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Published: Sunday, 10/3/2004

Filmmaker Sayles goes his own way

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TORONTO - John Sayles, meet Kitty Kelley.

Never thought you two would have much to chat about.

Thought wrong, apparently.

John, you're a filmmaking institution, a tireless and earnest keeper of the flame of artistic independence and integrity in the face of Hollywood hucksterism.

Kitty, well, you're tireless, too.

For three decades now, you've been an unflappable keeper of the lurid (and much-disputed) details of the lives of the rich and ogle-able. You have a penchant for Chanel pants suits and writing unauthorized tell-all biographies with titles like Jackie Oh!

John - well, John, you arrived for an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival dressed in khakis and a wrinkled green work shirt, unbuttoned practically to your naval, exposing a generous thicket of chest hair that had long since gone bone white. For 30 years now, you've been different things to different audiences: a novelist, a short story writer, a sometime actor, a studio screenwriter-for-hire, a master of how to write a smart monster movie, a MacArthur Foundation fellow, a music video director for Born in the U.S.A.-era Springsteen.

To most moviegoers, though, if they've heard of you at all, you've been the very definition of the independent filmmaking stalwart out there in the media wilderness, raising money any which way you can, making only the movies you want to make.

You've never been much of an activist or a ranter. And yet those 25 years worth of films play like a living textbook on the racial, social, and class differences in this country - movies as diverse as Eight Men Out; Sunshine State; Baby, It's You; Brother From Another Planet; Passion Fish; Lone Star; Matewan, The Return of the Secaucus Seven. That's a hit-and-miss roster by any standard.

But it's undeniably yours.

So where does John Sayles intersect with Kitty Kelley?

Like every third filmmaker, novelist, musician, or actor this election season, they both have a thing about George W. Bush.

Kelley just published The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty. ("Garbage!" raves the White House.) While Sayles delivers his most unabashedly political work yet with Silver City, a detective story and thinly veiled Bush satire that stars Chris Cooper, Tim Roth, Maria Bello, Daryl Hannah, and Richard Dreyfuss. It opens Friday.

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Question: Silver City tells the story of a political candidate and a detective hired to help him cover up the skeletons in his family closet. It begins with cynicism and it ends with cynicism, and what I couldn't help think of as I watched it was Chinatown - sort of a Chinatown meets every hot-button issue on the front page of a newspaper.

Answer: I actually was thinking about Chinatown when I wrote Silver City. What they were able to do with Chinatown was tap into classic film noir, the kind of Raymond Chandler story where the trip is as interesting as who killed who, and at a point in those stories, the investigation turns back on your own employers.

I'm not the first person to do that. Roman Polanski [who directed Chinatown] wasn't the first person to do it. Raymond Chandler was one of the first people. But what I also liked was the town is a metaphor as well as a place. You only get to Chinatown itself at the end. But it's always looming behind everything as a metaphor for corruption and a certain amount of "Don't care too much for this or that, because in the end it's going to break your heart. The fix is in."

Q: The gubernatorial candidate played by Chris Cooper is an obvious take on George W. Bush. How much of that satire was from Cooper and how much of it came from you?

A: It's very much as written. I looked at Bush's speeches, especially when he was running for governor of Texas - the first time, as this neophyte candidate with a political father and big corporate money behind him. We did talk about who this guy is, and it's not exactly George Bush. He's sort of lost and trying things on for size. He's a true believer but fairly limited in what he believes and what he knows. He has difficulty expressing things. The character is a lot scarier and more serious at the end of the film than at the beginning. That's the learning curve with a lot of politicians.

Still, I had to have something in that character that was obviously Bush-like or people would say this is about all politicians. It is in a way. Democrats are no less in bed with corporate interests. I also wanted a few very specific lines to be drawn from this movie to the Bush administration.

Q: Do you feel the need to be objective about your subjects?

A: I always feel that. Otherwise we don't know whether or not what's going on in a movie is true or false. You have no argument, only a director talking at you. With Silver City I toned down my feelings about things because I wanted the characters to be three-dimensional. Billy Zane [who plays a Big Tobacco lobbyist] has to be charming. You have to understand why Maria Bellow's character would be interested. She's a reporter. I do feel there is a court of public opinion and lobbyists are representing a point of view. If they're better than the other guy, they win. That's how it is. You can't be a moralist and be a lobbyist.

Q: Your movies have always dealt with the politics of race and class. Silver City is your first, strangely enough, that is specifically about politics itself.

A: Well, I had never thought ideology was that important. My movies are politically conscious but not really, you know, "political." They're just not politically unconscious. If you look at movies made in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, you can say "Oh, see their attitudes towards race or women or ethnicity." Most of these movies were not conscious of their attitudes at the time. If we look at the movies being made today in the year 2050, you'll see attitudes that were unconscious right now, even if the movies themselves thought they were aware of what they were saying. I just try to be more conscious.

Q: Specifically how?

A: For instance, I always shoot at the real location the picture is based. Most Hollywood movies don't. Toronto fills in for New York or - my production designer just got back from Prague where he was making a movie set in New Jersey. Seriously. Also, I'm not interested in characters that are just Hollywood figures. I tend to think of whether they were educated or not, if they grew up rich or poor, what their race is, the places they lived, what the politics of those places were like. You can look at Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright and they were both affected by the Holocaust, and they have different takes. Yet you can't take that out of their histories and still understand who they are as people.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: Schenectady, New York. It's where General Electric used to be based. It's a big factory town, a big melting pot kind of city that has suffered like a lot of places.

Q: Did you parents work for General Electric?

A: No, they were both teachers, but pretty much everybody else I knew worked at GE. Both of my grandfathers were cops.

Q: I don't think I've ever seen your name evoked without the descriptors "independent icon" or "maverick" preceding it.

A: "Fiercely independent."

Q: Right. What I always wonder when I see that is whether you set out to independently finance and produce your movies or if that's the route you fell into. John Waters, for instance, once said he always wanted to sell out but no one would buy.

A: I started spoiled, I think. I started as a novelist and short-story writer, and I still do some fiction. When you write a novel you write the first, second, and third draft, and you don't have someone come in and change the last draft. You're the storyteller. You start with an idea and you end with an idea. Moviemaking is much more political, much more of a business.

When I started making movies, I went into it insisting I would be a storyteller and control the story I tell. I know people who work with studios who I still consider independent filmmakers. Their stories are theirs. They make compromises but when it comes out the other end, it's still their story. The Coen brothers - they work for the studios but they make Coen brothers pictures. Spike Lee - Spike has a hard time making his movies, but he gets them made eventually. My movies have not gone platinum in the ways their movies have.

I mean, not ever. So we don't get studio money. But most of the things I've wanted to make wouldn't be appropriate for a studio. They just wouldn't know what to do with my movies.

Q: The irony is you're also one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood. For instance, you're writing the screenplay for Jurassic Park IV right now. And you've been doing this for 25 years - but why?

A: I do that because that's how I actually make a living. And it's also fun and I learn a lot. But like Silver City - we could not raise a dime to finance a movie about that. The money came from my writing screenplays for people. A lot of it is solving story problems. Sometimes I'm hired to take one character and make that character more realistic, or punch up the dialogue, or expand this character's speeches because the studio just hired a hotter actor and they want more words to say. It has gotten that specific. You're there for your technical skills. They're not asking you how you feel about something. It's not your voice that they like.

Q: Silver City cost $5.5 million, and like a lot of your pictures, it's packed with well-known actors playing large and small roles. How do you manage this with a low budget?

A: One thing I tend to do is pay very badly. What I pay compared to what the crew and the cast could get on anther movie is fairly low, so I have a most-favored-nation clause for actors. All actors get the same, which is scale. Or minimum.

What has happened over the last 20 years, especially in the last 10, is that it's gotten not only acceptable for a mainstream actor to be in an independent production, it's actually a good idea. It tells people they're serious about their profession - and it's much easier for their agent to answer when someone says "Hey, I hear your actor got chump change." They can say "Well, everybody got scale." Everyone understands that in Hollywood. But if they hear your actor took $200,000 instead of the usual $1 million, it sounds like they're slipping. So they're rather take scale. It's pro bono work for movie stars.

Contact Christopher Borrelli

at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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