Sayles Continues His Sense of Indenpendence
by Paul Fischer
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John Sayles remains one of Hollywood’s most provocative directors, and his latest film, Honeydripper, is no exception. This latest film follows a ’50s juke joint owner (Danny Glover’s Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis) as he attempts to avoid bankruptcy by booking a legendary guitar player named Guitar Sam. After the famed strummer backs out at the last minute, Tyrone—banking on the knowledge that nobody in his community actually knows what Guitar Sam looks like—decides to run the show with a talented drifter (Gary Clark Jr.’s Sonny) standing in for the headliner. Sayles talked to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
PF: Does it get any easier for you despite your track record at this point in your career to get films made?
JS: Well no it doesn’t. Basically the last two movies, Silver City and this, we financed ourselves from money that I made writing many, many, many, many, many, many screenplays. I think it’s getting harder for everybody. That includes people who work in the studio system. I keep running into people who I think of as kind of legends. And yeah, here’s Francis Ford Coppola financing his own movie. And you know, very well known actors who can’t get a project off or whatever. You know, it’s—the studios have not figured out what comes next. You know? They’re making less and less of their money on the theatrical. They’re very afraid of, you know, what happens to the music business happening to them.
And so they’re getting more concerned with what they make. Yeah, I actually—my screenwriting agent told me one of the studios issued the stop law. Saying we don’t want any more period movies or dramas.
PF: Or dramas?
JS: Or dramas.
PF: What does that mean?
JS: Well, that means that what they’re making is either Knocked Up, which is $20 million or under youth comedy. Or Spider-Man. Which is $100 million or more, you know, kind of fantasy picture that no other country can make and is gonna be a worldwide hit. And that’s what they know how to do. And anything in between is just too iffy. And too expensive. And they just don’t know how to do it anymore. So for us, you know, it’s actually—we’ve been really lucky. We’ve gotten to make 16 movies in about 30 years. But none of ‘em has gone platinum. And the minute that’s true, it’s like well why should we bet on a horse that keeps, you know, finishing out of the money or only third? You know, why not bet on a second-time filmmaker who, you know, got a lot of attention at Sundance, like next year. Or even better, a user friendly filmmaker who will, just, you know, do what we tell him to and as long as we got the right stars in the picture, we’ve got our 25 writers.
PF: So what keeps you going, John? What keeps you not become cynical about the film industry?
JS: I think I’m just realistic. You know, I think, you know, anybody who gets to work for the movies is pretty damn lucky. You know, you can’t complain. I used to have real jobs. You know? I used to work in factories and hospitals and stuff like that. You know? I had jobs where you had to punch in every morning. And they weren’t fun. They were just jobs. You know? So when you get to do it, working for the movies is fun. You know? Even as a screenwriter, it’s fun.
And it’s satisfying in some ways. But it’s difficult. And part of it is, it’s not cheap. You know? And even relatively cheap movies aren’t cheap. You know? If you make a movie for $100,000 that’s still $100,000. I don’t know of that many people who can, you know, get their fingers on $100,000. So you know, you just have to know, okay, it’s always gonna be an adventure. It’s always gonna be difficult. You should have more than one story you want to tell cause sometimes that one you’re dying to tell is just not gonna happen now. And if you got a cheaper one, maybe you can get that one made.
And then, you know, our track record, none of the movies are made in the order that they were written. You know, generally it’s, you know, the third time, the third one is the one you can make. And the other two have to wait.
PF: So what was the genesis of Honeydripper then?
JS: Honeydripper is something I had in my head for about 15 years. And this one we did make right away. ‘Cause we used our own money. You know? And so we, for a year, we looked for money and we couldn’t find it. And then finally decided this is not gonna happen. We’re gonna spend the rest of our lives looking for this. How much money do we have in the bank from my screenwriting and money we’ve made on other movies? And you have to be able to, you know, say, you know, if I won’t bet on myself, who else should bet on me? And throw your money on the table.
So I actually consider myself very fortunate in that I’ve gotten a lot of [inaud] to back. It’s, but you know, it’s tough to see really good filmmakers, and I know really good filmmakers both in the industry and the studio world, who just aren’t working. You know? They’re just—or they’re working on something that’s so compromised that they’re not having—you know, they don’t feel like, you know, it’s their name should be going on it. They should be using a pseudonym.
PF: Does it fuse together your love of music?
JS: Well it’s certainly music that led me to this story. Yeah I grew up in the ’50s listening to top 40 radio. And you know, when you’re that young you don’t really question the music, it’s just there. And then you got a little older and you realize, oh this wasn’t written yesterday. This evolved from something. And so rock and roll kind of led me to the blues and to gospel. And that inevitably leads you into the past, into the roots of things. And as I went back into the past, I realized, oh there’s this watershed of this thing called, that they now called rock and roll, and it wasn’t one day. But where were the turning points?
And one of ‘em, for me, was the solid body electric guitar. And that happened in 1950. And as I started looking into that, and the impact that it had, I started thinking, Well what else happened in 1950? And most of this music comes from the south. What was going on in the south in 1950? And then it started to become a really interesting story to me.
PF: You create an eclectic array of characters for your work, especially in this one. What are the challenges for creating disparate characters that live and breathe?
JS: Well some of it to me is thinking about a community. And so you know, what are communities made up of? Well there are classes within a community. Any community. So even in cotton picking deep south in 1950, African-American community, there are a lot of different factions. You know? There are the people who have a little something, who own their own home. There are itinerant cotton pickers. You know, are kind of the bottom rung. There are the people who are even lower than them who didn’t even get that job in time. And get picked up by the local sheriff. And so they’re picking cotton for free for the county.
There are the people who on Sunday go to church. And then there are people who on Saturday night, you know, go the roadhouse to the Honeydripper lounge. And some try to do both. And they get a little flack from both sides for, “Oh, you’re going to church tomorrow.” Or “Oh, you spent last night at the Honeydripper. You know, how can you be saved and still go to a roadhouse?” So it evolves with me as I think about that community and think about all the different, you know, aspects of that community. And then in the case of Honeydripper there is this African-American world which is self-sufficient in a certain way. But then there is also, cause of the time and place, this kind of oppressive ceiling over it all where every once in a while you’re reminded, oh that’s right, we kind of live at the pleasure of the white people. And when you talk to a white man you’re supposed to take your hat off. And you go in the back of the hardware store and not the front. And you have to watch how you speak. You know?
And so, Danny Glover’s character in this, being the central character, everything kind of built around him. And the way I thought of him is guys I’ve heard of and a few who I’ve met as old men. Who’ve been pointed out to me, “Well, this guy didn’t play by the rules. And somehow he survived. He was his own boss. He was his own man.” How did you do that as an African-American in 1950 in Alabama or Mississippi? You know, how did you survive that?
And some of it is you pushed back. But you also, you understood to be different. So those scenes between, you know, Danny Glover and Stacy Keach are very loaded. And each thing he says he’s feeling the reaction. And Stacy Keach, you know, I gave him the note that his character had been a boxer very much like George Wallace. And both the way a boxer controls his opponent is by keeping him off balance.
PF: How easy a film was this to cast?
JS: You know, we’re very lucky in having made 15 other movies, a lot of actors know our work. And if you give ‘em a good part, even if you’re only paying scale, which is what we paid to all of the actors, a lot of them said “yes.” So there were a bunch of people right away, like Danny Glover and Charles Dutton and Stacy Keach and Mary Steenburgen who I just said, “We’ve got to offer it to them.” And they said “Yes” right away.
PF: You seem to be also busy as a screenwriter within the studio system. Is it very difficult for you to juggle your bread and butter I guess?
JS: No, once again I think I’m lucky and it’s not that difficult for me. You know, it’s just a matter of time. What I tend to do is have to squeeze my own writing for my own projects in between drafts of studio projects. So usually I’ll hand in a draft of a studio project. And they take two to four weeks to respond and give you notes. So that’s two to four weeks that I jump on my own project and continue writing on that. So I literally wrote The Brother from Another Planet in a week and a half that I had between drafts of Clan of the Cave Bear. You know? And then I did another draft of Clan of the Cave Bear and I did my one rewrite of Brother from Another Planet.
PF: Because I mean I’ve seen bits of Spiderwick Chronicles. I would not be able to recognize John Sayles—
JS: Well, I haven’t seen it yet. So I don’t know if there’s any of me in there. I’m one of three writers who gets credit. And I know there were at least nine writers on it. So I hunt—I think I was somewhere in the middle. And I think I’m getting credit partly because I was the first writer who took these five children’s books and made ‘em into one movie. So just structurally I did quite a bit.
PF: When you look at these movies that you’ve written for Hollywood and you don’t see much of what you did, does that—are you very blasé about that?
JS: No, the studio—that’s just the world that you live in. You know? And sometimes I actually take my name off. I say, “Please don’t consider me as one of the writers on this thing. It, you know, there’s none of me left.” You know I did a couple drafts of The Mummy. But at the end of it, you know, it was a totally different director than the one I had worked with. They did a totally different thing. You know? There was sand and bandages and mummies in it. But it was a totally different thing. And when the writers guild contacted me, there were 15 writers who’d worked on it in like a 15, 20 year period. Including George Romero twice. And he didn’t ask for credit either.
So, you know, it’s just you try to help them along in their process. You’re helping them tell their story. And sometimes even if you don’t get credit, you really did help the process. You moved them forward. And so you—you can see it—you know, and occasionally I’ve not gotten credit on movies and been very happy with how the movie turned out.
PF: What about Jurassic Park 4?
JS: No, I did a couple drafts on that two or three years ago. And that’s the last I’ve heard of it. So I don’t know if they’re pursuing it or if it’s been rewritten or what. You know, writers read these things in the tray. They’re not called up and told.
PF: And what about in Cold Case, the Mark Romaneck film?
JS: You know, I think I know that they’ve had at least one other writer on it. And I don’t know if they’ve got a date. It was fun to work on. It was Tom Hanks’ company. They’re very smart people. And this thing is that Tom was about ten years younger than the character he was gonna play in that. And by the time they make it, he’ll probably be the right age. So he won’t have to, you know, do any aging makeup or anything like that. Once again, though, you know, that’s a project I hope they make. And I think it’s a great story. So I hope it’s good if they do make it.
PF: As a writer, how optimistic are you that this strike will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction?
JS: Well you know, it will never be, you know, it’s never to everybody’s satisfaction. I think the difficult thing about this is that we’re talking about new media. And so it is something that is speculative. The writers are really just saying, “Look, if you make a dollar on new media, we want our two and a half percent of it. You know, just like we’d get with the old media.”
But what the studios know is that if they give us what we want, they’re gonna have to give the directors guild and the actors guild what they want. So they’re truly trying to change the paradigm. And you know, as they have been in other things of, you know, the reality TV, those shows are written, but those writers are not in the guild. They’re pretending that they’re documentaries.
PF: Do you have to now, at this point, just take time off for any of your various roles until this is over?
JS: Yeah, well I was unemployed before it started, so I didn’t have to take time off from anything specifically. There’s one project that I should be paid for. But because they were slow getting the contract done, I handed it into my agent. But she can’t hand it over to them and get paid until after the strike is over. So I’m actually waiting for some money to come in if the strike ever ends. But I’ve been writing a novel for a couple of years. And so it’s actually been, you know, I get to work on the novel.
PF: How’s the novel going?
JS: It’s going well. It’s set during about 1898, the time of the Philippine-American war. And it’s something that I originally wrote as a screenplay. And then just decided we’ll never raise the money to make this thing. And I think I had to condense it too much to make it into a two hour movie. And now I’m being able to expand it as a novel. And it’s working much better.
PF: Do you think you are going to direct again in, you know, in the near future? Or are you taking time off from that?
JS: Well I don’t have a project written that I think we can finance right now. So I just don’t know. It’s one of the things about being an independent director, is that you kind of do ‘em one at a time. And when you’re done, you truly don’t know if you’re gonna make another one and when you’re gonna make another one.
PF: Did you dismiss out of hand directing a Hollywood movie? Or have they just completely just given up on you?
JS: You know, I don’t think I was ever on the list. I can’t remember more than like one offer and that wasn’t even from central Hollywood. That was from somebody who thought they could get Hollywood money if they hired me. So I think it was always a “look, this is not a user friendly director. It’s not a director who’s made $100 million on his movies. So why would we want to work with that person?”
PF: But that doesn’t bother you anyway I think?
JS: Well, it—quite honesty I write my own stuff enough that the idea of directing somebody else’s work is just not that interesting to me. The only time I did it was I got to direct three rock videos for Bruce Springsteen. So the stories were written. And he actually gave me a lot of the visual ideas, so it was I’m a director for hire. I’m serving this song. And it was a lot of fun. But it was also a week. You know? And great music to cut to. So who could complain?
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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