John Sayles started out as a short-story writer, a novelist, and eventually a screenwriter for Roger Corman; to this day, his writing helps pay the bills, as he works on the scripts for movies like The Howling, The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Apollo 13, The Alamo, and Jurassic Park IV. His published novels include Los Gusanos, Pride Of The Bimbos, and Union Dues, and his new short-story collection Dillinger In Hollywood comes out in early October.
But Sayles remains best known for the films he writes, directs, edits, occasionally acts in, and finances independently. Starting in 1980 with Return Of The Secaucus 7, he's jumped genres, topics, and styles for his projects, which include the Oscar nominees Lone Star and Passion Fish; the charming, eerie fables The Secret Of Roan Inish and The Brother From Another Planet; the historically based character studies Matewan, Eight Men Out, and Men With Guns; and the sprawling life-of-a-community films Casa De Los Babys and Sunshine State.
Sayles' new project, Silver City, is in a way typical of the man who doesn't have a typical style: It's a serious, hushed, politically aware film that uses community and culture as a staging point for a larger commentary. Silver City loosely centers on a Colorado gubernatorial candidate played by Chris Cooper and clearly based on George W. Bush. By exploring the characters who revolve around Cooper, and the connections linking him to the corpse he encounters while filming a campaign ad, Sayles builds a story that's part murder mystery, part political screed, and part media critique. Shortly before Silver City's Sept. 17 theatrical opening, The Onion A.V. Club talked to Sayles about his politics, his writing, and his true love, editing.
The Onion: Silver City is significantly more time- and place-specific than many of your politically conscious movies. Is that deliberate?
John Sayles: You know, one of the things that got me thinking about this movie was that I kept reading books with outrageous political stuff in them, four years after you could do anything about it. That, and the election down in Florida, got me thinking about our national media's reaction to it, and their lack of a reaction to what everybody thought the real story was, which was people not getting to vote, and that it wasn't an accident. It got me thinking about the difficulty of being any kind of citizen without much information, and why it is that the mainstream media weren't covering these things when the information was there. Why aren't they connecting the dots? And the fact that they aren't, what does that mean we have to do? It's an independent movie, and we can move faster than Hollywood, so I really wanted to have the politics in the movie. The Chinatown plot, the murder mystery, is kind of timeless. You could set it in a lot of different periods. But we wanted the politics to be of the moment. So that was very, very conscious. If the central metaphor in the movie is this guy connecting dots, drawing lines from one thing to another and saying "There's a connection here," then you can draw a line from what's going on in the movie to what's going on in our politics today, with the current administration.
O: Are you concerned about the references to present politics dating the film?
JS: Well, so many movies come out every year that are dated three months after they come out. The turnover of people's attention spans in this country, with the amount of entertainment we have thrown at us, is pretty short. I don't think you can even worry about something being dated anymore, unless there's some slang or scoop, and I think that's more of a television problem. They have to worry about that more than movies do.
O: You say that you can move faster than Hollywood, but you've had timeline problems in the past—it took 11 years to get Eight Men Out financed, for example. Did your process on this movie have to change in order for you to get it out before the election?
JS: Yeah, we usually have more time to look for money. We jokingly call it the "if you build it, he will come" school of filmmaking. We were two weeks into the shoot, and nobody had come up with any money. We decided, "Okay, we can't go over budget, but we can actually finance this movie ourselves. So let's do it. We'll have to liquidate a lot of accounts, do everything but sell the house, but we can do it, so let's keep going instead of pulling the plug." Ordinarily, we might not have even started. [Laughs.] If we'd had more time to raise money and couldn't raise it, we might have been more prudent about it. But it's something we really wanted to… It's what we do, is make movies. I prefer not to finance them myself, but there was a feeling that there was a window of opportunity with this particular movie, to get it out before the election.
O: Given America's polarization over the political parties, and over George W. Bush in general, you risk alienating potential viewers by having a character that parodies Bush. Was that an issue?
JS: I think that's a concern with any character, that they're going to be red flags for people, for different reasons. Some of it is that it's a serious movie; it's not a comedy all the way through. Sometimes it's that a lot of characters are over 30. A lot of moviegoers aren't interested in people over 30. That's a red flag. They see it in the coming attractions, and they won't go. You really can't worry too much about that. I feel like you're always going to run into people who aren't interested in what you're doing, or are hostile to what you're doing. But most people are somewhat open-minded. The point of making a fiction movie that has a generic style is that it's also entertainment.
O: Is there anything you'd like viewers to specifically think or do after seeing Silver City?
JS: I want people to walk away from the movie saying, "Is this stuff really happening?" And it is. In time, stuff comes out, and eventually people get sick of it and do something about it. You know, I'm not naturally an optimist, but I'm not a cynic. Because I think cynicism is when you like that things are fucked up, because then you can act any way you want to, because there's no point in acting better. Whereas pessimism is, you still may act as well as you possibly can in a situation, but you just don't think it's likely to turn out that well.
O: Your last few films have all had very open-ended, up-in-the-air finales. What's your philosophy on story endings in films?
JS: I think that the particular movie has to earn them. Like, in the '60s, there were movies that had really tragic endings but didn't earn them. I think after Easy Rider did well, there were a whole bunch of movies with these kind of last-minute turnarounds, where somebody got wasted or fucked up or thrown in jail, but the rest of the movie didn't earn it. You have to earn a sad or disturbing ending, just as you have to earn a happy ending. If you have a movie whose subject does not have a finite, big-payoff ending, you can't give it one, because it's going to seem like a forgery. It's going to seem tacked-on. I certainly have written movies with more finite endings that we haven't been able to finance yet.
O: How do you transition between writing a complex political and social drama that you're going to direct yourself and working on the script for Jurassic Park IV?
JS: The big difference is that when you're writing something you're going to direct yourself, it's your story. You're going to tell it. So you can afford to be a little more emotionally involved in it, and put things into it that you'll find a way to make work, things that may not fit in the kind of classic genre mold. When you're working for somebody else, you're an employee. You're a carpenter, not an architect. You say, "If you put the window over there, you're not going to get the light through it in the morning." But if they want to put the window there, you put the window there, and you do your best job doing it. Occasionally, I get to a point on a script where I say, "Look, I can't do a good job of what you're asking me to do now. It just doesn't seem right to me. So I think you should get another writer." That doesn't happen that often. Actually, more often, they get rid of you before that point hits.
O: What has to be present to interest you in a given writer-for-hire job?
JS: I've been lucky in that I've always had enough work just by saying, "Is there a movie that could be made of this project that I would like to go see?" And there are only a few genres I really don't care for. I'm not big on hit men, vampires, serial killers, or slashers, but I've worked in almost every other genre. So then it's "What's the premise of the movie, and who are the people involved? Do they seem like reasonable people? Have I seen something they've done that I liked?" So I've gotten to work with some really cool people whose movies never got made, but whose projects I liked a lot, and that I learned a lot from. Basically, the more I get paid for a movie, the less likely it is to get made. As you start to work for studios, who develop a lot more things than they make, you get paid more than when you're writing creature features for Roger Corman, where I wrote three, and within a year and a half, three movies had been made. That's incredible, for a starting writer to get three credits right away.
O: That's pretty typical of how Roger Corman works.
JS: Yeah. If he paid you to write a script, he was going to make that movie whether it was any good or not. That was the director's problem, to make a good movie even if the script sucked.
O: Have you ever had a studio suggest that you should direct one of the blockbusters you were helping write?
JS: Not any of the big ones, no. Occasionally somebody will say something like "This probably wouldn't interest you," and usually I have to tell them, "I'm not nearly self-destructive enough to be involved as the director." There's a kind of mutual understanding that the stuff I'm interested in doing is not appropriate for a studio to do.
O: In the unlikely case that a major studio did offer you final cut and complete directorial independence on a big, special-effects-driven blockbuster like Jurassic Park IV, would you have any interest?
JS: Well, I have a couple of big historical epics that we've never been able to raise the money for, and if they wanted to give me the money for those… The filmmaker I think I'm closest to is David Lean. I've just never had that budget, so nobody knows it. But, yeah, I have a couple of David Lean movies I want to make. That hasn't happened yet, and I don't think it's likely to.
A good action/adventure movie is like a great amusement-park ride, and I'm just not that interested in spending a year of my life on that kind of job. It's not very interesting to me. One of my favorite things about moviemaking is working with actors. One of the reasons I get such good actors to work for scale in our movies is because most of what they do is very interesting to them. Whereas in a blockbuster, they're in front of a blue screen yelling "Duck!" And someday, somebody will computer in whatever they're ducking from. It's not enough to keep the mind alive. I do like some of those movies. I think the X-Men movies have been really well-made and fun to go see. I saw the last Spider-Man movie, and that was well-made. I like the Jurassic Park movies. They're old-fashioned monster movies. But, no matter how you cut it, it's at least a year of your life.
O: Speaking of the actors you work with, you go further afield than most of what dominates Hollywood cinema. How do you normally handle casting?
JS: There's a lot of chemistry to it. I try not to think of who's going to play a role while I'm writing, because you're so unlikely to get the first person that pops into your head. Well-known actors are busy, or they don't want to do it, or they don't want to play an ensemble role. It's better to write it, read it, and then really think hard about the casting. Usually the producer… Maggie Renzi has been on 12 of my 15 films, and on the other ones, the producers have good actor-vibe taste. I also work with them just thinking up names and bringing people in. We usually try to cast some people on location. In Silver City, Denver has a very good theater scene and a pretty healthy commercial scene. Some people are making very low-budget films, so we found a lot of good actors there, and brought a lot fewer people in than we thought we might have to. That's always nice, because it saves you the plane fare, and it also allows you to bond with the community a little bit more. For Casa De Los Babys, of that whole cast, the only two people who I thought of while I was writing were Vanessa Martinez and Rita Moreno. Then I just started thinking about really great actresses I could ask to be in it, and that's when we started getting some yeses and filling in the blanks. That's when you start to think about the chemistry and who would be good with who you already have.
O: Given the constant point-of-view shifts in your recent films, it seems like you don't buy into the usual American cinematic style, with everything revolving around a single iconoclastic hero.
JS: It's something that I have to be aware of when I'm writing for other people, because what they want is a heroic movie. But what makes a heroic character? What, in a situation, is heroic about that situation?
I've often done this thing with having two protagonists. In Sunshine State, Edie Falco and Angela Bassett share the screen for 10 seconds. In Lone Star, Joe Morton and Chris Cooper are never onscreen at the same time. But in both cases, almost everybody they know deals with each other, knows each other, and affects each other. One of the things I'm interested in, in America, is that we have parallel communities. It's not really a melting pot, so much as a place where people have learned to co-exist. The communities may be based on race, or economics, or religious beliefs, or a music scene. But that's the world you exist in, and every once in a while, you cross paths with these other people, and you look at them. Every once in a while, there's a confrontation, because you aren't the same thing. For me, I'm just not that interested in a heroic interpretation of what goes on in our society. You know, I admire individual heroism when I see it, but I don't think it's a very useful model for us as a nation, or individually.
O: How do you mean?
JS: The war in Iraq right now. The way that Ronald Reagan, for instance, was perceived was that he walked into town and identified the Evil Empire, and he stood by the Berlin Wall and said "This wall will come down," and the wall came tumbling down. That's such a simplification of what's going on. The idea that we can walk, like a hero, into a country that's being run by the bad guy, who would be played by Karl Malden or Richard Burton, that we can take out the guy and the town will be fine after that… I think that gets you into kind of a John Wayne head that's much more simple than the situation is, and then comes the second act, and no one's that happy that you took the guy out. Generally, it's a great thing in movies, because it's a great simplification, but real-life situations aren't that simple.
O: Do you have a preference between writing and directing? Is one more rewarding than the other?
JS: You know, really, I like editing more than anything else. But in order to get to edit, I have to write and direct. I came from writing fiction, where you have control over the first, second, and third draft, and that's the way I looked at filmmaking. Whether you actually sit in that editor's chair or not, you should control that last draft of the story. In Silver City, most of the scenes are not in the order they were originally written. I just discovered a better way to tell the story in the editing room. I don't think anyone else would have done that. So I'm still writing the movie at that point, still working with the actors and pacing their performances, even though they're not there. Some of the characters in the early versions of the movie are people I feel very differently about now, just because I trimmed scenes and moved them around.
O: Does that only work with your own stories? Would there be any appeal in doing editing-for-hire the way you do writing-for-hire?
JS: I wouldn't want to be editing for hire. I'd like to be the editor where everyone on a project would go away and I'd put it together how I think it should be, and then they'd distribute my version. [Laughs.] But that doesn't happen when you're an editor.
When you're directing, the clock is running. So, yes, it's fun to work with the actors, but the sun is going down. You're always compromising. You're always cutting shots. You're always doing the best you can, but not the best that you could do if you had the money. When I'm writing a movie, I don't know if we're going to be able to raise the money for it. I do a lot of research, and it may take months before I'm actually ready to sit down and write. Then you write the thing, and it doesn't get made, and you feel like a sap. But by the time you get to the editing, you know you're going to make the movie, and it doesn't matter if the sun is up, or it's raining, or anything else. You just don't have that kind of time pressure. You really can just make the thing better.
O: What's the downside to being an independent director? You have a lot of leeway to tell the stories you want to tell in the way you want to tell them, but what do you give up in exchange?
JS: Well, sometimes scale. I'm less likely to write a big project, just because it's so hard to get anybody interested in financing it. Some stories won't be good unless you can do them on a certain scale, and you have to give that up. Very often, when I finish a movie, I don't know if I'll ever make another one. That's kind of psychologically tough sometimes. Sometimes, you know while you're doing it that there's a better way to do it, as far as scheduling, or "This shot would really make it nicer." But you just can't do it, and you know that going in. That's a drawback—it's the ways and means, the more practical things.