my favorite work has never gotten done. [Laughs.] I worked on a screenplay once called Brother Termite for James Cameron, which was a science-fiction movie. Some of my favorite stuff’s in there, and some of it had to do with aliens who had infiltrated the White House. Then, a couple years later, I worked on a script for Kevin Macdonald that was about a president who gets elected, very idealistically, and then realizes that the whole game is fixed. They show him the other angles of the camera, not just the Zapruder thing, and they say, “This could happen to you if you don’t play ball,” and he’s basically got to break out of the White House. Right now, I’m working on something that may or may not happen that has to do with Washington and politics. Well, I’ve got all this research and all this knowledge of the physical plant of the White House and the Congress and some knowledge of the history of those bodies, and some idea of Washington DC as a place to do business. I’ve written four or five movies set in New Orleans that haven’t been made. Someday I may have to go back and write something about New Orleans, and I’m not starting from scratch.
AVC: Some of what screenwriters-for-hire do is try to marshal different drafts from different writers, sometimes written over many years for varying reasons. Is there an analogue to writing something the size of A Moment In The Sun, just in terms of the technical challenge of structuring a story so expansive?
JS: The big difference is when you’re working as a screenwriter for hire, you are absolutely taking direction. You’re trying to meet their notes, you’re trying to have it still be something you would like to go see, and think is coherent, and could be a good movie, but your job is to help them tell their story. When you’re writing your own stuff, whether it’s a screenplay or fiction, there’s a very different thing happening, which is, “What interests me? Where do I want to go? Where do I think there’s some good story to be told? I’m gonna follow it there.” There’s not that censor of “What are 18-to-24-year-olds in Milwaukee who go to the mall going to like about this story?” You just have to accept that with the movie business, that it’s a business first, and you have to think about that. It’s going to cost them an enormous amount of money to make this movie and to advertise it and get people to go and see it. So they’ve always got that kind of thing pressing on them. When I write a movie for myself, that pressure is so much less. When you write fiction, if you do it well, it can be about pretty much anything. Once you’re out of strict genre writing, people are used to just taking a trip with you.
AVC: Your last few movies have been basically self-financed. Is that right?
JS: The last three. Amigo, Honeydripper, and Silver City we ended up having to use the money I had made as a screenwriter, which is why we don’t have any left. [Laughs.] But it’s not just us. That particular, I don’t know, ecostrata is getting tighter and tighter for everybody—you know, the ability to get money before you make a movie, if it’s not a hot blockbuster Hollywood movie. The ability to get it distributed afterward is getting a lot tougher for everybody.
AVC: What do you think is going to be your response to that going forward?
JS: It’s kind of what it has always been. We finish a movie, and we don’t know if we’re gonna be able to go forward. I write a couple things, and then we try to get money for them and try to figure out a way to do ’em. And you either get to do ’em or you don’t. I’ve certainly had projects that we’ve never gotten to do. And you know, everybody knows, someday your luck runs out. And you hope it’s not yet. [Laughs.] I’ve almost never met an older filmmaker who wasn’t saying, “Hey! Where do you get your money?” These are people I grew up watching. They’re hoping there’s a magic telephone number. There’s some guy that’s just giving money out. And every once in a while there is, but those guys don’t last long. Even if they’re good movies, the chances that they’re actually gonna monetize are very small.
AVC: Billy Wilder talked for 30 years about wanting to make another movie, although he certainly meant a studio-financed production, which was all he knew.
JS: He had scripts written and he took meetings every once in a while and whatever. But at a certain point, he also probably had some feeling about, “Well, I’m certainly not gonna take my own money and put it in, because that’s pathetic.” He was used to other people paying for his movies. I started out putting my own money in my own movies, and so it doesn’t seem smart, but it doesn’t seem pathetic.
AVC: Producer Ted Hope said he always opened investor meetings by telling them that the odds were, they’d never see a penny of their money again.
JS: If you like to go to the racetrack and bet on the horses, you’ve got about as good a chance, or maybe a little better, than putting it on a movie. If going to the track is more fun than betting on a movie, that’s what you should do. What you really want to find out with investors is, “What do you want to get out of this experience?” And sometimes it’s like, “Well, you know what? You’re not gonna get that out of this experience.” [Laughs.] “You’re gonna be unhappy and you’re gonna make our lives miserable, so let’s not do this.” Unfortunately, a lot of very young filmmakers get into bed with investors that have really unrealistic expectations. And they end up with their movies in bondage to somebody with their own agenda that doesn’t have that much to do with a realistic appraisal of what the movie is and what it can do.
AVC: Do young filmmakers come to you as an experienced independent filmmaker? You’re certainly a real figurehead of independent film.
JS: Yeah. Every once in a while, somebody will come to Maggie Renzi, who produces the movies, and will want a quick seminar, and if she’s got the time, she might do one—if they’re very nice. [Laughs.] But usually, they just know we’re out in the same wreckage they are. They say, “You have anything going? Do you know anybody who’s distributing movies? What do you think of these guys?” It’s a little bit like hobos and gypsies used to make these signs on the fence that said, “This house is a good touch,” or “Stay away from these people, they’ve got a vicious dog.” So a lot of the back-and-forth between filmmakers is, “How did you survive to make another movie, and are there people you’re working with I should either look forward to or watch out for?”
AVC: There’s been quite a bit more space between the last few films. Is that because of the financial climate?
JS: Truly what happens is, any independent filmmaker, the minute there is money to make a movie and that’s what they want to do, they’re going to do it right away before that money goes away. Either the financier gets cold feet or loses their money in a stock-market crash—which has happened to a whole bunch of people I know lately, where their investors just called them and said, “Well, sorry, but I’m just not doing movies anymore”—or things get more expensive. What was a $2 million movie is now a $2.8 million movie, and you can’t afford to do it anymore. So really, the timing of it has mostly to do with when we can scrape the money together to make a movie.
AVC: You watch movies that are 20 or even 10 years old, and half the logos up front represent companies that no longer exist.
JS: You can lose money very quickly in that business. And I think the other thing that happened is that the young and hungry companies, after a couple times out, they have varying success, and they know how much work it’s going to be. A lot of times with our movies, it’s not so much that the distributor who’s saying “We don’t want to distribute your movie” doesn’t think it’s any good. It’s “Well, couldn’t you have made something easier for us? Couldn’t it have been an art movie about vampires with Johnny Depp in it? Then maybe then we can talk.” Those same people, maybe eight years ago, if they were in the business, might have been, “Oh, let me at this thing! I’m gonna beat down people’s doors and get them to see it!”
AVC: The commentary on Todd Haynes’ movie Safe, which was recorded about a decade ago, basically consists of Haynes and his producer, Christine Vachon, talking about how they could never make the movie in the current climate, and things haven’t gotten better since then.
JS: Maybe they couldn’t, but somebody else might. Because somebody might not have already gone through it, and might have a little more patience. I have to say, when I wrote Eight Men Out, I was fairly young. And 11 years later, I got to make the movie. I am a little less likely to sit down and write a movie now that I think is going to take me 11 years to get made. I’m going to be really old in 11 years, and I’m already really old. [Laughs.] So that does happen. You can look at what’s out there and how much energy you have left and how old you are and which way the business is going and how hot you are or not hot you are. And sometimes you really just have to say, “I can’t be that ambitious right now. Is there something I really want to make that can be made for under $2 million?” Which is almost impossible in the United States if you’re using professionals. If you’re paying people scale, you’re probably getting about five weeks of shooting out of $3 million—if it’s contemporary and everybody brings their own clothes.
AVC: You’ve said that when you and Maggie talk about making a movie now, the first conversation is, “Where can we afford to shoot?”
JS: Yeah. For instance, I’ve written a script about the Rosenberg case. I got to know Robert and Michael Meeropol, their sons, and they’d been wanting a feature made about it for years and years and years. Well, most of it happened in New York City, and New York City is really expensive to shoot in. So as we start to talk about even setting a budget for it, we have to talk about “Where else can we shoot with some CGI and this and that, make people feel like it’s 1938 and it’s New York City? And how do you shoot that?” So I often, on these period movies, I have to storyboard every shot, because we have to know what we can afford and what we can’t, and what the lens is going to see, and what we have to cover up, and what we have to build. You can’t just rock and roll like you could in a contemporary movie that’s about shopping malls, and whatever the camera sees, it sees.