These days, New York-born filmmaker John Sayles is as familiar with picking cotton as he is calling “action.” To be sure, Sayles—a godfather of independent cinema—is no carpetbagger. But he has wandered like a vagabond across the country, west to Colorado to make Silver City (2004), across the Mexican border for Casa de los Babys (2003), north to Alaska for Limbo (1999) and south for films like Passion Fish (1992), Sunshine State (2002) and his current film, Honeydripper, which premiered at the Savannah Film Festival in October. An imposing 6’4” and ruggedly handsome, Sayles is driven by an unquenchable curiosity about not merely his own next project, but human nature as it shifts and curls across geographical and historical latitudes. Flying below the radars of most mainstream film audiences since his directorial debut in 1980 with Return of the Secaucus 7, he is unabashed about the esoteric nature of many of his films. "I'm interested in the stuff I do being seen as widely as possible,” he has said, “but I'm not interested enough to lie."
In Honeydripper, Sayles navigates the cotton fields, army bar- racks, juke joints and back roads of 1950s Alabama, examining the critical juncture when war, technology, youth and race collided to create the electric leviathan of Rock and Roll. In the film, Danny Glover plays Tyrone Purvis, an aging jazz pianist and down-on-his-luck owner of the Honeydripper Lounge who is coming to terms with a possible eviction and the harsh reality of being left behind by changing trends and the progression of time and culture. When a young stranger (Austin-based guitar prodigy Gary Clark, Jr.), arrives to town on a midnight boxcar, Tyrone’s business struggles, as well as his mysterious past must be resolved.
Shortly before Sayles accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Savannah College of Art and Design, we sat down with him to get his thoughts on the film, the industry and his musings on the South.
The South magazine: You were born in New York and grew up in New England. What drew you to this story set in the rural South in 1950?
John Sayles: As a kid, my mother’s parents lived in Hollywood, Florida, and we used to drive down a lot in the summer on old Route 1. I’m old enough to remember the colored drinking fountains, and being very disappointed it wasn’t Kool Aid. I thought “colored” meant that it would be green or blue, but it was just…water.
TSM: You were probably thinking, ‘Hey the South is pretty cool…’
JS: Yeah! And we would see chain gangs working on the side of the road, cotton fields with both black and white people picking cotton. I was familiar in that way with the rural South. I’m old enough to have lived through the Civil Rights Movement, to have seen the Old South, the South during its darkest days…and now what’s become of all the places I saw as a kid. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than it used to be.
TSM: What was the genesis for Honeydripper?
JS: The first record I ever had was “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley. When I got a little more sophisticated about music and started branching out from what was available on the radio I discovered the Blues. You look at something like “Hound Dog,” which was originally [recorded] by Big Mama Thornton, who was a great old Blues shouter in the Bessie Smith tradition, but written by two Jewish kids who lived in L.A.—Lieber and Stoller—who used to hang out at all the R&B clubs. Presley took the song and made it into this whole other thing. I became aware that [music] may be very separated in the record store—this is Country, this is Bluegrass, this is R&B, this is Soul, this is Rock and Roll—but the musicians are all listening to each other. I was always interested in that moment when it wasn’t called Rock and Roll yet, but when all these types of music came together. In Honeydripper you see Gospel, Rhythm and Blues, Big Band, old fashioned bottlenecking-the-guitar Blues, Country—you’ve got Hank Williams singing a song that sounds a lot like “Rock Around the Clock,” but it was recorded in 1947. So all those influences came together, and I was interested in what were the things that pushed it? I think one of the things was technology. [The country] was going from railroad trains with that harmonica sound to cars and airplanes; life had changed so the music had to change. All of a sudden, in your little guitar case, you could have this thing that, as they say, could peel the paint off the walls. It used to be it couldn’t put out that much sound. The piano had to do it, and you can’t carry a piano around with you. So the technology of the electric guitar has a lot to do with why music changed and Rock and Roll took over and became, in a way, more democratic. Any kid in his garage could figure out how to play a guitar and start his own band.
TSM: So one of the most interesting things for you is looking at people who are on the cusp of change, and how that change affects them…
TSM: Would you say that’s a common thread throughout your work?
JS: I think it shows up, but I think it’s just life. Baby, It’s You (1984) is about a girl who…every- thing that was cool about her in high school in 1966 in Trenton, New Jersey is suddenly uncool when she goes to Sarah Lawrence, so she changes it all. You know, a lot of our stuff deals with assimilation. In Brother from Another Planet—he’s an immigrant. He has to hide the fact that he’s not from this planet. What do you lose when you do that, and what do you gain? When you come [to America] and you don’t speak the language, and then you learn how to speak English and then your kids don’t know how to speak your language, and they can’t communicate with their grandparents…you’ve lost something. I think that’s a theme that shows up a lot in our stuff.
In the case of Honeydripper, Danny Glover plays a guy in his 50s, a piano player, and he saw Blues turn into Jazz in New Orleans when he was a 20- year-old man. He’s someone who has seen this music get to a certain point, and he’s very good at it, and he loves it, and then he sees this other thing happening that he’s not so sure about. Does he jump onto that train that’s leaving the station, or does he say, “No, that’s not for me”? And what will it cost him to stay, and what will it cost him to go? I’m always interested in those characters, who, you know…they have to make that decision.
Phil Ochs was a famous folk singer in the 1950s and 1960s, and his last album before he committed suicide was like this Rock and Roll album, which is not what he played. It was like lying and his heart wasn’t in it and he was wearing this gold lamé jacket and it was a statement of, “If this is what you want, I’ll do this thing,” and it was a terrible thing for him to try to do. Whereas Bob Dylan, when he picked up the electric guitar, even though many of his fans didn’t like it, it was a great idea because he was excited about it. It’s not necessarily that one is a good decision and one is bad, it’s about who you are and what you can make of that change…whether you’re able to deal with it or not, or whether you even want to deal with it.
TSM: How do you select your subject matter? When you choose potential subjects to film, if you’re unfamiliar with them or only a little familiar with them, do you force yourself to undergo an assimilation process as well?
JS: I usually start with a subject I know a little about and want to know more about. A world, a place, a story, a kind of person or whatever—something fascinating enough for me to say, “How does that work?” A lot of the time it’s just [asking], “If this is the way people are acting, what could possibly be going through their heads?” That’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in period movies. If the period is long enough ago, it’s like Science Fiction. Like, okay, these people are from the planet before Freud. Or they’re from the planet before baseball was integrated.
TSM: It’s as much a stretch to believe in that being the reality as it is in Science Fiction…
JS: Right, so you have to go back and [consider] what they had been exposed to, and therefore, what could they possibly be thinking? Some of the research is just imaginative research or just empathizing; for some of it, you have to do a lot of actual research, for example, in the case of Honeydripper, on the technology of the electric guitar. We examined what was going on in the South at the time. The Korean War was happening. It was the first time since WWI that combat troops were integrated, and most of our army bases were in the South. So there was a lot of tension around those bases…a lot of [people in] the little towns near them were going, “Oh, these colored boys are being accommodated and treated equal and carrying guns and think they’re big shots and coming to our town…we don’t want this here.” So, that very specific research often gives me ideas as I’m writing the story, and so the characters become more believable.
TSM: You actually shot on location in Alabama for Honeydripper. For a film like this, where the ethos of a specific setting is so integral to the story and characters, how important is it to you and the actors and crew to actually film in that location?
JS: It was really important for the actors to spend time in that atmosphere, instead of recreating it in Toronto or Los Angeles or even Texas. A lot of the African-American actors’ parents or grandparents had come from the South, and for some of them it was their first trip down here.
Also, we try to cast as many of the small parts locally and have all our extras come from the area, so they already have whatever the local accent is and lend an authenticity. Like salmon fishers up in Alaska [filming Limbo]. We had a woman who had been on the slime line. She had never acted before, but she was totally comfortable saying lines while holding fish guts. She didn’t even have to think about it because she had done it for years.
In Alabama for Honeydripper it was certainly about the accents. We also have a long scene in a revival tent. There was a local congregation with wonderful singers, and the ones who didn’t get to be up on the stage singing in the scene became the congregation. When our actor, Albert Hall, came to play the reverend, they didn’t need any coaching to do the “amen’s” or get into the rhythms of what he was doing (which was call and response)…he just had church for a whole evening. [The scene] has a spirit that I don’t think I could have gotten with a bunch of actors who had never been to the South.
I do think also that American movies sometime suffer from that vagueness and blandness of where they’re set. They’re just kind of in movie world. You say to yourself, there’s no way that a person who works in a flower shop could afford that apartment or those clothes, but you just have to accept it because you’re in movie world. In our particular movies, we try to be more specific, and the location really helps with that.
TSM: As you said, the South isn’t perfect—
JS: And neither is the North! [laughs]