The Millions Interview

Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles

By posted at 6:00 am on October 20, 2011 7

coverIn the 35 year period in which he has made 17 films (among which are Matewan, Eight Men Out, Return of the Secaucus 7, Men With Guns) MacArthur grant-winning director John Sayles has also published seven books, including the National Book Award-nominated Union Dues and two full-bodied novels, Los Gusanos and, most recently, A Moment in the Sun. And yet, as he mentions in the conversation that follows, he has never received one note or letter from anyone who has read any of his books — a correction the cross-country reading tour (in a rented Prius) Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi embarked on, will no doubt make.

coverA Moment in the Sun, in nearly 1,000 pages, delves into a sketchily acknowledged period of American history — the rise of Jim Crow, effectively thwarting Reconstruction in the South, the road to the Cuban Spanish-American War, American imperialism running rampant in the Philippines, and the greed-fed Yukon gold rush. As it happens, the American involvement in the misnamed Philippine insurrection also serves as the setting for Sayles latest film, Amigo.

This, my second chat with John Sayles (we last met in 1995 for his Cuban exile novel, Los Gusanos), turned out to be a lengthy conversation touching on his new opus, his new film, the perils of independent film making, and any number of asides and anecdotes from a full and storied creative life.

Robert Birnbaum: Its International Free Press Day — in case things like that matter to you. I haven’t seen any reviews of your new opus. Maybe because it is too long for reviewers?

John Sayles: There have only been the publishing trade magazines, Kirkus and those. One of them called it a cat-squasher of a book.

RB: How imaginative. I saw an article on the fact that you are visiting every state including Alaska.

JS: Just about, yeah.

RB: Is that fun?

JS: Yeah, I like reading. The book is long enough so I am reading a different chapter every night so I don’t get bored with it. One thing that is nice is that it is almost all independent bookstores.

RB: The chains seem to be going out of business (laughs). Who would have thought it?

JS: Also the chain stores don’t do readings in the mall that often. I have written three novels before this and a couple of short story collections and to this day I have never gotten a letter from someone who has read one of my books. I run into people who have seen my movies all the time. Most people don’t know I write books.

RB: Didn’t you win a National Book Award or something?

JS: That didn’t change anything. I was nominated.

covercoverRB: You haven’t published a book since Los Gusanos [1991].

JS: A short story collection, Dillinger in Hollywood. But that was about five years ago or so. Nation Books published it — they hadn’t done fiction before so it was pretty new to them. Doing readings is kind of like theater, where you are looking at your audience. Which is nice for a book, to actually see somebody who is going to read the book or at least buy it.

RB: Unlike most book tours, which is one sealed tube after another — you are out among the people.

JS: We like driving across the country.

RB: Are you rejiggering your budget now that gas prices are soaring?

JS: No, but we are renting a Prius. I am almost too big for a Prius but it’s OK. Mexico is just about out of oil — which will be good for the pollution in Mexico City.

RB: The week I was there it must have been really unusual because it was not bad at all.

JS: They have a few good days, but the rest of the time it’s like breathing bus exhaust.

RB: I’ve lost track of Mexican politics — did they just have an election?

JS: They are about to have a big one. What’s happening is that the narcos have a bigger army than the government.

RB: That stuff is ripe for fiction — lots of books are coming out of the borderland. My favorite is The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow. Do you know it?

JS: No.

RB: Let me backtrack, you’re filming in Mexico?

JS: We shot a few movies in Mexico. Most recently we have been filming in the Philippines. We have a movie coming out in August — Amigo. It’s set in the same time the book is, with none of the same characters, but it does have to do with the Philippine-American War.

RB: What did you call it?

JS: The Philippine-American War.

RB: The one after the Cuban Spanish-American War?

JS: It was called for years the Philippine Insurrection but then the question is how can you insurrect if it’s your country?

RB: This is a fun period of history to rehash — imagine you read a lot since what you bring forth in A Moment In the Sun is not much in American history textbooks? By the way, is Tolstoy a favorite author (laughs)?

JS: I never read Tolstoy. I am so uneducated for a writer. I never took an English class in college. Or a literature class. So I come to these things very late. Mostly American writers. I don’t really know the British guys. Don’t really know the Russian guys. Don’t know the French guys. When I read them they’re good. But if you are going to read Tolstoy–

RB: I haven’t read War and Peace either — I can’t read Russian novels because since I can’t pronounce the names I can’t remember them.

JS: Oh yeah, right.

RB: I was thinking of the breadth and scope of War and Peace and A Moment in the Sun. There is a big story here — which I assume will not be a movie. Like Los Gusanos.

JS: Two things. I came across the fact of the Philippine-American War when I was doing research for Los Gusanos. I’m thinking, I’m 37 years old, how come I haven’t heard of this? Why wasn’t it taught in some way with the Spanish-American War except for a couple of catch phrases? And then I asked some Filipino-American friends and they said, “We know it existed, but we weren’t taught this either.” So that got me suspicious — then interested. How come this was erased? And it coincided with this other thing that grew into a novel, which is the last nail in the coffin of Reconstruction. When the Southern states got rid of the rights of black people to vote, of black men to vote.

coverRB: That will come as a shock to some readers. But it is the reason for the importance and impact of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History.

JS: Stuff gets left out. What interested me — I did a lot of reading of newspapers from the time and fiction from the time, even magazines and stuff like that — just how overt the racism was. We have a lot of euphemisms for things now. We were Imperialist. Mark Twain was in the Anti-Imperialist League. One of the biggest journals in North Carolina was a newspaper called the Caucasian.

RB: Have you noticed — I thought American exceptionalism was a criticism, like imperialism, but now it seems people are embracing it.

JS: I would embrace it if it were true. Certainly a lot of historical movies and fiction are about those tensions between those promises written in italics and the reality of what’s going on. It would be great to be able to say we can live up to our promises — compared to a lot of countries we are tremendous. You go to other places and you say, ”Oh shit, I get it, why people are so happy to come to the U.S.” But still, you have to live up to your talk. Especially if you are going to ask people to bleed and die for it.

RB: Richard Rodriguez wrote a piece today on Osama bin Laden’s death in which he found the celebration “unseemly,” college kids wrapped in American flags cheering, “USA, USA.” He decried that as patriotism — what Pat Tillman did was patriotism.

JS: It has become a kind of patriotism. There are guys who are offshoots of the Tea Party who go around with an American flag and say, “Kiss this or I am going to punch you in the head.” And they punch people in the head who don’t do it. They are usually a little drunk at the time, but it is something that you can run unto.

RB: In the South or everywhere?

JS: Everywhere. It’s a kind of jingoism, very aggressive and it has its equivalents in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany. It’s usually young men and it’s tribal. And they’ve decided this is my tribe. You know, this whole thing of being critical of your own troops at all is very, very new anywhere in the world, in the history of mankind. People used to bring their conquered enemies’ heads back. In this country, we took people who transgressed too much, we’d kill ‘em and put their head on a stake and everybody came out and cheered. There are scenes in A Moment in the Sun where everyone wants to get in to see a public execution.

coverRB: There’s a public execution [hanging] in True Grit. I thought the brilliant part of that was to let the white men have last words and when the Indian started to speak they just released the trap door.

JS: It’s an interesting thing the Coen Brothers understood. They went back to the original book. Joel [Coen] actually discovered it — he was reading it to his son to sleep. He said, this is really good. And he remembered the core of the John Wayne movie that was good was the dialogue from the book — he [Charles Portis] is a really good writer. And they understood that they didn’t have to write brilliant dialogue, there is already brilliant dialogue. But the John Wayne movie was sentimental. They made a non-sentimental version of it where you realize at the end this girl is really bloody-minded. Her high values and stuff like that has gotten 15 people slaughtered and a couple of horses. Is that really such a great thing? And Rooster Cogburn, every time he sees an Indian he kicks him off the porch.

RB: Right. (laughs)

JS: He hates Indians. And half-breeds even worse. That’s our hero. If you are near a military culture, and I have lived at various times near Army bases and Navy bases and whatever, it is a culture, like the cop culture, that is very separate from the rest of us. There is this feeling that you can’t criticize the war because a relative of mine died in it and gave his life for it. So criticizing the war is criticizing their sacrifice. And it is hard to make a distinction for someone who lost somebody.

RB: Well, that was a problem during Vietnam — how arrogant we protesters were toward people who supported the war. Assuming that it was all about rational disputation.

JS: That was always my problem. I went to the marches but I never joined the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]. I thought they were talking out of their assholes about “the people.” I had a lot of cops in my family. Some of them were terrible human beings, some were great guys, some were good cops and some weren’t. But cops are just doing their job, with a limited perspective. The same thing with soldiers. Guys I went to high school with got drafted. OK, they weren’t from anybody who had any kind of analysis to go to Canada or protest. It was just like, “Ok, they say I gotta go, I gotta go.” And then you try to do your best survive.

RB: Do you know of Karl Marlantes’s book, Matterhorn?

JS: No.

RB: A recent Vietnam novel by a vet who spent 30 years writing it. It has a really interesting back-story. It’s a profoundly unsettling book — a very plausible and harrowing picture.

covercoverJS: There’s a cat, his first name is Kent, [Kent Anderson], I think, who wrote a book Sympathy for the Devil and then Night Dogs,which follows the hero of the first book when he gets out of the service. The writer was a Green Beret. So, it’s got that combination of really good writer and somebody who has been there. And eventually what happens to the character and what happens to these Special Forces guys, very often they are in the thick of it, is they’re an elite — you see it in the book about Pat Tillman, ”You’re an elite. You are better than the regular soldiers” And they go out and kill and are killed and are writing their own rules. Finally, they are killing Americans, because they are fucking with my gang. And then the poor guy in the second book, he is in Seattle working for the cops and suicidal but ready to shoot anybody else who fucks with him because he’s been made into this killer. And the book is about him finding a way to back off from that Green Beret code a little with some kind of honor. It’s really well written.

RB: Pretty complicated stuff. So here’s what I am wondering about — clearly you have dedicated a lot of time to this novel, but you mainly make films, is there some kind of multiple personality at play here?

JS: You know, the stories come to me and they seem like they would be interesting to pursue or not. Usually they come to me in the form they are going to end up as. And sometimes it’s, “Oh God, that would make a great movie, but there’s no way in Hell it’ll ever get it made.” This one started as a screenplay. Only the Royal Scott character, the black guy, is in it. And it follows events in Wilmington [N.C.] where he is from and then Cuba and the Philippines. But then when I finished it and we did some scouting of locations, we said there is no way in Hell somebody is going to give us enough money to make this movie.

RB: Well, Ed Zwick made Glory.

JS: He has made some really good movies, but he is a much more mainstream guy.

RB: What are the chances of Hollywood looking at you, not as the ingrained indie person (laughs)?

JS: I’ve been doing it for 35 years and they haven’t offered me, “Oh we have some money, make a movie.” The last three movies were all financed just by money I made as a screenwriter. Nobody before that would put together an advance. So we are basically in the vanity publishing business. I happen to make more ambitious movies and I’m lucky enough to have a bread job that now and then pays very well. And I can add it up and cover my expenses.

RB: Now it’s all easy access by viewers to movies — has that helped you?

JS: It helps but access to the money of the people who are accessing the movies is not there. They have not “monetized” is the computer phrase. So how to get money back from illegal downloaders? If they are young, they are only interested in looking at something on their computer screen and something else that is happening at the same time. So this one sat there for a bunch of years.

RB: This one?

JS: A Moment in The Sun. The screenplay was called Some Time in The Sun, back then. And then I thought, one day, I was cramming too much into two hours and 10 minutes — what if I made it into fiction, could I expand it? Then I wrote some chapters, invented a couple other characters. There are four major characters in the book — to cover different aspects of that time. And then I had to put it aside to work. I make a living as a screenwriter for hire and I think I directed two other movies.

RB: Are you a script doctor also?

JS: Not really a doctor. Really what I am is a screenplay writer. Very rarely am I called in over a weekend to change one element. That’s what a script doctor does. I have done major rewrites on things. Sometimes you get credit, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you ask for credit. Sometimes you are pleased when you don’t get it. So finally what happened — it had been sitting around, kind of started. Which was the same thing that happened with Los Gusanos, I was working on other things and then I had a period of unemployment and then a nice big juicy screenplay Writer’s Guild strike. Los Gusanos was written during a strike and I wrote this one, 85 percent of it during a strike.

RB: (laughs)

coverJS: While we were also going around the country doing publicity for Honeydripper, our last feature. We went to 36 cities by air and if you have traveled domestically lately you’re in Raleigh–Durham airport for six more hours with a delayed flight, so you better have a book to work on. So I had a lot of that. Or you’re in Israel and you’re awake at three in the morning and can’t get back to sleep because your body thinks its 10 a.m. and you’re back at home. So you are going to be up for five hours and nobody else is around. I actually write very fast. I actually wrote this thing in about a year. Including research.

RB: Wow. How much revision

JS:  You know, the revision is interesting. I did my own revision — really only a couple of weeks of that. I took the main four characters’ chapters and I extracted and combined them via computer, into the Book of Royal, the Book of Hod, the Book of Diosdado, the book of Harry, and then read them to make sure–

RB: –for continuity.

JS: And then my literary agent Anthony Arnove, who was Howard Zinn’s agent, took it around for almost two years.

RB: Did he do any editing?

JS: No. So in about a year and a half — a little bit more — we had gone through all the major publishers, including people who had published me before, 17 years later.

RB: All owned by conglomerates now.

JS: So we got two bites, “We want it, and I just have to ask the people upstairs.” And then they never called back. So obviously the people upstairs said no. Then Anthony went to the second tier of smaller publishers, not quite the university presses. And McSweeney’s said yes — I had never heard of them. I had done an interview for the magazine, but I didn’t know about the books. Most of their stuff goes to a much younger audience.

RB: They have been ambitious enough to publish Stephen Dixon.

JS: Anyway, so they assigned — Dave Eggers had a couple of notes about the beginning of the book and then he got busy and they assigned an editor named Jordan Bass. My first editor ever was Peggy Yntema, who lived here in Cambridge and was Julia Child’s next-door neighbor. She worked for Atlantic/Little Brown. It was a similar thing — Peggy didn’t consider herself a writer, but a reader. So what I got from Jordan were some structural ideas — flip things around a little bit except there is the chronology of history so you can’t do it too much. And a lot of talking about this and that — I would say no I want to do it this way and he was fine with that. Interestingly, I thought the book was going to get smaller but it got a little bit bigger. Jordan would say it would be awfully nice, now that I think of it, to have a chapter about this. We did this in this chapter and 200 pages go by and we don’t hear from this guy. Where is he? He’s in Fort Huachuca. What’s he doing? And so I said what he would be doing — and Jordan said that sounds like a chapter. So it actually got a little bit longer. But it was fun. Compared to the rewriting I do for Hollywood which is very market driven, once they [McSweeney’s] decided to do the book they just wanted to make it more fun to read. Nine hundred sixty pages as opposed to 930 was not a big enough difference for them to worry about. It’s not like, “Oh god it’s 10 minutes longer, it’s going to be hard to get the people in and out of the theater.”

RB: I have been surprised that given what I thought was a generation of seemingly literate movie stars and actors who were branching out into film production, that they didn’t option and finance more literary fiction. I would have thought you would be a likely candidate for those people.

JS: Nah, they are young enough so that the independent filmmakers they know are Quentin Tarantino. And what happened — the studio system took a big hit economically, like everybody else, and they cut all the development people. Tom Cruise even got fired. They came up with an excuse, ”he’s crazy” or something, but he is running a studio now, kind of. But he had a development deal and they said, “Uh uh, no more.” Sumner Redstone said he’s too crazy. So all those people still have those companies, but they don’t have much money. So they still have to say that would be nice, but how are we going to finance it.

RB: Cruise has money. You’re saying he‘s not using it to make movies

JS: Well, you make one or two movies with your own dough and you don’t have money anymore. And truly, if you are smart what you say is “and then how do we market it, who is going to distribute it?” To this day there are only 52 weeks in a year and there are a finite number of screens in America that show movies and so there’s a finite number of possibilities to make your money back. And when you look at that and you look at how many independent movies there are trying to crowd in there you have to say “Jeez, maybe we can’t spend 20 million dollars on this.”

RB: You remind me of Richard Price describing to me the art scene in New York. There are only X number of important walls in New York that X squared artists are vying for.

JS: Richard would know.

RB: I started thinking everybody ought to adopt an artist — given that contemporary culture doesn’t appear to value what goes into a life of creativity.

JS: Not for itself — if you get hot and get to be a celebrity–

RB: Sure, if you get hot.

JS: What I see is these young art people coming out of RISD are these Shepard Faireys — before he did that Obama, he did one for us. And he does this interesting avant-garde street stuff. But he also designed the new Mountain Dew can. Who’s the other guy from Texas, he’s an artist but he directs movies? He did that Basquiat movie.

RB: Julian Schnabel. He’s from Texas?

JS: Brownsville. He’s done a couple of really good movies. He did the Cuban one [Before Night Falls].

RB: I ate at the same parador in Havana that he and his crew ate at — they have his picture on the wall. He didn’t film there but I guess he was doing research.

JS: He hangs out at the Nacional [in Havana] When I went to the Partagas cigar factory they proudly showed me the guest book and the guy who came before me was Arnold Schwarzenegger who came down illegally on an airplane bought cigars and went home. That’s a good example [Schnabel] of a guy with real business sense. The minute he got into art he said, how do I parlay this to become a brand? So there is that.

RB: He was controversial as an artist like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. He got real credence with his movies.

JS: There’s a guy who is an heir of big Chicago fortune. He had a band for 10 years and he just made a movie — I knew the gaffers and some people who worked on it. Every great black character actor is in it. I hear he spent over 105 million dollars of his own money. I spent my own money too, but it’s like 1.5 million.

RB: (laughs)

JS: First of all I hope it’s good because I want to see a good movie. Second of all, he put it where his mouth is — it’s not a lot of his money, he has a lot more. Are you going to hold him to a higher standard than someone who only had a quarter of a million dollars? Mel Gibson used his own money to make his movies. Some of them were good.

RB: Which ones?

JS: You know I liked parts of Apocalypto. There are some good ideas.

RB: That’s the one after the Christ movie.

JS: Yeah.

RB: Do you read much contemporary fiction?

JS: I don’t get to read much fiction. I get to read things that I am asked to write screenplays of, research. As I said, I am still catching up with these classic books. I read in Spanish, so I read some of those people. Names go by me and they may be really well known and I don’t know who they are.

RB: I was wondering if there was anything recent that you had read that you were dying to do?

coverJS: The first screenplay I ever wrote — for people to see a screenplay, was based on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Which is incredible in its cinematic imagery and iconography and stuff like that. I adapted — this was a job I got paid for and was never meant to be the director — Peter Matthiessen’s Killing Mr.Watson, with Tommy Lee Jones (in my mind, anyway).

RB: It wasn’t made was it?

JS: No. It would have been a great film.

RB: Yeah.

coverJS: There’s Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel — cause it’s this weird black humor comedy and strange baseball story. One of the lead characters name is Gil Gamesh—a banned baseball player who once killed an umpire with a fastball. So every once in a while there is something where I just say that would make a great movie. But usually the scale of it is just too outside my finances.

RB: No doubt that’s frustrating?

JS: I found other things to do.

RB: (laughs) You’ve learned.

JS: For a filmmaker to have made 17 movies in 35 years is pretty good. And most of them — we don’t always have enough money to do them justice, but most of them, there was no fighting a rear guard action against a studio to change things or tell you who to cast or whatever, so I have been really lucky.

RB: That would be a sign of success — being able to continue making what you want to make.

JS: I don’t know if I will be able to make another movie.

RB: Do you have that feeling every time you finish a film project?

JS: In the last 15 years, yeah. We only got to make Amigo because we discovered this story in the Philippines and there everything costs a third less.

RB: Did the Philippine government contribute?

JS: Not any money but the Minister of Education sent out a broadside to all the colleges and high schools saying this is a movie you should check out. We’re trying to get Noynoy [Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Cojuangco Aquino III] to come — he’s the president.

RB: What about the boxer, Manny Pacquiao?

JS: He has been in a couple of movies — he’s not much of an actor. He is in more commercials than anybody.

RB: Is he a god there?

JS: Oh yeah. He’s incredible.

RB: Is he running for president?

JS: He’s a congressman.

RB: And a basketball player. Wow.

JS: And a pretty good boxer. Imelda [Imelda Marcos, of 1060 pairs of shoes fame] is still in congress.

RB: I thought she was dead.

JS: He’s [Ferdinand Marcos, husband of Imelda] in a mausoleum in the dark. When you go to it and open the door the lights come on and there he is.

RB: Is it like Lenin’s Tomb?

JS: A little bit.

RB: The Marcos’s are not in total disgrace in the Philippines?

JS: You know it’s pretty factional. His family is pretty powerful. There is a church up where he is from and you go in and there is a big picture of him with angels and one of the angels is Imelda.

RB: Sounds primitively tribal.

JS: That‘s what the problem with the Philippine revolution was. You have a country where probably 12 languages are being spoken — at least five major ones. Filipino was made the national language and then people on the rest of the islands are pissed off because they don’t speak it.

RB: Should the Philippines be one country?

JS: Should anything — should Indonesia be a country? Should the United States be a country? We got lucky. We only had to massacre a lot of Native Americans and there was just empty space and every other place evolved from a lot of little warlords. Afghanistan — not a country.

RB: I think the word “balkanization” comes from the post-WWI attempt to create countries out of the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We see what’s happened there.

JS: Yugoslavia — not a good idea. It was a fiction but not in the minds of the people who created it. And still in Mexico, you go to the Indian villages and they are Huichol or whatever they are first. Then they may have some allegiance to the state politician and then Mexico, third or fourth.

RB: What percentage of Mexico is Indian?

coverJS: People who consider themselves Indians and not Latinos is probably 20 percent. If you look at the people’s faces — when we were making Men With Guns down there, our costume designer Mayes Rubeo, who is Mexican, had gotten these extras together, from the town — Zongolica. The extras from the town looked exactly like the people who came down from the mountains. But when we tried to put Indian stuff on the guys from the town, they said, literally, “What do I look like, Tonto?” And so, so many people are part or emotionally Indian but they don’t want to talk about it.

RB: I assume that these are the most impoverished people. Are there any recent films that have excited you?

JS: I really liked one that came out this year called Winter’s Bone. Really nicely made. Maggie [John’s partner] read the book and actually felt like they made some improvements in the film — you know streamlined it. The filmmaking is very good and the casting is very good. So the technical aspects, even though they are modest, really work well.

RB: Someone told me that they even managed to make the trees look ugly.

JS: It’s interesting because it could have been made into Thunder Road, a similar movie they made about moonshiners in the late 50s, early 60s. Those same guys who were making moonshine are now making crank.

RB: The movie managed to make a part of America look more foreign than Afghanistan.

JS: There is a redneck America that’s pretty scary.

covercoverRB: There’s a writer named Joe Bageant who just published a book called Rainbow Pie, A Redneck Memoir. He just passed away while he was living in Mexico looking for cancer curatives. He insists the white underclass in this country is invisible and disenfranchised.

JS: Harry Crews is great about those people — there’s a line from his autobiography [A Childhood: The Biography of a Place], “I was the only kid in my neighborhood who didn’t have pellagra [a vitamin deficiency disease].” He learned how to read, his mother barely did. The man he thought was his dad but was really his uncle really didn’t read. And they were just getting by, barely, barely. We shot down in Greenville, Alabama and all around Greenville there are these little towns, half the town burned down and they just left them that way because they had no money to rebuild.

RB: What did you shoot there?

JS: We shot Honeydripper — in Greenville and Georgiana, Alabama, which is where Hank Williams grew up.

RB: How did you come to that area?

JS: You know we were looking for cotton fields; we were looking for locals that understood that it would be a good thing for a movie to come there. And they have a very good film commission.

RB: Alabama?

JS: Yeah. So we found some cotton fields and of course people reneged at the last moment — we’d wake up in the morning and they would have harvested our set. It turned out fine and the guy who was the mayor of the town was cool. That really helped.

RB: Isn’t there a story in A Moment in the Sun that you could make on the cheap?

JS: The problem is if you are going to use professional actors you are paying union wages, using a professional crew, you are paying union wages. So in this country you are talking about 3-5 million dollars. That’s a lot of money.

RB: Not when movies are made for hundreds of millions–

JS: Yeah but for an independent film where you are not going to get any money back–

RB: No, I understand. Why are you not going to get any money back?

JS: What comes back to the filmmaker is very small. Our movies don’t even play the art house circuit — we’re just not on the list. So if we make a movie for a million and a half we have a chance of getting some of our money back. If we hit 3-5 million forget it.

RB: Who knew? I have always looked at you as a perennial–

JS: Well, we’re perennial because we like to do it despite not getting any money back. And I have this bread job.

RB: I’m looking for one of those.

JS: I’ve been very lucky — I don’t get paid as much as I used to as screenwriter. I don’t know anybody who does. There’s been an adjustment like in any down market.

RB: (laughs) A correction.

JS: Yeah, a correction. I could write a lot — I’ve written maybe 95 screenplays in over 35 years and even at scale that’s a lot of money. If I put three or four jobs together and don’t have a coke habit or a lifestyle that eats up a lot of money…

RB: So your intention is to continue to make movies as long as you can finance them?

JS: Yeah, I have a bunch of ideas…

RB: You are not tired of the struggle?

JS: No, the making of them when you get to make them is a lot of fun. And I like actors. We had a great crew in the Philippines — really talented people. So that part I like. And the actors, if you say here’s the limbo bar, you get scale but if you want to go under the limbo bar you can be in this movie, the actors are willing to do that. Because it’s about the acting. And the other thing that’s a relief — well first of all we are very efficient. It’s only five weeks out of their moneymaking schedule if they are working for scale. The other thing is the deal is just with me — we’re going to work on this together. I edit it. It’s not between you, me, a studio head and a focus group in Milwaukee. There is something where they trust me to use their best work.

RB: I’ve worked on a few small film projects and it was just fun.

JS: It can be. It should be. There is a great quote from Ingmar Bergman where someone asked him, ”Why don’t you work in Hollywood?” His answer was, “You know in my country we make movies with 20 of our friends. In your country, you make them with 100 of your enemies.” That’s not exactly true but it can happen that way. You can be making a movie for studio and the director is very hostile — I basically avoid that.

RB: One of the attractive things about Robert Altman seemed to be his concern for the actors and crew.

JS: My friend Mary Cybulski, who is a good script supervisor and now a stills photographer, who shot stills on Amigo, worked for him. She said it was like this hippy colony that would come together for one movie — everybody was invited to dailies, we’re all in this together. And that was a lot of what he enjoyed about filmmaking, was this group of people who got together to do this thing. He was still in charge of it, but there was this feeling that you didn’t need to be afraid to say, ”I have this idea.” He might try it, even if it was a lousy one.

RB: There was a recent biography of Altman that was excellent — basically it was an oral history, using mainly interviews from a broad stripe of people [in their own words] who knew and dealt with him.

JS: Also, he got the biggest compliment, which I sometimes get, which is that these really well known actors were willing to work for scale, or a lot less than they would normally get, just to be in his movies. Woody Allen gets that. I am amazed sometimes who says yes. For Matewan we spent quite a bit of time looking for a James Earl Jones type because we thought we would never get him. It was my third or fourth movie — we couldn’t find anyone who was going to be right for the part. We were already in West Virginia and finally contacted his agent and the agent, thank god, they don’t always, passed our request on to James Earl. I get a phone call and there’s Darth Vader — he asked me what it was about. And he was a great guy to work with. So you do have to ask — you never know.

RB: That’s right.  I‘ve always thought that we are two phone calls from someone for which we have an idea.

JS: And not if that person has become such a citadel. For instance, for about two weeks there was a chance I was going to write a script about Django Reinhardt for Johnny Depp. Apparently Depp wants to play Django — to the point he‘s learned how to play the instrument [guitar]. He really wants to do it but he is so booked, and because people didn’t get into gear quick enough they lost their opportunity; Johnny was gone for another two years. So you can get the phone call but the phone call is, “Ok call us in two years because he would love to play him.”

RB: I guess when you are hot that’s what you do.

JS: I’m sure that every once in a while they say to their people I need two months. Tell the people who are waiting for me if they can wait two more months I’ll do it then.

RB: Where are you in your travels for this book?

JS: We are really at the beginning of our tour. We have done Hartford — read a couple of Mark Twain chapters there because his house is there.

RB: He has one in Elmira NY — as is his grave.

JS: We did Philadelphia last night. Boston tonight, then New York, Baltimore and D.C., then Ashville, North Carolina. Lexington, Kentucky. Will Oldham who is now kind of a rock star, who was the kid in Matewan, we’ll stay with him there. Then to Oxford, Mississippi. We are staying three blocks from Faulkner’s house.

RB: Do you know Richard Ford?

JS: I know who he is.

RB: Ole Miss just gave him [and his wife] a professorship. They seem to be pumping up that department — Tom Franklin is there.

JS: That’s good. There’s a great article — years and years and years ago Terry Southern wrote an article for Esquire, just when Faulkner was getting the Nobel Prize, Southern decided to go to Faulkner’s neighborhood to see what they [his neighbors] think. He was from Texas, but they still could tell he was an outsider. So everywhere he went, people’s voices would go up. Either they would say, “It’s only the outside agitators who are making trouble down here.” Or else they would start saying “nigger” just to see if they could get a rise out of him. He was already freaked out. And then he decides to go to the public library to see if they have any of Faulkner’s books. There are three books by Faulkner there and every one has “nigger lover” scrawled right on the inside cover.

RB: Oxford is pumped up to be the Austin, Texas of Mississippi — an island of worldliness in a desert of parochialism.

JS: I lived in Atlanta for a while and the joke was because Athens, Georgia was nearby — Athens is pretty hip now, but at that time it was really redneck. The whole joke was that if Atlanta was the Athens of Georgia, what’s Athens? Atlanta is not the Athens of anything. But it was more livable than a lot of other places in Georgia. But places change–

RB: Have you spent any time on the Gulf Coast — Mobile, Alabama?

JS: Yeah a little bit. But more in the Redneck Riviera in Florida. But a little in Mobile–

RB: That strikes me as nice place to live.

JS: It’s interesting. Mobile has a Mardi Gras and only two years ago it had two Mardi Gras. It was only two years ago, the king and queen of the white Mardi Gras allowed the king and queen of the black Mardi gras to come and visit for an hour. And then they all went to the black Mardis Gras. And it was like we aren’t going to have one Mardi Gras, but we are going to at least acknowledge each other. It was a big deal. Mardi Gras started in Mobile. It’s an old French Cajun tradition.

RB: I don’t think of Mobile as having French influence.

JS: They have quite a bit. You go there and there is still some of that Cajun influence there. Pirates were there. I worked almost a year for a movie called The Alamo. Remember I said there were movies for which I didn’t want credit? They didn’t keep any of my stuff. One of the problems was, the studio making it was Disney and it was right after 9/11 and they wanted something to wave the flag about. And I said, this is nothing to wave anybody’s flag about. The Mexicans acted terribly and the freedom that the white guys, the Americans, were fighting for was the freedom to own slaves. That’s what they were pissed off about — Mexico had outlawed slavery. You couldn’t get rich without slaves — in the cotton and cane business. And their buddies over in Louisiana were getting filthy rich. So there was this incredible cognitive dissonance [about the making of the film] — we don’t want to know that about our history. One of the things I ran into was that Jean Lafitte, like most pirates, was in the slave business. He would sell black people for a dollar a pound — literally a dollar a pound — to Jim Bowie, who had an in with the Louisiana territorial government — it was illegal at the time to import slaves. He’d bring these slaves in for a dollar a pound. And Bowie would pretend he was trying to stamp this out — he’d claim the people who brought in the slaves ran away. And then there was an auction, which of course was fixed to sell the slaves at a fixed price to the people that ordered them in the first place. You always think of Lafitte as this independent guy but forget like all pirates he was in the slave business. And he had connections in New Orleans — that’s he how ended up in the Battle of New Orleans. He kind of said, who’s going to win this thing?

RB: Speaking of New Orleans, do you pay attention to David Simon’s Treme on HBO?

JS: I’ve seen only a couple of times — I don’t get time to be anywhere to see it. I like it. I’ve worked with John Goodman [who is in Treme] a couple of times as an actor. I like him. I have written five different screenplays set in New Orleans. I did a major treatment for a miniseries on Louis Armstrong. So it’s a place where I really know the history. It’s still a fascinating community. I have friends who live there. It’s always fun to visit.

RB: What about The Wire?

JS: I‘ve seen bits of each season, two or three shows. That’s one of the things Maggie and I talk about, when we are home for a couple months, we’ll watch the whole thing.

RB: That’s the way to watch it.

JS: I have friends who worked on it. What I liked about it was that although it had the cop thing going for it, it got into these other areas and showed how things are interconnected — politics, the waterfront [unions] and the press and schools and everything like that.

RB: I taught in the Chicago Public Schools and the season in the school was dead on — it even brought back the smells.

JS: Charles Dutton [the actor] knows some of these guys in prison and Simon used some of their real names in the series. And they are trying to get paroled — they’ve been in for 20-25 years and ”this is not helping us to relive our old crimes.”

RB: It’s cool that HBO is using established fiction writers.

JS: I’ve done probably five projects for them. I was even on a Howard Zinn project.

RB: Oh, right. It became The People Speak.

JS: Well, yeah. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck godfathered it. I wrote one about the mill girls in [Lawrence] Massachusetts. It was fun. And it was good. And then they just said, “Ehhh, every week it’s a different story.” That was my experience. The writing was fun. They don’t pay that much compared to features.

RB: Don’t you get it on the backside?

JS: If it happens.

RB: The Wire must have big DVD sales. Deadwood.

JS: Those are where they win their Emmys. The Sopranos and True Blood, Big Love. That’s where they make their money. It’s a funny business because they are not selling commercial time. They are trying to get people to subscribe because I watch this one — when I get my new cable package I have to get HBO. Showtime does the same thing. Some of the other cable networks still sell commercials. I am learning this because I am working for some of these guys. Whenever I come in they say, so this is an hour show. And I have to ask, “How long is your hour?” For HBO it might be 54-56 minutes and the advertising is for their own shows. On something like USA [Network] it might be 43 minutes and that’s more like working for the networks.

RB: Has the digitalization and miniaturization of the hardware made it easier to make films?

JS: Yeah, this last one, Amigo we shot on a Red camera, a kind of digital camera. You don’t have to buy the film or develop film. That saved is quite a bit of money. And everybody edits on digital already, this way it’s already on digital. There’s only one version. Over 50 percent of the movie theaters are showing digital around the country.

RB: Is there still a noticeable difference between film and digital?

JS: There used to be — it’s gotten better. In the first years it was like any home camera used to be — everything was always in focus. So no matter what focal length you wanted. Now they are using film lenses so if you want to throw the focus out and concentrate the eye of the viewer on a certain thing, you can do it. And the ability to look into a bright sky and not have it burn out is getting a little better — you still have to be careful where you point it. There are maybe three shots in Amigo I don’t like.

RB: That should increase the amount of time during the day you can shoot.

JS: A little. The initializing, when the computer has to reboot, is a lot shorter. A 10-minute reel is the most you can get into a 35mm magazine, so you shoot 10 minutes. Plus you can shoot with a second camera without wasting film, so even if most of it is not usable it’s great.

RB: Has it changed the way you perceive the images?

JS: Uh, nope. Really, what it is, I have made enough movies now — it changes the way you schedule your day. When you choose second camera positions well, it means your actors don’t have to do a comedy scene 20 times. If you are going to do three different angles, you only have to do it 10 times. That’s nice to have. Three movies ago I switched from editing on film and splicing and all that stuff to doing it by computer. I am not a great computer guy, but I learned it. I learned it in a day. The nice thing about it is I save an hour a day just not changing reels.

RB: Does what used to cost five million dollars now cost, say three million?

JS: More like half of the film stock outlay. The thing is on a 20 million dollar or more movie it still will only save you half of the film stock cost, but if you are a low budget filmmaker, that’s a big deal.

RB: So how long is it going to take you to get back home?

JS: A month. We have a couple days at home and then we go to the Philippines where Amigo is opening on July 4 — the former Philippine-American friendship day.

RB: What is it now?

JS: They finally de-emphasized — well, we left.

RB: What happened to Subic Naval Base?

JS: It’s gone. Clark Air Force base too. Subic is now the world’s biggest duty free place—it’s an economic zone. All the old military buildings are like malls. And there’s one Filipino family — somebody married in — the O’Donnell family or something like that and they run that whole area and Clark, which was in Angeles City — we were kind of giving it up, and then taking it back and then Pinatubo erupted and covered half of it with volcanic dust. (Both laugh). So when we made Amigo it’s about bunch of Americans who are garrisoned in this little Filipino town — now there are no Americans here. So we had to get all our friends, their sons, between college semesters, if you can get your ass here you can be in a movie. We had a German guy, with prison tattoos from East Germany. A couple of Latin Americans–

RB: So what’s your plan with this movie?

JS: It will open in the States in August 19, mostly in cities with large Filipino communities.

RB: Which are?

JS: San Francisco. LA. San Diego. Novato, California. Chicago, around New York there’s a couple places. Near Phoenix. Jersey City. And then the second tier is to go to the regular art theaters. So we’ll see what the traffic will bear. We didn’t do very well with Honeydripper, unfortunately, which people really loved if they saw it.

RB: I didn’t see it.

JS: It only played here for a week.

RB: Going to the movie theater is not much of an experience.

JS: A lot of them have no personality.

RB: What are going to do come September?

JS: I already have three or four writing jobs so I‘ll be writing for someone. I met the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and they have been wanting to have a movie made about that case for a long time. And there is all this new information. So I have written a script on that and it’s out in the world of people trying to raise money for it. None has been raised yet. So that’s a possibility. It would be great to start to prep for that movie. And if that doesn’t happen, in about a year we will reassess, if it seems impossible, maybe I write something that can be made for less. Or just not make movies — that’s always a possibility.

RB: What about writing crap (laughs)?

JS: You know I get hired to write stuff they don’t want to be crap — some of it doesn’t turn out very well. Most of it just doesn’t get made. In the Writer’s Guild there is this thing we all have to deal with — nobody likes to be rewritten, but if they didn’t rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, we wouldn’t have much work. If everyone only wrote one script there would only be a fraction of the work. So I am happy rewriting something or being rewritten. And you hope it turns out well. You hope it gets made, first.  You get more money if it gets made. I worked on Apollo 13 — I didn’t get credit on it but it was really fun to work on it. It was a really good movie. It was a satisfying experience.

RB: Directed by Philip Kaufman.

JS: No that was the Right Stuff. Ron Howard did Apollo 13. Kauffman’s making a movie — hasn’t directed in seven or eight years. A friend of mine is in it — about Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. We’ll see.

RB: Who plays them?

JS: Nicole Kidman and a British actor who played in Croupier [Clive Owen]. Neither of whom is American

RB: So, I know you have to join the soiree upstairs. Thanks very much.

JS: Thank you

Image Credit: Robert Birnbaum





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7 Responses to “Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles”

  1. Sayles /Amigo « ourmaninboston
    at 1:14 pm on October 20, 2011

    […] I am trying to recall if there is another artist like filmmaker-novelist John Sayles—it may be a failure of cultural literacy, I can’t think of one. Maybe you can answer that. Anyway, my second conversation with Sayles is available over at the Millions. […]

  2. Jack M
    at 3:29 pm on October 20, 2011

    For Mr. Birnbaum and Mr. Sayles, I would suggest you do read War and Peace. The Russian names should not deter anyone from successfully completing it.

  3. Jack F
    at 11:52 pm on October 20, 2011

    This was really good Robert. John Sayles has made some of my favorite movies and it was fascinating to hear his attitude. For anyone this far along I suggest watching ‘Limbo’. It’s not hollywood but it’s a helluva experience.

  4. Steven Augustine
    at 5:21 pm on October 23, 2011

    “JS: […] There is a church up where he is from and you go in and there is a big picture of him with angels and one of the angels is Imelda.

    RB: Sounds primitively tribal.”

    Unlike our JFK, Jackie, Marilyn, Elvis and Michael Jackson fetishes…

  5. Borges Was Right & More | Red Weather Review
    at 8:22 am on October 24, 2011

    […] Birnbaum talks with John Sayles (A Moment in the […]

  6. jessica handler
    at 10:07 am on October 24, 2011

    Will John Sayles be reading from A Moment in the Sun in the Atlanta area? (Or Athens…) I would hate to miss it, but can’t find any tour info.

    Tremendous, important book, and I’d write him and tell him so if I know how to get in touch with him.

  7. Dark Corners (of United States History) « ourmaninboston
    at 1:39 pm on February 24, 2012

    […] additionally I had a lengthy conversation with John Sayles about his riveting novel A Moment in The Sun […]

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