Politics & Film: An interview with John Sayles

Sayles is perhaps the most celebrated independent filmmaker in the
U.S. Among his classics are Return
of the Secaucus Seven, Matewan, Eight
Men Out, and Lone
. His latest film Silver City received a “two
thumbs way up” from film critic Roger Ebert. 

Silver City is set in Colorado, a state undergoing enormous
transformation—building booms, subdivisions, malls all over
the place. The film is about development, greed, corruption, and

I wanted to do something, pretty much starting the year 2000, about
electoral politics. We were in Florida shooting Sunshine State,
and a lot of people in our crew and in the local community kept
saying, “So what’s the deal with the national media? Don’t
they know the real story down here is how many people were not allowed
to vote who should have been allowed to? Not about chads, which
seems to have been an accident. But people prevented from voting.
That wasn’t an accident. How come that’s not a nationwide

got me thinking about both electoral politics and our mainstream
media. I wanted a state that was kind of a battleground for a lot
of things: for our laws on immigration; for this question about
what we’re going to do about water, which is going to become
the next oil, that people are privatizing left and right; for questions
about the environment and development. Colorado has this nice schizophrenia.
In the Front Range you have Denver kind of in the middle and then
north of it you have the People’s Republic of Boulder and then
south of it you have Colorado Springs. 

of the characters in the film are journalists who used to work for
what had once been an investigative weekly called the
Monitor. One of the journalists, played by Maria Bello, laments
that journalists should change things, not just report. 

she’s really saying is that if you do your reporting right—you
make a few connections, you dig for the facts, you don’t just
report what people say is the truth—that’s automatically
going to change things. And that was their idea. Another character
in the movie, played by Tim Roth, was their editor at that alternative
weekly. Now, because he’s continued to do that—he hasn’t
gone mainstream, he hasn’t dropped out of the race the way
the main character, Danny O’Brien, has—he’s been
so marginalized that he’s literally underground. He’s
running a little news website. As he says, all he can do is break
these stories on his website and then hope that he plants the seeds
of doubt in the mainstream media and that one of them gets bold
enough to at least reprint his accusation almost as, well, here’s
something from left field. The moment it’s reprinted in a mainstream
outlet, the powers that be have to respond to it. Then they’re
caught in lies.

film is set against the backdrop of a political campaign. Dickie
Pilager is the candidate for governor. He’s the scion of a
senator. He is also not terribly articulate. There have been some
comparisons made in reviews of the film that he’s somewhat
similar to George W. Bush. 

character that Chris Cooper plays, Dickie Pilager, is very much
based on George Bush when he first ran for governor of Texas. He’s
totally new at it. His father has been a senator from Colorado for
a long time, has a lot of clout. Pilager has an enormous amount
of corporate money behind him. But he’s not very articulate
and he’s especially not good when he gets caught off the script.
He’s got this kind of rabid, take-no-prisoners campaign manager,
played by Richard Dreyfuss, who is trying to teach him slowly to
stay more on the script. 

I think the important thing about Pilager is the two things the
Tim Roth character says about him. The first is that there is not
a corrupt bone in his body at this point—he really believes
what he’s saying, when he knows what it is—and second,
he’s user-friendly. Those two things mean they found the right
candidate. He didn’t decide to run for office. A bunch of people
got together and said, “Who shall we run? Whoever has been
in this office before has not been doing what we wanted them to
do, they have not been as user-friendly as we’d like them to
be. Here’s a kid with the right name and maybe he’ll do
what we tell him to.” 

is a very interesting scene—and for me it was a key part of
the film—and that’s a conversation between Dickie Pilager
and Wes Benteen, a developer and kind of eminence grise patron of
the candidate.

Kristofferson plays Wes Benteen, who is multicorporate. He has hospitals,
media, cattle, and mining. You name it, he’s got something.
So there is an enormous amount of regulation, or deregulation, that
affects his businesses. He’s basically the guy who has funded
this candidate. 

he’s trying to get through to this young candidate is his philosophy,
which is, basically, “There are visionaries like you and me,
Dickie, and then there are the people. And the people need to be
dragged by the horns to what’s good for them.” To me that’s
kind of the crux of this movie. Yes, I want people to draw lines
between this movie and the Bush administration. But there is this
bigger issue, which is, do we expect our politicians to have as
their constituency the voting public or do we expect them to just
serve the masters who put them into power? 

Benteen says the struggle is public versus private and he calls
the West “a treasure chest waiting to be opened only there
is a 500-pound bureaucrat sitting on it.” 

is a mindset among the movers and shakers of the world that all
that public land is being wasted because it’s not being developed
by somebody smart like them. They want the inside track on who is
going to develop it and who is going to make money off it. They
have done a good job in this Administration of finding people who
are willing and happy to roll back environmental rules, to open
lands up, usually secretly. Most of their environmental changes
have been done without public review, usually announced on a Friday
just after the news is closed for the weekend. Nobody notices it
until it’s too late. 

policy has been designed by the major energy corporations.

is a character in the movie who is a lobbyist, played by Billy Zane.
What you see is this process that’s happened in the Bush administration
(and somewhat in the Clinton administration) of lobbyists for the
energy industry or for logging or whatever becoming slowly the heads
of the agencies that were supposed to protect those resources for
the public. So at one point he’s explaining some legislation,
which he has written as a lobbyist that he’s just handing over
to the candidate’s campaign manager saying, “The real
name of this should be the Developer’s Bill of Rights, but
we’re calling it the Environmental Heritage Initiative.”
There is that incredible Orwellian, “Let’s do one thing
and call it the exact opposite.” 

is a version of the big lie technique. When you have enough money,
when you have a whole cadre of spin doctors, it becomes more than

City is also about race and class.

can’t really separate economics from race and class. They have
been used so often to manipulate economics. It’s pretty hard
to go somewhere where you don’t hear Spanish spoken in the
U.S. now. One of the reasons for that is there is this enormous
hypocrisy in our immigration policy, which is that we’re playing
cat and mouse down on the border, chasing people into the desert,
people are dying, spending too much money to get into the country
to work for less than our already-too-low minimum wage. At the same
time that we’re spending all this money on the border, there
is a tacit understanding that certain industries, especially the
restaurant and construction industries, would not exist without
that very, very cheap labor. It’s been a bonanza for people
in the lower end of those industries. 

the West in general, and in Colorado in particular, there are many
people from Latin and Central America that are doing the work in
the ski industry—in Aspen, in Vail. On the Front Range they
do most of the construction work. They are what I call the invisible
armies of the brown doing all of the labor. 

kind of an internal outsourcing. So instead of sending the jobs
to Bangladesh, you bring Third World people into the United States
and then pretend that they’re not here and pretend that you
don’t want them here. And it’s a pretty thin pretense. 

City opens with a dead body fished out of a lake by Dickie Pilager,
of all people. So there is a detective story running underneath
the whole issue of development and environmental degradation around
the death of a Mexican laborer, Lazaro Huerta. 

I wanted was to have a kind of film noir murder mystery in the tradition
of Chinatown. That film is mostly based on Raymond Chandler.
The great thing about Raymond Chandler mysteries is the trip is
important. Very often, by the end of a Chandler book, who killed
who is a minor thing. But you’ve had this incredible window
on those worlds within Los Angeles. 

also felt like what a journalist does is look under the rock to
find out what people aren’t necessarily telling you at first.
I feel like Danny O’Brien, the character that Danny Huston
plays, who is this apathetic, cynical ex-journalist, who says, “I
don’t do politics anymore. There is nothing you can do anyway,”
as he gets into this case, which he has kind of grudgingly taken
on, he’s not a very good detective. For me he’s the U.S.
voter, who really is kind of sick of politics and doesn’t think
much of either side or the whole process. They think it’s really
just kind of a sell-out and a scam. 

he gets involved in this, he gets his sense of moral outrage back.
My feeling is that for the U.S. to really become a democracy, we
have to take that same journey. We have to do some digging. We have
to connect some dots and do a little analysis. Then we’re really
going to get our sense of moral outrage back and then we have to
do something about it. Voting is the minimum we can do about it.
Informing ourselves is the first step. That’s a hard thing
to do when there are so many news outlets and so few of them are
doing anything that I would call real investigative journalism. 

Hannah’s character, Maddy Pilager, the sister of the candidate
for governor, the daughter of the senator, complains that people
have lost the ability to be scandalized. 

the black sheep of the family. At first, just because she’s
mad at her own family, she tries to make scandals that are self-defeating
in some ways. But as she’s gotten older and gotten a little
more analysis of how the world works, she’s really disappointed
that people aren’t scandalized. That it becomes just a juicy
story that lasts in the news for about three days, and that the
public’s appetite for the O.J. murder trial can last for months
and months, but something that really affects everybody’s life,
or our foreign policy, they kind of get bored with after a couple
days unless there is another big explosion or a lot of people get

described as an independent filmmaker. What does that mean? How
are you independent? 

it means for me is I start with a story I want to tell and then
we try to raise the money to make that story in such a way that
the final product is what we wanted it to be. So we control the
casting, we control the business decisions that are made, and we
control the final cut. 

you’re not an independent filmmaker, generally it means that
it’s a negotiation all the way down the line. We’ll give
you the money if you cast somebody we want. If it’s not somebody
you like, too bad. You can either make the movie or not make the
movie, accept this person or don’t. We’ll give you the
money if we can review the final cut and then make some changes
and put it in front of an audience and get their numbers of how
many liked it, how many really liked it, how many didn’t like
it, would they recommend it. Then we may recommend some changes
that we will expect you to do. 

are people I would consider independent filmmakers who work within
the Hollywood system usually because their movies have been successful
enough. The Coen Brothers make the movies that they want to make.
It’s not necessarily how you get financed, but it has something
to do with who generates the story and how that story comes out
the other end. I’ve often said, getting a movie through the
studio system is like getting a bill through Congress. What comes
out the other end may not resemble much what went in and a lot of
stuff may be attached to it that waters down or actually does the
opposite of what you originally wanted that bill to do. 

big Hollywood studios, mirroring trends in other media, are owned
by a handful of conglomerates. Talk about their influence and power,
particularly in the light of Disney/ABC trying to prevent the distribution
of Michael Moore’s
Fahrenheit 9/11. There is another
studio right now, Warner Brothers, that doesn’t want to release
a new edition of
Three Kings

all this talk about liberal Hollywood, but in the end, the corporations
that own the studios have the final green-light power. So if they
see something coming out that is going to make those people nervous,
they’re likely to say, “Let’s not open it yet”
or “Let’s not open it at all.” It’s not so much
that they tried to stop the distribution of Three Kings;
they just didn’t want their names on it. They didn’t want
to be liable. All big corporations now have these risk management

most egregious example is Haskell Wexler, who shot Silver City.
He made a wonderful movie in 1968 called Medium Cool [shot
during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago]. I saw it in Washington,
DC after marching against the bombing of Cambodia. It had just opened.
The crowd was on their feet at the end of it. You could still smell
tear gas from the day in the air. I said, “This movie is going
to be a great tool for everybody to think about the war and it’s
going to play to everywhere in America.” Within a week it was
off the screen. Somebody in the State Department knew somebody at
the studio and basically said, “Give us a break here. Get this
thing off the screen.” Wexler couldn’t buy it back from
the studio. It was truly repressed. 

I think you see a little bit more now is not so much repression
as disassociation. Usually it happens that you don’t even get
the money in the first place to make something that might upset
people. But if it somehow happened accidentally within their system,
they’re going to say, “Okay, good luck. Go find another
distributor, if you can, but we don’t want to be associated
with it.” 

to Michael Moore, in the discussions with Disney/ABC to distribute
Fahrenheit 9/11, the parent corporation was worried
about possibly offending Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, where Disney
has major economic interests.  

see this, for instance, in the publishing industry, where people
who are very tight with whatever government has power at that point
all of a sudden are getting multi-million-dollar book advances for
their letters or their book, which you would say, “How are
they going to make that back?” Well, they’re not going
to necessarily make it back on the book, but the corporation that
owns that publishing house is very happy to have that person happy
with them, because they have strings that they can pull. 

think it was Louis B. Mayer who cautioned some writers—who,
before we got into World War II, were writing about what the Nazis
were doing in Europe—saying, “MGM is not at war with anybody.”
He did not want to piss the Nazis off because they were still buying
his movies. Of course, the minute the war broke out with us, he
was walking around Hollywood with a uniform on. 

you say low-budget what kind of money are you’re talking about? 

de los Babys
, my last one, was about $1.1 million. This is about
$5.5 million, which for us is a pretty healthy budget. For a Hollywood
movie, being this ambitious with this many characters in it, with
this many locations, with this size and scope of story, it’s
pocket money. So you have to be very efficient. You have to depend
on the kindness of strangers in many cases, actors whom you haven’t
worked with before, and just write good parts and hope they will
come and work for scale. We have a lot of really good ones in this
movie. You have to give up a little bit of spontaneity. You can’t
just go there and say, “Oh, I see a great new angle” or
“Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if they could paint that barn”
or “Oh, let’s just ad lib for a while.” You really
have to do a lot of planning. 

advice would you give to a young person who would like to do what
you’re doing? 

problem that I see with most independent films made by young people
is that they have only gone to see films, then they went to film
school, and then started making movies. They have not done much
out in the world. They haven’t had another job, they haven’t
lived more than one place in their lives, they don’t know what
goes on in the world. So I would say go out and do something else.
Learn a little bit about the world. And then think about it a little
bit before you try to tell stories about it.

other major thing is I find that people coming out of film school,
the one big gap they have is that they haven’t worked with
actors. So I would recommend they do some theater, direct some theater.
It’s a different medium totally, but you’re going to work
with actors and you’re going to learn a lot. 

you worried about the direction the country is going? 

is a complex country. I’ve written a script that’s set
at the turn of the century, kind of the end of the populist progressive
movement. A lot of the movement was in the Midwest and in the South.
In the South it was defeated. Somebody played the race card. Poor
whites, working-class whites, and blacks were getting together and
really taking back the South from the old agricultural plantation
owners. The old boys didn’t like it and they said, “What
can we do? They’re killing us at the polls.” They owned
the newspapers and they printed a lot of stories, most of them fabricated,
about white women being raped by black men. That tore the populist
progressive movement apart. 

that at the same time that something may be progressive in economics,
it might be very reactionary culturally. This is a very complex
country. You’ve got religious stuff going on. You’ve got
an awful lot of people that think that capitalism and democracy
are the same word and they’ve been encouraged to think that

you’ve got this media beast. It used to be you had the three
networks. There was some attempt by those networks to stay in the
middle of the road. There were a few journalistic kinds of principles
that they tried to live by and you had some principled people working
within them and fighting the fight every day with their editors
who wanted to water things down. And what you could usually see
is an arc of them totally accepting the official version, and then,
as it became more and more embarrassingly clear that that official
version was not true, starting to turn. And then you got Walter
Cronkite kind of saying Vietnam is a mess. It took a while. But
he was not a soldier in Lyndon Johnson’s army the way that
the people who run Fox News are soldiers in the army of the right-wing
Republicans. Now you’ve got dozens and dozens of these news
outlets. So this is a country that’s going in about 50 different
directions at the same time. 

is a new documentary on Howard Zinn  called
Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, which is also the title
of his memoir. Can you be neutral in a time like this?

I don’t think you can. I’ve often had this argument with
people who have not liked either of the candidates. Since I started
to vote, I’ve usually not liked either of the candidates, occasionally
to the point where in a more local election if I feel like either
of them is going to be destructive, I’ll vote for some third
party candidate. Usually on the presidential level you can boil
it down to, okay, you don’t think much of either of them. I
know some people now who are working for this League of Pissed Off
Voters. They say, “Okay, one issue. Bush is adamantly against
a needle-sharing program and Kerry thinks it’s a good idea.
On that one issue go to the polls. It’s not going to cost you.
Forget about the rest of what they’re doing and whether you
even understand it or care about it.” You can usually find
five or six of those things that one of the guys is more to your
thinking than the other one. And you might as well do it. 

coming up for you?

honestly, when we finish a movie, we very often don’t know
if we’re going to get to make another one. I’ve got a
couple big historical epics that I’ve written. I’d love
to be able to raise the money to do those. It’s been impossible
in the past. Maybe it will become more possible, for whatever reason.
Then there is always Plan B, which is to write something very low-budget
and finance it myself or get it from a source that has a little
bit of money in their pocket. I haven’t figured out what that’s
going to be yet.

David Barsamian
is the founder and director of Alternative Radio. For more information,