Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sayles on Sayles: Part Five


John Sayles on John Huston, B. Traven, adaptations,
and Baby, It's You
(click here for part four)


On John Huston

My idea of getting into the movie business-I always felt like there are two ways in-one way is to write your way in. That was the John Huston model, where you write a couple of things, and they do well, and then you keep bugging them about letting you direct, and they let you do it. The other was the Stanley Kubrick model, where you just go and make your own movie, and hope it gets a little bit of attention, and then keep bugging them, and say, 'Well, here's a movie that I made. Can you give me some money to make another one?' And so I started down the John Huston one, and it looked like it was gonna take forever, and so I hopped over to the Stanley Kubrick one, and got a theatrical release-which I did not expect-with my first film.

We shot Secaucus Seven in 16mm, and in TV ratio. I thought I might be able to get it on PBS or something, like Killer of Sheep when it first came out. And then, of course, when we got a theatrical, I had to do some up and down pan and scan, top and bottom pan and scan. There are some really awful compositions-where the ceiling is down on people's foreheads or up on their chins-because we had to make it in the Academy format to show it, instead of the square TV format we shot it in. So, both of those-I would say The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is probably my favorite film ever.

On Huston's final years
Huston did a lot of literary adaptations. I've really never done those,
but I always liked the feeling in his movies. There was a nice sensitivity
to character, but the action was good, as well. And a nice sense of place.
He didn't have the financing to do the big things anymore, and when he
did, they were things like Annie, which he didn't have his heart in.
I just did a little part in a movie Bertrand Tavernier is making, and Michael Fitzgerald is the producer. He produced The Dead, Wiseblood-a lot of Huston's last things. I think for Huston it was, 'If I'm interested in a subject, it's gonna be a good movie.' Sometimes he lost interest halfway through, or never was that interested, but needed to make the money, because he had five or however many things he wanted to make. His best stuff is the stuff he was interested in, and in the later years, he couldn't get financing the normal way, so they became independent productions.
On Fat City
I had always wanted to work with Stacy [Keach], and I got to talk to him
a little bit about shooting that movie when we were making Honeydripper.
He said there were some situations, like when they were picking onions
in the field, that were shot pretty much documentary. They got out with a
bunch of cameras, and he [Huston] said, 'Okay, Stacy, you're gonna pick
onions this morning-better get yourself on the bus.' You saw the real pickers
once they got out there,AeP I don't know if he got paid for his picking.
On the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
I'm a big fan of B. Traven. I've read most of his books, and he's one of
these guys who tell great stories, even though he's not an especially good writer.
Of course, he was writing in German, which was then translated into Spanish,
which was then translated into English. He still wasn't a great prose stylist, but the
stories are so good. And part of it is that he was a really observant guy, and he
couldn't go back to Germany, and he lived in Chiapas, where no white people live.
He probably was this guy who was Minister of Culture in Rosa Luxembourg's cabinet
in Germany, and the day when the Nazis started killing all those people, he escaped. And it sounds like he may have literally had a dead man on the other side of his handcuffs, and eventually cut the guy's hand off or something to get away.
His father was a Chicago millionaire, and his mother was a German opera
singer, and she hated him, and said, 'I'll support you as long as you never
mention that asshole's name again.' He spoke some English growing up, and
then he got out of the country by, I think, stowing away, and becoming a sailor
on a steamer, and basically was a stateless person for awhile until he jumped
ship in Mexico, and then was just paranoid for another 15 years or so. I mean,
the Nazis could have come and killed him the way that Stalinists killed Trotsky.
So, he changed his name. That story about him showing up, pretending to be the lawyer for B. Traven [in Huston's An Open Book] is probably true. Who got to be good buddies with him is Bu/+/-uel, so he has some stories about him, and he was always-even with his friends-his story changed every time you talked to him. Huston was a heavy drinker, and had a sense of humor and was a big practical joker, and B. Traven was a very non"ronic guy-they didn't exactly hang out at the bar together.
[There are allusions to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in The Brother From Another Planet, Men with Guns, and Silver City-the latter starring John's son, Danny Huston.]
On adaptations
Actually, Honeydripper is based on a short story. It's based on a story in my last collection, which is called Dillinger in Hollywood. It came out about two years ago, and there's a story called 'Keeping Time,' about a 40-year-old drummer in a 20-year-old band, who runs into this old man, who tells them a story. The story he tells has something to do with the plot. It's just like Matewan came out of about a four-page section of Union Dues, which is a 500-page novel. So, it's often not a whole story, it may just be a story that one character tells that gets to be the germ of an idea.
On Baby, It's You
As for Baby It's You, I don't know [when it will appear on DVD]. It belongs to Paramount. When we made it, by the time we got through the editing, the studio didn't like me or the film, and kind of released it, and said they were going to secure the video rights for the music-which is separate from the theatrical rights-and told Griffin Dunne, one of the producers, they were going to do that, so he didn't have to bother. And then they didn't, so it couldn't be shown on TV or video for a little while, and finally when the regime changed, and went over to Disney, the guy who was in charge was able to revive it, and we only had to change a couple of songs, because they'd gotten more expensive in the time in between. So, finally it could be on, like, Showtime, but it's just not high on their list to put out on DVD. It's up to them.
They may be thinking, 'I don't think we'll make any money on this,' and it will
cost us $100,000 on music rights, or maybe they don't even have the music rights. And it's just not a high priority. Unless it's considered some kind of classic film, like, you know, Animal House, they don't put everything out on DVD. It does cost them some money, and they have to do some publicity for it. It's like in publishing. If there's not a huge upside-if they can't make a little money-it's like, don't bother.
[Baby, It's You was based on a novel by Amy Robinson, who produced
After Hours, which stars Dunne and Rosanna Arquette, who appears in Baby.]
Next: On owning vs. leasing, music rights, and film as an agent of change
Images from Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film,
Google Images, and They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

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