Filmmaker John Sayles Discusses "Silver City," Hollywood
I started wanting to do something about the media and electoral
politics when we were making "Sunshine State" down in northern Florida,
right after the 2000 election. A lot of people on the crew and in
the local communities started saying that the real story down here
is that the mainstream media have either missed or chosen to ignore
the number of African Americans who didn't get to vote. The chad
thing, the bad ballot -- that's accidental. These people not getting
to vote was not accidental. This was a plot, and it was on purpose.
Isn't that outrageous, and how come that's not the A-1 story?
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
"Silver City," the most recent film of critically acclaimed director
John Sayles, portrays a candidate in the mold of George W. Bush, a candidate
who is running for governor in a rural state and is surrounded by corruption,
political operatives and spin masters. But "Silver City" does much
more than poke fun at George W. Bush’s use and abuse of the English language.
It’s also a sharp criticism of the compliant media and big money interests
that dominate American politics and campaigns. With pitch-perfect dialogue, unerring
sense of place, and a slashing satiric strain, "Silver City" is John
Sayles' timely and toxic look at the state of the union on the eve of the 2004
John Sayles also has just released his first book of short stories in 25 years, Dillinger
in Hollywood, and a collection of his screenwriting, "Silver
Other Screenplays, will be released this fall by Nation Books.
John Sayles graduated from Williams College with a psychology degree in 1972
and afterwards went to work in a series of blue-collar subsistence jobs. In
a larger sense, his immediate postgraduate experience cemented his interest
in the world of work and his solidarity with the complicated lives of working
It was with director Joe Dante, on the set of "Piranha" (1978), that
Sayles got his first taste of the realities of the low-budget filmmaking process
-- and his first look through the lens of a movie camera. Sayles turned back
to his "day job," writing a script for Steven Spielberg called "Night
Skies," which after many permutations gave rise to a very different movie
In 1982, while still in the throes of post-production on "Baby, It's You," Sayles
learned that he had been awarded one of the MacArthur Foundation's genius grants.
One of his best known films is "Eight Men Out" (1988), about the
Chicago "Black Sox" gambling scandal, in which some of America's
top ball players were accused of accepting bribes to "throw" the
1919 World Series. It was described by one sportswriter as "the most authentic
baseball movie released to date." Another film, "Lone Star" (1996),
which was a collaboration with actor Chris Cooper, is considered one of Sayle’s
most powerful films and earned him his second Oscar nomination for Best Original
In addition to being an exceptional storyteller and filmmaker, John Sayles
brings integrity to his films unheard of in the movie business. Sayles errs
on the side of complexity in his work over packaging a product in order to
sell to the highest bidder.
We spoke with John Sayles about "Silver
City," propaganda versus
filmmaking, and why a sense of community is his most compelling theme to explore.
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BuzzFlash: Your recent film, "Silver City," parodies
George W. Bush. But you chose to make a fictional film rather than a
documentary, tapping into themes that resonate beyond George W.
Bush such as corruption and corporate money in politics. It’s also
a critique of the media. Did you struggle with how to make certain aspects
of "Silver City" a parody of George W. Bush, instead of replicating
and recreating moments verbatim from his speeches and some of his actions?
John Sayles: The central metaphor in "Silver City" is about connecting
dots and connecting events, and how little of that the mainstream media seem
to be doing. They present events as if they just happen -- like the minimum
wage didn't go up this year. Well, the minimum wage doesn't decide to do anything.
The people who want to keep it low are more powerful than the people who want
to make a better living. That's why it doesn't go up. Somebody has to connect
those actions and reactions to tell you what really is going on.
I certainly wanted people to come away from "Silver City" with the
ability to draw some lines from the story in the film to the Bush administration
that is in power today. But I also wanted there to be some bigger issues. In "Silver
City," you don't meet the other candidates -- I had no idea who the Democratic
candidate was going to be, and I didn't want to be saying, oh, the other guy
is much better, or all you have to do is vote for the other guy, and everything
will be fine. The bigger issues are about corporate control of politicians,
and that's something that applies to both the Democrats and the Republicans.
BuzzFlash: Chris Cooper's performance has received lots of critical
praise. How much of his performance were you involved with? Did you encourage
him to evoke certain mannerisms and the style of George W. Bush?
John Sayles: Well, he watches the news, so I don't think he had to
do a whole lot of research. He performs it as it's written, and it is based
on Bush when he was running for governor of Texas, when he was very new at
campaigning -- probably at his worst in expressing himself and having the
hardest time staying on message.
Bush has certainly gotten a little bit better at the staying on message part.
I think Chris was trying to play a character who wasn't exactly the same as
George W. Bush but has some of the same attributes and some of the same kind
of verbal tics, whereby he's starting down one road, and then interrupting
himself, and then forgetting where he started. By the time he's done with a
sentence, he may have mixed metaphors three or four times.
BuzzFlash: That must be enjoyable for you as a director and writer,
to come up with a piece, and then see what someone like Mr. Cooper does with
John Sayles: I almost never change any lines I've written myself when
I'm directing, but the first thing you do as a director is, after you talk
with the actors about who the character is, you sit back and see what they're
going to do, and then you direct it. Directing is more like steering. You
don't tell anybody how to act. You don't give them line readings, unless
they ask for them. But you may say, well, this take, be a little more sure
of yourself. Or, this take, be a little more angry. Or, this take, be angry
but try not to show it. That just gives them something that informs that
particular take that they do, and they're going to interpret what your direction
is in their own way. Quite honestly, one of the things that's most fun about
making movies is to work with actors, and to see what they’re going
to come up with.
BuzzFlash: You touch on so many political and social themes in your
films. At the same time, you're essentially a storyteller. How do you separate
the politics from your art in writing and filmmaking?
John Sayles: I'm a screenwriter for hire. That's how I make a living.
And when I tell Hollywood stories -- and there are some very good ones --
one of the things that you often have to deal with is walking all the way
around the block to avoid things that are really going on in the world, because
they'll just get in the way of telling the Hollywood story.
If you're just making a movie about human beings, there's going to be social
politics in it. There's going to be class politics and race politics, and sexual
politics, and ethnic politics. That's the world that we live in. That's the
water that we swim in. And you'd have to be casting a purposely blind eye to
it to get it out of a story that's just about people.
Even if it's mostly about a family -- who that family is, do they have money,
do they not have money, are they educated, are they not educated, what part
of the country do they live in -- family dynamics are affected by those things.
They may not be as big a part of the story, but even an intimate story is going
to have some of that stuff in it.
BuzzFlash: Has there been any response from the Bush campaign to "Silver
John Sayles: Oh, geez, I think we're so low on the radar that they may
not even know we exist. I'm certainly not as high profile as somebody like
Michael Moore or Paul Newman or Bruce Springsteen that they would even think
that they'd have to respond to it.
BuzzFlash: When did you start on "Silver City," and what was
the catalyst for making the film?
John Sayles: I think I started wanting to do something about the media
and electoral politics when we were making "Sunshine State" down
in northern Florida, right after the 2000 election. A lot of people on the
crew and in the local communities started saying that the real story down here
is that the mainstream media have either missed or chosen to ignore the number
of African Americans who didn't get to vote. The chad thing, the bad ballot
-- that's accidental. These people not getting to vote was not accidental.
This was a plot and it was on purpose. Isn't that outrageous, and how come
that's not the A-1 story?
That got me thinking about our mainstream media and how I feel that they've
been so co-opted, so embedded, so meek that they've become almost useless.
That kind of festered for awhile. A little bit more than a year ago I felt
like the conversation was so one-sided that somebody had to get in there and
say wait a minute -- there's stuff going on here that we have to think about.
At the time, we vaguely knew that Michael Moore was making his movie, but we
really didn’t know about any of the other documentaries. And there certainly
weren't any Hollywood films being made about what was going on in the country
BuzzFlash: Does it surprise you that films today -- even mainstream
films -- don't touch more on political and social issues, at the very least,
as a backdrop to telling the story, since our country is so divided and politicized?
John Sayles: Not really. I mean, Hollywood was always nervous about that
stuff. They're worried about the bottom line, now even more than ever. They're
more corporate than they used to be, and many of these corporations are owned
by larger corporations that have other arms that are not even in the entertainment
business. And some of these corporations are regulated by the government that
they would be criticizing. They don't want to step on anybody's toes.
That's why Disney divorced themselves from Michael Moore's film. They own TV
stations that are very political. It's not like they don't think that it's
OK. It's just they felt like they might take a beating somewhere along the
line in one of their other corporate ventures. So it's not surprising. Every
once in a while, a filmmaker will be able to shoehorn something in, but it's
awfully hard to get them. You have to have an awfully big star in it, so that
they feel like this is going to be worth the risk that we're taking by making
a overtly political film.
BuzzFlash: In just the last two years there's been an explosion of
political documentaries and DVDs. As a filmmaker, how do you distinguish
between propaganda and making a film from a strong point of view?
John Sayles: Everything is propaganda. Everything is. The question
is, do the filmmakers believe what they are saying? Propaganda is just a
word that means this is something that gets your point of view across. It
became something used as a negative during the Cold War. But propaganda basically
just means you've got your point of view and you're going to get it in some
form so that people learn about it.
The job of a filmmaker is sometimes to react to other filmmakers they
don't agree with -- that's the conversation. It may be a shouted conversation
and a confrontational conversation, but that's part of the conversation.
Even people deny each other's facts. Look at this documentary that Sinclair
Broadcast Group was going to air about Kerry. They believe what they're
saying is true, or some of them do. There are people who cynically will
put out something that they know is not true, or cook it or whatever.
But that's true of the nightly news. There are people who put out news
that they know isn't exactly the truth, or that there's more to it --
but they don't have the nerve to put it out there yet, or ever.
BuzzFlash: Your films are unconventional in many ways -- you use ensemble
casts; the films perhaps don't end in such a neatly wrapped-up way; you incorporate
themes that are difficult to market in sound bites. Was the critique of the
media in "Silver City" in part a response to how your films have
been treated or reviewed in the media?
John Sayles: I actually don't read reviews. All I get is the scorecard,
and the scorecard was a little worse than usual, which is kind of what we expected
because it is a very political film, and it's kind of a sore point with a lot
of people. It's critical of the media. But we usually get about 60-40 -- 60
percent favorable to 40 percent negative. And this one was about 50-50. So
it wasn't a huge drop or anything, but I basically stopped reading reviews
back when I was just a novelist, before I even started making films. It's just
not my world. It's not part of the conversation I'm hooked up in. So I really
can't react to it in any specific way.
BuzzFlash: What themes do you find most compelling to explore -- not
only as a writer, but as a filmmaker? What do you always find yourself compelled
to return to?
John Sayles: I often come back to what constitutes community. In our
modern world, it's often no longer geographical. It may be a community of
like-minded people -- like in "Secaucus Seven." Or a community
of people who have the same religion, or who like the same sports team, or
who go to the same website or whatever. It may be a very temporary community.
My movie "Casa de los Babys" is about a bunch of women who would
never hang with each other except that they're all in a Latin American country,
they don't speak Spanish, and they're all there to adopt babies. They spend
a lot of time with each other, and so they end up having this very temporary
community and kind of leaning on each other emotionally. These are people
who ordinarily wouldn't even say hello if they ran into each other on the
street. But there they are, and they're the odd ones out, and so they've
got to deal with each other.
BuzzFlash: As a filmmaker, do you ever think back on a project and
wish you could do it again?
John Sayles: Almost every day that I shoot a film, I think back on the
day -- and sometimes even while I'm doing it. We make movies for very little
money and very little time. And there's often a better way to do it that I
know about, but we don't have the money and time to do it. But I don't do the
project unless I think I can still do a pretty good job of it. So you're always
in the middle of compromise when you're working in an expensive medium like
filmmaking. Even big-budget filmmakers have those kinds of regrets or desires
as they're making films. But I've never felt like, oh, that film failed and
I wish I had known this when I did it. There are things I don’t like
about every film I make.
BuzzFlash: Which of your films are your personal favorites? The ones
where everything aligned?
John Sayles: I don't really have personal favorites among the things I've
done. When I see them, I think more about the experience of making them than
the film themselves. They all turned out pretty much the way that I wanted
them to at the time that I was making them, so I feel good about the people
that I worked with and that kind of stuff.
The things that I write for other people -- certainly I have things
that I think turned out better or worse. Of the things that I wrote for
other people, I think "The Howling" kind of realized its potential
more than anything else I wrote. A lot of the movies that I wrote for
other people haven't been made. Some of my favorite work is stuff that
I've done for other people and will never get made -- that's just the
deal of being a screenwriter.
BuzzFlash: You have a new book coming out -- Dillinger in Hollywood.
It's a collection of new and selected short stories. Is this a new phase
John Sayles: I was a novelist and short story writer before I was
a filmmaker. I finally just had enough short stories accumulated that hadn't
really been published or anthologized to make a collection. Some of them
are 20 years old, and some of them are two months old. I could kind of shuffle
them. I knew if I didn't put the dates down, you wouldn't necessarily know
when they'd been written, except for maybe some cultural comments in the
story themselves that you can say, oh, that TV show isn't on anymore or whatever.
BuzzFlash: What films or projects are you either currently working
on or will be soon?
John Sayles: I'm doing some writing for other people, trying
to help them tell their stories and make a living. I'm actually taking
a little section of "Keeping Time," which is one of the stories
in Dillinger in Hollywood, and trying to expand it into a screenplay
set in 1950 at the dawn of the Korean War, when the armed forces were
being reintegrated, and when people started plugging the guitar into
the wall and seeing what that would do to music.
BuzzFlash: John Sayles, we are big fans of your work. Thank you
for speaking with us.
John Sayles: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Internet Movie Database list of films from John Sayles
"Silver City" Website