John Sayles, one of the forefathers of American independent cinema, made a movie about another Northeastern city in the early 1990s, a city that looked a lot like New Haven.
It still does—and he’s coming to town to watch it again along with a bunch of his other masterworks.
From 1979’s Return of the Secaucus Seven to 2013’s Go for Sisters, Sayles and his long-time producer Maggie Renzi have been making movies that consistently explore the political compromises, cultural ideals, and socioeconomic realities that define contemporary American life.
In anticipation of this weekend’s screenings of four of Sayles’ films at the Whitney Humanities Center as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, the Independent spoke with Sayles about his career as a writer and actor and director, his approach to making movies, and the future of independent cinema.
Independent: How did you get involved with the Arts & Ideas Festival?
Sayles (pictured above): We moved to Guilford about a year ago, and gradually ended up doing a couple classes at Yale. I did a creative writing class, I did a film class, I think I did an urban ethnography class, things like that. At those we met Charles Musser, the film and media professor at Yale, and he invited us to take part in the festival.
Independent: Did you help select the films for this weekend’s screenings?
Sayles: Maggie [Renzi] was more involved in picking the films. But we knew which dates the festival had available, and we recommended some films that we thought were not seen that often.
Independent: I’d love to spend a moment on each of these films, some of which are over 30 years old. How do they hold up now in your estimation?
Sayles: With any independent filmmaker, the main thing is: it’s amazing that they got made. Some of them were made with just our own money, and others had some outside money, but they were all difficult. Go for Sisters (2013) and Brother from Another Planet (1984) were both shot in four weeks, City of Hope (1991) was only five weeks, Sunshine State (2002) was six. When you as the filmmaker watch them, you’re just amazed that they’re there. But I’m very happy the way they came out, especially the acting, which is really good in all of them. As we continue to make movies, the biggest compliment we get is when actors say they want to be in one, though we’re paying scale, and it’s not going to be a movie with a huge amount of money behind it. Movies like City of Hope and Sunshine State and Go for Sisters, which were later in the period in which we were making movies, really have incredible casts.
Independent: Have you watched any of these films recently?
Sayles: I haven’t seen City of Hope for quite a while. It’s the one of our movies that’s not easily available on DVD, and is thus the most difficult to see. City of Hope is the one that I will actually go to and watch this weekend, and not just go to and talk about.
Independent: City of Hope and Sunshine State resonated most with me as a resident of New Haven: much like the unnamed city in City of Hope, this is still a very segregated city; it is a city under development, with some very visible, high-profile construction projects …
Sayles: About a year after City of Hope came out, I went to a benefit screening up at Hartford for a reform mayor who was then out of office and wanted to retire her debt. After she saw the movie, she said, “How did you get the camera to follow me around?” Because it was so familiar. What I think is interesting about these films is the issues they deal with, they’re still with us. Cities still have these problems. We were in Detroit recently, and that’s the poster child for the ills of the former Northeastern cities where the manufacturing base is gone and the people haven’t all gone, and what do you do then? The other thing I feel about City of Hope is that I should get credit for inventing the Obamas. Because with Angela Bassett and Joe Morton’s characters, it’s like, oh, those are the Obamas, when he was still a community organizer.
Independent: Another major theme of City of Hope is the vicious cycle between police abuse of an African-American community and how those abuses manifest themselves on the other end. After a year of very visible instances of this tension, from Ferguson to Staten Island to South Carolina to Baltimore, this seems like a relevant issue to bring up in film. City of Hope struck me as unique in its dealing with that issue in a very direct way.
Sayles: Yeah, there were other movies after City of Hope that were more studio releases, like Crash, which dealt with some of the same things, lots of parallel stories going, Los Angeles-based. But a lot of what I do is I look at what’s out there at the moment. Some things change. For example, since I made Lone Star, the border has changed just because drugs have made the game much more serious, in terms of people crossing the border. The border-control people are wearing body armor now, which was not true when we were making the movie. Go for Sisters deals with some of the same things that I dealt with in Lone Star, but there are a lot of new elements added. In Go for Sisters, a lot of Mexican people were going back home, because there was an economic downturn and there wasn’t enough work in the US, whereas the Chinese people were still coming. So the focus of the border patrol people was more on the Chinese than on the Mexicans. But even though some of the players change, the societal issues and personal issues don’t go away. If you’re a politician, and you want to be a public servant, you still have to stay in office. We still have this phenomenon in which even the best politicians who want to be public servants have to stay in office, and they very quickly realize, “if I want to stay in office, I need campaign money; and who do I have to make a deal with to get backing?” And at what point does the “public service” thing get pushed to the background and the “I just need to get re-elected thing” go to the foreground?
Independent: Go for Sisters is very much interested in the Mexican-American border, which comes up in so many of your films. There’s a surreal aspect to the border in this movie. It’s almost a dangerous theme park where people go to experience an idea of Mexico.
Sayles: I’m interested in where Americans go within these places. Even the license plates that you get at the border say “Frontera,” as kind of an agreement between Mexico and the United States, so that the cops can see, okay, this guy’s on this side of the border, he’s probably just doing business, he’s got border plates. When we shot in the red light district in Tijuana for Go for Sisters, it was probably the safest place in all of Mexico, because there were so many cops there and the lights never go off, and people are doing business and making money. They want to keep that going, so everybody else is kind of told, “Hands off here.” There is that kind of strange otherwordliness to the border, whereas if you go 10 or 15 miles south of those cities on the border, it’s a very different world.
Independent: That reminds me of the whole journey of Brother from Another Planet, in which this being has escaped to a world south of his border and is experiencing this world in a very unfamiliar way.
Sayles: Yeah, he’s basically an illegal alien [laughs]. And a lot of the movie is not so much about immigration as it is about, how do you become American? How do you assimilate? What do you have to push to the background about your old self to survive in this new place where you’re, at least in his case, kind of stuck?
Independent: A lot of your movies seem to posit that becoming American means dropping your idealism. Characters start out with a certain vision of what being an American and living in America must mean, and then have to quickly adapt to realities that aren’t too kind.
Sayles: Yeah, but that can cut both ways. If you think of Sunshine State, the character that Ralph Waite plays was somebody who was just an unthinking racist, and when he was finally forced to integrate his restaurant, he realized, oh, that really wasn’t such a big deal. He had an ideal in his head that he had to give up, and he realized that it was kind of a false ideal. So it’s not really all just losing your innocence or giving up your values. You have to deal with change. You have to deal with the fact that the way you wanted the world to turn out, your ideal idea of it, is not going to happen. So now how do you deal with that?
Independent: I’ve read that you never want to condescend to your audience. You assume a certain level of intelligence, which allows for complex narratives and ambiguous characters. How do you make sure that such complex stories come off clearly?
Sayles: One of the things you do is you try to make the movies as cheaply as possible, while still keeping the quality high, because you realize it’s not going to be a movie that everybody is going to like. And then another thing you do is you make sure that there are some characters you like and identify with. That will carry people pretty far. A lot of the protagonists of our movies are people caught between a rock and a hard place, and there’s not a perfect way out; they can’t just shoot the bad guy and save the day. Hoping that they’re going to do a good thing, or a less bad thing, is part of what you want to get the audience caught up in.
Independent: I’ve heard you define independent cinema as more an issue of independence of vision, of being able to tell a story without making any compromises, than it is about whether or not you get money from a studio. Is that still how you imagine independent cinema?
Sayles: To a certain extent. Practically, though, there’s always going to be this very fringe group of people who somehow scrape it together to make at least one movie. Some of those movies will be watchable, few of those will be good, and even fewer of those will be really good. That’s not necessarily sustainable. So there’s that kind of independent filmmaking. And then there are the people who are within the mainstream who continue to make basically the movies they want to make, despite the fact that they’re getting studio money. The Coen Brothers’ movies are quirky to the point where people give them money, sometimes based on their cast, but it’s the cast that they want. They pretty much make the movie that they want to make, and it’s not necessarily something that the studio would let anybody else make. So there’s that. But right now, a lot of the best work is happening in long-form television. I think that some of the reason why there’s such high quality there is that it’s writer-centric. Very often you have a single writer who creates the show and, even if they don’t write every episode, they’re there in the room and really controlling the voice of the subsequent episodes. A lot of those shows are based on murders and serial killers and stuff like that, but then you’ll get something like Mad Men that lasts a certain number of seasons and the quality stays relatively high. That’s a great new outlet. That didn’t used to exist, where you could get away with making 8-12 new shows per year. That’s just how the viewership and the economics of commercial television have changed.
Independent: Have you found yourself writing for television?
Sayles: Oh yeah, I make a living as a writer, and I’ve certainly pitched and written pilots for a bunch of things, though none of them have gotten on the air yet. It’s another avenue for a writer-for-hire to get work, and sometimes very good work.
Independent: From what I understand, you’ve been able to finance a lot of your own movies through the money you’ve made writing-for-hire.
Sayles: Yeah, in the past, we’ve often put our own money into things; sometimes, in the case of the really low-budget movies, it’s all of the money. But I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to continue to do that. I’m pretty much making movies with Screen Actors Guild actors and union crews these days, and that makes it a much more expensive proposition then when you’re just starting out. I just don’t make as much money as a writer as I used to, so I’m not sure if I’m ever going to get to make another movie with my own money. The one thing that’s a little bit cheaper is that you don’t have to shoot on film anymore, you can shoot on digital. So you don’t have to buy film stock and develop it, which often used to be half the budget on a very low budget movie. So it’s a little more accessible to shoot a movie for people who are just starting out than it used to be, but it’s still an expensive form of entertainment. As I always say, on your second movie, you either have to start paying people or get new friends.
Independent: What contemporary films and filmmakers are you most excited about?
Sayles: I don’t get to see as many movies as I should, but there’s a bunch of people that I always look out for. I was just in a meeting with Cary Fukanaga, who directed Sin Nombre and did some of the True Detective stuff. He’s a very good director. Karyn Kusama, who used to be an assistant of mine, is a director to watch; she just made an independent horror thriller called The Invitation. But what I wonder about is the future of theatrical movie-going at all, because so many of the young people I know just don’t go to the movies, and instead watch movies on their computers. So what the studios are saying is, okay, we’re going to make these big tent-pole movies that you have to see in a big theater in order to really appreciate, and everything else is TV as far as we’re concerned. And with TV, it’s a very fractured audience, which is good and bad. The good thing is, if you’ve got an idea for a TV series, there’s like 40 places you can go. Some of them pay better than others, some of them put more money into the production than others, some of them have a heavier hand in supervising than others, but there’s a lot of places. When I started writing, there were only three networks, and so if you got a 30 share, if 30 percent of the people who were watching TV were watching your show, that show was going to stay on. Now, if you get like 5 percent of the people, that’s a huge hit. These little niche audiences are so small that you can do something that everybody in the world doesn’t have to like. It doesn’t have to be that general. The flip side of that, of course, is that figuring out what the large popular audience wants to see becomes harder and harder for the mainstream movie industry. They’re putting most of their effort into movies that do well overseas, because they’re making more than half of their money on video and foreign sales, and the US market is a bit of a loss leader. I’m like everybody else in the movie business, just wondering economically how this thing is going to move forward.
Independent: When you look out into the world, what do you see that you think is not being adequately represented on the big screen? What do you want to make sure that people are thinking about?
Sayles: I think that one of the things that really defines our time is that our elected officials, although ostensibly elected by the people, are really beholden to the lobbyists and corporations that put up most of the money for their campaigns. They’ll try to figure out something on the surface that their constituents care about, some hot button issue, and talk a good game against it and try to get votes. But really who they’re serving are the vested interests who put them in office. That’s not exactly new, but it has gotten so rampant. And what I’m really interested in is when people can’t articulate quite what they don’t like about their politicians, they just know they don’t like them. And that’s something that’s hard to dramatize. There are a lot of political shows, and they tend to revert to extreme melodrama fairly quickly, you know, the vice president in the next room strangling his mistress, instead of talking about what’s really going on.
Four of John Sayles’s films will be screening this weekend at the Whitney Humanities Center as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas. Brother from Another Planet will play tonight at 7 p.m.; City of Hope tomorrow at 12:30 p.m.; Sunshine State tomorrow at 4 p.m.; and Go for Sisters on Sunday at 1 p.m.. John Sayles and Maggie Renzi will also hold a conversation about these films on Saturday at 3 p.m.