NJ Film Festival

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This article by Kam Williams was prepared for the July 17, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

At the Movies

Even though he has never really been embraced

by Hollywood, John Sayles has had quite a career. The versatile artist

has written 30 films, acted in 26, and directed 13. But because of

a commitment to his craft — which includes a social conscience

— Sayles has remained outside the mainstream, under-appreciated

except in limited circles. Still, some of his films, such as "Return

of the Secaucus Seven" (1980), "Brother from Another Planet"

(1984), and "Matewan" (1987) have been belatedly elevated

to cult status. He received his first Oscar-nomination for the original

screenplay for "Passion Fish" in 1992, and another for "Lone

Star" in 1996. "Sunshine State," his latest work, is a

provocative indictment of modern-day corporate America, exploring

such issues as racism, greed, and environmental pollution.

Sayles and his long-time love, actress and producer Maggie Renzi,

have lived in Hoboken for many years. The Garden State served as the

subject of "Return of the Secaucus Seven" and the location

for "Lianna" (1983). The latter, although first scripted to

take place in California, was shot entirely in Hoboken.

Kam Williams, a Princeton-based film critic, spoke with the New Jersey

native son about all of the above and more just before the release

of "Sunshine State."

KW: Where did you get the idea for "Brother from Another

Planet"?

JS: That actually came from a series of dreams I had when I

was under stress while doing the sound mix for a film. The first dream

was for a science fiction parody called "Assholes from Outer Space"

which was about people who looked very human but had antennae on their

heads and made life very hard for us by working as bureaucrats at

places like the Department of Motor Vehicles. Then I had another dream

that I was directing a film noir, set in Seattle, called "Bigfoot

in the City," about an odd man out. Then I had a final dream,

one without any dialogue, about a black man walking on 125th Street

in Harlem, but he seemed totally lost and very anxious. And I realized

that he was worried because he wasn’t even from this planet, he didn’t

know if he could pass or not. Those three dreams sort of combined

in my head to become "Brother from Another Planet."

KW: I always felt that "Brother from Another Planet"

was the inspiration for "Men in Black," after all it was also

about two guys in black suits and dark sunglasses tracking down aliens,

although your movie was laced with socially significant themes.

JS: I kind of stumbled across a legend of "men in black" when

I wrote a science fiction-science fact script that Steven Spielberg

was going to produce. In much of the literature I found, people said

that the day after they encountered a UFO, two men in black appeared

and kind of grilled them and either told them they were crazy and

they didn’t see anything, or that it was top secret and that they

shouldn’t tell anyone about it. In some of the stories, people thought

the men were from the government and trying to intimidate them from

telling the truth. This is sort of a staple of UFO reports. So, I

think all of the men in black things came from that same source.

KW: And how did you come up with the idea for "Sunshine

State"?

JS: I had been considering doing something about Florida for quite

a long time. I had gone down there all my childhood, probably from

the age of four or five. My mother’s parents had lived in the Miami

area. Several years ago, I wrote a short story called "Treasures"

for Esquire Magazine. I was thinking of adapting that into a movie.

But when I went back to scout out Florida’s West Coast to see where

I would set the film, I just couldn’t find it anymore. It really had

been developed beyond recognition.

KW: How so?

JS: The tourism had been owned and operated by the local people. That

has really been supplanted by a kind of corporate tourism where the

sons and daughters of the people who used to own the place are now

just employees, working for this giant, outdoor theme park of some

sort. That started me thinking, because whenever there’s some big

change like that, there are some people who are left behind. Some

people who can’t really go with the flow of where the change is leading.

And then there are other people who have to deal with the question

of what do you gain and what do you lose when you go into this new

situation.

KW: It seems that theme is bigger than any of the individuals

in the story.

JS: Yeah, individual characters have their dramas, and I play those

out, but there’s often some bigger thing that they only see a piece

of. And that’s very much like our real lives. There may be five people

in a room or on a golf course who are deciding our future, but we

only see a little evidence here, and a little evidence there. In a

movie, because you can access all these people’s different lives,

you can start to connect the dots, sort of, and see the bigger picture,

even though the characters themselves don’t.

KW: So if the Florida you remembered from your childhood had

already disappeared, how did you find a location?

JS: After I decided not to shoot on the West Coast of Florida, I remembered

Amelia Island. I had a couple of friends who had gone to America Beach

there, a kind of Mecca for African-Americans during the days of segregation.

I was surprised that it still existed. I’d assumed that once the laws

had changed, that the reason for the community would disappear, and

that the community itself would disappear. But I went down and looked

around and it was still there, though not like in its glory days when

it had restaurants and nightclubs. But it was still a community, although

it had been threatened by condo development on both sides. And the

thing that I found interesting was that they were very much more caught

up in their everyday lives, in their every day dramas. Which is just

human.

KW: Did you think about Angela Bassett for a lead role in part

because she is from Florida?

JS: I’d worked with her a couple of times before, and I remembered

her telling me that she was from St. Petersburg. Angela and Edie Falco

were really the only two actors I had in mind as I was writing. And

then we built the cast from there.

KW: As a writer, I definitely appreciated how well-crafted the

story was, right down to the last line powerfully tying it all together

by referring to Native Americans as the indigenous people with, "Well,

what’re we gonna do for Indians?"

JS: Certainly, the history of the United States and

Mexico has a lot to do with people killing each other over real estate.

And those who came in tried to have those who were there before work

for them in some sort of menial way. In the case of the Native Americans

in the South and the Southwest, it was to look for gold. The victors

pretty much killed everybody off and scattered the rest.

KW: What overall point are you trying to convey?

JS: What I’m trying to get at with the end of the movie is that this

is a pattern that has existed throughout history, whether it’s been

different cultures coming together or just different ethnic groups

within a culture. It usually isn’t sitting around a campfire and singing.

It’s somebody taking over from someone else and rewriting the history

so it seems like it all was a good idea.

KW: What’s the underlying message you want people to get from

this movie?

JS: One part is to realize that there probably are five guys

deciding our future, and that a lot of what they do is not necessarily

going to be subject to public review. Take something like the NAFTA

treaty which had huge effects on people all the world. Most of our

representatives voted for it even though they hadn’t really read it,

didn’t understand it, or what its full impact would be on everyday

people. But the people who planned it knew full well what was going

on because it was to their advantage.

KW: So you’re trying to raise awareness?

JS: I’m showing that before we can stop or change anything, we have

to first take the responsibility to pay attention. Secondly, we’re

probably going to have to make alliances with people we think we have

nothing in common with. We’re going to have to expand our idea of

what we think our community is.

KW: How does this notion play out in "Sunshine State"?

JS: Here, as in a bunch of our movies, I’m dealing with parallel communities

that don’t have much to do with each other, which is one of the reasons

why they get pushed around, because they haven’t built those bridges

with each other.

KW: Why haven’t you ever been embraced by Hollywood?

JS: "Well, I think it’s a fairly mutual thing, sort of a two-way

street. Most of what I’m interested in making stories about just isn’t

appropriate for Hollywood. And I’m not interested in devoting a year

of my life to making most of the movies they want to do.

KW: How are your films different from mainstream flicks?

JS: I’d say that what sets our movies apart is complexity, and not

just in the number of characters. You certainly can have a very simplistic

movie with a lot of characters. But I want to explore more than merely

good and evil. There are many shades of gray between black and white.

People have their motivations and if you get to know them, you might

actually understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. There are

an awful lot of situations where there’s not a good decision to be

made — there’s only two bad decisions to be made. That’s definitely

not the scenario most studios envision when they’re having someone

write a screenplay for them. This isn’t good or bad, it’s just how

it is. Most studios are simply trying to deliver a satisfying experience,

satisfying in that it makes the audience feel good about itself in

the end.

— Kam Williams

Top Of Page
NJ Film Festival

New Jersey International Film Festival screenings are

Fridays through Sunday in Voorhees Hall 105, Rutgers College Avenue

campus. Thursday screenings are in Loree Hall 024, Douglass College

campus; with selected free events at Borders Books in Mid-State Mall,

Route 18 North, and Highland Park Middle School. All programs begin

at 7 p.m. $5. Call 732-932-8482 or www.njfilmfest.com

Free Outdoor Revival Screenings, Highland Park Middle

School, North Fifth Avenue and Montgomery Street, Highland Park.

Saturdays at 9 p.m. Free. Fantasia, the 1940 Disney classic

on the big screen, directed by Ben Sharpsteen, Saturday, July 20.

Rear Window, the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece thriller,

Saturday, July 27.

On Rutgers College Avenue Campus: Going Postal , directed

by Jeff Cline (2002) with Liberation Now, directed by Judith

Carlin and Roy E. Lowrance (2002), and Strange Fruit by Joel

Katz (2002), Friday, July 19. Obedience, directed by Stanley

Milgram (1965), free, Wednesday, July 24.

The Beast of All Hallows Eve by April Allridge (2001)

with The Waters of Casablanca by Gregg Viermann (2002) and Shelter

by Anne Lewis (2001), Friday, July 26.


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