Over 25 years in the film industry have taken John Sayles from writing low-budget features for Roger Corman to writing, directing, and editing his own films. Sayles broke through in 1980 with indie Return of the Secaucus 7, followed by Lianna, Baby, It's You, The Brother From Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out, City of Hope, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, Men With Guns, Limbo, Sunshine State, Casa de los Babys, and now, Silver City. Of Sayles's 15 features, his longtime domestic partner Maggie Renzi has produced eleven of them, including Silver City; both Renzi and Sayles have acted in various of their films. Sayles is a published author and a Hollywood writer-for-hire in great demand, penning The Howling and The Clan of the Cave Bear and doctoring drafts of such films as Apollo 13, Mimic, The Fugitive, The Quick and the Dead, The Newton Boys, and The Alamo; he has also penned unproduced scripts commissioned by Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. I spoke to Sayles and Renzi at the San Francisco Hilton, on the last day of the ACLU Membership Conference.
Groucho: Well, it's an honor to speak with both of you.
John Sayles: Thanks.
G: Your credits and your films speak for themselves, but I'm gonna make you talk about them anyway.
G: A thing that popped up in my research is that you claim, self-effacingly, not to have a natural affinity for film as an art form. Is that—am I misquoting you there?
JS: Well, no. It's not about an affinity; it's not how I think of our movies, as art. You know, there's, you know—it's not a kind of criticism that I read very much, but there is a whole idea that if it's—if it's political at all, it can't be art. You know, if it deals with, you know, actually having some kind of feeling of "this is what's wrong, and this is what might be done about it," it can't be art. So it's, you know, I'm fine with that, you know. I don't really have to—I feel like I'm a storyteller—and that, you know, I don't consciously try to do something artistically. I do try to tell a story as best as I can. And use all the things that anybody, artist or not, uses to tell the story, and you know—but, but that's not how I come into it.
Maggie Renzi: You also don't call yourself an artist, and you refer to it more as a craft, I think.
MR: And then I've got the confusion of being a producer and, you know, completely obsessed with the commerce of it. And the, and the workers' rights and the safe workplace and you know, so—
MR: At which I think I'm very creative, but it's—I don't right away think of myself as an artist. Although I must say, the more I've been thinking about where the, the action and the resistance to—against Bush, for example, is coming from, so many of it, it's people that—and we have to be included among them—that are artists. The artists' voice, the musicians' and the filmmakers' are certainly—I mean, America should be proud of us. 'Cause we're the people who are—
MR: Oh, y'know, it goes without saying. Well.
JS: Yeah, but—
MR: Returning democracy.
G: Right, right. With this film Silver City, you're being mentioned in the same breath as Michael Moore a lot.
G: I know you've shared a stage with him recently, right? At the MoveOn event? Is that right?
JS: Yeah, yeah, when we were giving those, uh, awards out—
MR: Yeah, the "Bush in 30 Seconds."
JS: The "Bush in 30 Seconds" things. And we've run into Michael for years. He once, he once kind of got me into this thing where he and Pam Yates and a couple other political filmmakers came up to me when I was the emcee at the Sundance Awards Ceremony and—during the first Gulf War—saying, "You have to have a, I think that, you know, if Sundance Film Festival did a—y'know, some kind of statement against the war." And I said, "It's a bunch of white people with parkas. They're not political." And he said, "No, but you know, you should just ask." And so I said, "Does anybody here want to vote to make a statement against the war." And people really did not, you know, think that that was appropriate. So I managed to say, "Well, can we have a vote on the vote?" And everybody voted against having a vote. And that was it, but. . .
JS: So, you know, Michael's somebody we've run into for years.
MR: Hey, what a good association it would be for us.
MR: At the very minimum, because the film took in sixty million dollars on its first weekend.
G: Always the producer.
MR: Well, I like to think of him as that big frame pushing, you know, pushing a wedge through the crowd.
G: And you're in the wake.
MR: Yeah. And we're in the wake, along with other happy filmmakers. The Control Room people. And um—
JS: "The Selling of the President," and. . .
MR: Yeah. I mean it's— The Hunting of the President, I think. And there's a bunch of us who are really happy that Michael got there first.
JS: Yeah, 'cause he gets the conversation going.
MR: Yeah. Yeah, and I think the cool thing—we saw it last night at the ACLU, which is what we came here to San Francisco for, had a screening—and it's that pleasure that people have taken of looking around a big room and seeing people who feel the way that they feel. You know, whether you're a Star Trek, a Trekkie and you're getting to see the fourth Star Trek, or you're, you know, working for change in November, and you look around the room. And it's that thrill of recognizing that you're part of a tribe. It's cool.
G: And Silver City, of course, not so obliquely skewers the Bush Clan. Do you feel that the film has a shot at making a change in American politics?
JS: Well, I think—too soon to report—but I think that movies are just part of the conversation and that, you know, some people get their emotional information from rock and roll, some get it from newspapers, some get it from, y'know, the twenty-four hour news, some get it from, y'know, very esoteric little journals, some get it from more popular culture. Movies are more popular culture. So, y'know, this is a part of the conversation that says, "Okay you can watch a story that's a fiction story, and it can have something to do with what's going on in the world and guess what? There's a lot of straight lines you can draw from this to the people who are running our country right now. Now there's certainly a lot of other things in the movie that you could draw lines to democratic politicians, y'know, it's just that The Republicans don't have, y'know, they don't have, you know, the market cornered on politicians who are bought and paid for. And certainly there's some bigger issues that are, you know, that are general issues. I mean, I think an important thing for us to think about is, do we expect our candidates, no matter what party they're for, to actually be the people who have the political ideas, or do we just think, "Well, we're in a media age and they're gonna be like a newsreader who doesn't really know where Zambia is, when he's, in fact, y'know, reporting on the news in Zambia?" You know, as opposed to the reporter who went and got the story, y'know, but is not as photogenic. Y'know. And I think more and more, we start, especially in the bigger offices having people who are—
JS: Like Ronald Reagan, a spokesman—y'know, and he was a very good spokesman, y'know, and he believed what he was saying, y'know, even if he didn't know what it was sometimes. But he was a very good spokesman. Which Bush is not, an especially great spokesman. But, y'know, he was picked because of that. Because of his telegenic qualities, y'know. Arnold Schwarzenegger, I don't think anybody thought of him as a deep political thinker, y'know, he has ideas and stuff like that, y'know, or a great leader of men until, you know, the people who engineered him becoming the governor—anyhow, he may end up doing a good job, whatever, but they didn't pick him because he was the leading political thinker of California. Y'know, they picked him because he was willing to do it and people knew who he was. And that counts for a hell of a lot.
MR: I think there's this other thing which is that—yes, I do hope that this movie will influence what happens in November, and I think one way that it can is just to free people up a little bit to have a really good laugh about Bush. Y'know, it was un-democratic for a while to, not only, not have a laugh at him, but not to—y'know, I mean you had to—my president right or wrong? I thought we were done with that—
G: Right, right.
MR: You know, after the Vietnam War. So, from the very beginning I thought, what a great thing if people could just go into a dark room and have a good laugh about Bush. That, by itself, it makes a contribution to the process. And ridicule is, of course, a time-honored political tradition. Y'know, you think of Trollope or—or—um—
MR: Swift, let's say. You know, ridicule—people just go, is this a satire? Is this a parody? What this is so perfectly is ridicule. It puts up on a pedestal—so we can get a good look—the great, and have a good laugh at them. And that's a great tradition. It's a great tradition, among other things, of a free press and of a democracy. So I think people—I think, I think gathering people together is huge. That's what everybody's trying to do for November. It's that, get out the vote, get people to register to vote and bringing people together, I think it's, it's, it's what we all try to do as we gather to protest the war during the last year.
MR: It just does this now in a much more mainstream, much more acceptable, and even downright bourgeois pay-ten-dollars-for-your-ticket way and go do it.
G: Right. Y'know I checked out the "Dickie Pillager 2004" website.
MR: It's funny, isn't it?
G: It is very funny, yes. And, of course, it has the, the links to register to vote so—
G: It's pretty funny, the ironic juxtaposition of—
MR: Leads you right there.
G: —the character that you don't want in office, but the reminder to make sure that you vote.
G: Since we're talking about that character, let's talk a little bit about Chris Cooper, who I think, since you worked with him last, sort of exploded in Hollywood.
MR: Yeah, got an Academy Award.
G: Everybody else kind of caught on to what you always knew about him. What was your process like working on this project and this character which is so funny.
JS: Well, one thing is that—y'know, we—we—I hadn't—I did not have him in mind when I was writing the movie. And then Maggie started talking to me about, well, you know, Chris does George Bush to freak his wife out. Y'know—
MR: Chris would come into the house as George Bush.
JS: Yeah, and it's not so much an impression as an attitude thing. And y'know, and I said, "You're wrong about Chris" and, y'know, all this kind of stuff and then eventually came around to, "Yeah, well, he's such a good actor, he'll figure out something interesting to do with it."
JS: Y'know. And so, you know, eventually we came back to the idea and asked Chris to do it. What I do with all actors is—even if you've only got five lines in the movie—I send you a bio of the character. And the bio may be longer than your part but it tells you not only who you are in relation, and y'know, were you married and how did you get into the situation of the movie, but how you think, how you see the world. And then I ask actors, "If you have any questions about that from the script or from the bio, give me a call." But once we get to the, to the set, really I block the scene, but we don't rehearse. And then I step back and, at least the first couple takes, I just see what the actor's gonna do with it. Y'know, and Chris' instincts are very good, and he works really hard. And what I appreciated the most about it is I had written that fractured syntax that the character speaks in, but Chris had thought all the way down of where was he going.
JS: So when he gets off the track, he's got some momentum going.
JS: You know, and you can almost see the—"Oh yeah, that's a cliché, isn't it? And I forget exactly how the cliché goes, so I better ch—"or "This isn't what I'm supposed to say, is it? And so I better change it." And then he loses track of where he started out.
JS: It was very funny seeing, 'cause we hadn't seen Michael Moore's movie until last night. And last night at the ACLU, we showed some clips from the film and then it was just, my god! George Bush does a great Chris Cooper. G and
JS: You know, um, and he does that same thing where he starts off in one thing and—what was the one at the end of the cliché that he was doing—? Is "you can fool all the people—"
MR: "some of the—"
JS: And then he got it mixed up and then—and then "some of the time—" and then couldn't remember the rest of it, so he finishes with something. With a different cliché.
G: Right. This film is reminiscent of, I think, a lot of your films. And I think that a lot of—there's a continuity of themes.
G: You know, all the way back to Secaucus Seven, which was largely about disillusionment versus idealism. Your films don't attempt to give easy answers, which is admirable, but do you—what do you think is the path to a solution from this cycle of money and politics and the raping of the land. It seems—
JS: Well some of it is responsibility, and some of it's about personal responsibility, that if you look at the arc—I mean, you know, the people in power are not the only people I'm taking to task in this movie. I'm taking the media to task, you know. And, and then, individuals. And Danny's arc is one where, he's a guy who has just said, "Well I didn't win, you know, I did my best, and they rejected me. In fact, I got kicked off the paper. Therefore politics is fucked, you can't do anything in it, the game is rigged. I'm not going to do anything—" He gets to be a very cynical character, and not a happy character. So when we meet him, he's not good at being a detective, because he has some contempt for the job. You know, his, his kind of counter in the movie is Billy Zane's character, who is the perfect professional, and he can go out and with a straight face say, you know, "Cigarettes have nothing to do to cancer." Or he can go out, if somebody else was paying him to say, "Cigarettes are one of the main causes of cancer." And he can say it, you know and, and be fine with either one. Danny can't do that. So when he's doing these detective jobs, that are mercenary jobs, subconsciously he doesn't think much of himself while he's doing them, and he does a bad job, therefore.
JS: You know, he was a much better investigative reporter than he is a detective. So you know, that's the individual, and he's stopped taking responsibility even for his own actions. And he also has this very cynical idea of why he can't do anything about politics, therefore you shouldn't try, or feel bad about how they go, or feel bad about your own lack of responsibility. And that applies to the media as well. His girlfriend is somebody who has been kind of seduced by the mainstream news thing and thinks, well, you know, that's the real news. You know, this kind of underground web thing, you know, that's for cranks. You know, and "I'm reaching many more people working for the mainstream paper—"
MR: Even selling entertainment, which is what she acknowledges.
JS: Yeah, you know, and but she's even gotten a little cynical and bitter about it. And then when her paper is bought by people who she knows who have blood on their hands, she has to rethink it a little bit. You know, you don't know where she's going to go with that.
G: Right. Yeah, at the end of the film, there's a real open question about what happens next. And I think you said one time that—the end of the film should take you back into the film.
JS: Yeah, yeah. And, and, y'know, what do those various characters do? You know, Danny has not won his individual thing. All he's been able to do is pass this thing on to his friend who runs the website. The website guy goes up, and he runs in—literally into a wall, but he notices that the cement is wet, which you know, from this guy, that he's going to try to get on the other side of that wall and dig something up.
MR: I think that you can, you can know how John would answer the question, and thematically it's true of your career as well as the films individually, which is that you've just gotta keep on trying. Y'know, you've—we've just gotta get back up at bat one more time and see if talking about another part of the human experience, another part of America, y'know, 'cause I think that some of the thing that—I mean, now we've been doing this for a pretty long time. Fifteen films for you, twelve for me for twenty years.
MR: Twenty-five years. And it, it doesn't get any easier to get the money. It doesn't get any easier to get in—to get distribution, to get into the theaters. But we can't not do it, because it's our responsibility. Because we're lucky enough to have the skills that we have, and the relationships that we have. So I think there's this sort of a—a sort of a dogged optimism as I think, which just puts us you know, back again. Trying again. And, and, you know, frankly, it's hard. The box office has not been good enough to up our, our rep enough to be able to fund the movie. And maybe this time, that'll be different. (Singing.) "Maybe this time, we'll be lucky—"
[SPOILER ALERT: If you don't want to hear Sayles and Renzi describe the last scene of Silver City, stop reading now (or skip ahead several paragraphs).]
JS: And also, I think the most positive image of the movie is actually the last image, which is a negative image. And it's, it's, you know, this beautiful lake has been polluted and the fish are dying, but the cameras are there because the candidate is there, and he can't disassociate himself from that this time. He could get whisked away from the dead body, but he's come back to that same lake. And now, you know, the sins of the past are coming to the surface.
MR: Truth will out.
JS: And even the mainstream news is gonna have to say, "Oh! And while Dickie Pillager was doing his speech, you know, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dead fish surfaced on this lake. And there's some—"
MR: And they should go all over it and explain why it has absolutely nothing to do with the toxic waste stuff. And they can blame it on mining that happened a hundred years ago.
JS: But they have to do—
MR: And whatever else, but they're gonna have to do it.
JS: Yeah, right.
MR: I always said to John, thanks for putting in the sound of the news helicopters at the end, and he said, "There is no sound of the news helicopters."
JS: Yeah, they're not there.
MR: But you feel that. Y'know, you know that the press is all right there. And they'll move with our own camera to show—
JS: Yeah, it's a photo op, and they can't ignore it.
G: Well, the use of the music, too, at the end, I mean, it's obviously very ironic, but it is—it's a reminder that the process of good journalism and the process of making a film like that is patriotic in itself.
MR: Yes, it is!
JS: And you know, what's patriotic is you gotta do the effort. You have to take some kind of responsibility, you know, within whatever your abilities are, you have to do that.
G: Yeah...let's talk about getting films made; you mentioned that. It seems like the films that, the stories that you want to tell are countercultural in that they're always new. You're looking for something that hasn't been told before, when Hollywood is interested in recycling. And of course intelligent and socially conscious, so how do you deal with that, I guess, when you're looking for the money?
MR: We keep the budgets really low.
MR: And really there is no greater key than that, I think, for us. You know, Hollywood, I think, sometimes would like to make movies that are—individualists in Hollywood definitely would like to. The wheels turn too slowly, which is why they're always behind.
MR: And they run that terrible risk, of course, of having missed the boat entirely. It's hard for them to be responsive. Whereas we can be responsive because we're working so low-budget. I think the other thing that we do is we have been able to make this, um, reputation for authenticity—maybe authenticity is a good word?—that attracts a lot of really good people to work on the films. So—
JS: Crew as well as actors.
MR: Yes, crew as well as actors. I mean, we've had these incredible fabulous cinematographers.
G: Oh, right.
MR: We've had, you know, top-notch people.
G: Haskell Wexler.
MR: Haskell Wexler.
G: Who you've worked with several times.
MR: Our third time, yeah.
JS: Fourth time.
MR: Matewan, Limbo, oh Roan Inish.
JS: Roan Inish—
JS: —and this film.
MR: Um, and actors too. So I think that some of what we do is that our—we've made this world which is—doesn't attract a lot of money, but it attracts really a lot of talent. So I think, that's key to our even being able to get back up, as I say it, back up at bat at all.
G: Sure, do you think that also the secondary market has improved for the kinds of films that you make, you know the Independent—Independent Film Channel, outlets like that?
MR: Sure. I'm not sure that there's really a lot of money in it for films like ours. I mean, one thing you might notice is that, with as many new filmmakers as come out, none of them remind you of us.
MR: Think of it. Not one of them is making movies about—I mean, working people—
JS: Jim McKay.
MR: —historical—Jim McKay, yeah.
MR: Jim MacKay, absolutely. Absolutely. But we're not—we haven't exactly set a trend, I think, in that way. And, it's not any easier for us to get money. We funded this movie all ourselves. Because we couldn't get the money from the bastards that are in charge. And—now part of it was that we were moving too quickly and we needed more time, perhaps to persuade people of why—you know, it's not sensible to decide to make a movie and then be at production two weeks later and expect to get the money. So—
JS: Well, it takes time—
MR: We didn't give time for the system to really respond.
JS: But look at the price and look at the cast.
JS: And, you know, we made this movie in six weeks. Which is really tough with this ambition—it's a movie.
G: For about six million, right?
MR: Five, six.
JS: Yeah, yeah. And it's a great cast, but what's happening in Hollywood now is that there's only four actors at any one time who anybody cares about.
G: (Laughs.) Right.
JS: And, you know, those studios basically, more and more, and even the independent distributor, distributors, they really have to make, you know, their bones on the first weekend, and that means millions and millions of dollars of advertising. All, you know, national TV ads and stuff like that. And they've kind of painted themselves into a corner.
MR: And also the independent film funding and distribution system is every bit as risk-averse as every other business in the United States right now. And in that way, they have become part of the problem. They're not encouraging strong voices. They're encouraging new, cheap voices. They're bottom-feeding off the youth trend, as far as I'm concerned.
G: Uh-huh. (Laughs.)
MR: And take a look at what's out there. You know, people—the voices are not getting stronger and more complex, they're just getting younger. And that's not a good outcome of the whole Sundance and independent phenomenon. And where—where—where are the—where are the gay voices anymore? You know, I mean, that—it looked for a while they were really gonna get some action, and that's kind of piddled down to practically nothing. Women's voices are practically nothing. The—I mean, I would say in terms of the African-American voices, they've gone so straight mainstream, that although it's out there, it's not coming from that authentic experience. Which was what was really cool about the independent films. And that's really changed. And I have to say that I think that the distribution system of the independents is part of it because I kept saying to them, "You're kidding me you're not gonna give us money for this movie. What the fuck do you want? Darryl Hannah, Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Huston, Chris Cooper. What do you want? The hottest top— inarguably—the hottest topic in the world today is George Bush.
G: (Laughs.) Right.
MR: What more do you want?
MR: And I don't know. And then we got so lucky because Newmarket got it. And it's fun working with them. They'll try anything. Out of the box? Let's go.You know it's really, really been fun.
JS: And they haven't locked themselves into that first-weekend-is-the-whole-story-with-the-film's-distribution thing. You know, they certainly didn't kill everybody with their first—they did well on their first weekend with Whale Rider, but they did build that film up, somehow. Right?
MR: But they'll try a lot more to do, to make, once again, that connection with Michael Moore, to make the first Friday work.
MR: And frankly, it better work for us.
MR: Because we can't fund a whole movie again. We don't have any money left.
G: (Laughs.) Let me ask about some of the things that are maybe in the hopper. I know you're working on a script for the Jim Thorpe—
JS: Yeah, and I'm doing a couple rewrites. You know, that's how I make a living is write movies for other people. So sometimes they're—you know, they bring me just an idea or a book; sometimes it's a rewrite of scripts that have been written before. So yeah, I'm working on one about Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indians, Pop Warner, and all that bunch, in 1912, it's set, um—
G: Is there any chance you might direct that?
JS: No. It's just a writing job. And then, um, I'm working on "Jurassic Park 4." And um. . .
G: I heard that.
JS: Which is fun.
G: Sure, yeah.
JS: Um, a lot of stuff? Yeah, I usually don't like to talk about these things, but with all the websites, you know, it's out in the world. So you know, it's not like a big secret.
MR: And that's fun for you, right? You've enjoyed working with Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy—
JS: Yeah, yeah. I've been very lucky in that I've always been able to take movies that I've at least thought when I took them, this could be a movie I want to go see.
G: Right. Well, and I sense that you're also realistic about those projects in that you maybe know not to take personally when they go another way.
JS: Well, yeah. I mean, that's—you know, you're an employee when you're a screenwriter, you know, so I worked on The Alamo for a while, but my name is not on the final movie, because there's not much that reflects what I did on that. But it was a lot of fun to work on. I'd worked with Ron Howard before on Apollo 13, and I really liked him and the guys who work around him and, y'know, it was history I knew something about already, and it was a lot of fun to work on. You know, I haven't seen the movie yet, so I don't have any big opinion about it. But when I read the screenplay that they went with with a different director, it didn't have that much to do with what I put into it. So you do, you know—I worked on The Mummy for a while when Joe Dante was gonna direct it, and it was gonna be a contemporary story set in Los Angeles, and it was a good script and it could have been really good, and I had inherited it, but when the writer's guild sent out the "this is who's gonna get the credit; this is the final draft of it"—you know, there was sand and bandages in mine, and that was about it, that was the same. And there were fifteen writers listed, including George Romero twice. So you had this incredible, long gestation of, y'know, this maybe we try it, and then put it on the shelf, and try it, and put it on the shelf, and all that. And so you realize when you're a screenwriter for hire, you're a carpenter at the best. You're not the architect.
G: Okay, I think I'm getting the hook here.
Tara I'm, I'm giving the signal.
G: —but thank you very much for speaking to me.
MR: No, it was a pleasure.
G: Good luck with your film.
MR: Thanks, thanks!
G: I thought it was wonderful.
MR: Good, I'm glad. Tell your friends to go.
G: I will, indeed.
MR: Those damn film fans have to get their asses off the couch, this time. Otherwise—
[For Groucho's review of Silver City, click here.]