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Q&A: John Sayles

SS: The narrative construction of the script feels closer to fiction — the anecdotal ways the plot unravels, the different storytellers — and some of the characters are directly imported from some of your recent short stories.

JS: You have a bunch of stories going on. What I always tell actors who have smaller parts in our movies is that I want to feel like the camera could follow you when you leave the room, and we’d have a movie there different than the one we’re making. I want you to inhabit your character and feel like this is your drama. The relationship between Tyrone and his wife is an ongoing story; this kid coming through the South with his guitar who’s going to end up in Chicago is another. If you think about Chuck Berry; he came out of St. Louis and his first album came out of Chess Records. Those two cotton pickers, they’re going to avoid killing each other tonight and go on their separate ways. They’ve all got their stories.

For me, the plot is very often something to hang the community on. Kind of like Raymond Chandler; he’d have these plots but really he was interested in the world they were set in, and the plot brought his detective into that world and he got to visit this place as an observer.

SS: The racial portrait of the South in early Fifties Alabama is somewhat stylized, more dreamed about than a place actually imagined.

JS: One of the things I wanted to get at is there was an acceptance of the status quo. By 1950, there were the stirrings of the [civil rights movement], the Pullman car porters, everybody was in up in arms about integrating the Army bases and what was going to happen when these black guys who have been carrying guns around come to town and expect the same treatment. The South is very personal. The North tends to be racist in its own way, but it’s also very impersonal. I want some of that, where everybody thinks they know each other’s business, but there’s that strange thing where the maid always knows more about her employer.

I wanted to do something with the sheriff [played by Stacy Keach]. He’s not Kris Kristofferson’s character from Lone Star. He’s not a psychopath. He’s corrupt and he’s controlling, and he does it by keeping people off balance. I wrote a [biography] of the character for Stacy Keach. I said, this guy’s a boxer, like George Wallace was a boxer. A good boxer keeps people off balance. Sometimes he’s friendly, sometimes he’s humorous. To me the strongest line in the film, Gary Clark’s guitar character is walking by the car, and [the sheriff] says, “Take off your hat.” When I grew up, a black person addressing any white person — and not just a sheriff — they always took off their hat.

SS: Visually, the movie is dominated by the landscape and the cotton fields.

JS: That cotton was so overwhelming. It was a [monopoly] in most places. In a few places it alternated with rice, which had its own seasons. It was either you were sharecropping it and not making a living, or you had another half-assed way of making a living. But when the harvest came, everybody was involved, even town kids, white and black kids and anybody who could. They’d close the schools. At the time the South was so unindustrialized. There were no McDonald’s to work in. That was the only time of year that you got cash. It was a huge deal, and people came from all over. I also included that Joe Turner thing that if you didn’t have a job and you didn’t hide, you were going to get arrested during the harvest and get rented out to the sheriff.

When I was a kid, the trusties at the [prison] in Miami… There was a minor league baseball team there called the Miami Marlins. It rains every day, all summer, for at least 15 minutes. The trusties were the ground crew. They sat in the right-field stands with a guy with a shotgun. We used to go up and down Route 1, and it was prison labor and there were segregated gangs. It was either the white Cool Hand Luke gang or the black gang with the stripes, and there’d be a guy with a shotgun at the beginning and one at the end. During the harvest, that was half the labor force, prison guys.

SS: Your cinematographer, Dick Pope, is English and best known for his work with Mike Leigh. With the exception of Ernest Dickerson and Haskell Wexler, all of your cinematographers have been foreign-born. Is that because you want that outsider’s perspective of America?

: Not really. That’s the one thing that your accent doesn’t matter. Somebody like Tim Roth is very good in accents, and he’s played an American very well in our movies. Generally I work with American actors when we’re in America, Latino actors when we’re in Mexico or whatever. Woody Allen had a Chinese guy [Fei Zhao] who really didn’t speak any English. I wanted Michael Ballhaus to shoot Matewan. He read it and said he didn’t get it. About a year later, he said, “I didn’t get it because I didn’t understand it. It was written in dialect and my English wasn’t that good.”

One of the great things about cinema is that even though we don’t make silent cinema anymore, those cinematographers can work everywhere. When we made Men with Guns, we went through almost a dozen Mexican cinematographers that we wanted to work with, and they were working all over the world, mostly in the United States. None of them were available to shoot a movie in Mexico. With Dick Pope, I was aware of his work with Mike Leigh. He’d done these down and dirty movies that obviously he had to do fast, but he’d also done something like Topsy-Turvy. It was very lush and lit by non-electric lighting, and he also did The Illusionist. I really liked that combination.

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