During our interview John Sayles provided answers to questions I had waited years to ask him. His films provide an overview of ordinary people caught up in the events that shape our times. As their lives intersect in ways that they may not understand, we as the audience are provided with new insight about the people and places we think we already know.
I was first introduced to his films when I saw City of Hope on the big screen during its 1991 release. I drove over 40 miles to an art house theater in Los Angeles based on positive reviews and the subject matter of the film. Political activism runs in my family, and the subject matter had aroused my curiosity. The machinery of political decision-making is more complex than most of the public understands, and like many things in life, the final outcome tends to be more about the individual personalities involved than it is about effective governance. The other thing I've learned is that it is possible for an idealistic individual to prevail, but the chances are slim without our active engagement as citizens in a democracy.
"We’re so often disappointed in our politicians, but you know what, sometimes our politicians are disappointed in us," Sayles told me.
MD: In Honeydripper a wealthy woman who originated from a lower class background talks to her black maid about the challenges she faced trying to fit into her husband’s high society world. It's an impactful scene on many levels. I'm amazed by the way you create a bridge between different worlds.
JS: That’s not even a bridge. That’s her talking and thinking she’s got this incredible rapport, and her maid, understanding what she’s talking about, but knowing that her employer has missed the last 12 years of her daughter’s life, so she’s kind of surprised when she sees her (the maid's daughter). Oh my God, you’re a teenager already.
JS: There are a couple of brilliant things that James Cameron did in Titanic. This is the Titanic. The boat’s going to sink—no surprise, but he puts in this... kind of a PBS wraparound thing at the beginning of it where you’re looking at a computer screen, and it shows you how the thing sank and everything. You’re getting all this exposition. I thought, why is James doing this? And then I realize now I know exactly where the kids shouldn’t go. Oh no, don’t go to that side. He’s actually providing you more information, so you’re more worried about these two kids. Are they going to survive what we know is in front of them? We know there’s a monster behind that door. Don’t open that door. And that’s a lot of what you try to do with characters' points of view. Most of our movies are kind of multiples. You try to get at least a couple of characters that the audience wants it to turn out well for them. But you give them enough information that the audience knows a little bit more than the characters.
MD: How did you learn to be a screenwriter? Did you have a mentor?
JS: I watched a lot of movies. I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t take many writing courses. Quentin Tarantino said his film school was working in a video store. When it got slow he’d run movies. The second thing you do is you learn by doing it and develop the muscles. I’ve been writing for 30 or 40 years. I sold my first novel when I was 25. I think I started writing screenplays professionally when I was 28. You write a lot of stuff. Some of it’s not very good, but you rewrite it and you keep writing.
It’s kind of like an athlete who cross-trains. You keep the muscles working and you solve problems. Even without remembering where you solved it before, when you come up with another problem, you say “I know how to do this.” And the same thing with listening to dialogue or working with actors. You hope you get better. If you don’t get bored and lazy, you probably will get better. You look at professional athletes, and the smart ones last a long time because about halfway through their career, they realized I’m not going to always have this, and they start to say, “I better develop a screw ball, or I better start taking better care of my knees and ankles." Michael Jordan hired a trainer to do nothing but tell him about the injuries that most athletes will get in two years. (The trainer said) "here’s some exercises so you don’t end up with those injuries."
MD: What advice do you have for novice filmmakers?
JS: I occasionally speak to film students. I tell them the best thing you can do if you want to be a director is rent three of your favorite movies, turn the sound off, and watch each one of them twice. Stop the thing in the middle of a scene and ask, where is the camera? What lens is in it? --not the actual type of lens, so much as the type of shot. Is the camera moving or not? Why is the camera where it is? How is that telling the story? If you can figure that out, you’re starting on the thing that a director has to go through to make a movie.
The rest of it is writer’s stuff, and the rest of it is director’s stuff with actors. There is that part where people come up to you with a blank look on their face and ask “what are we doing?” You have to say, “the camera goes over here… it’s going to be low and then we’re moving here, and then we’re moving there, and that’s all the coverage we’re doing for the scene,” and there should be a reason for each of those things, and the reason should be a storytelling reason. And I think you learn that stuff from paying attention to other people’s movies.
MD: With 17 films under your belt, you're uniquely successful in the low budget world of indie filmmaking. How have you pulled that off so consistently?
JS: You kind of learn an innate sense of what costs time and money and what doesn’t. When I’m writing something, like in Amigo, I’m thinking I’m going to have five or six weeks to shoot this. What screenplay can I write where I can do it in five or six weeks? What scale can I put this on where I can do it well in five or six weeks? (For Amigo) how many Americans can I bring over who have lines that we can afford for five or six weeks? Every once in a while you combine a couple of characters, and say "wow, I eliminated an American and a plane ticket to and from... and that’s a hotel room."
It’s a pain in the ass to have to think that way, but it’s just part of the job. Even filmmakers who make big movies have to make those decisions. It’s usually not on that scale, but it may be that we can’t afford the insurance to shoot on a train. Let’s stage the shoot-out in the train station. I think that was in the Untouchables. It (the train station shootout) was written for a train. It would have been great on a train. They got the insurance bill for a moving train and saw what even a slow-moving train was going to cost, and (decided) maybe we can shoot this in the train station. Let’s find a great train station, and it worked.
Part 3: The Future of Independent Film