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Writer/editor/director John Sayles and producer/actor Maggie Renzi have been living their lives and making films together for a long time. They approach their work with a passion that encompasses lyrical and political, as well as narrative elements. From their first feature, 1979’s The Return of the Secaucus 7, produced for just $40,000, to the many movies that have followed, including Lianna (1980), The Brother from Another Planet (1985), Matewan (1986), City of Hope (1991), Passion Fish (1992), Lone Star (1996), Limbo (1999), and now, their 13th feature, Sunshine State, the filmmakers have not wavered from their objective—to make films that explore ideas and relationships, between people and places.


Following a recent retrospective tour of restored prints of four early films—Secaucus, Lianna, Brother, and Matewan—running in selected theaters through August, courtesy of Sayles’ own Anarchists’ Convention Inc. and IFC Films, these will be released on DVD and VHS (see www.johnsaylesretro.com).


The 52-year-old Sayles was born in Schenectady, NY; as a child, he claims, he was a “sub-verbal loner.” He graduated with a B.S. in psychology from Williams in 1972, published his first novel, Pride of the Bimbos in 1975, and had his first screenplay, for Joe Dante’s Piranha, produced in 1978. He has financed these many projects variously, from his McArthur Genius Grant back in 1983, to writing fiction (for instance, the short story collection Union Dues) to screenplays and script rewrites for mainstream horror movies (Alligator, The Howling), as well as an upcoming Ron Howard film, Alamo (on which Sayles is no longer working, so the finished product may look very different from his script). At the moment, he’s putting together Casa de Los Babys, about U.S. women who go to Latin America to adopt children, featuring Lili Taylor, Rita Moreno, and Daryl Hannah.


Sayles has been praised for his independence and his enthusiasm for his work; he is also, unusually, a white filmmaker who deals consistently and repeatedly with race, as well as class, sex, and other issues. From The Brother from Another Planet on, his movies feature complex black, Hispanic, and Native characters, as their stories are specifically “American” and make up “America.”


Sayles and Renzi today are talking about Sunshine State, which again takes up these ideas. The film traces two central storylines emerging from Plantation Island, Florida. After many years away, Desirie (Angela Bassett), an actor, is returning, with her new husband (James McDaniel), to see her mother (Mary Alice) and a young, troubled relative, Terrell (Bernard Alexander Lewis), her mother has recently taken in. Marly (Edie Falco) is coming to the realization that running her retired, blind father’s (Ralph Waite) restaurant is smothering her, and she needs to leave town. Between these two strands, many others become visible, taking place as tourists attend a four-day festival called “Buccaneer Days,” and as developers and landscapers invade the area, buying up lots to turn it into an upscale resort. Throughout the film, some characters hold out against the seeming “wave of the future”—in particular, Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs) and Marly’s mother Delia (Jane Alexander)—resist the invasion, but they must fight not only the wealthy corporation, but also their neighbors’ passivity, frustration, fear and rage.



PopMatters:

Sunshine State‘s first image, the pirate ship parade float in flames, with Terrell, the young arsonist, watching in the darkness, is so striking. What does that image mean for you?



John Sayles:

As I was thinking of the story, and this iconic stuff that was going on, and the anger and disappointment in that kid, I wanted him to destroy something. He’s not just mad at any individual. He’s kind of mad at the world. The focus of the world where he lives, this little island, for the next week, will be this festival and parade, so the film begins with that intersection.



PM:

That image also makes a connection between the past (however it’s remembered, forgotten, or made up) and the present.



JS:

Right, in Lone Star, I kept doing it, going from the past to the present. And in that moment at the beginning of Sunshine State, when you see the ship burning, you’re thinking, is this a period piece? A flashback? And then you see this kid and he’s in a parking lot and there’s a cop car behind him, and you don’t really know what’s going on but you know you’re not in the past. And I’m always trying to glue the personal into the social. His personal problems somehow impact on the community “festival.” And, as [festival organizer Francine, played by Mary Steenburgen] says later about that arson, “This is so not in the spirit of Buccaneer Days.” But he’s this angry kid with very personal, family problems. You can’t tear these two things apart.


Also, when I’m doing one of these more amorphous, community movies, I look for something to drive them forward: what makes you turn the page? In the case of Lone Star it was the murder mystery. In this movie, it’s the structure of Buccaneer Days, that four day period. So you begin with seeing this thing burned and then see the Mary Steenburgen character’s reaction to it, then the platforms going up and people coming into town, some of the events during it, with her getting more and more frazzled, and then finally you see everyone leaving town, including the guy who brought the “man-eating alligator.” So that gives it structure, even though it’s about a community and you could have dropped the needle down at any point.



PM:

You call the films “amorphous,” but they usually feel very tight.



JS:

Yeah, you often start with a lot of strands that are parallel to each other. And most often, when you’re talking about an American community, you’re talking about parallel communities. They’re divided according to vocations, generations, classes, and race. What I try to do is start weaving these communities together until you have this knot or this basket and you realize, these people may think “I have nothing to do with that other parallel reality,” but the audience, who gets to access all the stories, gets to see that these people actually have quite a lot to do with each other. And in this I added one thing which wasn’t really in City of Hope, and that’s the “chorus,” the four guys on the golf course. And Vice President Cheney doesn’t happen to be on the links that day, but he’s usually there, and they’re carving something up and they’ve got the insider knowledge.



PM:

On some level, those golfers seem so self-knowing, but at the same time, so willfully ignorant of effects they may have.



JS:

Well, they have a vision. And it’s not an inclusive vision, but it’s very powerful. In our history, we go through phases. Now, we’ve gone through the entrepreneurial phase. There are a few guys like that left, the Rupert Murdochs and the Forbeses. Generally, now, they’re the heads of corporations. And so, we’re now in a corporate phase. Comiskey Park becomes something like Continental Airlines Arena. And that vision becomes a less human one, one more about statistics and market studies. In the old days, the entrepreneurs did whatever they wanted to do, moved neighborhoods or built railroads, and they’d profit from it. And then they’d be Carnegie and give some of it back, because maybe they felt bad about it or had a social vision. More often today, it’s a corporation doing these things. And a corporation is a big animal that needs to be fed, and has no conscience and survives to become bigger. The Wal-Mart model is probably the best known. They come into a town and run the local pharmacists and 5-and-10 guys out of business and very knowingly close all the local Wal-Marts and have everyone drive 30 minutes to a bigger one.


The idea of a free market in which competition will provide the best for you, that’s turned into—to the winner go the spoils. And it may be a worse product, worse service, but if they’re big enough, they drive smaller people out. That almost inhuman corporate thinking is a tidal wave, and very few people can see it coming, because they’re usually careful about going in gently and creating a good image, and buying things piecemeal, until they make the big move.



PM:

Jane Alexander’s Delia, at the end, works that system better than the corporate flunky, when she comes up with the escalation clause.



Maggie Renzi:

But she also never liked that motel, so she’s glad to be rid of it and be well paid for it. As far as she’s concerned, the area is already ruined; the birds aren’t living there anymore.



JS:

And the surprise with that character is that at first she seems like a flake. Her Southern-ness is based on Tennessee Williams and theatricality. But at the same time, she’s working with disadvantaged and troubled children and she’s running a nonprofit theater, has to know how to handle a business and donors, and she’s an ecologist. So she’s one of the few people in the town who does have a larger view, and she’s saying here, “You people are going to win, but you’re going to pay what you should pay.” Everybody else is selling short.



MR:

And she’ll write a big check to the Nature Conservancy.



JS:

And when her husband, Ralph Waite’s character says they’ll “turn that beach into a damn strip mall,” she says, “It’s not exactly in pristine condition now, is it?” She sees what’s happened already.



PM:

And Marly’s [Edie Falco] face is so telling at that moment.



JS:

Right, because she’s dismissed and been embarrassed by her mother for so many years. One of the things that I loved about what the actresses did was, I wrote the characters’ dialogue with very different rhythms, and they captured that. So Delia’s way is to guild everything in these long Southern Gothic sentences, and Marly is very blunt, her humor is self-deprecatory. They’re both Southerners, but they’ve taken this different tack with it.



PM:

It seems that many themes in your films emerge from a sense of place.



JS:

Yes. As I do these contemporary movies, as opposed to period movies, one great question is: will there be any place left? The beginning of Limbo has that line one guy says, “Think about Alaska as one big theme park.” That’s just the beginning of it. This, in Sunshine State, is the fruition of it, where they’ve been destroying the place for 120 years. When we were thinking about the music for this film, we could think of Lynard Skynard and Ray Charles, but when you go to Jacksonville, there’s reggae bands, Celtic bands, ska bands. It’s very eclectic. Everything is so accessible now, everyone listens to everything. The days when you could listen to Sonny Boy Williamson or Hank Williams, and then when it turned into rock n roll—all that’s gone. It’s rare to find a sound that’s unique to a place anymore. That’s an issue I’m dealing with here: what is going to happen when this next generation of kids? What is their culture but media culture? What hasn’t been sanitized and homogenized into something like Old Buccaneer Days?


I think Americans have a love-hate relationship with the idea of roots in small towns, and certainly that’s where Desirie [Angela Bassett] and Marly are focused, though they’re going in different directions—Angela back home, with a hunger for family, and Edie moving away, and realizing, “I Have to stop living my father’s dream, and I have to disappoint him, or I’m going to drown.”



PM:

And she starts to imagine a way out that does not involve a guy, either Jack [Timothy Hutton] or Scotty [Marc Blucas], the golfer.



JS:

Marly is a woman who’s never had her own thing—her mother has her theater, her brothers were the basketball players. She had this vague idea about being an oceanographer, but she didn’t chase it. She wants a dream. She was with the rock n roll guy when he was rock n roll, and then when he didn’t do that anymore, she dumped him. She starts getting interested in Tim Hutton’s character when she hears him talk so lovingly about this landscape architect. She’s interested in Scotty because he has this dream. So I put her in the water at the end of the movie, and you hope that this time she’s going to go after something that is about her instead of whatever guy she’s with, or her family, or whatever outside force. And that’s a long arc for a lot of people.



PM:

And the film does look especially at that connection and break and connection “arc” between generations.



JS:

For me, social history and personal history are so closely tied. Nobody starts from scratch: everyone has baggage. And the process of growing up is all about that connection and break. You can’t live your parents’ dreams. It’s interesting that, among the things that separate people—not just race, not just class—but also generations. And that’s about change.


Ralph Waite’s character could have done the Lester Maddox thing; he could have stood in front of his restaurant with an axe handle, fighting for segregation and been a hero to the old boys he had lunch with every day. And he didn’t do it, though he probably had mixed feelings about not doing it. And now he says, integration came and it wasn’t that big a deal, 30 years later. For Marly, black people come in and out all the time and it doesn’t mean anything to her—that’s a generational thing.



MR:

I was thinking about your questions, that it says a lot about the other movies that we see that place doesn’t matter. You can shoot in Toronto, because nobody will know the difference. Generations are not represented. You don’t see people with children or parents, unless it’s about their children dying or being kidnapped.



JS:

They’re props.



MR:

Yes. When I think about what makes our movies work and be authentic, it’s that in the other movies, they’re always about two people who each have one friend, no relatives, no obligations. They don’t really have jobs and they’re not really from anywhere. I put all those things in a list and I think, “No wonder I don’t really like to go to the movies.”



JS:

But I don’t think that’s a modern phenomenon. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, there was a created America, and it was Warner Bros.’ “urban America” or “Andy Hardy.” Then it became John Hughes’ Middle America, which kind of also a dream world. And every once in a while there was something out of Hollywood that was a little more specific, but that would upset people, and the last thing the studios wanted to do was upset people.



PM:

At the same time, while young consumers process information so quickly and at such a huge rate, it remains a sheltered global product, in a way. So much exposure and so little context.



MR:

It’s shallow.



JS:

That’s not new either. When Roots aired, the network heard from people who were upset because they never knew about slavery. Or, our friend John Cusack was in Fat Man and Little Boy, about making the atom bomb. And we saw it and he asked what we thought, and I said I didn’t love the movie. And he said, yeah, some things work and some things don’t. And I said, “There’s this one scene with Paul Newman and all these guys: what was that about?” And John said, “They had this test screening and 20 percent of the audience didn’t know that because we were talking about the atom bomb, that we were also talking about WWII. So they had to put in a scene where these guys come into Newman’s office and say ‘Nazis’ four times.” And it’s a five minute scene! My feeling is, forget that 20 percent. They’re going to like or not like the movie for other reasons than whether it explains their history for them. That was ten years ago. I bet it’s 40 percent now!



PM:

In this context of history and lack of it, what is your sense of these designed communities, the developers’ vision?



JS:

I think it has to do with that love-hate relationship with small town America, that desire to be able to go out and do whatever we want and not have any roots. The developed community—including invented traditions, like Buccaneer Days—is the result of that kind of schizophrenia. It has some of the hallmarks of a small town, in that you can pretend that, back in that small town ideal America, races weren’t fighting with each other. But because it’s controlled—and Walt Disney was one of the first guys to think about it, that’s what he was doing next, after the theme parks—you don’t have to do all that work. It’s run by a corporation. There seems to be this feeling like, “I just can’t think about it anymore! I want to live in a place where life is peaceful and managed, and there won’t be any surprises.” Like the old Holiday Inn thing. To me, there’s something basically classist and racist about it. That probably isn’t the first thing that the people who purchase it think about. They think they’re looking for security and comfort. And historically, where we were shooting on Amelia Island—a third of that island is a gated community—that was started by the guy who started the whole concept of those islands, on Hilton Head.


And if you go back further in history, those islands were plantation islands, but with almost no white people living on them. And some of them were actually free black islands. And after the Civil War, they had this idea to ship all the black people to those islands, so they wouldn’t have to worry about them. Then in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, people started saying, “Oh we have to put resorts on those islands and turn profits.” And there was this island by island thing, where they came, and bought them out for chump change generally, or they just took the deeds, saying, “I don’t care if you’ve been here for 8 generations: you were slaves. Now we have the deeds, beat it.” Now, almost none of those islands maintains the old Gullah culture.



MR:

And American Beach is really an incredible story.



PM:

Yes, I’ve read the Russ Rymer book [American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory, 1998, about Amelia Island’s history as the first black resort].



MR:

So who knows what’s going to happen to that place now. MaVynee Betsch, who’s the last activist keeping the history and memories together, has been ill for so long. There’s no community left anymore—whether it goes to the white or black developers remains to be seen, but it’s another piece of Florida that’s up for grabs.



PM:

It’s so frustrating because there’s a pervasive feeling of hopelessness—there’s no stopping this encroachment—and, if you live there, you need to make enough money to survive the week.



JS:

One of the things I’d like people to think about is that, yes, there are things that are out of our control, but there’s also the possibility of resistance and a responsibility, even just to ask the questions. What’s going around you? Read the materials that are available to you.



MR:

We live in rural New York State, and they sent around a questionnaire recently, “Do we want a heliport?”



JS:

And how many people are going to benefit from that? I think we have been conditioned to accept without complaint that this kind of thing just happens. Certainly, the version of free market capitalism that has been bandied about, starting sometime around Nixon and going through Clinton and Bush, is that this absolute free market is necessary. I mean, what’s the NAFTA treaty? It asserts, “We have your best interests in mind. And you don’t get to vote on it, as a matter of fact, and neither does your representative.” We know a lot of young people who go to the World Trade Organization protests, and these people are our main hope.



MR:

If the Dr. Lloyds can live long enough, and that’s a real question, that younger generation will need us. We definitely know how to turn up, but we are no longer the center of energy. So much of Sunshine State is about how people get busy with their lives, little things that occupy them: a gambling problem, or the tourist board, or the problems you’re having with your kids. And stuff slips by you, and decisions are being made all the time. And you wake up one day and think, “There didn’t used to be a gas station there. How did that happen?”

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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