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John Sayles has spent the better part of the last three decades making such iconic films as Eight Men Out, Lone Star, and Passion Fish, and along the way, he's become one of America's best-known independent filmmakers. But what most people don't know is that before he joined that small pantheon of Oscar-nominated screenwriters, Sayles was a National Book Award-nominated novelist and short-story writer. And in a way, the revelation of Sayles' lesser-known writing life fits. His films are often thoughtful ensemble pieces where characters and sense of place are the thing—the very stuff of short-story writing. Now Sayles has released Dillinger in Hollywood—his first collection of short stories in 25 years—and mediabistro.com recently caught up with the auteur to talk about the new collection, the new (and timely) film Silver City, and the current climate in the news media.
Birthdate: September 28, 1950
Hometown: Schenectady, New York
First section of the Sunday Times: Doesn't read it
Obviously, you've been a very successful indie filmmaker over the past few decades. How does writing short stories fit into that?
I was a novelist and short-story writer before I was a filmmaker. That was my segue into the world of screenwriting. But writing fiction takes a lot of energy. The new collection, Dillinger in Hollywood, is stuff I've written over the past 30 years or so. Every once in a while I come across an idea that is best told in short-story form. It's usually because the short-story arc is so tight. Short stories can only get into the details so far. A novel has to go in deeper, and so, for a novel, I have to take a year off of filmmaking. These stories have been published in various places, but they've never been collected before.
The subjects of your stories—the Hollywood leftovers, the barflies, a rock drummer who finds himself drawn to the life story of a janitor—often reflect the themes you touch on in your films. Do you have a specific reason for telling the stories you tell?
My short stories are immersions into very specific worlds. There's this idea implicit in my writing that Americans have these parallel lives—all over the place, these parallel cultures and societies exist independent of one another. People live in their own little bubbles and only occasionally do people in the media have a reason to cover them or find out what they're all about. These are people who are in the police force or who are firemen or in the world of newspaper reporting—all of these are tight little worlds. It's such a bubble that if you're completely immersed in it, you may not hear about O.J. Simpson or whatever. In my longer fiction and in my movies, I tend to immerse the reader into one of these worlds and try to express the hermetic nature of those worlds. Some of them are just funny kinds of micro-communities that may only last for a little while and then evaporate. A particular bar with a particular clientele or a sports team. There is a culture in any sports team and then the next year it's totally different. It even changes when someone gets hurt—within that culture, if they're not playing, they're not a person. Three weeks later, when they're done with their injury, they become a person again. Almost every world has that. A sort of office politics—either you're in favor or you're out of favor; either you're a player or a loser. These kinds of social dynamics are very particular to a place and time.
How do you infiltrate these communities and find the people to write and make movies about? How much research do you have to do?
Some of it is that I take the time and woodshed the stories. I get interested in something and then it may be a couple of years until I go investigate it. I talk to people and have them explain to me how things are. Usually I'll create the story arc but the world that the story is set in is very real. I've been backstage at a Cajun restaurant and watched people peeling the shrimp, to find out what those people are like. The worlds that you go into are fairly real, just people living their lives, and I try to observe them realistically. Afterwards, I try to spend some time and do some checkup. The important thing for me is to try to go in as open-minded as possible.
In writing about other people's lives, do you ever worry that, simply observing from your vantage, you might get it wrong?
I usually feel like they're pretty well researched. The last draft that I write of screenplays is always after we got to the place where we're going to shoot. Usually, I'll show what I have to locals and ask people if anything rings false in the characterizations or whatever. Sometimes it's something big and I have to make big changes. I definitely get good ideas from the local knowledge of things.
What do you like about writing rather than making a film?
Making a film is a long job, particularly the way I do it. There's all the campaigning, raising the money, and doing the publicity. We have our own company, but each movie we have to raise the money all over again with a different set of investors. Out of all the movies I've made, I'd say there are only a few that have been distributed by same company. In the independent film world there's definitely a lot of risk for investors, and there's a lot of people who go out of business.
But you keep managing to get the money to release these great, quirky pieces. Tell me about Silver City, the movie you currently have in the theaters. That deals with these communities you're talking about to a certain extent, but there's obviously a more wide-ranging satire going on.
A lot of it came from this feeling that the political conversation was very one-sided. It's really about the failure of the massive mainstream news system. It's about journalists being intimidated. People are called investigative journalists, but they're still looking at the bottom line so much. People like these confrontational shows on TV; people like sound byte news better than something in-depth. During the war in Iraq, I found the U.S. news totally useless. BBC did a little better and I watched that.
What Silver City is about is trying to get another side or two into the conversation. Sometimes I feel like we're stumbling towards democracy as well as running away from it. It's a participatory process, and if people just accept the official story, they're not getting what's really happening. Journalists are always wondering, "Should I check on this source?" and "How thin is it?" You have to do that as a citizen as well.
You also helped to organize the Imagine Festival in New York during the Republican National Convention, when hundreds of artists staged events as alternatives to the convention. What was that all about?
The Imagine Festival was an escape valve for New Yorkers who resented their tragedy and their city being co-opted by the Republicans. For New Yorkers, it was a great thing to be able to see the other side.
David S. Hirschman is the news editor of mediabistro.com and a reporter for Metro New York. You can buy Dillinger in Hollywood at Amazon.com.