John Sayles could talk for hours about a number of diverse subjects. The director of Matewan, Lone Star, and Sunshine State is more than happy to wax eloquently on filmmaking, politics, historiography, and even what he calls Classic Hollywood “bullshit.” His passion and respect for these subjects is infectious, like hearing a wise professor treat informational tangents as if they were great poetry. Sayles becomes especially vocal when discussing his 17th feature film, the Philippine-American War picture Amigo, which recently opened in limited release. This labor of love brings out the grandiose historian in Sayles, who often embodies the inquisitive and restless blue-collar spirit of an artist like Sam Fuller. But as one of America’s true filmmaking treasures, his obsession with the overlap of borders, languages, and cultures has yet to be matched. In a bit of geographical irony not lost on Sayles, Slant sat down with the director to discuss Amigo, American imperialism, and character subtext in a restaurant located at the Grove Shopping Center, the beating heart of capitalistic excess near Beverly Hills.
What inspired the story of Amigo?
I was doing research for my novel Los Gusanos and I kept running into this phrase, “Philippine-American War.” I had relatives who’d lived in the Philippines and I knew a little bit of the country’s history, but had never heard of this. Usually, when we [America] win a war we really celebrate it. So I did some research and talked to some Filipino friends and Philippine-American friends and they said, “We weren’t taught this either.” That got me suspicious. How can you take a war where 500,000 to one million Filipinos were killed and make it disappear, and why? I realized two things: first, the winners get to write the history books and that’s why the Filipinos hadn’t heard of it. But secondly, Amigo’s only the third American movie ever made to have anything to do with this historical event, and the other two are only tangentially related. One is basically a remake of Gunga Din called The Real Glory and it’s got Gary Cooper and David Niven playing an American. I think it was that Americans in this case, as much as they liked being imperialists for a second or two, who weren’t comfortable with the role. So that got me interested, and I started asking myself, how does America, with our self-image, switch from being the champions of liberty to the invaders of the Philippines? How does that happen and how do you sell that? Then, a specific situation interested me as well. How can I do this micro-history on the village level and get as much as I want to talk about into it? I ran across this statistic that one side or the other killed hundreds if not thousands of village chiefs. They were in an untenable position. Finally, I started thinking about how that’s the kind of timeless part of this. How much do I cooperate without collaborating, how much do I resist without getting killed or my village burned down? That’s a classic situation.
How was the screenwriting process different for Amigo compared to your previous experiences?
There wasn’t a big difference. Like some of my other scripts, I had to think about budget as I was doing it. I had been doing all this research and realized that no one was going to finance this movie for us. My novel, A Moment in the Sun, was actually based on a big screenplay I had written that never found financing, so I knew the big story I wanted to tell. Then, I had the idea of doing this small story, which came about when we were actually in Thailand on vacation. The Red Shirts had taken over the airport so we were stuck for another week trying to get out of the country. And the government knowing that tourism is a big deal took care of our hotel bill until we were able to get out. So I had this time on my hands and had been thinking about this smaller story. We had just been in the Philippines talking to the actor Joel Torre about the movie business there and what was possible to do there for fewer than two million dollars. I realized if I could do this on a village level I bet it could get made. So what I had was not so much the story but the box that the story had to fit in. Then I had the idea that Joel is a beloved actor here, we know him and he’ll say yes, so why don’t I build a circle around him, the story of the village, and then the war circles around the village. I had this starting point that was this character stuck between a rock and a hard place. Often, I don’t know whom the actors are going to be, but here I at least knew one actor. So then I built out the story from there. I’d say that’s the most unusual thing because I actually knew who the lead actor was going to be from the beginning.
Your screenwriting approach, including the character biographies you routinely give to each actor, has been well documented over the years. But what about the necessity of dramatic beats in between the words? How important is this silence to you as a writer in establishing the different kinds of subtext?
Yeah, I definitely think about the subtext of each character, specifically what’s going on in their head that cannot necessarily be revealed to the others. In Amigo, so often Joel’s character has to come up to the Catholic priest and smile, and basically ask him for things he normally wouldn’t. One moment he may be sitting pretty and the next he may be about to go to jail. So there’s a lot of subtext just for Joel whenever he deals with the Americans and the priest. But there’s also subtext in everybody’s relationship with him in the village, since he’s the one in charge. With the soldiers, a lot of what I gave them was a broad biography: this is where you’re from, this is why you got into the Army, this is how you like it so far, this is how long you’ve been in. I also talked with each character about an immediate sense of subtext, i.e. where are you coming from right now? How many engagements have you been in? What are your ambitions? I also make a graphic of the story and just say, okay, so much of movie writing is structure, and so much of structure is about when you release information to the audience. One of the complicated things here is that I am trying to bring the audience into all the camps. It’s what’s so unusual about Amigo as a war movie. You spend equal time with the Filipinos and the Americans, and you’re watching a train wreck about to happen, but you like people on both trains. The structure for a movie like this is similar to a gunfight movie, like Matewan, building up confrontations until there’s the final standoff. Shane is a perfect example. In this one, it’s Amigo, the mayor, who is in and out of hot water, and just when things are looking good, back comes the war and all is lost.
Since your movies are ensembles, casting must be an intricate process. How often does your casting expectations formed as a writer conflict and ultimately change because of your directorial perspective?
I try and hire great actors who I think will do something interesting with the material. I tell them, here’s your biography, here’s your script, inhabit this character, but you’re not going to get to change any lines. If you want to change lines talk about it now before we get to the set. The first thing I try and do as a director is sit back and see what the actor is going to do with their role. What’s David Strathairn going to come up with this time? What’s Chris Cooper going to come up with this time? And if it seems like it’s not going to work, then I start to direct them back toward the character they are trying to play.