Thursday, August 16, 2007

Sayles on Sayles: Part Two

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John Sayles on Ruth Brown, Keb Mo, Danny Glover,
and Guillermo Del Toro
(click here for part one)

*****

On Ruth Brown

We hired Ruth to play a character named Bertha Mae Spivey in the movie [Honeydripper], somebody who sings in this club that Danny Glover's character
owns. The idea is that it's as if Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith has retired to this
little town, and comes in every once in awhile because she loves performing,
and sings what is basically 1920s blues in a 1950s club, but there are not many people coming in to see her, even though she's still good at what she does. So, we did a pre-record with Ruth to figure out what the tempo would be, to give her some practice, to figure out what key she was the most comfortable in, and to record the piano because Danny Glover doesn't actually play, so when she performed it she would be performing live on film, but she would have the piano track in her ear.

It was really the last recording session Ruth did, and she was in very good
spirits, very healthy. We had met her, and asked her to do it the year before,
and she had been in such good health then, so we were really feeling good about her. And then as we were shooting the movie, she just called and said she had
to have this surgery that was not supposed to be major, and I'm afraid it's one of those things when somebody goes into the hospital, gets an infection there, and that eventually killed her. She went into a coma, and very heroically, Mable John took the part with 10 days notice, and Mable had been on our list of people who might be able play it earlier, so we at least knew she was around, and still performing.

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Mable runs a ministry in Los Angeles, and sings in church every Sunday, and she used to run the Raelettes for Ray Charles, and fill in when one of the three was missing, so she's kind of an old trouper in that way, and she's one of the people touring with our Honeydripper Band that we've been doing these blues festivals with.
Click here for Sayles' tribute to Ruth Brown
On the Honeydripper All-Star Band
I'm going to be showing clips from the film. It's actually going to have its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September. So, I'm going to talk a little as part of Bumbershoot. The Honeydripper Band has turned out to be just terrific. I don't play an instrument. I've written some songs in the movie and some of my past movies, but I don't read music. I make up songs, and other people make them musical, but I'm amazed that we got these musicians, most of whom had never met before.
Our piano player, Henderson Huggins, is a blind guy from Tuscaloosa, who plays Danny Glover's hands in the movie, so he actually just mimed on a piano with no workings inside of it to pre-recorded piano. He shows up. And then Eddie Shaw, who plays a character in the film and is a saxophone player-he used to play with Howlin' Wolf-he brought a drummer and a bass player, and Mable brought her son, who's
a bass player, and then Gary Clark Jr. Basically, we had a two-hour rehearsal, and the next day they were on a stage at the Chicago Blues Festival, and they sounded terrific. They just figured out about an hour and a half set, and went out and did it. It's just that thing that good musicians can do. And there are five of them that sing, so it's an unusual ensemble in that way. There's a real change of pace.
Some are songs performed in the movie, and some are songs that each of them brings from,AeP Mable had a hit-she was actually the first artist on Tamla-she had
a hit with Stax in the 1960s called "Your Good Thing Is About to End," and she does that. Eddie does some of the stuff he does with his group the Wolfmen, who are
all veterans of Howlin' Wolf's group, and Gary Clark has some of his own songs,
so it's a really nice,AeP It's been fun to listen to them. We did the Chicago Festival,
and we did the River to River Festival in New York City, and then it's going to be
in Long Beach, I think. And then up at Bumbershoot, and then a couple of other places-maybe Toronto. If we get the guys enough notice, we can usually get them all together. It's just a matter of-we don't have much money. If we can get sponsorship from somebody in the festival or some other group or whatever to help subsidize the airplane tickets and the hotels, we can usually get something together.
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On Keb Mo
We're hoping that at one of these dates, if Keb Mo is around-because he's on
his own tour-he can sit in for a bit. He has a terrific show. He came through Poughkeepsie, which is near us, and we went and saw him. He actually got sponsorship from a luggage company, because he had an album called Suitcase. So, he can carry a few more instruments and a little lighting and everything, so the first half of the show is acoustic and the second half is electric, and it's just incredible.
On Danny Glover
If there was going to be a long set-up [we talked politics]. Danny can do hours
on whatever it is. We did talk about it. A lot of what we talked about is-Danny
wants to make a movie about the Haitian Revolution, which I know something
about, and now there's a timing... For awhile, it looked like he was going to make
it in South Africa, because they have a film center, and it would be good employment for people there, and he knows Nelson Mandela, but it looks nothing-no part of South Africa look anything-like Haiti. And since he's also tight with Hugo Chavez, Chavez said, 'Oh, we'll subsidize this picture if you hire a lot of Venezuelans,' so
he was thinking about making it there, but then, of course, all the Venezuelan filmmakers shouted out, 'Wait a minute-why don't you subsidize us?' It's very
hard to do anything like that without stepping on somebody, so I don't know what he's going to do now, but it's fascinating history, and Danny knows a lot about it.
He was very busy, so we got him right after doing two movies in a row. As a
matter of fact, in the five weeks we had to shoot, we only had our lead for three
and a half weeks. The scheduling was nightmarish. You know-'Can we actually have these guys in the same shot?', and that kind of thing. A couple of those movies are also [going to be] in Seattle, so we're hoping that one of the ones with a big-budget will fly him there instead of us. That's the kind of thing you have to think about.
Danny's one of those actors who-he certainly is known for his Lethal Weapon
films-but he's done a lot of really interesting, kind of very low-budget movies,
just because it was a good part. He hasn't had a lead in something for a long
time, and really, he's very good in this. And the other guy who really stands
out is Charles Dutton. It's my favorite thing he's ever done on film.
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On Guillermo Del Toro
I worked with Guillermo on that [Mimic]. There were a lot of writers on it, and
I did several drafts. The funny thing about Charles [Dutton] in that is, I kept
getting-not from Guillermo-but from Miramax, [with] each draft, they would
say, 'Well, make the best friend a nerdy Jewish guy,' and then they'd say,
'Make the best friend a streetwise black guy.' And I'd say, 'Okay.' I kept
changing them. When I saw the movie, they had chosen Charles Dutton,
but half of his lines were still nerdy Jewish guy lines. He made them work.
At the time Guillermo got to make that movie, the script was confetti. They put in
a different color every time there's a change. I asked him-you know, Guillermo's
a big guy-'So, did they get their pound of flesh?' And he said, 'Well, more than that.' And he hasn't worked in that kind of movie where he didn't have control since.
That's a movie that I think does some very good things, but I would say that it's
not really a Guillermo movie. The end was never, I think, written on paper. It was one of those ends where it was by committee, and he wasn't invited to the meetings. In the end I wrote that was in the script for when, I think, he started shooting, the little autistic boy basically watches as his grandfather [get] eaten, and it's like,
'Well, my friend, there are these bugs,AeP' They didn't know who this guy was-or care.
Guillermo has that kind of Bu/+/-uel-Catholic-perversity, and that was kind
of missing from Mimic, so it had some of his style, but not much of his personality
in it, but the bugs were great. He draws, and his notebooks look like Da Vinci's notebooks. It's incredible. Much of the design of the monsters comes from Guillermo's drawings. He's just great at that stuff. He started in make-up,
and special effects in Mexican movies for years before he got to direct.
Next: On advertising, distribution, YouTube, and the UCLA Film & Television Archives
*****
Images from Metroactive Movies, the All Music Guide and Downtown Express.

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