“The Last Nail in the Coffin”: Ilan Stavans Interviews John Sayles

John Sayles

“Not just a place, but a place in its time, has a character. That character affects who people are. In a movie it certainly affects the way that you shoot.

Today we are thrilled to feature an original, exclusive interview between The Common contributor Ilan Stavans and filmmaker and writer John Sayles. Stavans and Sayles discuss the differences between fiction writing and filmmaking, the challenges and comfort of writing historical fiction, and the importance of place in both book and movies. Sayles recently published A Moment in the Sun (McSweeney’s, 2011) and directed the newly released Amigo (Variance Films, 2011).

Ilan Stavans

Ilan StavansLet me begin by asking you, John, to compare the act and art of writing fiction and writing for the movies. What different mechanisms are activated in you when you engage in these two?


John Sayles – Technically, when you’re writing a movie, you’re writing for a very specific time. When you’re writing a feature, you’re basically trying to write something between 90 and 130 minutes long. And that release of information over time – even though a lot of people don’t necessarily watch movies in one sitting anymore, you still write it for them to watch it in one sitting. So, your rhythm of writing is very specifically geared to “What do the people know now? What do the people need to know next? Is this a slow scene? Does it need to be followed by something a little more shocking and quick?” And although you’re very aware of rhythm in fiction, you almost never assume — certainly in the case of something like A Moment in the Sun, which is over 900 pages long — you don’t assume that people are going to read it in one sitting. So that relationship to time is very, very different. It’s just something you have to be aware of the whole time.

I’d say the other major thing is that, because I write screenplays for other people, and because I also write them for myself, even that is a somewhat different process. When I’m writing screenplays for other people, usually my job is to help them get a green light from the financiers of the studio. So you’re selling the script a little more as you’re writing it. I just did a draft of a script, which might not be the final draft, but it was very specifically because the people who hired me are going in looking for a lead actor. So I went through, and every time I saw that character’s name, I made sure there was some description that let you know how he was feeling and that he was the center of action. And I even sculpted some of the scenes so that they end on his line rather than somebody else’s line. And I sent it off to them and said, “OK, when you read this polish, read it as if you’re an actor, a very hot actor looking for his next role.”

When I’m writing for myself, quite honestly, having made 17 movies, I know a lot about the film making process, and I’m a little less likely to sell it. What I know is that, unlike fiction writing, I’m going to have a lot of collaborators on this thing. So, very often I can suggest something, especially in the description. The production designer and the costumer and the music composer and the actors are going to fill in some of that stuff. There’s a nice example from a Raymond Chandler story where he says, “He gave me a drink of warm gin and a dirty glass.” That’s the only description of the office that there is, but from that description you extrapolate what the rest of the office might look like. A lot of what I do when I’m writing a screenplay for myself is a detail like that. Then I’ll have time to sit down with a production designer and talk about what a room should look like, or with the costume designer and talk about what kind of clothes this character would wear in this situation.


ISSo I want to ask you now about how you get imbued in place, how you get into a story. But before I do that, tell me, what is the relationship—I’ve read a lot about it, but I’d like to hear it from you—the relationship between the novel and Amigo? A Moment in the Sun, it started as a screenplay that later on became a novel.


JS – Probably when I was doing research for Los Gusanos, the novel, I did some research on the kind of long history between Cuba and the United States, going all the way back to the Spanish-American War. And I kept running into this phrase Philippine-American War, which I had not heard of. And I figured, come on, I know where the Philippines is, I have relatives that live there, how come I don’t know this? And then I started asking some of my Filipino and Filipino American friends what they knew about it, and they said, “Well, you know, it wasn’t taught in our schools. We know about it because we went to college and got interested and did some work on our own, but it really was not taught in the Philippines.” Which got me interested in the thing.

And then, at the same time, I ran into this history of the racial coup in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, and it seemed like there were interesting things happening at that time. You know, in my head the very short version of what A Moment in the Sun is about is the moment when Americans decided to admit that they were imperialists, not just when they started doing it; and also the kind of the last nail in the coffin of Reconstruction, when the vote was taken away from the black men who had been given it after the Civil War. Those were happening at the same time. It was such a racially charged time. It was a time when Harvard professors are teaching their students stuff that later would be coming out of the mouths of Hitler and Goebbels, this kind of Aryan theology disguised as scientific knowledge for why white Christians should be able to take over other countries.

So I got interested in that period. I wrote a screenplay called Some Time in the Sun, which mostly just dealt with the part of the novel that’s about the 25th Infantry, which is the African-American Infantry, and the guys coming from Wilmington and going over to the Spanish and Philippine wars, where their rights are being taken away from them at home, pretty much to the point where they can’t go home anymore. And we scouted it, went over to the Philippines, looked around, went over to Wilminton, looked around, and finally just decided, “There’s no way in hell anybody’s going to give us enough money to make this movie well.” And I put it aside for five or six years.

Then one day I kind of felt like, you know, I always felt like I was squeezing too much into two-hour-and-ten-minute movies. As I said, a movie has to exist in time. What if I made it into fiction and it could expand a little? Maybe I could look into some of the parts of the story that I felt like I was doing shorthand in the movie. And I started writing, and as usual, I got busy doing movies. So I wrote a few chapters, had a vague idea of where it was going, and really did not get into it until, I think it was four years ago, we had a big Writers’ Guild strike. A screenwriters’ strike. And Los Gusanos was written during the screenwriters’ strike. I had, between a period of unemployment and the Writers’ Guild strike, almost a year where I wasn’t working on anybody else’s screenplay. I wasn’t working for a living. And I had the time to do the research and actually finish the book. And it expanded quite a bit. I just kept thinking, well, if I really want to talk about this period, I want to have a white character who ends up in the Philippines as well, and what about the South? It was nice to be able to expand it but feel like—. One of the nice things about a historical novel is you’re not inventing the plot. I had a timeline for what happened, and I kind of knew, well, there’s an arc to this history, and if I plug my many characters into that arc, they can have their individual arcs as well, but I don’t need to know where I’m going, because history already went there.


So the screenplay became a novel. How did the novel relate back to the new screenplay?


We went over: I had finished my first draft, and I wanted to go back to the Philippines and look at some of the places that were now in the book that I either didn’t remember that well—like what’s left of the walled city of Manila—but also go and look at some of the places that I hadn’t even been to, that I had just described from maps and old things that I had read. We were able to go back to the Philippines. Joel Torre, who’s the lead in Amigo, had become a friend of ours. He didn’t have to act for a couple of days, so we were able to drive around with him in northern Luzon and look at some of these places, just geographically. Some of them were, “Oh, if you’re going up the Manila to Dagupan railroad line, which is now a highway, you wouldn’t be impressed by Mt. Pinatubo even though it is a volcano. You’d be impressed with Mt. Arrarat, which is on the right side of the railway instead of the left.” That kind of thing is very useful.

While we were going, I got to talk to Joel about the Philippine movie industry and ask him about some of the movies he’d been in that I thought were pretty well made epics. When he started saying, “Oh, that only cost $2 million,” this little light went off in my head. I had been struck in my research by this one little statistic I found, that hundreds if not thousands of these village mayors, these Cabezas, the barrio, had been killed by one side or the other—some hanged by the Americans for collaborating with the insurrectos, and some killed by the insurrectos for collaborating with the Americans. I just started thinking about that kind of timeless position of people in an occupied country. I always say that Amigo could be set in Nazi-occupied Germany or French-occupied Algeria or Vietnam during the French, Japanese, or American occupations. It’s a timeless story of a guy waking up in the morning, saying, “How much do I cooperate without collaborating, and how much can I resist without getting myself and my people killed?”

I like it when there’s something very specific about a movie, but also something very general that you can extrapolate from that very specific situation into something larger. And I knew that with the kind of money we had—Amigo was made for less than $2 million, very low budget (now, that’s possible in the Philippines; it wouldn’t have been in the States)—but with that low budget I would have to do a kind of microhistory on the village level, more of a snapshot in one moment in this war that actually went on for almost 20 years, rather than something bigger like A Moment in the Sun. You’re going to make a two-hour-and-twenty-minute movie, but even then it’s going to have a lot of montages. To give it that feeling and scale you’re going to have to jump a lot. I’d rather get into the detail.


So having gone back to the Philippines and traveled and discovered that you could also do a movie, but reconnecting with places you had seen and didn’t remember, or places you hadn’t seen before—that prompted, I assume, you to go back to the first draft and produce a second draft that was more place-based.


Yeah. One of the things I did, because the book is so big, I—and this is easier to do, now that there are computers, than it would have been to do in the old days—I separated each of my four principle characters—I mean there are a lot of other characters who get chapters in the book from their point of view—but Hod who’s the white laborer who ends up in the Philippines; Royal, who’s the guy in the 25thInfantry; Diosdado who’s the Filipino who winds up the guerillas; and Harry Manigault, who’s the guy who gets involved with the early movie business in New York; and I took all of their chapters out and  separated them into four books. So I read those books—the book of Hod, the book of Diosdado, the book of Harry—in chronology for two reasons: one, to feel that there was an arc to each book itself, to that character itself; and two, to make sure they were consistent in the—I talked before about tone—in the way that they described the world, the way that they saw the world. And even if there was an arc to it—Hod gets even more cynical and starts to drink during the course of the book. You still like him but he grows up, and Harry gets a little bit more confidence. And Diosdado has this very sad arc as he sees the dream of a Philippine Republic die.

So, when I came back I really just went back to the book of Diosdado, which is in the Philippines, and the sections of Hod and Royal’s stories that are set in the Philippines, and looked at my geographical things, looked at my place. Occasionally, Diosdado would know the name of a local tree, whereas somebody else who’s not from there would just describe it, in a kind of descriptive way or an emotional way—a spiky looking tree—whereas Diosdado might say the name of it. You have to filter it through their consciousness and their experience.

That’s the usual thing that I often do, is to try to go there virtually. In the case of the Pan-American Exposition where McKinley is shot, there’s a woman who has, I think she’s a retired history teacher from Buffalo, and she has done a website where she’s collected all this stuff from pictures and programs and people’s accounts. You go into her website, and it’s like a tour guide taking you through from exhibit to exhibit with maps and pictures of the Pan-American Exposition of 1898. Obviously I can’t go there anymore, but that’s the next best thing. I found a book that was by a guy who was an amateur historian in the Philippines, who goes through the streets of old Manila, the walled city of Manila, and tells you what was there, when it was built, and when it fell down. So I drew myself a map of old Manila in 1898, so that when people are walking the streets and there’s some pictures—I actually found quite a few pictures on Spanish websites, because it was their last lost colony and they were starting to take photographs. So I had a pretty good idea of what I was describing, even though after Douglas MacArthur came back and leveled the artillery at the walled city—there’s not much of it left—to flush the Japanese out.

Not only do you get ideas from the physical things that are there, but a place—and this is not just a place, but a place in its time—has a character. And you have to be aware that that character affects who the people are. In a movie, it certainly affects the way that you shoot the movie. So Matewan is set in these hills and hollers of West Virginia. Even though you’re outside, there’s not this feeling that you can escape. You look around, and there’s a hill. There’s not a horizon. There’s a hill looming above you on both sides. Literally you get an hour less of daytime shooting on both sides of the day, because the holler blocks out, the hill blocks out the sun on both ends of the day, whereas if you’re down on the border, like in Lonestar, you’re more likely to make a widescreen movie. We shot that in Super 35, which is kind of like Panavision—it’s a very rectangular screen—to accentuate the idea that there’s this endless, flat land, and somebody has decided to draw an invisible line there and say, “On one side of this invisible line, you’re in Mexico. On the other side of the invisible line, you’re in Texas.”


Now, John, you’ve talked about an extraordinarily wide range of tools that you bring to your disposal in order to put together a book like this or a movie like the ones that you’ve been talking about. It’s clear from what you say and from what people say about you that attention to historical truth and detail is essential. But to what degree is it essential? And at what point might you bend it in order to make the story flow better? A certain character might want to do something, and you as an author are at the helm supposedly. Yet the facts don’t quite agree with that. Do you give in? Is historical truth much more important to you than fictional truth?


Well, I think that every book is its own universe, and every movie is its own universe; and very early on in those universes, you establish a tone and conspiracy with the viewer or the reader. There are very entertaining movies set in the time of King Arthur’s knights that are really about modern teenagers. That’s the understanding very early on in the film, and people enjoy it on that level. The kids react like modern teenagers, and you don’t worry about what people really would have been like, although all the clothes and everything, and the horses and the weapons, might be very accurately styled after what we know about medieval knighthood in Britain. What I prefer to do and what I’m interested in is, when—and this partly comes from me having been an actor—when you write in a period, I’m fascinated with, “If people act this way, what can possibly be going through their heads?” To understand what’s going on in their heads you have to understand so many things about them: their class, their race, their sex; but also the time and place in which they lived; and what was the common knowledge in those days. With something like A Moment in the Sun, one of the things that I was just struck by—I knew it was a very racially charged time, but when I started reading contemporary stuff, including mainstream newspapers and magazines, I was blown away by just how racially charged it was, just how racist everything was. So, one of the things you see in the book is the minstrel show. All the humor was ethnic humor and racial humor at that time.

So much of what I did in A Moment in the Sun is letting you know not only what happened but what people think happened, because you get to see the media. What was happening in the Philippines was so different than what people in the United States thought was happening—starting with the political cartoons of the time. The week after the Philippine-American war started, the artists stopped drawing Filipinos like Mexicans and started drawing them like coal-black, naked savages with grass skirts and a bone in their nose, carrying a wooden spear. When the first actualities, which were the early version of documentaries, were made, Filipinos were portrayed by African-Americans who just happened to be hanging around New Jersey. That’s what people thought Filipinos looked like.

That’s a lot of what fascinates me about going into a period: trying to figure out, what would you think the world was? It’s not just personal psychology. Some of those things are timeless and it doesn’t matter: people want to be loved; young men are more likely to be physically violent than older men or women are. Some of those things just come with the species. But some things really, really change with time and place. It’s not just the clothes, it’s not just the weapons, it’s not just the manners. It’s people’s worldview. Why I write these biographies for the actors, and a lot of what I talk about with them, is not just how long have you been married, but sometimes it really is, “This is your worldview.”


Fabulous, enlightening. Thank you so much, John.

“The Last Nail in the Coffin”: Ilan Stavans Interviews John Sayles

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