John Sayles, age 63, is one of the founding fathers of modern American independent cinema. One of the many now-famous directors to start his career working with Roger Corman, he’s spent 25 years writing and directing unusually humanistic, low-key films about how people relate to each other, through lenses like race (The Brother From Another Planet), jobs (Matewan), sports (Eight Men Out), family (Lone Star), hardship (Limbo), politics (Silver City), and myths (The Secret Of Roan Inish). His latest film, Go For Sisters, is a typically gracious, sympathetic, incisive character piece about two former high-school friends who meet again in adulthood as parole officer and parolee. The film opened in New York on November 8, with a national release to follow.
The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)
John Sayles: I wrote a short story that has The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre in it, called “Children Of The Silver Screen.” It’s in one of my collections [The Anarchist’s Convention]. It’s a pretty gritty movie for Hollywood, and John Huston’s direction is some of his best. Tim Holt wasn’t the greatest actor in the world, but it’s one of his best performances. Somehow, Huston really took it seriously, and got those great Mexican character actors, like Alfonso Bedoya, who plays Gold Hat, the guy who says, “We don’t need any stinkin’ badges.” And Huston really uses the setting well; he uses the camera very well. It’s a very physical movie.
The Dissolve: How aware of any of this were you when you were 5?
Sayles: Basically, I liked Westerns and cartoons when I was 5. [Laughs.] We lived out in the country, so we would go to the drive-in, and the problem was always, they wanted to start the show and get people out of there at a reasonable hour, if they were showing a double or a triple feature. They would start the Tom & Jerry or Mr. Magoo or Heckle And Jeckle cartoon before it was really dark enough, and it was hard to see. Generally, the first feature, which was maybe at 7 o’clock in the winter, and later in the summer, would be a Western, and that would be in color. And then the second movie would be the adult movie—as a little kid, I felt like it was all The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, and not interesting. I would fall asleep. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is not quite a Western, although there are horses and mules and prospectors and things in it. I liked dark stuff—I liked the look of film noir, and the cinematography, without analyzing it at all. I look back at a lot of the movies that I liked at age 5, and even some of them that weren’t great movies, in terms of acting or whatever, were really well shot. They put you into the movie, rather than being more like a TV show, or having a kind of proscenium. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, one of the things that impressed me at 5 was just the fact that they really had to work so hard for the gold. It didn’t seem like a cheat.
The Dissolve: It’s such a psychological movie. How much of that did you follow as a child?
Sayles: I didn’t know the word “paranoia,” but I got that these guys were really poor, and they’re fine with each other, but the minute money is involved, it’s going to be a problem. Which is the plot of a lot of bank-robbery movies: The heist goes very well, and then the guys start to distrust each other, right up to Goodfellas. It’s what I always say to young filmmakers, “Everybody on your film is going to be happy to make no money, but if the movie gets successful, only the director is going to get any credit, and then you’re going to have a hard time staying together.” Success in many ways is harder to survive as a group than failure.
The Third Man (1949)
Sayles: That whole movie is really like a great rock song where there is not a note out of place. It’s actually fairly simple, in a way. A couple things impress me: That zither score, tying it all together, and… I didn’t have any idea who Orson Welles was when I first saw it, but I was still saying, “Well, this guy is not really dead.” Even when I was a kid, before I was writing screenplays, I could see where the plot was going. I said, “If Harry Lime shows up, he better be incredible.” The way they keep talking about him—I didn’t know the word “charismatic,” but I knew he had to be something. And he turns out to be Orson Welles, who brought that swagger, that humor and size to it. So when you finally meet him, it’s like, “Okay, I get it.” I was so glad at the end—even as a kid, I had a reaction against cheats in Hollywood movies, where they would do the thing that would get them the most applause, even if it didn’t seem like they’d earned it. I’m a big believer that a movie should have an appropriate ending. A down ending can be inappropriate if the movie doesn’t earn it, and an up ending can be inappropriate if a movie doesn’t earn it. And when Anna walks up to Holly, I said, “Don’t let her end up with that drippy Joseph Cotten! No way she would do that.” That was a huge fight, apparently, that [director] Carol Reed had with the studios, and he won, and it’s the perfect ending.
I think the look, that black-and-white post-war film noir look, is really important in the movies I make. A lot of these movies I’m talking about aren’t studio movies—they aren’t shot on the backlot, and they use place really well.
Ace In The Hole (1951)
Sayles: It’s a really dark film, and it’s got Billy Wilder’s acidic view of human nature. I really reacted to the tawdriness of it, which you rarely really saw done well at the time. Kirk Douglas’ performance—one of the interesting things you see in Michael Douglas is that he’s one of the few lead actors who’s willing to play a heel, like in the Wall Street movies. And his father was the same way. Kirk Douglas could play a hero, but very often, he played a charismatic heel. You know from the start here that this guy’s too big for the world he’s landed in, and he’s going to be pretty ruthless. Film noir is a claustrophobic genre. There’s no escape in film noir. There’s a point in Miller’s Crossing where John Turturro’s character is under the gun, and he says, “Let me go, I’ll leave, I’ll go out of town,” and you wanna say, “There is no out of town in film noir! There’s only this closed system, so don’t believe him! There’s nowhere for him to go!”
With Ace In The Hole, there’s the claustrophobia of the mine, but really, the claustrophobia is in this closed, sleazy system of greedy people with their own agendas, and it’s going to end in tragedy. The only nice guy is the guy who’s trapped down at the bottom of the mine, and of course he doesn’t stand a chance if that’s the world he’s depending on to save his life.
The Dissolve: You mentioned early on being drawn to darkness in film, and your list for this piece is all pretty conceptually dark. Did your relationship to this kind of cynicism change around this point, when you were hitting your teenage years?
Sayles: As I said, I was mostly interested in Westerns and cartoons as a kid. I loved the color, and my favorite shot in all of movies is horses crossing water, and many of those movies start with horses crossing water. There were a few dark Westerns that I liked. But I think when I was younger, if I was going to watch a black-and-white movie, generally it had to have that kind of dramatic style. Now, the movies I make are generally about people in untenable positions. You really can’t see a good path, “If he only did this, then everything would be fine.” They’re often more “If I go this way, it’s fucked up, and if I go that way, it’s fucked up. So which one’s worse?”
Sawdust And Tinsel (1953)
Sayles: This is a brilliant film. It starts with a story told by a guy in this traveling carnival—I used a technique like this in The Secret Of Roan Inish. He’s telling it, but then it becomes a silent sequence with nothing but soundtrack music, and it’s a metaphor for the rest of the movie. It’s about love, shame, desperation, and people accepting the flaws in each other. And then that ends, and the characters who were in that little metaphorical sequence become very minor characters you only really see in the background for the rest of the movie.
“Sex scenes, violence scenes, and action scenes should always be about character, or else they’re just perfunctory and boring.”
This is me in college, finally seeing movies that weren’t American, movies that weren’t dubbed. They didn’t even have a drama major at the college I went to—Williams College—but there was one English professor who was interested in movies, and who had film-appreciation courses. He did one semester on Ingmar Bergman, so I got to see all of Bergman’s movies up to that point, including the first three or four, which are not good. [Laughs.] He was Sweden’s big drama guy, he was their big theater director, so he kept getting a chance at cinema, even though he didn’t really have the hang of it until three or four movies in. And some of it is the naked acting in it—American movies had this tendency to use a big score, with violins, to tell you what you were going to feel. Bergman uses music, but never for that reason. So you would get these very, very strong emotional scenes with the camera very close to the actors.
The Dissolve: At what point do you think you transitioned from watching movies for entertainment to this kind of analysis, and mining techniques for your own career?
Sayles: When I was a senior in high school, I started paying attention to who directed the movie. When I was a kid, it was basically “a Charlton Heston movie,” or “a John Wayne movie,” or “a Tuesday Weld movie”—I was a big fan of Tuesday Weld. Even if the movie sucked, I liked looking at her. Or a Sophia Loren movie, I had a big crush on her, too. And then I just kind of became vaguely aware, “Oh, somebody did this stuff for a reason. Choices were made here.” I had been writing short stories just for myself for quite a long time by that point, and I just realized, “Oh! When you’re making a movie, you’re doing the same thing.” I wasn’t thinking about camera movement or anything like that, but I started thinking about the rhythm of movies, and how the story was told structurally. I started paying attention to that in high school.
Touch Of Evil (1958)
Sayles: That was a movie that again really impressed me with tone. There is a tone in that movie that’s set right away, and it’s just the way Orson Welles lights, where he puts the camera. His entrance in the movie is, “Here’s a guy who has gotten grossly fat, he’s getting old, he looks like shit,” and he puts the camera low and wide to emphasize that—there’s no vanity there, though Welles was a very vain guy in many other ways. But for that character, he’s like a monster coming out of that car and looming over the camera. He uses every trick in the book to set up this place that’s again a very closed world of film noir, a place that’s inescapable.
The Dissolve: You said drive-ins were important to you as a kid, and films in class in college. How did you first encounter Touch Of Evil?
Sayles: I saw it on The Late Show. I had insomnia, and in college, I would stay up and watch the midnight movie from WPIX, or one of the NY stations. There were gazillions of commercials, so during the commercials, you’d flip to another station and see what was on there. So you might start watching a movie at midnight, and it might not end until 2:30 or 3. Back in those days, you couldn’t get movies on video, so if you were going to see a movie more than once, you really had to pay attention to find it. And then the stations might cut different scenes, or it might be in a different format. There were movies, like King Kong, that I really liked, and might have seen five times over a 15-year period. I didn’t live near a revival house or anything. I grew up in Schenectady, New York, and there was an art theater that was too far away. I also was Catholic growing up, and once a year, we all stood up and pledged not to go to movies that the Catholic Church had condemned, and that extended to, “Don’t even go to the theater where those movies play.” So even though there was an arthouse within a 20-minute drive from home, my parents never went there, and I didn’t have a car, so I never saw any of those movies.
Two Women (1960)
Sayles: I remember having this experience—my brother worked for a program called ABC in his freshman year of college. It stood for “A Better Chance.” They took kids from tough neighborhoods and bad schools who had some real academic chops, and tried to get them up to speed and get them into hotshot schools. A bunch of them came up to where my father lived one night, and it was like, seven black kids and one poor white kid from West Virginia. The movie on TV that night was Two Women, and at the end of it, all these tough kids were crying. It’s just such an emotional movie. Sophia Loren is so alive in it that you get hooked into the movie, and what’s going to happen to her and her daughter. It’s fairly episodic, about refugees, and you realize that with all of her power, there are certain things she’s not going to be able to survive.