Talking shop with John Sayles

Danny Huston, son of the legendary John Huston, is a redeemed muckraker up against the wall and a crooked political ring in Silver City.

Chris Cooper plays a Dubya double named Dickie Pilager in John Sayles' Silver City.

Indie film icon John Sayles toured through Texas in June to attend the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention in San Antonio, where he screened his latest film, Silver City, a political satire. While here, he spoke with us about his new film - more pointedly topical than some of his best-known work - and his approach to filmmaking:

John DeFore: How and when did you get the idea for Silver City?

John Sayles: We were feeling like, with the coming political season, there was a lot that people needed to think about and try to connect. One thing that we can do as independent filmmakers, that big studios can't do, is move very quickly. At a big studio, it takes from three to seven or eight years for them to get something done. We were shooting this about a year ago. It was only about a year and a month ago that I got the idea. So I wrote it in about a month. We did very, very quick pre-production on this one.

We live in such a complex world now. I think people get into the idea that things just happen - oh, that's a trend. There are some things that are just trends, but there are also things that happen because somebody planned them to happen. And then I was interested in this thing where the Republicans under Bush have done such big social things, and they've done this thing that they do in the movie, of naming them almost the opposite of what they're doing. You know, where Leave No Child Behind might actually be attached to a cut in education somehow.

"I'm amazed at how many people don't really know much about their local politics. I wanted people to think about their local politics, whether there's any of this going on around you."

John Sayles
JD: Were you concerned about making the Bush allusions too literal?

JS: I thought that was an interesting way to focus people on somebody they know. I'm amazed at how many people don't really know much about their local politics. I wanted people to think about their local politics, whether there's any of this going on around you. So I thought, what are the politics people are most likely to think about and learn something about, and those are national politics - and here's the guy of the moment.

JD: How does it feel to be one of the only really political filmmakers working right now?

JS: I think our movies are political in that they are politically conscious instead of politically unconscious. I think a lot of movies, you look at them and go, "Oh my God, look at the attitudes in that!" I always use the example of Adventures in Babysitting where there's the shock of these suburban kids who are in a bus station in the inner-city, and there's, like, black people around them. And they freak. Well, that's a political statement - they might be in some kind of danger because you see black people on the screen - but I don't think it's a very conscious one.

JD: Your movies have such sprawling storylines, with characters connected in so many ways; do you find yourself starting out with detours and connections that you have to delete in the editing room?

Chris Cooper plays a Dubya double named Dickie Pilager in John Sayles' Silver City.
JS: No, no, usually what I end up doing is writing a little more than I can use, and then I do the editing on paper (it's much cheaper to do it at that point), and try to get it down to "OK, this is about a two-hour movie." Some of the stuff that I write notes on, or even write scenes on, that I don't end up putting in the final script, ends up in these bios that I send each of the actors ... that might help them know who their character is when they show up. 'Cause one thing I don't do is rehearsal. We don't even do a read-through. You talk to the actors over the phone before they get there, you go there on the day, and then you block it. But you say "Okay, no acting yet, just say the lines, and let's see how far the lines take you down this road," or whatever. And then you start shooting.

What I find is, if the actors know who they are, if they understand the situation, you get some very, very good stuff in the first three takes, when they're not used to each other. Especially in something that's a detective story, where so often the detective is asking someone he's never met before their story. Sometimes I spend a little more time shooting the ones where people are supposed to have had a relationship for a long time; we'll do more takes of that so they get a little more used to each other. •

John DeFore on DVD

Dubya in Denver

Heavy-handed satire and mystery mix in Sayles' latest

By John DeFore

John Sayles has long been among America's most overtly political filmmakers, unafraid of wrapping his fictions around big social issues such as race and class. But Silver City is his most blunt allegory yet: The candidate at the heart of the film couldn't be more like George Bush unless he was on vacation in Crawford, and his right-hand man could only resemble Karl Rove more if the makeup department had glued prosthetic horns to his head.

Silver City

Dir. and writ. John Sayles; feat. Chris Cooper, Danny Huston, Richard Dreyfuss, Maria Bello, Thora Birch, Miguel Ferrer, Daryl Hannah, Kris Kristofferson, Tim Roth (R)
There's rarely just one story line in a Sayles film, but the main one here features a disillusioned journalist - once a muckraker, now a hack - stumbling across some very bad things being done by men connected to a politician named Dickie Pilager. The setting is Colorado, so the malfeasance involves enormously hazardous mining waste that is being dumped illegally; people are turning up dead, and so on. The journalist (played by Danny Huston, one of legendary director John Huston's sons) rediscovers his willingness to dig to a story's grimy bottom, and recovers a few other things along the way.

As a movie - an entertaining story that hangs together - this film falls toward the middle or low rank of Sayles' filmography. The real-life allusions are too self-conscious; the fictional inventions aren't compelling enough to compete. But Silver City does have positive aspects, the most notable of which is Chris Cooper's performance. Cooper is hilarious as a Bush surrogate, and even more-or-less believable: He's got the cartoonish side of Dubya's linguisticisms down, but watching his eyes as he fumbles another phrase, you see a confusion and frustration that is almost poignant. The impersonation may not be enough to make the movie a complete success, but it's nice to see an actor digging deeper into Bush's psyche than that other best copycat-in-chief, Will Ferrell. •

By John DeFore


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