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This year’s SXSW Film Festival featured a John Sayles retrospective, screening Lianna, The Return Of The Seacaucus 7, Brother From Another Planet, and Matewan. For the most awesome birthday present in the world, staffer Reed Oliver got to talk with the courtly Mr. Sayles.

RO: Just want to start off, you have Roan Inish here at the festival and now you’re back doing a big talk. What’s your connection to SXSW that keeps bringing you back here?

JS: Well, I think I came to Austin first almost 20 years ago. I did a panel that Jonathan Demme was on, and just liked the area. We scouted around here before we did Lone Star, hoping that something would look like the border–nothing did–because it was going to be more fun for the crew to live up here, or even in San Antonio than way down on the border and we actually had a pretty good time on the border, but... nothing looks like the border except the border. So I’ve been here a bunch of times and I just think it’s a good... Texas is wonderful. It really has managed to create a good atmosphere for filmmakers. Rick Linklaters had a lot to do with that. He’s bringing people in, then a couple of people come here, just like to live here, like Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo del Toro is here now. There’s just a lot of activity here. I think being a student town doesn’t hurt, so you get a new bunch of people. Joel Coen lived here for a while. It has that nice ambience, so for something like our retrospective, where you’re just trying to get word-of-mouth going, it’s a good place to come and just kind of get the ball rolling.

RO: Great. There’s other things that bring you here. I hear you’re currently working on a script for The Alamo picture?

JS: Yeah, I’m doing a rewrite for a screenplay for Ron Howard about the Alamo. Which I hope is going to happen. They’ve done quite a bit of scouting. They scouted around here a little bit, I’m sure they’re scouting in other places. They’ve got to get a budget together and whenever you do a historical movies and there’re horses involved, it’s expensive. So I’m sure they want to get it down as low as they can, but that’s still going to be a huge budget. So I imagine it will happen or not happen based on, (A) whether I do a good job on the screenplay and (B) more importantly, who they can cast in it. Because once you get over about $50 million, the cast gets really important to insure them. So I’ve been hitting the bookstores here, doing a little research. And if you can’t find it here, you’re not going to find it, if it’s about Texas history, so that’s been good.

RO: But as far as The Alamo goes, generally in your films, the characters are very realistic, the kind of people you could meet, very much your specialty, whereas The Alamo has very much a larger-than-life feel. How does that–

JS: Well what you try to do is populate it with people, from what you can put together from historical accounts and people’s letters and biographies. There were a lot of just regular people and then there were people like Sam Houston who worked very hard to be larger-than-life, even while he was alive. And then you try to find the stuff about the more historically famous people. Certainly Davy Crockett was a guy who, there was this tension between the real guy who was kind of a very pleasant, funny, regular guy–he was a good hunter–and then this legendary guy who mostly had been created by the media. And when he wrote his autobiography he tried to correct that. But then that got to be a big bestseller of its time and so he became even more of a media star, and he was always a little embarrassed about it. But flattered. It was that kind of thing of, you get the best table in the restaurant but then everybody comes up and wants to get your autograph, so you can’t enjoy the meal, a two-edged sword. But also I’m a screenwriter for Hollywood movies, and when you’re doing that, you’re helping them tell their story. So a lot of what you try to do is get what people want to do and then find for them to do it.

RO: You bring up the fame issue with Davy Crockett. You’re a generally well-known director. But certainly not on the star level of the Spielbergs and Tarantinos of the world. Does fame get in the way of what you’re trying to do?

JS: Not really. I get to walk around in the world and nobody recognizes me unless I’m very close to a film school, you know? And even then, it’s only a few students might recognize me. So that’s good, because, having worked with really famous actors who might have to sneak into a movie if they want to see one and sneak in the back of a restaurant and all that, there’s nothing that’s fun about that. But basically there’s probably a couple hundred thousand people who will go to a movie because we made it. Just kind of check out what it is. Which is not enough to get your next movie financed if it’s over a million dollars. But it’s nice that there’s some audience there, some little bedrock audience. Generally I’d say the general population that goes to movies, unless it’s a Spielberg or an Alfred Hitchcock, they don’t know the name of the director of the movie they’re going to. They know the name of the stars, or the genre, or whatever. So even someone like Martin Scorsese is very well known, but only by certain filmgoers. Only by a small percent of them, and then you get below that level of fame and it’s pretty rare that somebody goes to a movie because of the director. That just comes with the territory.

RO: You brought up your base of a hundred thousand who go to your films, which sounds pretty good, but your movies, while they may be critically acclaimed, they’re not bringing in the bucks obviously. How do you continue to get funding, and funding that you can pay for exotic locations like Alaska?

JS: Well, you’re always guessing. You’re always guessing that the movie is going to be just popular enough that it’s going to make some money for the people who are putting it up. So you figure, a couple hundred thousand people paying, now, $7 to $10 apiece, so you got a couple of million you’re going to gross, guaranteed, if that’s your base, and then maybe the people who’re interested in a certain actor will go, or a certain subject will go, whatever. Then a lot of the reason that independent movies are possible now is there are other things than theatrical release involved. You also have video rental, you have DVD rental now. You have the possibility of selling it to Showtime or HBO. You have the possibility of selling it to one of the smaller, like Bravo. You have the possibility of selling it overseas. So all those ancillaries usually are more than 60% of the money that comes back. We’ve had movies that, there are whole states, that they didn’t play. Something like Men With Guns may not have played the state of South Dakota, but eventually–because there’s not an art theater there that had the time to play it; there’s not that many art theaters there anyway in the whole state–

RO: Or people.

JS: Or people, but there are video stores. And so that’s the way those people get to see the movie. Or they see it on Showtime, or whatever, if it sells to those things. So independent films still don’t play on that many screens and go to that many places. But they can partly exist because they can get some money back from those ancillary ways, those other ways that people see movies.

RO: Do you have a following in other countries? Are you mostly a U.S. director?

JS: Probably about the same as here. It’s the people in other countries who know the names of directors, which is a small percentage of the filmgoers would know. Because our film’s not fairly well in Tokyo or Sweden or Germany or France. Some people will know, but not like an actor will have a following. Not like Brad Pitt will have a following.

RO: You started out– Seacaucus Seven –you’re known in the film community for having written your screenplays until you could fund making that movie. You’ve jumped by several million dollars in your budgets now. What’s the difference?

JS: Well actually we’ve jumped up and down so that we’ve gone from movies in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to movies in the $3 million range. I think Limbo was the highest-budget one–that was about eight [million dollars]. And then we jumped back down to something that was more three, and the next movie I’m going to make is going to be one million dollars. So it really is, I remember a quote by Robert Altman where he said, "There’s no such thing as a low-budget movie, only an appropriately budgeted movie." So what we try to do is make appropriately budgeted movies. The size of your crew changes. Certainly moving a larger crew that you have in something like an eight million dollar movie is more difficult than moving seven people in a van. Like we might have done in some of our early movies, just from one side of town to the other. You just have fewer trucks and you need fewer parking places. Just that logistical thing changes quite a bit. I think the main thing that changes is people’s expectations. The filmmaking itself doesn’t change that much. You need more people the more equipment you have, to carry it around, to set it up, whatever. But

RO: To keep people warm?

JS: Yeah, whatever it is. To feed them. To put them up if you’re on location, more hotel rooms, that kind of thing. But the more money you make there’s this more expectation, and it’s not only the expectation of the people who put the money up that it’s going to gross more at the box office. It the agents, when you talk to the actors’ agents, they just say, "Oh it’s a nine million dollar movie. Well you’re not paying scale are you?" And very often we’re saying, "Yeah, actually we are paying scale. So does your client want to do it or not?" Or sometimes "Will you actually show it to your client?" because the agent isn’t crazy about the actor only getting scale, and then they only get ten percent of scale.

RO: So aside from the trick of trying to get the agent to show it to them if they’re not going to make as much, you get some tremendous talent, like Angela Bassett and Edie Falco for the upcoming Sunshine State. Are actors coming to you because they want to work with you?

JS: Well, what’s nice is we’ve done enough movies that enough actors have seen them, so that when they read the script, they probably know a couple things. One is well this is someone who’s made some good movies in the past, where they’ve liked the acting. They felt like the actors got to be three-dimensional. All of the movies that we’ve made have gotten a theatrical release. So an awful lot of actors I know work quite a bit in independent movies and play some interesting parts, but they may make three movies in a year and none of them gets a theatrical release. That’s like you dropped off the face of the earth. You just don’t get seen in anything, and casting directors and studios start to forget that you exist. It’s like, "well, I’m going to do the work, I’m going to spend the time, I’m not going to make that much money, at least let me get up to the plate and get a chance at bat. At least let the movie come out so somebody sees it. So I have a video to show of my work." Very often the actors are willing to work for less than they could get somewhere else because it’s a part that they haven’t played before. And this is a chance for them to show their acting chops. And "Well, I’ve mostly played this kind of part. I should be considered in this kind of thing." Let’s say you’re a kid actor and people just think of you as a 17-year-old and now you’re 23, and you get to play somebody more mature. Or they’ve never been a romantic lead before, or whatever. Very often independent movies serve as that showcase for that part of their talent, and then they get hired to do that kind of thing in a bigger movie with a bigger budget. They get paid more and more people see it.

RO: So you’ve often worked with excellent actors, but you tend not to work with the A-list stars–

JS: At least not when they’re A-list stars. I may have worked with them before they became A-list stars.

RO: Is that a choice that you’re making or they’re making, and how would that change your process if you had a Bruce Willis in one of your films?

JS: Sometimes what it is, it’s about the ecology of the movie. The way, for instance, when people see those stars in movies, generally they see them as the star of the movie. And it’s very star-driven movie. Most of the movies I write are more ensemble kind of movies. So you have to worry about, for instance, Return of the Seacaucus Seven, the first movie that’s in the retrospective, while we were making it we thought about, "Well, should we contact somebody really known?" And was the same age and a good actor. You know around that time that might have been somebody like Richard Dreyfuss. But then we weren’t offering a movie that’s about this hero and then there’s all these other secondary characters. It was really an ensemble movie, and it ‘s like well wouldn’t the audience feel like, "How come these people aren’t asking for his autograph?" Because he’s so obviously a really famous actor after Jaws, it would throw the ecology off. And then in some cases really, unless you’re a really high-powered Hollywood director, you’re not going to have that much power in relation to that actor. So you can end up being a little bit more of an employee. And the movie’s not making it, basically there to tell my story. And so I just think the chemistry of that might not be good. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write something where those actors would be the perfect person to play it and I wouldn’t offer it to them. They obviously got to be movie stars for a reason.

RO: Of course the counterexample of that is Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, which came out recently, which [is a] tremendous ensemble piece, very known people. Do you ever think you would get to that level? It was obviously a very high-budget movie and yet–

JS: Well it probably wasn’t that high-budget compared to what somebody else would spend on it, knowing how Robert Altman works. And those are mostly actors who are very well known in Britain as just good actors. But not many of them are on that Mel Gibson-Julia Roberts kind of level of, they can just open a movie on their name alone. So I think something like Sunshine State –we have the American equivalent of those actors. It’s just that they’re, none of them right now anyway, are opening a movie just on their name alone. So yeah, once again, it just depends on the project. Do you feel like this is the best actor for the project? And then, once you start, what’s the chemistry of that? For instance, you see this phenomenon where very well-known actresses, who are stars in their own right, when they make a movie where it’s really about their character, and their boyfriend or husband or whatever love interest has this very secondary part, it’s very rare that they can get one of those top-echelon actors to play it. So a guy like Liam Neeson made his bones as an actor playing the escort to people who, at that time, were much more famous actresses than he was an actor. And he would be the handsome Irish boyfriend or whatever, and then he got to be a star in his own right, and he doesn’t play those parts any more. And that’s kind of about the chemistry of the thing. And some of it is about, who can you pay, and whose ego can deal with being a secondary character or not the big star. And some of it really is about the audience’s expectations. The minute Brad Pitt is in a movie now, you expect him to be the main guy. So it would be hard for him to go and be a small part. And Gwyneth Paltrow, not just because of their personal relationship, but because everybody would be saying, "Well, where’s Brad? How come there aren’t more scenes with Brad?" And of course they’re going to end up together because they’re the two big stars.

RO: Right. Snatch being the exception that probably proves the rule.

JS: Yeah.

RO: How did that process work for Sunshine State? Could you tell our audience a little bit about what that film is and how did you come to get Angela Bassett and Edie Falco?

JS: Yeah, Sunshine State is set in Florida, set in northern Florida, and it’s about a community that’s undergoing this huge change from old, tacky entrepreneurial tourism–where this fellow owns a restaurant and this other fellow owns a motel and this guy has a little water slide or something,–to corporate tourism. Where corporations set up gated communities and all the restaurants in town are part of chains and all the supermarkets are and you build millions of condos on the beach and every mile there’s another bathing suit store, owned by the same corporation. And that really affect the community, even as itinerant a community as you tend to have in Florida, where almost everybody comes from another place. So having written this big movie with a lot of characters in it, as I was writing it I started thinking of who could play these parts, and very quickly I thought of Angela because I’d worked with her a couple of times before. And then I started thinking of Edie Falco, partly just because she’s a good actress, and her age. I actually had not seen The Sopranos that much. But I’d seen enough to know, "well that’s a cool character," and I’d seen her in a couple other good movies. And I said, "well there’s a really good actor" and I started just thinking about her. Then we contacted her right after I was done with the screenplay and she said yes. So it was actually a fairly nice, short process with the both of them. Angela happened to be available. This isn’t a huge star part for her, but she’s just such a good actress, and I felt like I needed somebody that good to pull this off. And since we knew her, we got in touch with her. And then, with the other actors, once again, it’s kind of–we had the people who play Edie’s parents wind up being Jane Alexander and Ralph Waite. And very often what you have to do in that case is, these are actors over 50, but you don’t want somebody who’s 75 and somebody who’s 55. So once you have, you have to wait until you cast one, to cast the other. So there’s a lot of that chemistry thing. There’s a couple of pairs in it. There’s two real estate guys who hang out together, and you don’t want them to look exactly the same. So once we got Miguel Ferrer, we knew we could look for somebody else with a slightly different rhythm. Casting is tricky. There’s a lot of chemistry to it. And some of it is, when there’s a lot of characters, the audience isn’t necessarily going to pick them out right away, so you want them to be very different types. And have different kinds of voices. So even if they don’t know the names or know the names of the actor, they can say, "Oh, that guy!" So it evolves. And we usually leave a bunch of the smaller parts that we cast locally, which has always worked out very well for us. Usually there are some people who are into acting, whether it’s in local theatre or light opera or something. But also just people. Who already have the accent. And if they’re playing someone kind of *close to their own experience, some of them are surprisingly good actors.

RO: Switching gears, you spoke earlier about the research you’re doing around town for The Alamo. You obviously do a lot of research for your films. Do you have a research team?

JS: Basically we have an office in New York City, and my assistant there–I basically come up with a bunch of books that are probably not in, sometimes in libraries, certainly not in bookstores anymore, from bibliographies in other things that I’ve already read. And she’ll go on the Internet and try to track them down and get them sent to me. But that’s about all the team I have. Really I just do all the reading myself. Partly because sometimes I’m looking for very specific facts, but every once in a while there’ll be some little detail that you can say, "Oh wow, that’s cool! That’d be a great thing to base a scene around." Or a great detail to tell you something about the character. And you have to read a lot of stuff because historians always disagree. And sometimes they go off on a whole thing that just isn’t true. So you want to track that down and be as accurate as you can. And then very often the last bit of research I do, if it’s a contemporary story and it’s something I’m going to be directing, is we go to the area we’re going to shoot it in and run the script past the people there, and they say, "Well, you know, we don’t really catch catfish in August." And they might know that you should be fishing for something else. Or, "People from Arkansas say that, but people from Texas don’t." On Lone Star we did quite a bit of talking to the sheriffs down on the border counties and learned this whole thing about how the federal government has a lot of prisoners they keep moving around and you make much more money housing a prisoner for the federal government than you certainly make housing your local guys. And so you keep a certain amount of jail space open for these federal prisoners and you can actually bring some money. Because you’ve got a budget. And if you’re going to have cars and uniforms in these poor southern counties, the one thing you have to do is make sure you’ve always got some federal prisoners there. And you keep them up to a certain specification, do whatever you’re supposed to do with them so that you keep getting them. You get asked back. But it’s kind of like running a motel business or something like that.

RO: You received a MacArthur "genius" grant at a fairly young age. What sort of psychological effect did that have? What did that do?

JS: What was great was, I’d never heard of it before. You don’t apply for it. They just show up and–it’s kind of like The Millionaire –they just show up and say "here’s this grant." It was funny. It’s based on your age. So I was 34 at the time, so I got $34,000 a year, tax-free, for five years. If I’d been 44, it would’ve been ten thousand more. There’s one guy, named Peter Sellers, who’s an opera director mostly, who got it when he was 24. He probably should’ve waited a little to become a genius. But hey, I was making Brother From Another Planet at the same time, and what it meant was, I didn’t have to sign on and write another screenplay for somebody to afford to rent the flatbed Steenbeck that I was editing on. Which is what it was supposed to do. You want to do pure research and you don’t want to teach college for a couple of years, it gives you enough money to do that. Or you have to get to Borneo to do your research on night monkeys, well you get to fly business class or something like that. Or even fly instead of take a long boat. It goes to all kinds of people–community organizers to mathematicians to biologists. So it was actually, I recommend it to everybody. It was a great deal. And you never have to show up or do a speech or anything. They just send you the money. Then it runs out, so I’m an ex-genius. I’ve run into a couple of other people. Bill Erwin, who was in Eight Men Out, and is a kind of actor-clown-performance artist got one. And actually we went to Madagascar to look at the lemurs and just check the country out, and I met a woman who’d just won one on a rope bridge. And she’d only heard that she’d won one and didn’t know any of the details. So we stood in the middle of this rope bridge in the jungle, in the rain forest and I explained what it was to her. She got very excited.

RO: Thank you very much

 


Mike Doughty



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