Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Return of the Independent: Sayles on Sayles


My introduction to John Sayles dates back to the mid-1980s when I went on
a summer-long rental binge. Before that time, I'd been too busy with school
to keep up with all the independent filmmakers emerging in the late-1970s,
like Sayles and David Lynch. Plus, I'd been dividing my time between the
art house-deprived communities of Anchorage, AK and Walla Walla, WA.

So, I started taking chances with the likes of Eraserhead (1977)
and The Brother from Another Planet (1984). I had heard
a bit about these cult classics, but not much. Mostly, I was intri-
gued by the titles, the cover art, and the offbeat subject matter.

As it turns out, The Brother, starring Joe Morton as a slave on the run from Men
in Black played by Sayles and college buddy David Strathairn, wasn't his first
feature. It was preceded by Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980) and Lianna (1983).

That one-two punch secured Sayles' rep, and led to Baby, It's You (1983), but the experience soured him on the studio system. Sayles has been proudly independent ever since (and studio interference aside, Baby remains a nifty little picture).

Over 20 years later, I'm still following these filmmakers, which is ironic as Sayles and Lynch don't otherwise have much in common. They do occasionally take on work-for-hire--Sayles is currently attached to Jurassic Park IV--but they don't compromise when it comes to their own work. I have a great deal of respect for people who can figure out a way to do that, whether in filmmaking or any other field of endeavor.

Last fall, I got to chat with David Lynch for 20 minutes. This summer, I got to
chat with Sayles for three times that long. I came prepared--I've seen all 15 of his films, not counting the upcoming Honeydripper--but I'm not sure that it mattered.

Maybe it comes from being a novelist, but Sayles doesn't give short answers.
Every response was rich with context. Consequently, the following represents unexpurgated Sayles. For more from the man, catch him at Bumbershoot presenting clips from Honeydripper, followed by a performance from the Honeydripper All-Stars.


On Honeydripper
The story is set in 1950 in a small town called Harmony, Alabama. Danny
Glover plays a club owner [Tyrone Purvis] who's trying to keep it going with
live music, and he's about to give it up, because he can't pay the rent, and
nobody's coming in. The club has a jukebox, which is just kind of getting all
the young field hands, and the Korean War [has] started, and that was when
the Armed Forces finally integrated combat soldiers, so there's an army base
nearby. And it's really about the beginnings of what eventually would be called
rock and roll. And it has a really nice cast. Charles S. Dutton is in it, and Mary
Steenbergen, Stacy Keach, Keb Mo, the blues singer--a really, really nice cast.

On making a music film
You know, it's interesting, because music has been a really important part
of the films I have made. I'd say this is the first one where music is the subject,
or part of the plot. I'm always interested in evolution--in cultural evolution--
and certainly in the United States. And one of the places where integration
happened first was in music and sports. In Matewan there's a little bit of that,
as well. There are people who are actually being separated from each other
by mine guards, yet at least [they] can hear each other's music.

I'm interested in that evolution, and how that works, and how people make
that choice to either move on, or stick with what they already know. It applies
to a lot of areas in life, and in music, it's amazing how fast a new music will
spread, and when that new music gets popular, there's always that choice that
pre-existing musicians have to make: Am I gonna jump on this new thing,
which I may or may not like? For the guys who are playing rhythm and blues
and early jazz or big band, rock and roll was actually easier to play, and some
of them didn't care for it very much, but to make a living they often...

Rhythm and blues vs. rock and roll
There was a label called Savoy Records in New Jersey, and these incredible
Charlie Parker-kind of guys used to go and honk the saxophone on rhythm and
blues songs for the take and then go play the jazz clubs for nothing at night--
or very little, compared to the recording date where they were using a tenth of their talent--and they were good, but it wasn't their music. I'm always interested in that,
in what that entails, or can you find something creative to do in this new medium.
It happened for filmmakers--not just actors--who didn't make the cut when
silent movies went to talkies. There were directors who just couldn't get a handle
on this thing where they talked as well. It happens in fiction, and a lot of other places, and it happens in sports when they change the rules a little. There are people who get left behind, and other people really take advantage of it, and
there are fans who just say, well, that's not baseball, or that's not football.

On the backbeat
On the other hand, some of the research and some of the stuff that you're
hearing in Honeydripper--what they're calling rock and roll--had been around
for a long time. One of the songs in the movie that you just hear coming from
a liquor truck is "Move It on Over," which is a Hank Williams song. We actually
shot the movie--part of it--in one of the towns that Williams grew up in. And
if you listen to it, it's "Rock Around the Clock." And it's a comedy song, but its rhythm, its backbeat--everything--it's "Rock Around the Clock." And there are
rhythm and blues songs, that you basically just say, 'Well, wait a minute,
that's the basic rock and roll beat.' They just weren't calling it that then.

There was a drummer named Earl Palmer, who came out of New Orleans and was a tap dancer when he was a kid, and he eventually became the big session man in Los Angeles for early rock and roll, and he played on some of Fats Domino's records when he was still in New Orleans. He basically says, 'One day when I was still in New Orleans, Little Richard came in and he was singing so damn fast, I needed to put a backbeat to it just to keep track--just to not get lost--and he was off to the races.

The piano vs. the guitar
Life was speeding up. Another big thing that was happening that you see
some in the movie... We found Gary Clark Jr., who plays this young guitarist
[Sonny] who comes into town. He [Clark] is a guitar phenomenon from Austin, Texas. We met him the day he turned 21, and could play in the clubs without
his mom being there, which was lucky for her--although she likes his music.
He plays this guy, who--and he's the first person--they look in his guitar case,
and there's a guitar in there, but it's got wires coming out of it, and there's no
hole in it, which would have been very, very new anywhere, especially in rural Alabama. The idea is that he's somebody who's heard about this thing that has
been made in a couple of places, and he's a guy who fixes radios and reads
Popular Electronics, and he's made his own, which was kind of where it was at.

Basically, one of the subtexts of the movie is this battle that went on for awhile between the piano and the guitar--which was gonna be the lead instrument, and
until the electric guitar--and truly, the solid body electric guitar and the amp that went with it--the guitar didn't have the volume to be the lead instrument. And then Chuck Berry came along, and everything he was playing was in a piano key, and
in fact, it was basically boogie-woogie piano on a guitar. So, it was kind of a little battle between him and Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry won, and the saxophone disappeared after a couple of years, and then the piano disappeared for awhile,
and if they were around, they were in very, very subservient positions to the guitar for about 20 years. And some of it was just technology, and that happens as well
in sports as well as in music. What do people do with that new technology?
There's a long story Danny Glover tells about a black slave, who, when the
master isn't looking, sits at that piano, and just thinks, 'Man, I could do some damage with this thing.' It's not part of his culture--the music is--so what can be done with it? What's that new thing when you join African music to the piano?

On 1950
Then there's this kind of Tampa Red--it was called hokum music--that the
character of Bertha Mae [Spivey] sings and some old 1920s blues, and then
Keb Mo does some traditional blues, and then there's rhythm and blues, and
you can hear big band stuff still coming--1950 was a real crossroads for all this.

You had Perry Como next to big bands next to funky blues next to rhythm and blues, and then the beginnings of this electrified guitar stuff, so there was a lot going on, and it was somewhat regional still. Even though radio had homogenized things quite a bit, it took a while for local bands to start playing things.


Next: On Ruth Brown, Keb Mo, Danny Glover, and Guillermo Del Toro


John Sayles will be at the McCaw Lecture Hall on Sat., 9/1, at 12pm.
The Honeydripper All-Stars play the Starbucks Stage, AKA the Mur-
al Ampitheater, at 3:15pm. For more information, please click here.
Images from Identity Theory (Sayles portrait by Robert Birnbaum),, Filmmaker Magazine, and Emerging Pictures.