Corrections or additions?
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."
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
— Kam Williams
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
School, North Fifth Avenue and Montgomery Street, Highland Park.
Saturdays at 9 p.m. Free.
on the big screen, directed by Ben Sharpsteen, Saturday, July 20.
Saturday, July 27.
by Jeff Cline (2002) with
Carlin and Roy E. Lowrance (2002), and
Katz (2002), Friday, July 19.
Milgram (1965), free, Wednesday, July 24.
by Anne Lewis (2001), Friday, July 26.
Corrections or additions?
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— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.