Q&A: John Sayles & Maggie Renzi
John Sayles remains one of the true originals in American cinema. Though he sometimes works as a screenwriter on mainstream Hollywood projects, he is best known for his daring, unique, and deeply personal films like City of Hope, Eight Men Out, Brother from Another Planet, and Lone Star. He and his longtime producer Maggie Renzi sat down with the press shortly before Christmas to discuss their latest project, Honeydripper, as well as their thoughts on independent filmmaking in general. A transcript of their Q&A follows.
Question: How did this project start?
John Sayles: It came from the music; that is the germ of it. I have this feeling that America integrates first in sports and music -- that when people kind of can't deal with each other, they start listening to each other's music or say, "You know, if I had that guy on my team we might win." That was the beginning of it. And then I started thinking about these watershed moments. With movies, that was when the talkies came in, and all those silent movie directors and actors had to either learn how to do that or give it up. Some didn't want to. Some just said, "That's it for me and that's not what I do." Some did not have the skill to do it and some were able to become even better directors, and it opened up things.
Rock and roll was the same kind of thing, where an awful lot of musicians, especially the older ones, would say, "I don't like the way it sounds," or, "It's easier than what I played before." Then some people said, "But wait a minute: I can do something like that. I can take that and do something more interesting with it." So that turning point became interesting to me. Then I thought about when that turning point happened... when a lot of other turning points were about to happen. 1950 was the first time our combat troops had been integrated since World War I. In the South, the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement as we know it were taking shape. People had been banging their heads against that forever, and suddenly some big things started happening. Turning points like that, for me, are always good drama. So you kind of focus in on it. I thought, "Well, what if there was a guy who ran a club and he's not ready for rock and roll, but if he gives over to it, he's gonna save himself as well as his business."
Q: Who do you bounce your stuff off of while being the writer, director, and the editor?
JS: Maggie will often... when she hears that I'm writing something, she says, "Tell so-and-so this story." I'm one of those people who, when I tell a story, I always feel like it's getting boring, so I make up something new. And every once in awhile, someone says, "Hey, that sounded good," and it kind of goes from there. Sometimes it doesn't end up in the script and sometimes it sounds good, and sometimes it gets atrocious. Some of that process is just bouncing off everybody while I'm writing. While I'm directing, I'm bouncing the material off the actors. I may change two lines per movie, and I try to do that not on the set but before, when the actors get the script. They get a bio that I write of their character, and then I say, "Call me up" or if we're in the same place, "Talk to me about this or that." Every once in a while, somebody will say that they don't know if their character can say this line or that line. So I get a little bit back from them. Then while we're making it... we're not changing the lines, but actors can do a lot of different versions of a character in a scene. They can give you a lot of different emotions: angry, or holding the anger in, or what have you. There are all these different ways that can play the same scene without changing the line. That's a lot of what I get. I hired some really good actors in this movie, and the first thing that you do as the director is to see how they're going to do it. Put these two actors together or three actors together and see how they would do it. Then you adjust it a little bit or cover it. Or sometimes you just say, "Wow, I did not even think it could go in that direction, let's push it in that direction a little bit more."
Maggie Renzi: Then during the editing, we move back up to our house where we live, and edit in the garage. We have assistant editors who basically live with us. There's a lot of discussion at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, because we are excited. I insist on seeing it just as soon as they start cutting -- 10 minutes at a time -- and we often screen it for our friends and neighbors. We do very early screenings for friends, the whole thing complete early on. And that is what John... (looks at Sayles) I guess what you are really interested in is, is there anything we didn't get, is that right?
JS: Yeah, when the studios do their test screenings, it's all about, "Did you like this? Would you recommend it?" And those aren't questions that I ask. I ask, "Did you understand it? Did you get it?" And sometimes, it's "I didn't like the character, he's a serial killer." Well, what's to like, you know? But if they understand what was going on -- not just plot wise, but emotionally -- then you know it's working. And if enough people say, "I didn't get why he would do that," then you'd better go back and look at what you have, and maybe change some things.
Q: Did you ever think that 30 years ago with Piranha, you could be in this position right now?
JS: I think about one movie into the future. We really have been reactive, rather than having a master plan or anything. Nobody knew when I started directing films, whether Hollywood would find a way to have -- on the lower budget scale of what they do -- a whole bunch of directors who just make movies out of stories they wanted to make and who would have final cut and who would cast them as they wished. It hasn't turned out that way. I did a couple movies with studios: a couple of them were good experiences, and one of them wasn't a very good experience.
MR: But actually, when John and I first came out to L.A., he had an idea that he would be writing screenplays and that somebody would hire him to direct. Of course, nobody really knows: it can take a really long time. So you use the money from writing screenplays like Piranha to finance The Return of the Secaucus Seven, our first movie, and that was the beginning. We went back east to do that and basically, we never really came back to work within the system steadily. But, yeah, John wanted to come to Hollywood and write screenplays so he could be a director.
JS: But being a director did not mean being a director for hire, directing things that other people had written. I always figured that I would just think up stories and then get to make them into movies.
Q: Do you think that you have the best of both worlds? You do write big-budget Hollywood movies.
JS: Yeah, when that happens and when I get to make a movie, it is the best of both worlds. And when you don't -- because there are also gaps between projects -- nothing happens. I have been luckier than a lot of people who are trying to do something similar, in that my gaps haven't been as long. I know some really good filmmakers who wait five or six years between projects.
MR: His bread job is an extremely well-paying one. But truly the best of both worlds, would be if John got paid a lot to be a screenwriter and other people financed our films. The problem is that we have to finance our own films. Silver City and this one, we both financed from John's screenwriting. So if we were dreaming a perfect dream, it would be that Hollywood actually wanted to finance independent movies, made independently.
JS: I think that even if people want to finance, I would still write screenplays for other people because I like it and I like the experience of it. I just wouldn't do quite as many.
Q: You're listed as one of the writers on Jurassic Park IV...
JS: Yes, I did a couple drafts of Jurassic Park IV two years ago and that is the last I know about it. Like most screenwriters, I read it in the trade papers.
MR: We wrote to the Internet Movie Database I can't even tell how many times saying, "Get it off the website." They're hopeless. Yes, John wrote a draft two years ago, but who knows what's going on there?
Q: Let's talk a little bit about Honeydripper, and revisiting a less-than-ideal era in this country's history.
JS: One of the things that was important to me was that this not be a movie about lynching, but you have to remember that lynching existed. For me, the heaviest line in the movie is where the sheriff tells Gary Clark's character to take his hat off. In 1950, in that part of Alabama, you did not have to be a white sheriff to tell that kid to take his hat off. You just had to be a white man, and nobody can forget that. Yes, Honeydripper is about something else. It is about music, it is hopeful and it mostly concerns the African-American community. But it also involves the world that encloses it. One of the reasons why Tyrone, the character that Danny Glover plays, is who he is and why he is remarkable in that era is that he's a black man who is an entrepreneur and who runs his own business. He does not have a secret white partner, and pretty much gets to be his own man. And that's what he is going to lose. In addition, he understands to some extent that it's not just him: that it is important to this community to have a person like him in it. It's why he's kind of dismissive of A. Phillip Randolph and political activity, because he's one of these hardheaded guys who's done it on his own. You can't really have this movie without that theory and to a certain extent, without the music, certainly not the blues. There is always this undercurrent of violence in the blues. There are all those staggered kind of songs. I think they basically come from this very low ceiling for what an African-American could wish for at the time. You're picking that cotton. You're getting paid nothing for it. And that is the best that is available. Most of those musicians were guys -- and some of them weren't even into music, but they said, "I am not picking that cotton and playing an instrument is a way out. They are not out there in the fields, and that is what I want to do."
Q: Can you talk about the mystical aspect of Keb' Mo's character? [Keb' Mo' plays a musician, Possum, who may or may not have supernatural origins.]
JS: Yeah, the way that I explained it to him -- and he really did a great job taking off with it -- is that he's not the guy who made the deal with the devil. He's not even the devil. He's kind of the spirit of the music. And only Danny's character and Gary Clark Jr.'s character see him, because they are the musicians. For Danny's character, Keb' is kind of the ghost of Christmas past. He's the guy who reminds Danny of this murder that he was involved in. That has really shamed him as a person, and certainly, a big part of why he runs the club the way that he runs it. For Gary, Keb' is kind of the ghost of Christmas future. He's the guy who gets him to his date with destiny. Also, I wanted a character who played that kind of roots blues, because that is where it all comes from.
Keb' came in and we said, "You are going to be playing this kind of steel guitar." He found a guitar, he brought it in, and said, "This is Possum's guitar. Oh and by the way, Possum only plays in G." He had completely thought through who that character might be. He said, "Possum's a virtuoso, but he has kept it so simple, he only has one key that he plays in." Those guys very often were fixtures in all these little small towns. We shot in Georgianna, Alabama, which is the town that you see with the railroad tracks. It's where Hank Williams grew up. And an old black man taught him how to play the guitar. Guys like that couldn't jump on the freight like the other musicians because they were blind. T-Bone Walker -- who invented the splints and all the stuff that Chuck Berry later did, all that playing behind your back and between your legs -- played an acoustic guitar with a pick up. He was kind of the grandfather of all the modern guitar players. And when he was a little boy, he led Blind Lemon Jefferson around the town that they lived in in Texas so that Jefferson wouldn't get run over on his way to the next porch. I felt like there had to be a character in Honeydripper who played that kind of stuff, just to anchor the music.
MR: You would recognize him. He's the mischief-maker. He's that character, that spirit.
JS: And he is Tyrone's conscience as well.
Q: Is there a character -- Tyrone for you, or someone else -- that you can relate to the most?
JS: I am not a very autobiographical filmmaker, but certainly... I suppose Tyrone could be an independent filmmaker. Things are tough and does he just pack up his bags and give up or does he find a way through it? Movies are like that sometimes, kind of houses of cards. Half of the people in L.A. are on the phone trying to get movies made, and build their houses of cards. And if Dakota Fanning gets another job, or some investor decides that he wants to buy a soccer team instead being in the movie business, it all falls apart. So in that sense, Tyrone -- that guy trying to survive -- is very familiar to me. And Gary's character too: he's the only guy coming in who has something different he wants to do, but nobody's listening to him. There are dozens of people probably within 500 yards of this spot who are working as waiters or working this hotel who are trying to be actors. They walked into town with whatever they had to show, and maybe it will happen and maybe it won't.
Q: How close are you going to be watching the box office?
JS: Very close, because it is all our money. I mean all of our money.
MR: We are doing the whole big thing with it: including spending the money to invite you all here and have the film be received in a really legitimate context. Yes, we're trying to get an Academy Award for it and there's no reason not to with a great screenplay and a great director, and a wonderful, wonderful lead actor. We're doing it slowly and carefully -- opening in New York and Los Angeles in December for Academy consideration and then doing a lot of openings around Martin Luther King Day, and then for Black History month in February.
The website [honeydripper-movie.com] is encouraging people to take the movie on locally and there is a big grassroots way that you can get the movie to play where you are. We're doing a lot with three audiences: the blues audience, the African-American audience, and the John Sayles' audience, whatever that exactly is. The Blues Foundation was just sort of endorsed to us. First Variety has just endorsed us, and they'll approach African-Americans to go to it on the first weekend. We're doing a thing for the Historic Black Colleges marketing course, using Honeydripper as a course in the HBCU. Go on the Honeydripper website and you will see what we're doing. I'm convinced that it is not that people don't love our movies, they just have not been invited in to see them. And I can see from the film festivals where we're showing the movie -- Savannah, Atlanta, St. Louis -- that people really like it. They really like what it's about, but they are adults. They stopped going to the movies some time ago, because the movies got violent, got noisy, got stupid, and they don't go anymore. We are encouraging adults to come and see this movie, and they are discovering that they really love it.
JS: Unfortunately, the studio template has sort of been applied to the independent film world. So if the film doesn't gross 20 million dollars or more or like Sideways, it's considered a failure. Well, that can't be true for independent filmgoers. There has to be some kind of economic niche below that. You spend a lot less than studios spend. You spend less on advertising it. You have to judge the success of that kind of movie -- even the economic success -- in a different way. I think some of it just comes from what happened to the Sundance Film Festival. At first it was this quirky little thing, and then a lot of well-paid Hollywood writers came out there for a skiing vacation. And their editors said, "Don't write about this quirky little film, but is there anything that could become a hit back here, where it really matters?" That didn't mean that the films were not good, but that no one heard about any of them if they didn't look like they could be a breakthrough Hollywood hit. The budget of this film was five million dollars, which got us five weeks of shooting. We only had Danny for three and a half weeks, so a lot of the difficulty in the film was getting people in the same room at the same time. With a period movie and buying music rights and a big cast and flying everybody in, it adds up. So there is no above the line, but it's about five million dollars.
MR: I feel pretty good about how it is going actually. We showed it to a SAG screening last night and the actors love this movie. Of course, it's like a feast for actors. African-Americans everywhere in this country have some connection to the South or some connection to that period. I talked to Danny about it, and he and his friends were reminiscing about it after they saw the screening. It's a part of American history.
Q: Do you write characters with a specific actor in mind? The same faces often show up in many of your movies.
JS: I try not to, because when you're done -- even if it's somebody you know -- they may not be available or they may not be interested. You don't want to start with a disappointment. So I basically write the characters as three-dimensionally as possible. And then when you start really trying to make the movie, of course you think of the people you've worked with before. Tom Wright, who played Cool Breeze, I think this is the sixth movie that he has been in with us. Mary Steenburgen has been in three movies. The guy who plays the porter, Daryl Edwards, was in Brother from Another Planet and City of Hope. So, you do think about people you've worked with before. But then you also think of people who you've never worked with before who are right for this.
MR: Somebody like Yaya DaCosta. We hadn't cast a young African-American woman in years, so we got to meet all of these young women. John said to me at one point that we were going to cast one of them and that we'd have to adopt the other two. So many really darling girls. We ended up with Yaya, who is really wonderful in the movie.
JS: It was that way in the case of Kel Mitchell and Shawn Patrick Thomas too. I had seen Sean Patrick's stuff before, and I'd seen a little of Kel, but I didn't realize it when he came. Eric Abrams was a new one to me as well.
MR: It's part of the fun: not only welcoming our old friends back, but also having these young ones.
JS: And then the coolness of getting Danny Glover, Charles Dutton, Stacey Keach, all these people I had always wanted to work with before, who I had never worked with before. It was just incredible. Maggie would come in and say, "Guess what? Charles Dutton said yes." And then we would have to work their schedules out, so the schedule was just a nightmare. But the actors were great.
Article published 02.01.2008.
Also read: Q&A: Danny Glover.
Also read: Rob Vaux's review of Honeydripper.
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