John Sayles: A Career Retrospective

Movies Features John Sayles

For many, John Sayles is the quintessential American independent filmmaker. His 1979 debut Return of the Secaucus Seven immediately established him as a new kind of filmmaker, and along with contemporaries Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, and David Lynch, helped bridge the gap from indie pioneers like Robert Altman and John Cassavetes to the early-’90s birth of the modern American indie-film movement, ignited by Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater.

His subsequent career has been littered with highlights as well. His 1984 film The Brother From Another Planet, about a black alien stranded in Harlem, was far ahead of its time in examination of racial and immigration issues. 1987’s Matewan is possibly the greatest American narrative film ever made about the labor movement. And 1988’s Eight Men Out may be the greatest baseball movie ever made. He received Academy Award nominations for the screenplays of 1992’s Passion Fish and of 1996’s Lone Star, perhaps his masterpiece to date. He’s an exceedingly humane, socially aware, fiercely independent filmmaker (he finances his films largely through writing for other directors, including a stint with Roger Corman, a piece that was later adapted into the script for Steven Spielberg’s E.T., and writing or doctoring scripts from The Howling to Apollo 13 to The Spiderwick Chronicles).

John Sayles’ new film, out this week, is entitled Go For Sisters, and stars Lisa Gay Hamilton, Yolonda Ross, and Edward James Olmos. We recently sat down with the director and many of the actors he’s worked with for a look back at his career.

I think one of the lucky things about working there when we were, a lot of us directors and writers and even actors to a certain extent, is that there was a pressure to come in on time and under budget, but there wasn’t that incredible economic pressure. These were movies that probably were not going to be reviewed, and they were probably in profit before you even started shooting. So if you stayed to the budget, Roger knew he was going to at least make some profit. A few did a lot better than that—Piranha did, and Battle Beyond the Stars did. But the way that B-movie business worked, and Roger’s genius worked, was that he had presold the movies, and without a review knew that they were going to play for two weeks in certain theaters, and that was going to turn a profit. So for a starting-out filmmaker, it’s not that you can experiment that much, because you don’t really have a budget. But you get to work and just make the movie, not worrying that if it’s not a platinum success, you’ll never work again. So there is a kind of on-the-job training aspect to it that’s just great. And the class before us was people like Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme, people like that. And they benefited. They got to make a feature film, and learn what works and what doesn’t. Ron Howard’s first movie was for Roger, and he made a couple of mistakes in coverage that he never made again.

And that ability to fail? There aren’t that many places you get to do that anymore. There’s just so much economic pressure on movies when they come out. I was not a film-festival discovery that made one short that got discovered and then was making a studio film. Sometimes I just despair for those poor people. Just think of the pressure that’s on them.

One of the advantages we had was that we weren’t thinking that it was going to get a theatrical release. We shot it, not even in Super-16, but just in 16mm, and closer to the TV aspect ratio. We thought it might get on TBS or something. But it was both a calling card and, as I said, sort of an on-the-job training, to see what it would be like to make a movie. To work with good actors who I knew, some of whom weren’t professionals and didn’t continue, but a bunch of whom went on to have real acting careers. And really to figure out how to invent the wheel. I hadn’t been to film school. None of the crew had ever worked on a feature before; they had been shooting commercials in the Boston area. And the actors hadn’t been in a movie before. Nowadays kids make movies after having been to film school, and there’s just so much information around and so much equipment. We were surprised we were even allowed to rent the equipment, because equipment houses were much more suspicious in those days. I think it helped that we were renting out of Boston, and not out of New York. We got away with it.

Well, what was interesting was that, much like Return of the Secaucus Seven, John and [his partner/producer] Maggie [Renzi] both have always had a collective mentality. David Strathairn and his wife were living out in Marstown, New Jersey, in a great big eight bedroom house on a golf course, and it was really too big for them. So everybody, all the friends, took a share in the house, a bedroom in the house. On the weekends, we’d pile out to New Jersey and sit around and talk and make deals and read the newspaper and garden and take hikes and that’s how when we all became really good friends. John—he told me he had this idea for a film. He just said it was this brother who fell to earth and he started giving me a rough—at a party, he gave me a rough overview of what the film was about. He was not that familiar at the time with a lot of African American actors in New York and so he invited myself and another actor, Steve James, out to his house in Hoboken and said, “You know, I’ll tell you what. I’d like to introduce that segment of the theatrical population—I just don’t know very many and let’s have dinner and after dinner I’ll tell you this story and then you can figure out who you think might be right for the role.”

So, Steve and I took the bus out there. We went to his house in Hoboken. We sat down, we had dinner. And after dinner, John related the entire project Brother From Another Planet film it must have taken an hour and a half. And at the time, I didn’t realize it, that John hadn’t even written it. Hadn’t even typed it yet. The movie that John described is the exact same film that you see. John hadn’t even printed up the script ’til it was time to cast.

So I knew that he was extremely, extremely bright. But I had no idea the level of retention, the mass amounts of information that John could hold in his mind. You know? At a moments notice or at any time he’ll give you incredibly insightful details, accounting the life of Louis Armstrong, The Alamo or his film Brother From Another Planet.

What I love about John is that he’s extremely generous with his intellect. He’s not someone who’s extremely bright and dispenses his intellect for his pleasure. If there’s any thing that you ever want to talk about and think John knows a little bit about, you can ask him something and he will go into every bit detail possibly that he can remember which is usually encyclopedic. So, he’s just a very, very interesting person. His generosity is fused with a very strong point of view, which makes John a very compelling guy to just sit around and talk to for a while.

I think what appealed to me about the project is—I expected that there would be a strong point of view. What really makes actors jump through hoops to work with John is that he writes characters that are three-dimensional. If you perform those characters correctly, and John is willing to discuss any background. He has for a while—I don’t know if he does it now—but he used to send you emails of character descriptions, of who the person was. What their background was or what they’ve been through. He has a very in-detail blueprint for characters. Background and condition, mental and physical, from the moment that you witness them in their lifetime in that movie.

And he creates a work environment that allows you to access his words in a way that really, you can feel the geography of the character while you’re working. And there’s nothing that’s more fun for an actor than to be able to flesh out—to really live inside a fully realized human being. John’s job is to put it on the page. Our job is to translate it that to a living action. When those two things come together—and it comes together quite often in his films—it’s why you want to work with him.

People talk about our movies being political, but I feel they’re just politically conscious, as opposed to being politically unconscious. As a screenwriter for hire, very often my job is to get rid of all those nasty little things that make our lives what they are, and this country what it is, in order to serve a straight genre story—because those things get in the way. Whereas when we make one of our own movies, I say, “This is what’s in the world, so it’s going to be in our script.” Whether it’s the ethnic or racial makeup, the social makeup, the age makeup of that world, how does it change things? How does it change things if it’s set in New Hampshire or if it’s set in Cajun country in Louisiana? So many mainstream Hollywood movies are shot in Toronto as a stand-in for something else. It’s almost better for them to be nowhere specific. But we always have to be conscious of these things. I’m also always conscious of genre even when I’m not making a genre movie, because even when you wander towards genre, like Matewan wanders toward the Western, that brings up certain expectations and experience in the audience. And if you’re not going to satisfy those expectations, you’re gonna have to deal with it.

The Brother From Another Planet is a good example. The idea came from a bunch of strange dreams I had, but one of the things I wanted it to be for people was a trip to Harlem, an imaginary or symbolic Harlem as well as the real place. And some of what I wanted the movie to be about was waste of potential. And if you think about any country with a racial or ethnic problem, there’s such a waste. Probably the most famous example of it in this country was Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in baseball. But think of the educators and scientists and engineers and all the people we didn’t have working for us in the country because of racism. Or sexism, or whatever. So I just realized, here’s a guy who has these incredible, otherworldly talents, and he has to hide them.

So that was an allegory, but then let’s put him in Harlem too. If he changed the way he dressed only slightly, he’d be completely accepted as a Harlemite by everybody around him. But he understands less about this world than the two white guys that wander up to Harlem by mistake because they take the wrong subway. He knows less about it than someone from France does, and least when he’s first here. And then he assimilates. And growing up in a city where lots of people were immigrants, and certainly no one in my own family got here much earlier than about 1900, assimilation is a really interesting thing. You’re always giving something up at the same time you’re getting something new. And you have to ask yourself, “Am I giving up more than I’m getting?”

My memory of meeting John for the first time was on set. Perhaps this was by his design. I had a small role and maybe he felt, based on my audition tape, that he could finesse my performance during filming. I don’t know. We were not filming the two scenes I was in sequentially, meaning we filmed my last scene first. The second scene is where I arrive at Rosanna Arquette’s dormitory, and we smoke pot and make love.

I was just out of drama school and having this small role in a feature film was a huge deal for me and my budding career. When John came to me and introduced himself I was at first struck my his size — John is well over six feet. But as big as he is, he was very soft-spoken and gentle. He talked me through the scene as he imagined it and then we began filming. I remembered seeing Federico Fellini directing a love scene in some documentary. While the camera was rolling, Fellini spoke to his actors. Directing them to touch a certain way, to move more closely, to kiss very gently. The scene we were filming was in a tiny dormitory and there was hardly room for Rosanna and I plus the cameraman and focus puller. As I said, John is an enormous man, but like Fellini, John found a way to lie on the floor and tuck his large body beside the camera where he could watch and direct his actors. Having him there, essentially in the scene with us, was wonderful. Feeling him participating and encouraging us in his silent gestures.

We completed the days work and there would be several days before I worked on my other scene. When I arrived at set I was greeted with happy faces and in the make-up trailer Rosanna told me how thrilled she and everyone was with our previous scene. So much so that John wrote additional dialogue for me for the scene we were going to shoot that night.

To say that working with John and all the actors and crew of Baby Its You was a wonderful and important first step for me would be a huge understatement. I only wish I could have done more films with John.

I do believe that I won the part in Matewan because halfway through my callback audition, I stepped on the casting woman’s dog, and I screamed so loudly and so freely, and then just made it part of the audition. And I think that John was so tickled with that, that he said, “I’ll work with her. She’s a good sport.” You know how he has that little quiet giggle? I heard that and I thought, “Should I stop or keep going?” But I thought “He seems like a ‘Keep going’ kind of dude.” And I honestly think that’s why I got it.

But it was an absolutely thrilling experience. And here was my first, “Oh my God, John Sayles is not like anyone else” moment: I’m sure people have told you that a couple of weeks prior to shooting, you receive a veritable tome in the mail. You get a description of your character, and their background, and their ideas, and their socio-political placement in the world. All in beautifully drawn detail. You’d try to go searching for that yourself, but it was beautiful the way John did it, because he wrote it. So you understand that your imaginary background is actually going to be the same as his. Whew! What a luxury that is, you know what I mean? So when you’re working with him, you don’t get any of this “Well, I thought she was…Well, I was thinking she was…” You know exactly what he was thinking. And I loved it, sitting by myself in my apartment in New York in the morning with my coffee, rereading the background and then looking at the script. He just taught me so much for my first time out in front of the camera. That was a real gift.

And then just being down there in West Virginia—where we shot was just a half a street, really, with houses on one side, and a railroad track, and nothing on the other side. I can still feel it. I can still smell it. I can still hear the train whistle. I can feel the late Autumn sun going down and that kind of Indian summer feeling. It was absolutely magical. I guess what I’m trying to say is it wasn’t hard to believe the imaginary circumstances. And John brings great designers and his own brilliant mind and creates a world. But he doesn’t infuse the world with Hollywood. He doesn’t bring the consciousness of Hollywood onto the set. So you don’t have any trouble believing that you’re in West Virginia in 1920. And I do think that’s unusual.

There was a night when we were shooting the scene at the Drift Mouth, where the Italian and black miners are brought up there to be put in, and they’re confronted by the hillbilly miners who have been kicked out of there jobs. It was a long night, and we had a lot to shoot, and I remember we were between setups. A lot of the local guys had brought their guitars up and were singing mountain songs. And Ken Jenkins, who plays Cephus, who’s from Kentucky and know that world, said, “You know what? This is different. I’m really happy to be here.”

We knew that it was an important story, and it just hadn’t been told before. Other countries have more of a labor history genre, but it’s a pretty short list in the United States. And some of it is just politics. Certainly in the McCarthy era, no one was going around making labor movies. And part of it is that it was a tough scuffle. In the movie business itself in the late 40s and early 50s, people were blowing up trucks and beating people up over the trade unions. So we felt lucky to get to tell that story. And the people in West Virginia, as nervous as some of it made them, because it isn’t pretty history, were really happy that someone had come to tell the real story. And not just something about them being inbred. Southern Comfort and they said, “In movies we’re either the retarded guy from Deliverance or the inbreds from Southern Comfort.” And they had a rich history, but no one seemed to be interested in telling it.

Working with John Sayles is not for everybody. There are some people, I think, who may have certain Hollywood-style expectations of comfort and ego-stroking. There are people who expect those sorts of things from when they work on the film. John is a very blue collar, very grass roots, which works for his types of films because that’s his experience. He and Maggie have a methodology of making a film. They don’t just hire people because they think they’re good. They also hire people who they think are going to mesh well as a family. As a community. As an army. That’s one of the great things about being on John’s film’s. Matewan was one of the best experiences of my life. I met my wife on Matewan. I’ve been married 25 years. I met my wife on Matewan, and it still hasn’t wrapped. Matewan is a blend of crew, of cast, of writing, of local. It was just a terrifically special film to be a part of. It goes beyond what happens to get recorded within the frame. But it’s not for everyone. I think it’s only fair to say that.

I think the people who worked the best with him are the people who let go of some of those other things, who give themselves over to the tale that’s being told by John Sayles. When you do that, there is a different type of reward. That’s why one of the relationships that I prize the most in my entire life is working with John and Maggie.

John has spent a great deal of time on the road, bouncing around when he was young. He worked as an orderly in a hospital. He’s done a numerous different jobs. He absorbed so much from the people that he came into contact with who were different from him that I think that had a profound affect upon what he tends to write and what he tends to see as being socially relevant. I think that’s been lost on a certain generation of new, independent filmmakers. I really do.

Certainly in the making of the movie, what you want is to provide the atmosphere for people to do their best work. That’s the crew as well as the actors. All within the parameters that you have. One parameter is the budget, so you go to your production designer and say, ‘Do your best; here’s what we’ve got,’ even if it’s very little. And with the actors and the cinematographer, the parameter is often “Here’s how much time we have, and this is what we have to get done.” It just has to be good; it doesn’t have to be perfect. Nothing is going to be perfect that we do. It’s just got to be the best we can do under the circumstances. Even Steven Spielberg has his own budget and time constraints. Ours are more extreme, but everybody has to balance time and money and how important is this to the film. And sometimes things are changed just for practical reasons.

It’s all about making decisions, and sometimes you have to say, “That’s the best that it can be with the time and money and my head looking at it. I’m going to stamp it and say it’s done.” I mean, there are people that are still cutting movies three or four years after they make them. And at that point it’s probably getting worse, rather than better. And as the quality of digital film improves, it brings this problem with it that people can shoot from every angle imaginable with these cheap cameras, and then dump all the footage on their poor editors and say, “Now we’ve got eight weeks to cut this thing.” When it would take six weeks just to watch it all. Some of those angles were interesting for about two minutes, and then not interesting at all for the rest of the three hours, but the decision was made because it was just so easy to just keep those cameras on since they weren’t paying for film. Back in the days when we were paying for film, you had to really train yourself not to say “Cut!” too quickly, because the actor might have some reaction or do something extra that might be nice to have on film. But, that was film that you had to pay for, running fast through that camera, and it was like blood flowing out of your veins!

What is lacking in amenities is more than made up for in good company and a great character in a great script—on this John delivers every time. John creates a great community in partnership with Maggie Renzi, his longtime producer. Together they create an environment that is fun and creative for everyone involved, even when the hours are long and the physical site is tough.

John and I are on exactly the same page politically. He expresses it better than I do. And that is the reason I will be in any John Sayles film in any script he hands to me. No one tells the truth of our society like John. And John is a walking Wikipedia. In four languages.

I just always remember John’s deep focus. And the fact that he’s always dressed like it’s ninety degrees, even when it’s five degrees out.

(“I’m on Fire” – 1982, “Born in the U.S.A.” – 1984, “Glory Days” – 1985):

Right when Springsteen was starting to be in his own videos, I think one of his nieces said, “You have to make a real video, you have to be in it, and maybe play a real character—not yourself.” With “Born in the USA” Bruce just said, “I want this to be gritty,” and I said, “Well, we do gritty.” We shot it in 16mm. We shot all of these documentary images that I mixed into the cutting of it, but you know, the band doesn’t want him to play to a click track. So we got them to do where Bruce wears the same clothes every night for four nights, and he came out and the first song was “Born in the U.S.A.” So if you see the video, it’s kinda rough synced—it’s not exactly in sync in some places. Which is part of the roughness of it.

The other two, the songs are stories. A lot of his songs are really like a movie, and really Bruce came up with the ideas for the visuals. It’s the only time I really worked as a director-for-hire, and then the joy of it was of course, I got to edit them—I got to edit a Bruce Springsteen song! What fun is that! The budgets weren’t enormous even by rock video standards, they were fairly modest, but I’d never had so much money to make three minutes—ever, in my life, and have a crane, and two cinematographers instead of one. So they were really fun—he and the people around him were really good people to work with.

I was an actor just fresh out of drama school. Just a couple, few years, living in New York. Just doing off-off-off-off-no-pay showcases, just trying to get a foothold. Maybe I’d done-only your mama and your friends really looked, like “There she is! She just ran through that scene.” Or maybe I’d done a soap opera or a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial, you know? I was still at that state. I would make little home-made post cards and send them out to everyone I know saying “please catch me Wednesday at eight on this,” you know, “as this receptionist” or you know, small parts? The steps, the steps, the steps. And then I got a call, an offer for City Of Hope.

Of course I was a fan of his. I’d seen Brother From Another Planet. Oh my gosh, Joe Morton in that—wonderful movie. Who’s this director? It was different from other movies you’d seen at the time.

But I had an offer from John Sayles to be in City Of Hope. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know how it happened, but I didn’t audition for it. To my knowledge, he doesn’t audition actors. But he’s aware of actors and their work. That just does something for your spirit, you know, “I’ve been watching you.”

When you arrive on the set, he’s got the script, he sends you a history of character, you’re like “Oh my God, I hope I can do exactly like what he wants.” But, really, the experiences—it’s one of the most collaborative. You’re not intimidated at all. In another movie, Passion Fish, we were filming in Louisiana. He knows exactly about rice crops. Whatever it is, he’s researching. He’s directing. His research is just so thorough. And then he just throws it on. Just sets it aside and then begins to tell the story. The actors that he’s invited to tell the story with him, he appreciates and respects them. Make your choices! And he makes it and it all works. It’s really one of the loveliest experiences working with him. Kind of a blessing that I’ve been able to do it three times.

And what he does is-he’s just so accomplished. Which is amazing because he’s the author. The screenwriter. The director and the editor. I imagine that he see’s it from all those perspectives. He’s so calm about it.

He writes for the world. He sees the world. He photographs it. He doesn’t choose what he’ll show. He just sees the world and the way people cross each other and affect each other, which was indicated in the beginning of City of Hope.

There was this one—was it the opening scene?—that goes on for like seven minutes. We didn’t have to set it up. He set it up—where one comes in and you leave that person and then you go on with someone else. Then he crosses paths with someone and you leave him behind and you go on, go forward with that person. It was this really winding scene. You’ve probably seen stuff like that since then, but we hadn’t then. It was just the way people bump up against each other or pass each other without looking up at them. You know? He showed that. That really is a part of what a lot of us do. But some folks are just interested in “How are you? How did you become a group of friends or family? Why am I not a part of that one?” This is interesting, “but this is my tribe, my family, here. But I’m interested in your tribe over there.”

It’s kind of the world I live in. Women are more than 50% of the human beings on the planet; it’s kinda hard to avoid them. And some of it is just interest. There are people who are just not interested. And some of it is just comfort level. If you watch Woody Allen movies, I just don’t think he’s that comfortable away from a certain area; he knows what he does well and he stays within that class of people. They’re almost all white. James McDaniel, who was in our movie Sunshine State, was, I believe, the first black person with a line in a Woody Allen movie. And when he showed up, the production assistant wouldn’t let him on the set because he didn’t believe he’d possibly be in a Woody Allen movie. Well, it’s not that Woody Allen’s not interested in those people; he’s just not comfortable enough to include them in his written world. He doesn’t feel like he knows enough, or whatever.

And you know, I’ve gotten to make 18 movies. Most independent filmmakers only get to make one or two, and they’re searching for money the rest of the time. So I’ve been really lucky that way. I get to have a range from something like Honeydripper, where there’s almost no white characters, to something like Eight Men Out, where I think there’s one black guy because those guys lived in a white world.

Sometimes you have to whip yourself into believing what you’re seeing in the character, and you have to build it yourself, but a good writer, and John certainly is that, will already have it on the page. And you can easily believe it. You don’t have to go in the corner and jump up and down and play music and all that, because you can believe what you have to say. There’s an honesty to it. And I always say, if I’m having a hard time memorizing a scene, there’s something wrong with it. With John’s script, I can read it once, and not only will I know practically all my lines in the scene, I’ll know the lines of the character that is talking back to me. Something about the way he writes captures the way our minds make connections.

It’s not just that he does great dialogue —that’s a specialty or a skill that some people can pull on. And God knows, we need more of them. But he has an ability to put into words how a person’s mind thinks. And you know, in life, we hardly ever say what we want. That’s how some people get into writing you wish you could get out of, with people speaking their subtext. In life, you don’t do that. John is able to capture what people subconsciously or unconsciously intend. And that’s great for an actor, to have your intention already there. He’s my favorite writer—well, I shouldn’t say that. One of my favorites.

But also, it makes him a very specific storyteller. The people in his stories couldn’t be anyone but who they are. He captures that absolute uniqueness. Out of all the billions of people born, none of us have the same fingerprints. He brings that individual to the screen, and you understand that person.

When I’m doing a project, I can’t read anything else. But I read Passion Fish during a break. And I said “Yes, yes! I want to do it!” and then went down to do this other project. So I had 24 hours from the end of that project to the time I started with John. So I got there, and we sat down in a Holiday Inn coffee shop, and I said, “Tell me who I am and what to do!” Because I was on camera the next morning! Just a few hours later. And he talked to me, telling me all about the character, for about 45 minutes, and I wrote everything down. And every morning I’d get up, and look at my little Scripture that he’d given me, and believe in the words he’d put in her mouth in those circumstances.

We started out with this really intense scene where Chantelle is thrashing around with withdrawals. And we got through the first take, and I’m thinking, “Okay, let’s start some work here.” And he says, “Okay, go and change for Scene Ten.” And I said, “But I didn’t do it yet.” And he said, “Yes, you did. Go get ready for Scene Ten.” And I said, “No, John, wait. I promise you, I didn’t do it, because I thought we’d be doing this for awhile.” And he said, “No, trust me. I got what I need. Go change.” And I thought, “Okay…” And I went to Mary’s trailer and shut the door and said, “Mary, he only did one take!” And she said, “I know, one take!” And we started roaring with laughter, and we decided it would either be great, or be the end of our careers.

He’d say, “Just give me the truth. All those things that you think you’re adding, I don’t need.” And it’s so liberating. But you’ve got to trust that what you know is what you know. And don’t question it. If you add any drama in your head, it begins to be a different thing. And what’s beautiful is that the storyteller—John—trusts you to hit it. So you hit it.

That guy does real people so well. And if you can connect with real people, you’ll love his characters, and you’ll love working with him.

I prefer the shock of the new. I send a bio to every actor, even if they have only half a page, and it’s a small bio with information about their character that isn’t necessarily in the script. You want them to come knowing who their character is and knowing their lines, but with something to find out, which is what’s going to happen in the scene. Who are the other actors? How am I going to react to them? So that there’s still some discovery. It’s much easier, even with the best of actors, to do that three times rather than 30 times. As an actor, I find that by take eight or nine, if it’s been good a couple of times, unless I’m getting something very specifically different to do, just to make it interesting, I’m going to do it different. And that doesn’t mean better. It may start to be very forced. So I like the first couple of times when you say those words, and you almost don’t know what the other person is going to say next, even if you’ve read the script. It just makes it a little easier for the actor to really listen and really respond.

And good actors work with each other and really help each other out. So you really want to set up that kind of environment, where they’re listening to each other. I think Passion Fish is the best example of that, where because there were so many one-one-one scenes between Alfre Woodard and Mary McDonnell, I kind of went into each corner like a corner man. I’d talk to one and say, “OK, on this take here’s what I want you to do,” and then to the other I’d say, “OK, on this take don’t let her do this.” So for each take, the dynamic would change. It would be within the range of what the characters would do, but it would be very different from the last take.

You do a certain amount of handicapping, so what you learn as quickly as you can is what will help that actor, what that rhythm is. So certainly there are actors that are great on their first couple of takes, and then they start to second-guess themselves, and so you always want them on-camera first and to go over someone else’s shoulder. And then there are other actors that really do improve, and it’s not that they don’t do a good job the first time; it’s just that they incrementally get better. And those are the people where you want to give them four or five takes where the camera is looking over their shoulder at the other actor, and then turn it around to them. I’ve worked with Chris Cooper a few times, and he’s really good on the first take. But he’s also the kind of actor where, if you let him know that for three-quarters of the day the camera’s not even going to be pointed at you, he’ll use that three-quarters of the day to try new stuff and very slowly deepen his performance. So that by the time you turn the camera on him, he’s ready. Different actors react to the process of moviemaking very differently, so you do have to do a little handicapping.

John is not afraid. John understands. He never patronizes. You get a sense that it’s a three-dimensional person. When we did Passion Fish, I played Alfre Woodard’s boyfriend. I had a close relative who had just gone through a crack addition. I had extensive conversations with this relative over the phone. I got down to Louisiana. I read the script—John sent me the script. I hadn’t really thought about it because I was doing another movie. He sent me the character breakdown. I read that and I thought “Wow, this is really familiar,” and I hadn’t really connected the two until we got on set and started working and I realized that he had captured certain types of regret, paranoia, that were exactly what my relative had just gone through and me having had these length phone conversations with him. It was a wonderful discovery. And I thought “how uncanny!”

There’s no one else in this country. There’s no one else, I think, in the history of film that makes movies into languages like him. He’s a kid from Schenectady, New York and he makes films in Spanish, as in Men With Guns, he goes to Ireland and makes a film that nine our of 10 people would swear was made by a European, by an Irishman—not by a kid from Schenectady.

He makes a movie about Mississippi blues in the delta, but he’s from Schenectady. More than anything else, I would like a wide audience to be exposed to his voice. He tells American stories and very few people have done that for as long as he’s done it on such a high level of quality.

There are places where I don’t think I could go. I was just down at a film festival in Mexico, and they asked if there was anything in Mexican history that I thought would make a good movie. And I think there’s dozens of great stories down there, but even though I speak Spanish, I don’t think I have the familiarity with the culture to be the one to do it. The two movies that I’ve shot totally in Mexico were set in a fictitious Latin American country, so that we could be more general with the culture than specific. The Secret of Roan Inish is set on a very isolated Irish island in 1949 before there’s TV or movies or anything there and has nothing really to do with the politics of that moment, which I wouldn’t feel comfortable making a movie about. It’s the same thing with Amigo—I could make that movie on a village level, because it’s a very specific situation. But I don’t think I could make a movie about contemporary Filipino life. I think it would take me years to feel comfortable enough to talk about that culture. So you have to pick your spots. John Huston did a lot of traveling, but he generally brought his characters with him, and they were Americans. So he could make The African Queen in Africa, but it’s not an African movie. He could make Treasure of the Sierra Madre with the help of B. Traven’s wonderful model, and it has a great flavor of Mexico, but finally it’s about a bunch of gringos.

In the case of The Secret of Roan Inish, there was a children’s book called The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, set in Scotland, that Maggie, who I live with and who produced the movie, had read as a ten year old girl and loved. And she had been bugging me for years to read it and make the movie. At one point she was visiting her home town, and the library was selling a bunch of old books, and she bought it for a quarter. And she said, “Finally, you have to read this thing.” And I knew I’d have to add some things to make it a feature, but I knew it was a great story. The writer was also an illustrator, and there were beautiful little line drawings, some of which are replicated in the movie. We kind of got outside financing and kind of didn’t, so I had to either pull the plug or put my own money into it. The business side of it wasn’t fun.

But the shooting of it was fun. We went over to Ireland with maybe four crew people. We brought Haskell Wexler and his operator, and a couple more people, and we got everyone else over there. We were informed that this was the first time a lot of these people had worked on a mixed crew. And we thought, “But there’s no black people in this crew.” But what they meant was, people from Northern Ireland and the south of Ireland on the same crew. But luckily, they liked each other, and went on to make other movies together. And we went over there not knowing a single actor we were going to work with. I had just John Lynch in a movie, and knew I wanted to cast him. But other than that, we thought, “We’ll find some actors. And we’ll find an amazing little girl.” And we did. The only performers that we had really lined up were the seals. We often use that line from Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” We think, we know the material is good, we know we want to do it. Let’s get the best people we can find to jump in to do it. Even with all the question marks.

Kusama directed Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body after working as Sayles’ office manager for Lone Star 1996.

He’s incredibly calm. He has this sort of quiet, methodical way of working. There’s probably this kind of underground obsessiveness to it, but he manages to keep that under wraps as you’re working with him, so you don’t get any of the mania or the hysterical neuroses that come with some highly creative and driven personalities. It’s a really nice way to get access to his creativity and to the way his mind works, but in this very calm way. Being able to see him work was just a real dream for a young filmmaker like myself, I was able to see someone who had a style that was really worth learning from.

I think that’s a very interesting question, because in my small body of work, certainly two of the three films are very different from anything that John has directed. But what’s interesting about John is that his bread and butter of his career has always been writing other people’s screenplays, so I was able to see how he approached genre filmmaking, whether we was talking about how he wrote Alligator or Piranha or The Howling, he saw those kind of movies as important steps for him towards ultimately directing films. He always talked about genre in a way that wasn’t judgmental; because he was writing and conceiving those films, it was important to him that those films be thoughtful and funny and ultimately about something. So I learned from him that there’s a way to sneak your worldview into these very familiar forms, and John is a master at that.

I would also say that he, as a director and a writer, always talks about looking at every character in your screenplay as having a full interior life, and a series of motivations and agendas that drive them, that you should understand going in. Each of your characters, not just your protagonist, should have their own narrative assigned to them. That way, when you’re talking to actors on set, there’s a shorthand that you both understand. That ties into his interest in communities, and how we create these living organisms comprised of individuals. I think what makes him so good at seeing that is that he sees every character as important as the next. That kind of lesson, where he always asked me to consider that when he read my screenplays, I feel like I can take that with me to any kind of storytelling now. He taught me a lot in that respect. I feel really thankful that he was willing to share his way of looking at things.

If I could have imagined, when I was fourteen years old in St. Louis watching Brother From Another Planet, and seeing those movies and trying to place them in a recognizable current of mainstream filmmaking, if I could have predicted that that filmmaker would be the one whose mail I would answer and whose toilet I would get fixed, and whose generosity would be bestowed on me because I had worked for him, I couldn’t have imagined a more useful, more truly inspiring teacher. He, more than nearly any American filmmaker, had something to offer me specifically, which was a sense that it is these individual voices that make stories, and it’s not always the archetype and the cookie cutter heroes that really communicate stories. It’s everyday people. And although I’m interested in all kinds of stories, and I have a predilection for fantasy and horror, I do think regular, everyday people always make the most interesting protagonists. We both know them so well because ewe don’t see them much in pop culture, and we do know them so well because most of us walk in their shoes every day. John is actually one of the most radical filmmakers working today.

I would say the genesis of that movie goes back to me watching Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett on The Wonderful World of Disney. And then going ot the real Alamo in San Antonio. I went down to do a cameo part in Piranha in San Marco, Texas, and I had a day off, so I took a bus down to see the Alamo. In those days when you entered the Alamo the first thing you saw was a pretty bad oil painting of John Wayne, Richard Widmark and Laurence Harvey from the John Wayne movie The Alamo. And there was a protest happening the day I was there, a bunch of Mexican Americans with placards saying “Tell the Whole Story.” This was very one-sided history, and it was controlled by the Daughters of the Alamo. You know, there were Mexicans that were inside the Alamo, who just happened to not like Santa Ana and were fighting alongside the Texans.

And of course, the other history that no one likes to really get into is that the freedom that those Texans were fighting for was the freedom to own slaves. That was their argument with the government of Mexico—they had outlawed slavery, and you couldn’t get rich growing cane or cotton without slaves. How dare you tell us we can’t own slaves? These are people who were invited as guests to come settle certain areas of Texas, and all of a sudden they’re copping this attitude.

Anyway, those things started working through my head. And I hitchhiked through a lot of border towns, and was struck by how little English was spoken even on the American side of those border towns. Here was the official version, and here’s what was really going on. And then there’s a strange thing in that film, which is that I also knew that a bunch of the Buffalo Soldiers ended up down on that Texas border, including a bunch who had just had it with Texas racism, tore off their insignia, and went down to work for Santa Ana, chasing the same Indians but doing it for the Mexicans. So I was interested in that idea of African-American people being stuck down there. Many of the Buffalo Soldiers had been stationed in El Paso or in Arizona. So there’s this strange structure that I only did one other time, where Joe Morton and Chris Cooper are kind of co-leads, but they’re never onscreen in the same scene. I was interested in that idea of parallel worlds, the Mexican world, the Anglo world, and the little African-American world that existed around the military base.

I remember we were shooting Sunshine State, and I remember we were shooting outside—Tom Wright and I at a car dealership and it’s raining. We’re in Florida. We’re in Florida and it’s the summer, which makes it easy to have a flash flood. Rain for 20 minutes. It just comes and goes. It suns, it’s humid, it rains again. We were just running in and out of the building. It was a substantial scene—about two or three pages. We know that can take hours to shoot. And we might get his coverage but not my side. Before we closed it was like “Oh my god, we’re never gonna get this.” But I guess, he was just so calm which keeps you calm. He knew exactly how he was gonna cut it. He could just go in, almost like a surgeon. And we were able to get it. I was like “Alright, even in this increment weather.” And we would just keep moving forward.

Even on the set, we have a lot of down time away from set and meals and conversation, he just seems to be that really quiet, introspected, yet open, available and loving person—in such a big guy too. He’s a mystery. I think he’s just the best of humanity. He’s just people. You know? He loves people, he loves actors, he loves places, he loves history. He seems to love everything but things. He’s one who appreciates and recognizes the mystery, the intrigue. He finds the good and praises it and writes it.

I guess I would have to say the last thing in parting, is that his trust in me as a young actor and then again and again and again… for me, it meant a lot. It’s significant. Assuring me of it, not just working together, but as an actor, like you said, when you’re trying to do your work, do your passion, build your characters, it’s just a real confidence that him casting me has given me. So I appreciate him, very much.

I became a fan of John’s because he was very quietly living the life of an independent filmmaker and didn’t bring a lot of attention to himself. I had a lot of admiration for that. I thought The Brother From Another Planet and things like that were wonderful. He was smart enough to make films that didn’t have idiots over him telling him what to do. So. If I was living my life over again I would like to work with him more. You know that a thousand years ago, he was one of the storytellers who went to village to village. I think he’s done such a variety of things. The one thing he hasn’t done, as far as I know, is gotten stuck behind Hollywood. I think it would be great if he did a film about a guy like him, who does independent films and then does these cheap-o horror movies and shit for money. That would be a good film. That’s basically the way most people work now. I always asked for a relaxed and creative atmosphere and he always had that. He certainly didn’t over-rehearse. Or under-rehearse, really. Barry Levinson insists you not rehearse. And I don’t think John would insist on anything. But there was never any real reason. The scenes weren’t built for that. If you hire smart actors, they know what to do. Tell John that I think he was a civilized guy.

The basic plot is about two women who grew up so tight they could ‘go for sisters,’ best of friends all the way through high school, lose touch with each other for 20 years, and are reunited when one of them is assigned to be the parole officer for the other, who has just gotten out of jail fighting a drug habit. And then it takes off from there.

Lisa Gay Hamilton, who I had worked with before on Honeydripper, is in the movie. And Gary Clark, the local guitar whiz of Austin—this was his first acting gig. And a wonderful actress named Yolonda Ross, and Edward James Olmos. So many good character actors. Jesse Borrego who was in my movie Lone Star years ago, who’s a wonderful actor. So one of the nice things about a road movie is that you stop every once in a while and get a really good day player and come in. Hector Elizondo is in it, and is wonderful in it.

Go For Sisters was a dream. Most of my films have been indie films. I’ve worked with Robert Young for 37 years. But John Sayles has always been, in my mind, one of the giants of independent filmmaking because of the stories he tells. So he called me and asked me if I’d be interested in producing in his next movie, and I said, “John, are you kidding me? It’s an honor. Yes.” So he sent me the script, and I read it, and I found it to be very different from anything I’ve ever seen him do. So I called him back and said yes, and he said, “Oh, and would you mind playing Fred?” So of course I said “yes, I’d love to play Fred.”

The film is independent. We went through 66 locations in 19 days. We went from Los Angeles through Calexico, through Mexicali, through Tijuana. We had five days of 117 degree temperature, and worked outside, It was a real test of understanding, and no one let us down. Every one rose to the occasion.

I think the great thing is to have been able to work on the same thing intensely but not in a competitive way. We don’t do the same job. I couldn’t produce a two-car funeral. And often you get this situation where directors are assigned to producers, or directors very reluctantly take on a producer, and you get this very adversarial kind of thing. Whereas Maggie, on the ones she’s worked on, is in it from the inception of the screenplay, and we’re trying to do the same thing—we’re trying to make a good movie. We not only get to work together, but also get to spend a lot more time together than we would ordinarily. The people that I really feel bad for are these actors who fall in love because they’re in a movie or play together, and then never get to work together on a movie again. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward did a better job at it than most, but a lot of times, if they’re both successful, they’re often on different continents and never get to see each other. And then there’s often that tough situation where one of them gets really successful and the other one just sits there. We just weren’t ever in that situation where we were competing for the same thing. And, getting to collaborate on something as cool as a movie is fun. And you get to travel. We don’t make that much money from our movies, but we get to go these film festivals and travel places. I don’t think Maggie and I had a passport before we were 30 years old. I don’t think we had a credit card before we were 30 years old. But we’ve seen all these places the movies have taken us, either to shoot our movies or to show them.

Share Tweet Submit Pin