When he’d just sprung from the college gates in 1972, John Sayles embarked on a cross-country hitchhiking trip. “It was a lot safer than it is now,” he said. “Your hitchhiker to serial killer ratio was a lot better back then.” Because he didn’t look like a full-on hippie, more like someone just back from the war who’d let his hair grow a little longer, he thumbed rides easily from folks in every state. From chicken farmers to California counter-culturists, he could discern the similarities and differences among all these Americans. And that’s where his interest in community began.
“The community might be, you know, we’re all New York Rangers fans, or we all care about NASCAR, or we all drink Pepsi or drive Ford trucks, or we’re all in this political party or we’re all Born Again. Or it might be a more complex set of signifiers, but that’s your tribe,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff that people have in common, but I’ve always been interested in what separates people.”
Thirty years later, Sayles has written and directed fifteen feature films that look at different “tribes” from all angles. Lesbians, aging post-hippies, paralyzed soap opera stars, and migrant workers are just a few of the characters that pepper his screenplays. His writing addresses class, race and politics; history, memory and ideology, but subject matter is not the only thing that distinguishes him from most filmmakers working today. It’s his mosaic approach to stories that is so unique.
His newest film, Silver City, is vintage Sayles, and one of his best. Due out this month on the heels of the Republican Convention, Silver City stars Chris Cooper, Danny Huston (son of venerable filmmaker John), and Maria Bello. A political murder mystery set in the modern West, the film tells the story of a cynical ex-reporter, a grammatically-challenged gubernatorial candidate, and the political and social consequences of deregulation. Sayles hopes the film will motivate viewers to connect the dots between politicians’ decisions and the lives of everyday people. The cast of characters includes illegal aliens, media moguls and private investigators. And like many of Sayles’s pictures, Silver City exposes the similarities and differences between these various strata of society.
With his distinctive but impossible-to-place accent (New York-ish with a bit of Boston thrown in?), his casual conversation is punctuated by long, hilarious tales of what he calls his “miraculous rise to the middle.” Sitting across from me in an upstate New York diner, munching on chicken fingers and sipping a Diet Coke in a tank top and cutoffs, the fifty-three-year-old Sayles may look like a regular fella, but he’s an independent film revolutionary. He’ll make it seem like his success stems from a combination of good timing and good karma, but Sayles is boundlessly energetic, ambitious, and extremely prolific.
Sayles is a self-taught storyteller. He never took writing classes when he attended Williams College in the late sixties. Instead, he camped out in the library, sometimes skipping classes for days at a time, reading the Great Books in alphabetical order. “I think by the time I graduated I’d gotten to the M’s or the L’s,” he said.
His writing career began after his cross-country sojourn, when he was working as an orderly at a hospital in Albany, New York. He hammered out short stories at night, but he knew nothing about the publishing world. “When I started off it was totally based on having gotten those O. Henry short story collections and looking in the back, and they would have the addresses of the magazines,” he said. “And I hadn’t read most of those magazines and had never seen a copy of many of them, so some of them would come back from places like the Armenian National Quarterly and say, ‘We like your story but there are no Armenians in it.’”
Undeterred by rejection slips (a rite of passage for any aspiring author), Sayles kept writing. In the mid-seventies, he sent a fifty-page short story entitled “Men” to The Atlantic Monthly: “They gave you this good, quick two-week turnaround for your rejection slip,” he said. Though rejected by the magazine, the story was passed on to the book-publishing arm of the company.
“The editor said, ‘Look I really like this, but it’s too long for a short story and too short for a novel. Make it into one or the other.’ I said, ‘Well I think I’ll make it into a novel.’ She said, ‘If you’re going to make it into a novel, you’re probably gonna want to put a plot in there.’ So I said, ‘Okay, good idea.’” In 1975, the Atlantic Monthly Press published his first novel, Pride of the Bimbos, about a drag baseball team barnstorming in the South, as well as publishing a few of his short stories—the same ones the magazine had rejected in the months before.
But his biggest career boost didn’t necessarily come with publication—it came with a career change. He moved to East Boston in the late seventies and took a job as a meatpacker at a sausage factory. “When I was working in hospitals, because you’re dealing with people, I was kind of emotionally exhausted at the end of a shift,” he said. “I just didn’t have the energy to write very much after that, so it was better when I was working in the meatpacking factory where I worked really hard, but I wasn’t emotionally involved with the pepperoni.”
At $4.40 an hour, Sayles’s first union job paid more than twice what was then the $2 minimum wage. Not only did it serve as inspiration for his second novel, Union Dues, it provided him with unemployment money when he was laid off. “It was my grant for the arts,” he said. “My $88-a-week grant for the arts.”
Similar moments of serendipity occurred throughout his career. Publication of his short stories led to a gig doctoring creature feature scripts for infamous Hollywood B-movie producer Roger Corman, including Pirhanha (1978) and Alligator (1980), among others. After he’d penned four screenplays for Corman at the scale rate of $10,000 each, he returned east to join friends Gordon Clapp and David Strathairn, who were running a youth theater company in New Hampshire. Sayles had acted in a couple of plays, in roles like Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or any character that needed the stage presence of someone over five foot ten—he’s six foot four.” And he’d directed a few, as well. His friends asked Sayles, “We know so many good actors and you’ve been working in Hollywood a little bit—why don’t we make a movie?” he remembered. “And basically I crafted the screenplay with the amount of money I had in the bank, which was about $40,000, in mind.”
That $40,000 film was his directorial debut, Return of the Secaucus 7, in 1980. Of the twenty-five-member cast and the “massive seven-man crew,” only Gordon Clapp had ever even been on a film set. “I think one of the advantages of that is that as a new director, people assumed I knew what I was doing. They didn’t say, ‘Aw, that’s not the way we do it out in Hollywood.’”
The film changed the American independent film movement by showing that outsiders—those beyond the closed world of Hollywood—could penetrate the scene, and fund projects privately. Sayles received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1983, which he continued to use for funding. But Secaucus 7 also showed that stories about everyday people could appeal to mass audiences.
“I’d seen things like John Cassavettes movies. I’d seen things like Marty (1955) and David and Lisa (1962) that were made in left field and somehow got on the movie screen in front of people, but I didn’t know how they did it,” said Sayles. He’d hoped to get the film on PBS (in fact, he shot it in a square ratio on 16mm), but instead the film made its way to the burgeoning, pre-Sundance festival circuit, found distribution, and the John Sayles School of Independent Filmmaking was born. Secaucus 7 set the bar the kinds of stories Sayles continues to tell. It deals with class and politics, relationships and gender, responsibility and life dreams.
Buoyed by ongoing work as a script doctor and screenwriter, Sayles has continued to investigate these themes. “I’m not that interested in what I know. I want to find out stuff,” he said. When Sayles crafts a character, he creates a bio for him, a list of background information that he supplies to the actors. This allows the actors and audience to deeply empathize with Sayles’s characters, even those we may disagree with or dislike. “How does he form an opinion?” Sayles wants to know of the characters he creates. “How does he see the world? How does that limit him? How does that give him an advantage over people?”
In Silver City, the “bad guys” are a little easier to spot, a bit harder to empathize with, than in some past Sayles pieces. This is Sayles’s most overtly political film, a response to the ongoing War on Terror. “I started writing it very shortly before we started making it about a year ago,” he said. “Maggie [Renzi, Sayles’s life partner and producer] and I were thinking, what could we make that would be about [the war]? What could I write that would get into some of these things?”
Without funding in place, Sayles and Renzi set about filming. “We’ve often joked that we make movies in the ‘If you build it, they will come’ method. And sometimes you build it, and the money doesn’t come, and in this case, it didn’t come,” he said. “About two weeks into it, Maggie came to me and said, ‘I’m sick of this—scraping and begging for money. I think we actually have enough money if we liquidate everything.’” Not one for the glamorous lifestyle anyway, Sayles and Renzi sold off what they could to fund the $5 million dollar film, shot on Super 16 in just six weeks, aided by the profits of the 2000 independent film Girlfight, which the duo produced.
The film explores the role of corporate interests in politics, a particularly poignant subject during these Halliburton days. As the hero, former journalist-turned-private-eye Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston) investigates a dead body that washes up during the filming of gubernatorial-contender Dickie Pillager’s (Chris Cooper) campaign commercial, we begin to discern the effects of politics on the lives of the poor and underrepresented. One nasty little word keeps popping up: deregulation. It is to Silver City what “plastics” was to The Graduate (1967).
“Deregulation is portrayed as ‘Let’s get bureaucracy out of the way,’” Sayles explained. “But to a certain extent, regulation is what government is supposed to do. Regulation is what we ask government to do. It’s why we formed a government in the first place, to protect us against harmful people.”
Working as a union meatpacker all those years ago was part of Sayles’s inspiration for Silver City. The spontaneous, unannounced arrival of the inspector was a terrifying event for the company back then. “If the inspector wanted to shut the line down, he shut the line down, and you just did what he said. The deregulation that’s happened means the poor inspectors are going in there like scared rabbits. You get all kinds of things that are not good health-wise, and very often you get people that are non-union or non-citizen doing very dangerous jobs with no protection.”
Silver City also explores the effect of corporate ownership of the mass media. The main characters are journalists who have lost their motivation, and either given up or sold out. Without the mass media to help us wade through the barrage of conflicting information, we’re rendered simply consumers, and not citizens. “These things that are not very good for most American people are not natural phenomena—they’re not like gravity,” Sayles said. “Somebody got together and planned them, usually with a lot of money and a lot of disinformation and a very organized campaign.” In the absence of a critical media willing to dismantle those campaigns, Sayles hopes Silver City will inspire Americans to become more skeptical and discerning, and to take action.
Sayles sees connections between our current political climate and that of the sixties. “A lot of the people I knew who got involved politically in the sixties just woke up politically. It was a reaction to hypocrisy, the hypocrisy of a society that says we believe in these things but then does exactly the opposite.” As we discuss the state of politics in this country, Sayles, the ex-hippie talking to this adult-child-of-hippies journalist, he offers his suggestions for waking up, reacting to current hypocrisy and getting involved beyond just sending money to campaigns. “Yes, write the check, but also go out and knock on doors for somebody: a local candidate, a national candidate, whatever,” he said. Attending meetings, making phone calls, even running for local office, are all possibilities. “If you can get involved in those, you can take [politics] away from the people who are just zealots. In a lot of places, if you can get eight people together, you could take over the Democratic National Committee.”
Sayles hasn’t considered running for office himself. “I just think that my whole M.O. has not been one that’s about compromise. I don’t even collaborate very well with other writers,” he said. But by bravely presenting this political film during a time when subversive speech is often squelched, he’s offering us a model of how to awaken our largely dormant political sides. “Your job as a consumer and citizen is to wade through all this stuff and connect the dots,” he said. “‘Cause [journalists are] not going to connect them for you.”
Silver City opens in select theaters on September 17. John Sayles’s new collection of short stories, Dillinger in Hollywood, will be published by Nation Books later this year.