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Interview: John Sayles Talks Amigo, Storytelling, and More

The writer-director often embodies the inquisitive and restless blue-collar spirit of an artist like Sam Fuller.

Interview: John Sayles Talks Amigo, Storytelling, and More
Photo: Variance Films

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.

Whether it’s Harlem in The Brother from Another Planet, the Mexico/Texas border in Lone Star, or turn-of-the-century Philippines in Amigo, a specific sense of place dominates your work. What kinds of narrative inspiration do you find by immersing your stories in these types of very specific environments?

What interests me in storytelling, whether it’s fiction or filmmaking, is the worldview of each character. Their worldview is obviously influenced by where they came up, where they’ve come from and where they live. In West Virginia for Matewan, you can’t see a big horizon; you’re in a holler. Literally, for us as filmmakers the sun came up and went down and we lost 45 minutes of sunlight everyday. It’s claustrophobic even though you’re outside. It creates a feeling you can’t escape your fate. There’s the real geography and history of the place, and then there’s the psychic one. For instance, I watched Miller’s Crossing again recently, and it’s film noir. In film noir there’s no “out of town.” So when John Turturro says he’ll leave town, I’m thinking, you can’t leave town! This is film noir. There’s no out of town! There’s only this closed world and it’s fatalistic and you’re stuck in it. That’s a psychic landscape. Even if you’re going with real history, there are certain associations moviegoers have with the West, or with urban landscapes, and you have to factor that in to your storytelling as well. With Amigo, these are people that live in a cycle of rice, and that’s how they tell time. When the rice is burnt, that’s a bigger deal than when people are shooting at them. Without the rice, there’s no future for them. On Honeydripper, I talked to a lot of people about cotton, and what the crop meant to the people of that town at this moment in Alabama’s history. Everyone in that town at the time would have known how to pick cotton, so we had to have seminars on how to pick cotton. The older people remembered that white or black, when you got out of school, you went and picked cotton because you made cash money, which was rare. What does this kind of plantation mentality do to a town even though slavery is over? Everything is built around one crop, and that’s a worldview the characters have, and it’s a closed one. It’s about the psychology of the characters and how that place has influenced them. But it also becomes a part of the vocabulary of the movie.

Why do you think other filmmakers don’t put that level of detail into whatever universe they are exploring?

I write for these movies [Hollywood] too and very often what you’re trying to do is tell a “movie-movie” story. It’s just a thriller, or whatever. Reality and politics would get in the way. So what you want to do is make the story generic and kind of “movie-movie” in a way, hyper-real, and get rid of those details and not deal with the real human consequences. It’s why Hitchcock often had his heroes be architects. They’re professional guys, but nobody really knows what they do. So they can leave whenever they want and have a two-week adventure and nobody knows they’re gone. Cell phones have really changed the thriller business. You don’t have to look for that fucking phone booth and fumble with the change.

The infrastructure of overlapping communities is incredibly detailed throughout your work. Why is this level of social and political cadence so important to you?

Well once again, it’s something that interests me—how these elements affect who you are, and the decisions you make. Both of my grandfathers were cops and my father was in the MPs and that’s a culture. The police are a culture, a tribe. A lot of his other relatives were firemen, and they used to play sports with a lot of cops at the Y in Hoboken. I said to these guys, tell me, did you become a cop rather than a fireman because you like to tell people what to do, a personality reason, or does the job change you into that? And they said it’s a little bit of both. There’s a culture there, and a pecking order within that culture and it’s not just your rank. It’s how long you’ve been in, or whether you’re in homicide or desk job or detective, etcetera. That’s really important to how your fellow cops react to you the minute you show up. It’s something you carry with you and I’m really interested in that kind of thing. We have class in America, not like the British have it, but we do have class and most Americans don’t want to admit that. We have indicators of class and I’m fascinated by those factors. What is class in a place where nobody wants to admit it exists? That’s part of storytelling for me, and if it’s going to be about true human behavior, let’s use what’s there and really look into it, see if it can become a part of the characterizations.

It seems like the creation of Amigo springs from your desire to shape the collective memory of a nearly forgotten historical event, the Philippine-American War. In what ways do you think Amigo succeeds in this regard? How do you think it falls short?

For one thing, this particular historical moment is much more complex than Amigo can explain. It’s a snapshot. The war was a big complex thing. There were so many elements I couldn’t get into in the time I had. I felt like Amigo was a sort of beginning; let’s get this story on the map so people will know about it. And it allowed me to talk about this thing that soldiers often have to face: I’m here in this foreign country, killing and being killed, and I don’t know why. Furthermore, nobody can give me a good explanation why. But I have to still go out and do it. The complexity of the situation is simplified for these soldiers.

I feel like yours is a Cinema of Historical Boundaries (borders, segregation of cultures, languages), but also a Cinema of Historical Curiosity (historiography, interracial involvement). How do you feel one affects the other?

Well, we learn our history, more for worse than for better, from movies and television. That’s how I learned my history. I never took a history class, even in college. I’ve read a lot since then when I get interested in something, and I remember reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee about the various wars between America and the Indian nations. Every chapter, I said to myself, I’ve seen this movie before! That was Burt Lancaster or Charlton Heston playing the Indian chief, but in every case, I felt the book was telling a better story. If they had made a movie about the stuff in the book, it would have been far better than the simplistic Hollywood bullshit. For me, that’s where the tension lies. How we define ourselves in any country or culture is partly the myths we tell about ourselves. These are the stories that define what it means to be an American. Sometimes, when you look into these stories, like the “Forget the Alamo” at the end of Lone Star, you must ask is this myth useful anymore, or is it destructive? I felt like the myth of the Alamo had to be re-examined in that film. It was a much more complicated situation. I’m interested in those ways that the myth has stood for a long time, but when you look into the complexity of it, that’s not even the real story. It’s not that they simplified the myth a little; they’ve told an entirely different story than what happened! That’s the tension of our country, ideals versus reality. It comes down to one thing: Are we really going to live up to this stuff, or just live up to the parts of our history that are easy.

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