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.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Sayles: That was kind of a culmination of the Westerns I was watching, kind of the über-Western. I didn’t know until later that it was based on The Seven Samurai, which was a movie I discovered later and didn’t really love. And it had all of these guys who eventually became iconic: Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn. And it has a great plot, and once again, it’s all of a piece, with that great Marlboro Man, Elmer Bernstein theme. It’s beautifully structured, rhythmically structured. I’ve written a lot of creature features in my day, and there’s a classic structure to them—you always see somebody getting killed by the monster, and you see maybe its foot or its shadow in the first five minutes, and then there’s a “What did this? What could have done this?” And then usually the hero, or maybe the scientist’s daughter with the big breasts actually sees it, but nobody will believe them. That then leads up to the confrontation with the army, where the bazooka shells bounce off the thing. And then eventually the hero and the girl figure out how to combat it, and then there’s the showdown, and it’s either killed—usually in Tokyo—or it goes back into the ocean for the sequel.
But this Western—there’s a battle at the end of it. It’s not just one man against the other. Gunfight Westerns have a very, very classic chronological structure of increasing confrontations that all lead to the final shootout. This one has that, but it’s a group of people. I’ve always been interested in group dynamics. The Magnificent Seven and All The President’s Men and Eight Men Out have this thing in common: Each of the main characters have their own agenda. I’m always interested in that dynamic.
The Dissolve: By this time, you’d made several films of your own. Did filmmaking change film-watching for you?
Sayles: Yeah, I think it did. It’s harder for me to get swept away by a movie that’s familiar. There are movies that are very well made, but I’ve seen another version of that same movie 20 times before. So I’m just not as impressed, especially if I’ve seen it done better. Eventually—and this happens to movie critic, too—the more movies you see, the harder you are to impress or surprise. So when I see mediocre to bad movies, sometimes I’m just breaking it down technically: “Okay, here’s the camera movement.” Occasionally, I’ll actually hear the voices of the story meetings, because there’s something left from a version that obviously went off the track: “Oh, that’s a remnant.” I can tell it’s from an earlier draft of a script, and doesn’t make sense anymore. So I’m so much more aware of technique now, and my mind automatically starts getting clinical. Whereas a good movie will still just grab me. The technique may be simple and obvious, but if the movie grabs me, I’m just there with the characters.
Sayles: Once again, a beautiful structure, and a beautiful use of space. He really thinks about the size of the screen. It’s very much like a Western. But the psychology of the characters is very Japanese. Something about the characters really grabbed me. All of Kurosawa’s work is his way of doing genre film that is also very humanist. A lot of good thrillers are really just machines. I’ve always said that a really good thriller is kind of like a great ride at an amusement park, but when you go through Space Mountain at Disneyland, you scream and then you walk away, and you don’t really think about it too much later. You don’t have a really human experience. You have a visceral experience, but not an emotional one. One of the great things Kurosawa was able to do with genre movies is make people want to know what happens—you want to know if people will get killed, but you’re also really thinking about human beings and feeling for the characters. All my movies are like that—Two Women is also like that. There’s an identification with the character in Sawdust And Tinsel. Even if you can’t picture yourself in the story, like in Ace In The Hole, it’s fascinating to take the ride and see what these people are going to do with each other.
The Organizer (1963)
Sayles: I grew up in a union town, so I was always aware of working people trying to get their rights. This film is very Italian, and very human. The labor organizer Marcello Mastroianni plays is kind of a loser: He’s poor, he’s got holes in his socks, he’s not especially good at his job, though he takes the risks and does it. The union people are not noble, they’re just people. They’ve got their own divisions and problems. So the first time a guy walks out, and nobody walks out behind him, he’s out there alone, so he gets fired. I really responded to that. The Organizer is talking about important stuff, but not one-dimensional socialist/realist labor history. It’s very human: “Yeah, shared rights are important, but you still have to deal with human beings and all their failures. “They usually aren’t on the same page, even if they’re suffering some of the same problems.”
The Dissolve: If you first saw it earlier in life, was there a particular reason it came back for you at age 45?
“I’ve always been interested in that idea that people use stories to figure things out. They may instruct you, but they may also just tell you who you are.”
Sayles: Yeah, when I saw it again, there were things I hadn’t noticed the first time, that I appreciated more when I was older—all the character stuff. I’d seen some of those same actors in other Italian films, and there’s that appreciation of, “Oh, I’ve seen this guy in a different movie, he always plays that character.” I thought about it when I was making Matewan, and thought about how to make sure these people don’t just seem noble. They have their own problems. Unions are a fragile thing. One of the points of Matewan is that the opposition is just so awful that it drives the Italians and hillbillies and blacks together, but that doesn’t mean the union is sustainable. The United States can pull together at a time of war, though we’re a pretty divided country. That’s human nature, that incredible response to adversity. I think it’s one of the reasons people like space-invasion movies, because they can see all human beings working together for a change. Whereas if you look at the history of the world, what would be more likely is that the space invaders would come and find the people on the bottom, and say, “Okay, we’ll get rid of the people preying on you if you help us.”
Sayles: I read the play before I saw it, so I was very aware that here’s a guy taking a text that’s written in stone and changing things, just like everyone does, even in theater. I was blown away by what he did visually with the movie. Some of the acting isn’t great, and you might have minor quibbles with it, but he made it a really interesting movie. He does some great stuff with parallels between animals and people. He’s constantly doing visual things that give a heads-up about what’s going to happen in the drama. One of the best movie fights at the end that I’ve ever seen: They’re wearing heavy armor, so they’re kind of locked in big iron cages fighting with each other. There are points where they’re both so exhausted, they have to stop and pant and get their breath back to go back to try to kill each other. He really thought through the technology of the time. I feel like sex scenes, violence scenes, and action scenes should always be about character, or else they’re just perfunctory and boring. This is one of the best ones that’s about character. The style of fighting tells you something about the people who are doing it.
The Dissolve: What did this movie particularly mean to you at age 50?
Sayles: It was about knowing the text, and how it’s interpreted differently by every director. There are interesting questions: How do you take a classic, or any text, and say, “This is my hit on it”? How do directors stamp their work? Certainly Polanski was into some weird, kinky shit, and that shows up in the movie. There isn’t a lot of free will. There’s a tiny window where Macbeth can say, “You know, no. No, we’re not going to do this.” And then from then on, it’s all fate. I think having survived the Nazis in World War II, coming out of that post-war bleak experience, Polanski’s view of the world has got to be pretty deterministic.
I’m also a novelist, and I thought Polanski’s Macbeth showed that whatever material you base your work on, your point of view is going to be in there somehow. Eventually, you get a take on the mentality of John Ford, or Billy Wilder’s hard-bitten, acerbic view of human nature. Eventually, if people get to make a bunch of movies you kind of get their worldview.
The Spirit Of The Beehive (1973)
Sayles: That movie really grabs the strange world kids can live in, their own imaginative world. They don’t really know how things work in the adult world, or exactly what’s going on, but they have strong feelings. There’s a shot in this where someone shows a little girl a toadstool and says, “That’s poison,” then walks away. And she just looks at it: There is just something that could kill you, and it’s just sitting on the ground. The stakes are totally different. Very few movies rarely capture that moment in childhood when kids learn all the basic stuff: “We are going to die, you are not necessarily safe,” really heavy stuff that kids go through, and don’t often talk about.
As a storyteller, that’s a lot of what I’m interested in: If people are acting this way, what could possibly be going through their heads? If you’re making a period movie, is it before the women’s movement? Is it before Freud? Is it before Capitalism? These things changed everything about how people thought about themselves. What would be the givens for a person in that period? Very often, during period movies, I kind of check out. Like, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid is a period movie, but it’s very much about Sam Peckinpah thinking about young rebels in the late ’60s, so it doesn’t get into the way people thought back then—it’s how people thought in 1969.
But I’m fascinated that once, people didn’t know the world was round. How did that affect the way they thought? And this one, you really start to get into and understand the way these little girls are thinking about the world. He somehow manages to get the limitations, the mythology, the things that scare them, the things that bother them that aren’t really in words, in some cases. He does this great thing where Frankenstein is being shown at a church, and you just hear the soundtrack. You don’t see much of it, but it helps the tone of things to realize that Frankenstein is as real to those little girls as anything in the real world.
The Dissolve: Do you think people will look back on your films in the same way, to see how people were thinking and relating to each other in particular eras?
Sayles: I doubt it. I doubt people will look back. I don’t think many films really stay in many people’s heads for very long. I don’t think our films made much of a noise in the world, to get seen again and again and again and again. There are just so many films made—we’ll have a tiny echo, but I don’t think they’re going to be things people go back to again and again and again. If they do, I think it will be pretty specific—like, they show Eight Men Out every World Series. People will revisit that story until they do a remake of it. Or they show The Howling, which I wrote, every Halloween. But I don’t think about how people will think about my films in the long run. I just think about how they’ll feel when they first see them.
Mean Streets (1973)
Sayles: Mean Streets was a revelation. It took a while for American movies to catch up with rock ’n’ roll and Motown. They were still having studio people do a score, which was usually kind of familiar. They weren’t using music emotionally, just in the background. Mean Streets was one of the first movies to really use contemporary music in an impressionistic, emotional way. It sets the tone for this world, and again, it’s a great tone. Also, it explained my childhood, in a way. I didn’t grow up in New York City, but I grew up in Italian neighborhoods. If the guys in Mean Streets are Minor League mafia guys, our guys were like Class D. The relationships between the characters, the rhythms between those guys, trying to impress each other, and be cool, reminded me of growing up. He really captured those guys at that point where they’re not pros, they know the people in that world, and they don’t know where they fit into it, so they’re trying it on for size. And having grown up Catholic, I really got the Catholic stuff Harvey Keitel’s character is going through. It still has a power over him, even though everybody he admires is kind of a junior wise-guy, and none of those guys are paying any attention to the 10 commandments.
It was one of the first really successful American movies I saw that broke the Hollywood mold, that told a story in an impressionistic way. It has a plot, but it’s more the experience of hanging out with these guys. I think there was something freeing about that storytelling that put you into the lives of these characters, more than cramming them into a recognizable plot or genre structure. So as a filmmaker, it was very freeing to think about. That’s something I’ve done with novels and short stories. My first novel, Pride Of The Bimbos, was published in 1975, and it’s really about a world—things happen, but plot is pretty secondary to experiencing the characters. It’s kind of about masculinity. You can’t say it fits into a genre—kind of like an early Fellini movie made into a novel.
Certainly it’s an influence on the way I use music. Now when I score movies—people who mostly see mainstream movies tell me the strangest thing about them is there isn’t always music telling you how to feel. It doesn’t just grab you by the head and push you in a certain direction. I think I’ve made a lot of movies that are really ensemble movies, that are about an experience of hanging out with those people and understanding their world but not tied to the genre, the expectations, and the payoff of the genre.
Also, the first real consciousness I had of storytelling was in the Catholic Mass—they’d read a passage from The New Testament, and the priest would draw conclusions from it, almost like a critic: “What this story is telling us…” He wouldn’t say it was good or bad, just “This is the instruction we can take from this story.” Mean Streets, because it has this Catholic element, had a struggle that was very familiar to me. And I’ve always been interested in that idea that people use stories to figure things out. They may instruct you, but they may also just tell you who you are. In America, there are smaller movies that try to figure out who we actually are, and bigger movies that reveal who we want to be: What are our dreams? What is our pretend idea about who we are? Mean Streets revealed that to me as well.
The Dissolve: Do you see a strong Catholic influence in your own work?
Sayles: Catholicism has the idea of free well. Nothing is predetermined. Okay, you start behind the eight ball a little bit, with original sin, but it’s your job in life to make the decisions that get you to heaven and not hell. Sometimes the choices aren’t that clear. So I think my movies have a Catholic influence in the idea that people have agency, but maybe less than they think they do. I’m afraid luck takes a bigger part in our lives, and certainly our careers, than we would like to admit. But I do think people have chances to go one way or the other. That’s how I work with actors, you know. I basically say, “I know it’s written in the script that you turn left here, but until you go left, you have to keep it in your mind that you could go right, you have that choice.” I don’t do that many takes, but good actors can do 10, 12 takes, and until the other person says their line, they don’t know what they’re going to do next.
The Dissolve: Would you point to any one film as most influential on your career?
Sayles: I think Yojimbo, because of that great marriage of genre payoff and something emotional about the characters. I’m a writer for hire to make a living, and I’m writing a lot now to get out of a hole. My latest feature, Go For Sisters, was self-financed again, and I’m financing the release as well, so I’ve got to write a lot to make that money back. I’m working for TV a lot now, and this is the era not just of the anti-hero, but of the sleazeball hero—the Tony Soprano, or Walter White from Breaking Bad. It’s interesting to see these things where they say, “Well, what if the guy didn’t have a moral compass? What if he loses it in season one? Maybe it’s just an impediment, and he’s gotta get rid of it. What happens then? How much of the audience will follow us? What does it take to get the viewer share that you used to?” They’re doing some really interesting things with these sleazeball heroes, and people are fascinated enough to keep tuning in. Like Kurosawa—as tough and crusty as the protagonist is, Kurosawa is able to get under the guy’s skin. You realize there’s some moral compass there after all.