John Sayles – An American Classic
AT BRIDGET COVE, 30 MILES from downtown Juneau, Alaska, the views are almost absurdly picturesque. Against a backdrop of mistshrouded mountains, an eagle swoops low over a shimmering inlet, as a small seaplane slowly taxis toward the stone-covered beach. Just beyond the beach looms an ancient rain forest of massive fir. But the woods are crawling with PAs, and at the controls of the seaplane sits Kris Kristofferson, an instructor at his side. In half an hour, director John Sayles will start shooting a pivotal scene in Limbo: the moment when the film’s three principals, marooned on the remote island to which they’ve fled to escape vicious killers, spot Kristofferson’s plane, not knowing whether it will bring them salvation or doom.
Just now Sayles, tall and austere in high boots and a slicker, is at water’s edge with cinematographer Haskell Wexler (the legendary eye behind In the Heat of the Night and Coming Home). The director motions vaguely toward the plane, yet he knows-not vaguely but with absolute certainty-what he wants from the shot.
Sayles has a reputation for being fanatically well prepared on the set, a matter of not only personal style but necessity, since attention to detail saves time and, more to the point, dollars. And Sayles, arguably America’s most distinguished independent filmmaker and the director most responsible for putting American independent film on the map, has never had the sort of budget that many Hollywood directors take as a divine right.
In fact, Limbo, for Sony, is exactly the second studio picture of his career. The first, Baby, It‘s You, for Paramount, was released in 1983. This sixteen-year gap is not an accident.
Thirty yards down the beach from where the crew is setting up, Limbo’s producer, Maggie Renzi, Sayles’s longtime partner in life as “ell as in film, reflects for a moment on that earlier studio experience. it was gruesome. Literally, his sideburns turned white. I remember him saying how lucky Gandhi was to have had Great Britain for an opponent- at least they had some standards.”
At the time, Paramount was run by Michael Eisner (now head of Disney) and Jeffrey Katzenberg (now a partner at Dream Works), who, having failed to get Sayles to see things their way, did what high octane, hands-on studio execs often do: They brought in an outside editor to recut the movie. Only when the new version tested poorly did they go back to Sayles’s original, releasing it with little support and letting it die.
“Obviously, he was naive,” notes Renzi. “This was someone who’d always done exactly what he wanted-and never wanted anything more than that. And he was surprised, really and truly surprised, when they took his movie away.” She pauses. “It made him more firmly anti-studio.”
In the years since, Sayles has never come close to taking another such risk. His pictures have had minuscule budgets and have rarely been released widely, but they have been completely his own. Often he has largely financed them himself, via his other, highly lucrative career as a script doctor. But even when the bulk of the money has come from other sources, he has never shot a frame without two rock-solid guarantees: final cast approval and final cut.
Such unwavering integrity has made him the patron saint of a couple of generations of young filmmakers (many of whom have themselves grabbed the money and gone Hollywood the first chance they’ve had), adulation to which Sayles, characteristically, seems completely indifferent. Truly, as Renzi and everyone else who knows the guy well will readily assure you, all that matters is the work.
For Limbo, he has gotten from Sony the guarantees he was after and more. The movie’s $9 million budget, though relative chump change, is Sayles’s largest, allowing him such comparative luxuries as a 45-day shooting schedule. Sayles and Renzi have also finally been able to secure a health plan for their office back in New York.
Renzi glances down the beach at Sayles. Nearby, a couple of PAs feed the signal fire that
in the film will draw the plane’s notice. “So far, so good,” she says. “But we’ll just have to see.“
Obviously , THINGS HAVE changed a great deal since 1983 and Baby, It’s You-both for John Sayles and for the movie business. Having produced an impressive body of work in the intervening years, including such diverse and highly regarded films as Eight Men Out, Matewan, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Lone Star, Sayles is today widely respected as a creative force. His films are taught in colleges across the country, and erudite clerks at video stores can rattle off scenes chapter and verse, even from such early Sayles pictures as Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lianna.
More to the point, in an altered film climate, where advertising costs and star salaries turn
films that might make sense at $20 million into 70 million bombs, and where Miramax has
emphatically proved that there is a market for smart, small pictures for grown-ups of all ages,
Sayles emerges as, of all things, a potentially valuable property. For almost no filmmaker today
has so reliable a record of producing high quality product on a relative shoestring.
Indeed, to hear Sony Pictures Entertainment chief John Calley tell it, being able to control Sayles is the last thing the studio has in mind. A huge Sayles fan, Calley offhandedly places him in the company of Truffaut, Fellini, and Visconti-all of whom he has worked with. “The responsibility to support artists should be part of every studio’s mix. With an artist like Sayles, it’s kind of like going into business with Kubrick-you sign on and let him work. We’ve tried to create a relationship that will endure.”
In fact, Sony’s aim is to distribute more than a few films like Limbo, through its revived Screen Gems label-movies that fall between the studio’s big-budget pictures and those with tiny, targeted audiences, which are released by Sony Pictures Classics. In addition to Sayles’s output, the new outfit will handle films by David Mamet, produced by Renzi’s associate, Sarah Green, and those of lesser-known directors championed by Renzi and Green.
Is Calley at all concerned that, even by the standards of other independent-minded filmmakers,
Sayles’s indifference to the demands of commerce sometimes seems to border on the self-destructive? This is, after all, a man whose last film, Men With Guns, was in Spanish, with subtitles. Even Lone Star, in many ways his most mainstream feature, with a compelling mystery story and an intriguing romantic angle, closed with a bizarre and seemingly needless audience-alienating twist, in which the pair we’ve been rooting for as a couple learn they are brother and sister-and decide to stay together anyway.
Moreover, Sayles might well be the most political filmmaker going. Sometimes subtly (Baby, It‘s You; Eight Men Out), and often straightforwardly (Matewan, City of Hope, The Brother From Another Planet), his movies are much concerned with either class or ethnic conflict. CWhen are you going to make a real movie?” Maggie Renzi’s nieces in California keep asking. “One that’s advertised on TV?”) “Look,” Calley says, “that’s his view of life, and he won’t compromise. I consider that admirable: It’s almost a lost art in this society.”
Calley undoubtedly means every word; his history at Warner Bros. in the ’70s, where he
cultivated talent relationships that are the envy of Hollywood, is ample proof of that. Still, it
doesn’t hurt that Sony’s first-look deal with Sayles allows it to pick and choose the films it will back. And it’s a pretty good bet that there was some relief when Limbo, the first script he submitted under the arrangement, turned out to have a character-driven plot that is less
overtly political than much of Sayles’s work.
The picture is set in an Alaska that will be unfamiliar to, say, viewers of Northern Exposure.
It is a place where entrepreneurs talk of turning the entire state into a theme park, while the salmon-canning industry dies and jobless men pass their time in smoky bars and yet, simultaneously, it’s a place of fresh starts for these and others beaten up by life.
The story centers on the relationship between a native Alaskan (David Strathairn) whose early promise was obliterated by bad luck and tragedy, and an itinerant lounge singer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) with a bleak romantic past and a bitter, alienated teenage daughter (Vanessa Martinez). Along the way, it manages by turns to be affecting, funny, and even thoughtful.
At its core, Limbo is about risk: its dangers and rewards, and how the willingness to embrace
it is central to any life properly lived. Which, in its way, makes it a particularly apt metaphor for Sayles’s own career, and never more so than at this moment. Fittingly, the picture ends on an unconventionally ambiguous note-one that will doubtless leave more than a few filmgoers frustrated and, hardly incidentally, make the job of selling the picture that much harder.
“Would the marketing and distribution guys like a happy ending?” Calley asks. “You bet. But this is absolutely the right one for this picture.” And, in any case, the point has never been negotiable.
EARLY IN THE EVENING, en route to the Limbo production office to view the dailies after a day
of shooting, Sayles muses on this business of an versus commerce. It is not, he explains, that he is indifferent to the bottom line; to the contrary, as a realist, he can’t be. He was keenly aware
when he gave the Limbo script to Sony that it was “an acceptable movie,” he says. “It’s not too obscure; there are one or two recognizable actors in it. There are five gunshots in it.” He pauses, smiling faintly. “It’s in English.”
An essentially private man, from a distance as dour and self-contained as the Ring Lardner character he played in Eight Men Out, Sayles, in promotion mode, talks easily and with wry good humor. Indeed, though he does not enjoy the interview process, he is unusually adept at it. This is another well-developed survival technique; he long ago learned to go for every scrap of free publicity he could get.
“If Limbo were a $30 million movie,” he says of the film’s ending without a resolution, “these people would have to be saved. Even if it were a $12 million movie, there’d have to be a fight on the island, and maybe one of them gets killed-sacrifices himself. But that’s not something I wanted to do.”
Quite simply, Sayles couldn’t care less that the vast majority of those who wept at Titanic will never see one of his films or probably even hear of one. “You know that conversation,” he says, “when you’re stuck at an airport and someone asks you what movies you’ve done? Usually I start with Eight Men Out, but when there’s no glimmer of recognition there, I know I’m in trouble.”
What he does care about, and deeply, is actually reaching an audience, even if it is a select one. Getting a movie released independently can often have disappointing results. “We’ve never had the same distributor for more than two movies in a row,” he says. “Half the ones we’ve worked with are out of business.” He gives a small laugh. “There’s no causality there, I hope. But it’s a problem: how to reach the 8,000 people in Des Moines ready to pay six dollars to see your movie when it costs seven dollars to bring them in.”
That, indeed, is a prime attraction of the Sony arrangement-as a powerful, global studio, it has deals in place with theater owners, cable companies, and foreign distributors. Still, after all the years of scrounging, he is suspicious of seeming good fortune. ‘Though he takes almost a fan’s delight in Hollywood, in “going out there and being in the movies,” he also knows that nowhere on earth is talk cheaper, and that praise is the cheapest kind of all. And he has no illusions about where he stands in the pecking order. “I’m somebody the studios will run a screenplay by for a rewrite, but not someone on a directors list. Which is kind of realistic for them-the things I’ve made are just not the son of product studios are usually engaged in.”
Not that he’s complaining. “I’ve had this bread job that made my other career possible. Friends of mine who are grips and gaffers and waiters and actors and want to make movies don’t make this kind of money. And I’m lucky in that I get offers both for ‘human being’ movies and genre movies-a writer can get typecast as easily as an actor. The last one I did was Mimic, a great cockroach movie.”
If the assorted elements of Sayles’s creative personality seem at odds, he came by them all honestly. The son of schoolteachers in blue collar Schenectady, New York, he played football and basketball in high school (“I was a defensive forward; I mainly stepped on people’s ankles”), and knew almost nothing about movies beyond the fact that he liked them in color. Though he wrote short stories, “I didn’t really get that movies had writers or directors- it was all kind of a John Wayne movie.”
That changed when he landed in a film course at Williams College. He vividly recalls the evening that, before a final, he drove two hours to Boston, saw Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, drove back to Williamstown, and carefully re-created the film shot by shot.
By his mid-twenties, after publishing a stories in The Atlantic Monthly, he and Renzi, also a Williams alum, left for Hollywood. A maniacal worker, in short order he wrote several spec scripts-including those that would eventually become Matewan and Eight Men Out-and landed a writing job with B-movie legend Roger Corman.
As had so many others-Coppola, Bogdanovich, Demme-Sayles found that working with Corman was invaluable training. His first assignment was a Jaws ripoff called Piranha, quickly followed by something called The Lady in Red and Battle Beyond the Stars. “The difference from working for a studio was that, if Roger paid for a script, it got made-his only rule was, don’t go over budget.” A detailed shooting script helped. “I really had to imagine the whole movie. You know, ‘Cut away to flashing teeth of piranha, blood in water, screams of terror.’ ”
By 1980, having saved up $40,000 from the whopping salary I got from Roger for my three movies” -Sayles was ready to direct a feature of his own. The 40 grand was his entire budget; for the cast, he planned to use a bunch of actors and friends he knew from Williams and from a summer theater in New Hampshire, close to where the film would be shot. “I thought, What can I do well for this much money?” he recalls. “The usual thing would be to make a horror movie, but I just wasn’t that interested. All these people were around 30, so what about a reunion?”
The resulting film, Return of the Secaucus Seven, is about a group of ’60s activists clinging to what remains of their idealism. It was shot in five weeks with an inexperienced crew and actors who basically regarded it as a lark. “Movies like this didn’t get shown, not in the U.S., anyway,” Sayles says. “I figured that I’d get it on PBS-I’d even composed it as a [small-screen-friendly] square movie.”
Instead, it became one of the cornerstones of what would grow into the independent film movement. After being screened at New Directors/New Films, in New York, and Filmex, in L.A., it got a small distribution deal, and did surprisingly well both with critics and with the sort of highbrow moviegoers that more typically went to foreign films. In fact, Secaucus Seven happened to be released at precisely the moment when it was dawning on the owners of art and repertory houses that they needed new product. “Their audiences had seen The 400 Blows enough times,” as Sayles puts it.
Up to that point, American independent film could pretty much be summed up in a single word: Cassavetes. And in fact, the aggressively unslick, emotionally blunt films of John Cassavetes had been one of Sayles’s inspirations. “It was incredible to see that on a screen,” he says. Recognizable human behavior! My God!” But Cassavetes at least had clout as an actor, and he populated his pictures with fellow heavyweights Peter Falk and Ben Cazzara, and his glamorous wife, Gena Rowlands. Sayles was on his own. Even the relative success of Secaucus Seven catapulted him, as he jokes now, only “from total to relative obscurity.”
His next feature, Lianna, the first Sayles film formally produced by Renzi, certainly wasn’t about to change that. The story of a young woman who leaves her husband for another woman (i.e., a movie that was a good decade ahead of its time), its $300,000 budget took a year and a half to raise, even after the $50,000 profit from Secaucus Seven had been poured into the project. Though Lianna did well in a few urban areas-it set records in one New York City theater-it failed to cross over in a major way. It didn’t even get a cable sale, which perhaps explains the director’s readiness, when approached by producers Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne, to commit to Baby, It‘s You.
Robinson conceived it as a serious film about a doomed high school romance between Rosanna Arquette’s smart, upper-middle-class girl and Vincent Spano’s streetwise would-be Sinatra, and Sayles found the characters and subject matter familiar, from his own youth in Schenectady. He says he wrote and shot exactly what the producers had envisioned and the studio had approved.
But by the time production had finished, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Valley Girl had turned into hits for rival studios, so Paramount told Sayles that what the studio really needed was a broad high school comedy. Even now there’s a trace of anger when Sayles describes the experience. “I was taken for a ride in a limo by Katzenberg, in Chicago. He stopped under a bridge. I figured they’d read the script, so what’s the problem? But I think what really got them was that they were telling me what to do and I wouldn’t do it.”
He gives a short laugh. Ever since, he says, he’s had a fairly simple philosophy: “Getting the money for a movie is like hitchhiking: It could be the first ride or the 300th, but you’ve got to know when not to get in the car.”
“I WAS IN CITY OF HOPE,” Limbo‘s script supervisor Sandy Mcl.eod, is saying the next day, keeping warm by the signal fire between takes. “I’m the one [about whom] John’s character says, ‘There’s Yvonne Plotsky. I fucked her in high school.’ ”
“Is that the movie where you played a lesbian?” the sixteen-year-old son of PA Caroline Otis asks his mom. A friend of Renzi’s from Williams, Otis shakes her head. “That was Lianna. In Lone Star I was one of the Anglo moms at the school board meeting.”
It’s immediately apparent that this is not your typical crew. At once highly professional and strikingly easygoing, it is a group that reflects Renzi and Sayles’s approach to filmmaking and life. “Maggie cares a lot about creating a sense of community,” Otis says.
Indeed, there is an unmistakable feeling here of extended family. Otis’s other son, a recent college grad, works in the locations department. David Strarhairn, another Williams alum, appearing here in his seventh Sayles film, is their neighbor in upstate New York. Haskell Wexler’s actress wife, Rita Taggart, plays a key role in the film. Even the set nurse turns out to be the girlfriend of the key grip, who’s also a longtime Sayles actor.
“You get to a place like this,” says Kristofferson, who’s in for two days of shooting, “and everyone’s committed. The carpenters are reading the script. Everyone has an investment in the final product.”
For some, Sayles doubles as a mentor. McLeod is an aspiring director who has been shooting some second-unit stuff. One of the grips is a New York real estate millionaire and longtime Sayles fan; after lugging around equipment all day, he sometimes gets to have the director critique his writing.
In fact, the ’60s ethic extends to the production’s relationship with Alaska. “Film can be a hugely destructive force,” observes casting director Lizzie Martinez, a part-time community activist who also worked on Lone Star and Men With Guns. “Movie people fly in, throw money around to get what they want, and leave-and people feel exploited. We’ve worked very, very hard to be respectful.”
“A lot of the stuff that’s done in Alaska is so stupid,” says Andy Spear, the production’s boat wrangler, over lunch in the food tent. “Like Baywatch, which shot an episode up here recently-they had them running around in skin-tight parkas.” He grins and points at a guy across the way. “He worked on it-that’s why he’s sitting by himself.“
“They had one of the girls getting attacked by a bear, which never really happens,” adds Spear’s daughter Mara, who works in the art department. “But this film shows Alaska as it really is.”
Her father nods; an Alaskan native and veteran guide, he became friends with Sayles and Renzi when they first visited the region, a decade ago, and is the film’s unofficial authority on local lore. “I told him, ‘This isn’t really why fish go to other streams,’ about one sentence in the script. So John goes down to Fish and Game and sits with a fish biologist for two hours to rewrite that one line.” He pauses. “He listens to everything-it’s all in the bank somewhere. The other day I started telling him a story and he said, ‘Wait, you told me that.’ Well, that was ten years ago.”
None of which comes as a surprise to Renzi. “The thing is, he doesn’t drink, and never did drugs like the rest of us. Never frittered away any brain cells. He has more ideas than he could ever express in a lifetime.”
Still, she allows that she had started to weary of the struggle to get them financed. It was after Men With Guns that she contacted Diana Napper, an executive at Sony with whom she had worked in the past. “There was just this sense that we shouldn’t have to still be going around with a begging bowl. We always knew how to assemble a crew to work fast and cooperatively-the difference now is that everyone’s getting better pay. After all, you can ask your friends to do only so many movies with you before you’ve got to get new friends.”
SEVERAL MONTHS LATER, on break from editing Limbo back in New York, Sayles gives vent
to his financial frustrations. “I remember the year we made Brother From Another Planet, I wrote five screenplays for other people, four or five drafts each,” he says. “So I basically had
one week to write that picture, in the reading period between drafts of The Clan of the Cave
Bear. Then I had to shoot it in four weeks, and do a rewrite on something else while editing it
in order to afford an editing machine.”
He wrote Eight Men Out eleven years before he found the financing to make it. “I started with Martin Sheen at third base,” he likes to say, “and ended up with Charlie Sheen in center field.” Even then, he was contractually obligated to bring the picture in at under two hours-which prompted him to show the cast City of Conquest, a 1940 Cagney film in which everyone talks fast. The final cut ran exactly one hour, 59 minutes, and 48 seconds. In fact, probably no serious director in the business is nearly adept at finding ways to get production values on the cheap. Partly, that’s a matter of technique. On City of Hope, budgeted at just $3 million and with 40 locations to shoot in only five weeks, Sayles devised a series of long, complex master shots, each running more than five minutes. “That saved a huge amount of time on the other end-essentially, the editing was in the planning of those shots.”
But it also has to do with the caliber of the collaborators he attracts. Most notably, there is cinematographer Wexler, who first worked with Sayles on Matewan, giving the $3.5 million union drama, set in 1920s West Virginia, more atmosphere than movies costing twenty times as much. And then there are the actors, who often work for a fraction of their normal fee. “The advantage of how we make movies is that their deal is with me,” Sayles says. “They don’t have to trust a studio executive, a focus group in Milwaukee, or anyone who happens to wander into a screening room when executives are watching it.”
‘I’d guess I’d do just about anything John asked me,” Strathairn says simply. To Chris Cooper, who starred in Matewan and Lone Star, the advantage of working with Sayles is obvious: “At the start of a project, he provides you with these unbelievably detailed background notes for your character. In Lone Star, I had only one scene with Frances McDormand, as my ex-wife-and here was this description from John of why they met and how they met and why they were attracted to each other in the first place and his relationship with her father. … ”
Yet over the years, Sayles has also dealt with agents who have turned down material, saying that their actor clients didn’t like it though in fact they had never been offered it, as Sayles would later discover. He has had actors accept roles and then leave him in the lurch when something more lucrative turned up.
On Limbo, by virtue of Sony’s involvement, a lot of the usual concerns simply never came into play. “We got to shoot almost in sequence:’ Sayles says, “and we had our principal actors all the way through. It just relieves a lot of pressure; your decisions are never about ‘We’re going to lose the sun in an hour.”’
And Sony has kept their part of the bargain, leaving Sayles totally alone. Holed up in the editing room, his focus has been on trying to find a tone and rhythm for what he acknowledges is “a very strange movie. At the beginning, you have no idea the ride you’re on-you meet a lot of people, and start to get interested in them, and then you leave them all behind.” The idea, he notes, is to establish this environment almost as a character, the context in which his principals struggle, before he rips them out of it. “That’s something that bothers me about a lot of movies-it’s three or four stars in a vacuum. The stops to work. “Actually, I don’t have a score yet, since there’s not an indigenous Alaskan music.” And if he’d had a budget two or three times as large, would he have done anything differently? “Maybe we would have shot a little longer, more helicopter stuff. And brought up a crane-we don’t have a single crane shot in the movie.” He breaks into an unexpected smile. “But not much.”
LIMBO CAME IN AT $8.3 million-under budget-and having seen an early cut, the studio is well pleased. “We’ve certainly had our disagreements:’ Renzi says, “but we haven’t felt in any way disrespected. We haven’t had to cooperate beyond what we thought was reasonable-and we’re not all that reasonable.”
Sony sales and distribution chief Jeff Blake describes Limbo as “a film that touches on deep emotions and themes that are not beyond anyone’s reach.” He describes a studio strategy that, following a platform opening, has Limbo moving to the multiplexes, with serious advertising support on television.
Delighted as that would leave Renzi’s nieces, it may be a stretch. Limbo is a serious movie, one that seems more intent on challenging than on pleasing its audience. Then there is its ending, which leads even Blake to conclude, with a laugh, that “John has certainly not compromised himself by providing easy answers.”
And he probably never will. Whether or not this film succeeds, whether or not it leads to other projects for the studio, Sayles will certainly not be the one doing the lion’s share of the adjusting.
One afternoon in the midst of cutting Limbo, Sayles strolls along New York’s Eighth Avenue and gets to musing on why it took so long to raise the money for Eight Men Out. “Of course, the White Sox lose the World Series. Which was not a big plus commercially.” He laughs. “I mean, they changed The Natural. You read the book, and there’s no home run with fireworks and exploding lights at the end-he strikes out. Well, for what they spent, I wouldn’t have him strike out either.” He stops on the sidewalk as people hurry past in either direction, his calm voice barely audible over the traffic and a nearby jackhammer. “But I also wouldn’t make that movie. My version would have starred Nick Nolte and only cost $5 million. And he would strike out.”