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Q&A with indie film giant John Sayles

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Writer-director John Sayles.
  • Writer-director John Sayles.

Legendary independent filmmaker John Sayles heads to Bloomington this week for a whirlwind two-day stay in which he'll field questions in between screenings of three of his films at IU Cinema. Before heading to B-town from his home in New York, he offered NUVO some time to discuss such wide-ranging topics as the state of independent filmmaking, the secret to storytelling, the joys of film editing, the politics of his new film and the morality of U.S. military interventions.

NUVO: You'll be presenting what's being billed as a "lecture" at IU Cinema on Friday, though you seem more disposed to storytelling than lecturing. How do you plan on approaching the talk, and is there an overarching message you'll be sharing with students and guests?

Sayles: I think I'm supposed to have an interrogator, in which case I can just handle questions, but I'd like to talk about popular media and what they have to do with history.

NUVO: First-time filmmakers sometimes fall into the trap of telling stories that lack originality, that have been told many times before. Is there something that an aspiring filmmaker can do to sow the seeds of original storytelling?

Sayles: It isn't so much the story but the telling of it that attracts people's attention. For a while the most successful independent films were those that shuffled structure in interesting -- or frustrating -- ways. Sometimes it's just somebody combining genres or finding a new way to approach familiar material. But if you can get an audience to join in your characters' story, to care what happens to them, you've done your job.

NUVO: In what ways is it easier or more difficult to make an independent film today as opposed to when you got your start in the 1970s?

Sayles: Two things are easier -- the technology of filmmaking is cheaper and more easily available to all than it was 30 years ago. And we've made 17 movies -- a track record that means a lot of good actors will work for scale for us because it's a good part in a movie that will probably get some kind of distribution. Financing and distribution is the part that is more difficult. There are fewer companies doing it and they are more risk-averse, at the same time that every year there are more movies competing for the same number of off-Hollywood screens. Internet distribution is possible, but hard to get money back on, discouraging investors.

NUVO: You're not just a director, you're also, among other things, a film actor and editor? Which of the three tasks do you find most challenging, and which of the three do you most enjoy?

Sayles: Directing is the toughest because you're dealing with aesthetic concerns, personalities, weather, budget limitations, time restraints and noise all at the same moment, throughout the shoot. Editing is the most fun because you're still writing the movie and improving performances, but the clock isn't ticking toward overtime for the crew and it doesn't matter if the sun is behind a cloud or not. Acting is just fun for me, although it is work to prepare.

NUVO: You also write fiction, most recently the novel A Moment in the Sun. And you've said that, early on in your career, you wrote fiction because it, unlike film, required minimal financial resources. Why do you write fiction today?

Sayles: There are some stories better told in fiction. In Moment in the Sun, there are 30 or more characters with at least one chapter in their point of view. A movie audience could never deal with that many shifts in style and tone in two hours' running time. Also, I still can't raise money for most of the projects I'd like to make into movies, so fiction is a welcome storytelling outlet. I wrote most of Moment during the last Writers Guild strike.

NUVO: The phrase "politically conscious" often is used to describe your work. In what ways is your latest effort, Amigo, politically conscious?

Sayles: Our films are politically conscious as opposed to being politically unconscious. The main thing that sets Amigo apart as a war movie is that the audience spends equal time with Americans, Filipino guerillas and Filipino civilians. They end up knowing more than any one of the characters can. That kind of perspective, during a war, can be considered not only unusual but treasonous -- politics is so often the art of dehumanizing your enemy.

NUVO: You've commented that, as a nation, we need to examine our legends from time to time and ask ourselves, are they still serving our needs? What's an example of a current legend that's not serving our needs?

Sayles: I think the legend that our interventions in other countries, covert or overt, have a moral basis is very destructive. What would we think of a U.S. senator who took money from a foreign power to do their bidding? Or a military invasion by the French army to hunt down anti-French terrorists on our soil? We undermine or openly attack regimes not based on a principle, but because we can and somebody in power thinks it's a good idea for the interests of somebody they care about -- that can be the American people or just a few business pals. I personally want to know everything that's being done in my name -- whether as the director and employer of a film crew or as a tax-paying citizen. But spare me the patriotic rhetoric.

NUVO: What's next for John Sayles?

Sayles: Who knows? This is the usual situation of most filmmakers once they've got a movie in the can. I've written a screenplay about the Rosenberg spy case of the 1950s, another set in Van Dieman's Land during the penal colony, and am working with a writer/producer trying to make an adaptation of the immigrant novel Christ in Concrete. Just add money.

Sayles and his films at IU Cinema

Sayles' most recent film, Amigo, screens at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 8. His lecture is slated for 3 p.m. on Friday. That night, IU Cinema presents Matewan and The Brother from Another Planet at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., respectively. Two more of Sayles' films will screen on Saturday, though he will not be in attendance that day. All events are free and open to the public.

For more details, visit IU Cinema's website. For more about Sayles, visit JohnSayles.com.

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