An acclaimed and prolific independent film director (“Matewan,” “Lone Star”), novelist (“Los Gusanos,” “Union Dues”), and script doctor (“Apollo 13”), John Sayles has his name on two current films.
He co-wrote the screenplay for “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” a glossy $80 million fantasy starring squadrons of computer-generated goblins, now playing on dozens of local screens. The money that studio assignment paid him allowed Sayles to make a film much closer to his heart, “Honeydripper,” playing in limited release. A moving, warmhearted ensemble piece about a black Alabama juke joint in 1950, with a cast including Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton and Keb’ Mo’, “Honeydripper” would be next to impossible to create inside the traditional channels of finance and distribution, just like the last 15 films he made outside the studio system.
Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Yaya DaCosta, Charles S. Dutton, Vondie Curtis Hall, Gary Clark Jr., Stacy Keach, Nagee Clay, Arthur Lee Williams, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Davenia McFadden, Daryl Edwards, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kel Mitchell, Keb' Mo'
(Emerging Pictures; US theatrical: 28 Dec 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 25 Apr 2008 (Limited release); 2007)
In a phone interview, Sayles explained why he is shipping “Honeydripper” around the country himself.
I don’t know whether to be happy that “Honeydripper” is playing in Minneapolis or upset that it’s only at one theater.
More and more of the companies that distribute so-called independent films are classics divisions of Hollywood, so you’re competing with that. And also you’re competing with a lot of movies. Sundance Film Festival got 3,600 feature films submitted this year. They showed 125. Thirty of those will get some form of distribution. And that’s just this year’s new filmmakers. Last year’s new filmmakers and the ones from five years ago might have new movies. So if you’re in a town with one screen for non-Hollywood movies, they could show not just a different movie every week of the year, but every day of the week. That’s fine for the audience but it’s terrible for the filmmaker.
You’ve got more cards in your hand than a lot of filmmakers. You’re an author as well. Why put up with the aggravation?
My next project will be a novel. I’ve been writing one, set during the Philippine-American war, for two years - it’s getting long. It’s based on a screenplay I wrote that we decided we would never be able to get done, so why not expand it into a novel rather than keep banging our heads against the wall?
How did helping write “Spiderwick” help you get “Honeydripper” made?
Being a screenwriter is a good job. A lot of filmmakers I know are editors or assistant directors or they teach, and they just can’t make the kind of money I can make writing five drafts of three screenplays a year. I can make a good amount of money to put back into my own films. I’ve been working on (“Honeydripper”) pretty much since 2004. Danny Glover got on board right away, but we still couldn’t raise any money so we missed the cotton crop one year. So we had to wait another whole year. In those two years I wrote a lot of scripts for other people, and “Spiderwick” was one of them. It’s based on a series of five books and my contribution was figuring out how to fit them into a single movie.
You made “Lone Star,” a border-town thriller, a decade before we became obsessed about Mexican immigrants, and “Lianna,” a lesbian romance, 20 years before “The L Word.” Do you ever feel like you’re impatient for the world to catch up with what’s bugging you?
I make movies based on things I see in the world, not other movies. If you make a movie about what’s happening in the world, you’ll be pretty far ahead of the curve. Our movies often open in Japan two or three years after they open in the States. When “City of Hope” (a political drama about a racially divided city) opened in Japan, it was right after the L.A. riots, while in the States it was two years earlier, when everyone felt this wasn’t a pressing issue. In Japan, every single interview I had to explain the L.A. riots to them because it connected with headline news coming from the States.
You’re considered a pretty serious filmmaker, but in the 1970s and `80s you wrote some wonderful genre movies. Do you ever have a desire to go back to the days of “Alligator” and “Piranha” and “Battle Beyond the Stars” and make a great werewolf movie?
Those are fun to write, and I continue to work on science fiction, often uncredited, and I go to see them. They’re a lot of fun to see. It’s two years of my life, though, when I take on a project, because we’ve got to raise the money, make it, edit it, do the publicity, then do the overseas publicity. So I tend not to feel like making a simple genre movie that a dozen people could make as well or better than I can. So I say, “What’s a movie I’m not going to see unless I make it?”
The idea of structuring a black story around a musical venue put me in mind of August Wilson. He’s almost made that his signature as a playwright. Was his work among the influences you drew on to make this film?
I don’t think it’s an influence, but I see him as one of America’s major playwrights, up there with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. I didn’t go back and reread his plays before doing it, but certainly having Charles Dutton (a veteran of Wilson stage productions) in the cast and those scenes at a juke joint with a lot of people talking, you can’t not think of August Wilson.
I know “jelly roll” is slang for something anatomical. Is “honeydripper” a similar kind of slang term?
Yes, “honeydripper,” if you go way back, is the male equivalent of “jelly roll.” Like “jazz” and “rock `n’ roll,” these are all sexual terms but they become used enough to become generalized terms for music or for a good time. Eventually a “honeydripper” became just a man who was good with the ladies.
You have a continuing interest in African-American culture and Hispanic-American culture that is all but unique among white American filmmakers. What’s that about?
To me it’s just American culture. “Honeydripper” is about American music. You have to go pretty far afield to deal with American music without dealing with African-American music. You have to eliminate rock `n’ roll, jazz, rhythm and blues and gospel. White, black and Latino music is intertwined. The guitar came into this country through Mexico from Spain. So I never think of it as anything exotic. I just think, what is the makeup of this region of the country? I find there’s something lacking in movies set in generic Hollywoodland. That’s one of the reasons we’ve never shot in Toronto. If I ever shoot in Toronto, it will be a story set in Toronto.