Combustible Celluloid

An Interview with John Sayles

Searching Behind the Bush

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Looking a little like a sophisticated but rugged movie cowboy, the tall, lean John Sayles sits across from a tall, icy glass. He wears a comfortable looking dress shirt that's caught somewhere between office and weekend attire. His table rests near the window on the top story of San Francisco's Hilton, and beautiful panorama of the city lies below. It's an unusually sunny summer day and the bar is totally empty except for Sayles and his co-producer Maggie Renzi, who has been with him since the beginning of his career. She gives a friendly smile and goes back to her sheaf of papers.

Sayles could have been a movie star. He has appeared in many movies, including his own as well as Jonathan Demme's Something Wild and Spike Lee's Malcolm X. He also might have been a big time action director, or a cigar chomping mogul, having begun working for Roger Corman and writing the screenplays for "B" pictures like Piranha and The Howling.

Instead, Sayles became an independent filmmaker, one of the very first to break new ground, in the early 1980s, in an increasingly blockbuster-oriented industry. He has had to struggle for money and fight for his vision for the past 25 years.

The simple reason is that he has something to say.

His films have taken on baseball scandals, mining strikes, and sleazy real estate developers. He filmed one of the earliest lesbian love stories and even made a film in Spanish about bringing medicine to remote Central American villages.

With his latest movie, Silver City, Sayles talks politics, holding George W. Bush to the light to see what shines through.

Though it's an ensemble piece, the center attraction is undoubtedly Oscar-winner Chris Cooper as Richard "Dickie" Pilager, a childlike frat boy who is running for Governor of Colorado with no previous political experience. Pilager has trouble speaking in public and doesn't seem to have any ideas of his own.

With Silver City, Sayles is more interested in the origins of someone like George W. Bush, than his current status as the leader of the free world. He had already read quite a bit about Bush when he was running for Governor of Texas and incorporated some of those ideas into the Pilager character.

"He's a neophyte, he comes from a political family, and he was never really into it," Sayles says. "They came to him and said, 'We want to run you.' He said, 'Okay. I'm not doing anything else.' It's not like he was the ambitious one in the family. He's more like Teddy Kennedy. I remember that when Teddy Kennedy ran, there were a lot of the same kinds of jokes."

Cooper, who won a SFFCC award and an Oscar in 2003 for his astonishing performance in Adaptation, looks ready for more acclaim this year.

"Chris is somebody who likes to horrify his wife by coming in with Bush's attitude," Sayles says. "But we didn't want an impression, which is a very, very different thing. What I wanted was the basic things: how does this guy see the world? He doesn't say anything he doesn't believe. But he's not an original thinker. He's not insightful, and he's not good at the other part of the job, which is communicating."

"The thing I appreciate about the performance," Sayles says, "is that I wrote that fractured syntax and Chris found a way (to make it work). When he started out on a sentence, he knew where he was going, and his character knew where he was going, and then he was able to do that thing of going off the track. So you feel the momentum."

Cooper has a lot of great backup in the film as well. Danny Huston, son of maverick director John Huston, plays the film's principal character, Danny O'Brien, a disgraced newsman turned private investigator. He's hired to look into a dead body that washes up while Pilager is shooting an environmentally friendly television ad. Maria Bello plays Danny's former love interest, Richard Dreyfuss co-stars as Pilager's ruthless campaign manager and Kris Kristofferson appears as Pilager's ultra-conservative father. Other subplots include a radical liberal newsletter published by Mitch Paine (Tim Roth) and Karen Cross (Thora Birch).

Sayles is one of the few filmmakers in Hollywood with his pick of the litter; plenty of actors would line up to work with him, and for a scale paycheck besides.

"There are fewer and fewer interesting three-dimensional characters for any of these people to play," Sayles says. "You've got to be in some funky movies that may not get released if you're going to continue to work as a serious actor."

In one sequence, Danny visits Pilager's black sheep sister, Maddy (Daryl Hannah) for an interview, and winds up enjoying an afternoon quickie, which only gets him further into trouble. The gorgeous Hannah, who also appeared in Sayles' previous film Casa de los Babys, makes quite an impact when she first appears shooting a high-powered bow and strutting around with a devil-may-care attitude.

"She's somebody who I always felt was underused," Sayles says. "She really did a great job in Splash. You couldn't just be a pretty girl and do that part. She's a very good athlete, and she's a good physical actor."

Part of Sayles' appeal is his total dedication to getting a place and time exactly right. "With every movie I do I try to do a lot of research so I feel comfortable, that I'm not making something up that would never happen," he says. For Silver City, he spent time researching gold and silver mining, Colorado politics and Colorado life in general.

"It's a beautiful, beautiful state," he says. "And because of the mining industry, underneath it, there's a lot of poison. Fourteen miles from Denver is Rocky Flats, where they used to make triggers for nuclear bombs. Now they call it a 'wildlife preserve,' because humans can't set foot on it. There are three-headed squirrels and all that kind of stuff."

Even without researching, the well-read, experienced Sayles already knew some of the details that would go into Silver City. For one thing, he had worked as a meat packer, so those details go into a scene in which a worker is killed because of dangerous conditions. For another, he was already aware of the abundance of right-wing radio in Colorado, from which the DJ character Cliff Castleton (played by Miguel Ferrer) sprung.

Strangely enough, this filmmaker who is about to skewer the Republican president admits that he's been a guest on some of these shows.

"Some of the stuff I do could almost go libertarian," he says, "and so there might be some meeting ground on some of this stuff. You can get Pat Buchanan to agree with you on some things if he thinks it's fascist too."

September 17, 2004

See reviews of other John Sayles films: Eight Men Out, Limbo, Sunshine State, Casa de los Babys, Silver City

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