John Sayles has been making character-driven movies for more than twenty years. For most of that time, his partner Maggie Renzi has been involved, either as an actor or a producer. The two of them were in town to promote Sunshine State and to visit friends in Boulder.
I had enough time to ask them two questions, one about why Sayles edits his own movies, but first about their apparent ease and comfort in any culture, with any race. Lone Star explored Texano culture and politics. Baby, It’s You, Sayles’ first film, deals with the culture clash between two young lovers, one Jewish, one Italian. Sayles even made a film in Spanish, Men With Guns, for which he had to learn the language.
Black and White
MM: In Sunshine State, you go into this black family. You wrote it, you directed it, you edited it, you say “I’m telling my story,” but it’s from the point of view of another race, another culture. You just jump right in, seemingly fearlessly.
JS: I don’t think I had any fear to overcome. I certainly lived in somewhat mixed neighborhoods and went to very mixed high schools with a lot of different ethnic groups.
Unless you’re Proust and you’re writing about yourself, you’re always writing some character who you’re not. I think it’s harder to write a white male from 1810 than to write a black female from the year 2000. I think the main thing for me is to always start with the human beings — “Who are the people involved? What is their situation?” — not start with what might seem exotic.
Here’s a mother and daughter who don’t get along. What I was facing there was a generation gap. Mary Alice’s generation were a certain class and expected a certain kind of behavior from their kids because they live like “People are watching us and if we don’t show them our colors, it would be bad for the whole race, not just for us.” Angela [Bassett] — her character — comes from a generation where that was past. It was like “We don’t care what the white people think about us. The hell with them. There’s a lot of girls who are getting pregnant young and they’re not bad people, so what’s the big deal?”
So really that’s what I was starting with — with them, not something about being black. You know, you could tell about white people in some other neighborhood who belong to a certain class.
MM: I think a lot of white directors would just go ahead and do another white family, rather than opening something... they might be afraid of offending or getting the wrong stereotype or...
JS: I think really it starts with interest. You know, people ask me why there are so many female characters — major characters — in our movies, and some of it is, I just think, interest. If you’re not that interested in it, you’re not gonna do that good a job of it and therefore you’re gonna kind of resist...
MR: I do think that there’s a political correctness that makes some people afraid, and John is not occupied with political correctness. He is occupied with politics and with morality — which might be “correctness” — but we don’t worry about, “Are we saying the right thing? Will the NAACP like us?”
I think that if you’re genuinely searching and don’t claim to know all the answers, I think people will forgive you if sometimes you don’t understand, [if] you come up short. I think that kind of investigation is really appealing.
It’s so narrow-minded to think that a man can’t write about women, that eliminates most of the great writers that I know of. Once you start with that you have to say we’re just talking about self-imposed prejudice. What a foolish thing, to tie your own hands.
MM: And yet it’s out there...
JS: Also, “political correctness” is a phrase that was devalued in about 1968 that belonged to kind of the Stalinist far wacky wing of the far left. And it’s really been revived by Newt Gingrich and who’s the guy who has the radio show?
MR: ... Rush Limbaugh ...
JS: ...Rush Limbaugh, as a pejorative, to say “oh, it’s politically correct,” meaning “oh, actually, there is such a thing as a race problem in this country.
MR: Yeah, yeah, or to be called “socially responsible” like you were spitting on somebody, when really what you hope that means is “interested in the world around you.” That used to be one of the great things, it seems to me, of being a citizen, to know what was going on. In a democracy we’ve got the biggest responsibility of it all because we run it.
We Can Go Anywhere Respectfully
MM: Even going, back, I was trying to think of other examples and I found it in a lot of your movies. Brother from Another Planet: a black guy in Harlem, and you just go in there, “see it’s Harlem, no big deal.”
MR: Well I have to say that when we went in to Harlem, no big deal, my business partner at the time Peggy Rajski and I were both, “can we do that?”
JS: I never thought it was any big deal
MR: I know you didn’t, but “can we do that? How will that be?” I tell you it was so great. It was so much fun to shoot there, and people were normal, and they were mostly trying to get their kids to school on time, and so when people said “West Virginia, you can’t go down to West Virginia” I said “Hold the Phone. We went to Harlem and it was good, because we came with a certain spirit.
I believe that if we go down to West Virginia and we just show people that we’re there to work, people fall into the spell of movie making, and now it turns out we can go anywhere as long as we go respectfully.
MM: That’s one of the things I like best about these movies is that you can get inside another place, the culture, you’re just right in there.
JS: It helps to go in with open ears. A lot of what we do is just ask a lot of questions.
MM: Writing on the fly maybe?
JS: What I often do after we’ve gotten there is spread the screenplay out with a few people in the community and just say “anything familiar or very unfamiliar about this? Anything that just doesn’t sound right?”
MM: Can you think of any examples from Sunshine State?
JS: You know as we came down and we talked I think I got some good advice from a guy who was, at that time, the city manager — this is the place they have like 6 city managers in 7 years — about “Would this be the county commissioner or would this be the city commission? Who would have questions over that?” Even just from the guy who ran the golf course I got some good ideas about, “Would these guys carry their clubs?” Only in certain clubs are you allowed not to take the cart.
MR: What we’re used to — it’s a really nice thing — is to go down and when we first show the script around and have people say “Wow, how did you know?”
Sayles on Editing
MM: You edit your own movies and most people don’t do that. Can you talk about that?
JS: Well, I also write my movies and most people don’t, and for me it’s all the same process, basically. Even when I worked with editors, I was in the room every day. I wouldn’t go away for two weeks and say “let me see your next cut.” I was in the room every day, I was usually at a parallel machine, and I was saying “here are my best, my favorite acting takes; try to make the scene out of those.” So to me, you’re still directing, and you’re still writing. The editor is doing certain things but the director still has to be there mentally and the writer still has to be there mentally.
So a lot of what I’m doing is I’m still writing the piece, I’m controlling the rhythm of it. And as I’m shooting, because we’re working on very low budget movies, I’m doing an awful lot of editing in the screenplay. And I’m doing more editing as we shoot. As we shoot I have to know “How can I put this thing together?” We’re also making very ambitious movies in very short period of time because of the money...
MR: ...in this case it was just under six million...
JS: ...so there’s a lot of logistics. It’s not a short movie. We didn’t cut that much out of it. But it’s still two hours and twenty minutes. So there’s a lot of stuff to do in 8 weeks, over a hundred company moves — that’s a lot of company moves, you’re not even in the same place all day while you’re doing it.
So a lot of what you have to do is say “Okay, I’m watching the acting, where is the acting good and where is it bad. It’s getting better, you know, they flubbed the line there. Well, the second time they did it they flubbed the line on the end of it, but I’ve got a cutaway, so the acting was great two times.” They flubbed a different line each time I can get around that with a cutaway that’s all I need. So very often I have to know “I’m going to shoot this, I’m going to cover it from three angles.”
Or, when I do a master shot, I don’t cover it. I commit to that master shot. And so for the crew, they know, we’re busting our balls to make this a master shot with a crane or a track.
So you commit to those. Once you commit to those, though, you know, well, “That’s a page and a half of page length, but it’s lasting 2 and a half minutes. It’s too slow. Okay guys, let’s pick up the pace. Can we do something more efficiently here, not just in the dialogue in the pickup, but you guys can overlap each other a little bit. We’re also going to take some of those steps out so that you’re not waiting for the other person to catch up to you in the conversation.”
MR: ... and one thing that John, when he gets into the editing room, is that he hopes that the director has provided him with as many choices as he needs. Sometimes what’s happened is that the director has done such good job — that is to say, help the actors do their job — that he has more information than he needs.
I’m thinking for example of a scene that was cut in Sunshine State that was a lovely performance by a local actress playing a church lady, after church. She was talking to Mary Alice, who plays Eunice, and to Jason McDaniel, who plays Reggie the son-in-law. And the scene was really all about Reggie fitting in in this community, the mother-in-law being proud of him, him passing the test.
The fact is he had already been quite a good trophy son-in-law inside the church. He was trying to sing along. He was really handsome. The church ladies had all gotten to see him probably because he’s right up there, front and center. So it wasn’t really necessary... the director did his job which is deliver to the editor that scene. But when the editor got a look at it he said to the director “I don’t think you need that anymore. If what you were doing was establishing Reggie’s situation here vis-a-vis his mother-in-law, he’s fine.”
MM: And in fact, what I was going to ask specifically is, I have a friend who is an editor, and he says it’s good that an editor is not on the set because if the editor is on set, they know it took four hours and thirty takes, and they have no heart to cut it out because it was so much work going in.
MR: Well also, one thing that he’d have to say to you is he doesn’t have the authority, the editor. To me this is sort of amusing which is that when people think that John’s movies are too long they say he needs an editor. Well, I don’t know what they think the editor is, perhaps the head of the studio can make it twenty minutes shorter but the editor is actually obligated to the director and the producer.
JS: ... whoever’s in charge...
MR: ... it’s not like editors just go in there and say “you, step aside.”
JS: David Lean cut his own movies. And David Lean spent a whole lot more money and time on his shots and his sequences...
MR: ... well the Coen brothers do. Is that public knowledge?
JS: No, it’s not.