Saturday, August 18, 2007

Sayles on Sayles: Part Four

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John Sayles on Black Snake Moan, Will Oldham,
Limbo, and Robert Altman
(click here for part three)

On Black Snake Moan

We live up in the boondocks, and it just didn't play near us, so I'm afraid I'm
going to have to wait for it to be available on video. We were invited to the premiere, and we were out of state, so we couldn't go to it, and that was our chance.

I know those guys a little bit. I met them after they did the first one, their first Memphis movie-Hustle and Flow. They were describing the movie, and I said, 'Oh,
so you're making [Walter Mosley's] RL's Dream, and they said, 'Wait-what's that?", and then they got very nervous, and they said, 'Oh God, we've got to go read that.'

Hopefully, they were a bit better about it-because it is a different story-
but it does have that same thing of this blues guy and this really disturbed
white girl. They had just never heard of this thing, because it wasn't one of
his 'color' books, like Devil with a Blue Dress or something like that. But, you
know, they knew it was going to be a controversial movie. They were feeling
like, 'Either we're gonna hit a home run with this or we're in big trouble...'

[Black Snake Moan was the year's other big blues film. The soundtrack was great.]

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On Will Oldham
He was just playing with a guitar at the time, but he wasn't really recording
anything, so I never heard him sing. When we made Matewan-we were
looking for-Will was, I think, 14 when we cast him. He had done a couple of
plays. He was from Louisville, Kentucky. There's a really good theater festival
down there, and so he had done a couple things at that festival when they
needed a kid. We heard about him, and he came up, and he was good, and he already had the accent-or could only thicken his slightly-and we were in business.
But while we were working with him, we knew that he was ambivalent about going
to college, and he and his brother played guitar, and had bands together and stuff like that. So I wasn't really surprised when I heard that he'd started playing music.
I was a little surprised that his voice never changed. It sounds like it's halfway between Leonard Cohen and Jimmy Stewart. A lot of it's such kind of intense personal stuff, really kind of nice and moody. And all the children of our friends
say, 'Oh, you know Will Oldham!' They're really impressed by that. When we shot
a movie in Denver [Silver City], we just missed Will. He was opening for Bj/drk, and
he was gone a week before we got there. We thought that was a good pairing.
On Limbo
We're the last idiots in the world who would actually shoot in Alaska. Basically,
we were able to do it, because it was a studio-financed movie, and they gave
us nine million dollars. We only spent eight, because we had a million dollars
in contingency for terrible weather, and we were shooting in Juneau, where they
get fourteen feet of rain a year. The thing that happened for us is that it did not
rain for two weeks to the day before we started shooting, which meant that our carpenters and our painters could do all their work, and the paint would dry, and
they didn't have to work in the rain, and we didn't get behind on any of that.
And then, the first day, we were shooting a wedding scene, and what I know is that in Juneau, if you have an outdoor wedding and it rains-you get wet. And it's beautiful. It's kind of like Seattle; it's not usually [a] very hard rain. And you have a tent if you want to get out of the rain for awhile, and then it stops and it starts and whatever.
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David Strathairn in Limbo
We didn't miss a day of shooting, so we ended up coming in a million under
budget. They said, 'Oh really, send it back-quick.' Usually, it's Canada
[doubling for Alaska] because the light is good and all that, and finally it was this thing of,AePit just seemed cheesy of us to do. If we could afford it, we could afford it.
Juneau has a real character to it, and I wanted to use a lot of that, and
there really isn't a Canadian city on the coast with that kind of character,
and we could live in a city with an airport, and just ride to the end of the
road 40 miles away, and portage a quarter of a mile, and we were in the
wilderness. We had to give the crew the bear lecture, and all that kind of stuff.
It was a long way to get out into the boondocks; they're all around you in Juneau.
On Robert Altman
In the case of Robert Altman, a lot of the inspiration for why Secausus Seven was
what it was came from his Nashville. I had acted and directed in theater, I had
written fiction and for movies, and I had $40,000, and we wanted to make a movie.
I knew a lot of good actors, and what can you do well with $40,000? What kind of story could I tell? And I realized, well, all the actors I know are about 30 years old. They're good actors, and they're not [in the] actor's guild yet, so I can pay them
less than scale, and I realized with that much money and that little time, and a
crew who hadn't shot a feature before, I'm not going to be able to move the camera around much, if at all. How am I going to get out of this thing where I don't have
any motion? And one of the things that had just come out was Altman's Nashville, and you realize with parallel plots, there was always a reason to cut-[to] come back to a conversation or whatever-and that that would, in the editing room, give me a lot of leeway to put rhythm into the film that I couldn't put there with a camera.
We did exactly one tracking shot in all of Secaucus Seven. It was the first shot of
the first day, and it took so long that, [with] the inexperienced crew we had, I realized, 'Forget it-put the track away.' We did handheld later on for some of the sports things, but that was pretty much it for moving the camera. So, that was very useful, that way of having these parallel stories and building the rhythm later on in the editing room,AeP I didn't cut many scenes out; he cut quite a bit out of Nashville.
[Later] he got bumped out of Hollywood, even though his movies were doing okay. He was never a big fan of them, and they kind of returned the favor. And he did
the movies in Europe, and the Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean movie; he did Streamers.
He just [decided]-'Okay, if this is what I got to work with, this is what I got to
work with.' And he did the best that he could. I think he also had to come up the hard way, because he had made industrial films, and then he became a TV guy,
and [was in] that yoke for a long time, and although he had fun, he really didn't like the process of just cranking out Westerns, or whatever he was making for TV, so when finally he got a chance to direct, he just said, 'Look, I'm the director. Go away.'
He wasn't as self-destructive as Sam Peckinpah, but he was certainly as independent-minded. I think the only one where he really didn't get everything
he wanted was McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and that was more because Warren
Beatty had his own ideas, and he was the power in it, rather than the studio
telling him what to do. I think that movie was a great hybrid between a totally anarchic spirit and two movie stars, who did some of their best work in that format.
Next: On John Huston, B. Traven, adaptations, and Baby, It's You
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Images from Senses of Cinema, Mes Nuits, and The John Sayles Stock Company.

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