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“A Moment in the Sun”: An Extended Interview with Independent Filmmaker, Author John Sayles

StoryNovember 24, 2011
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Today, a Democracy Now! special with legendary independent filmmaker and author, John Sayles. Over the past three decades, he has directed 17 feature films, including “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” “Matewan,” “Lone Star,” and “Eight Men Out.” He has often used his films to tackle pressing political issues, as well as themes of race, class, labor and sexuality. His latest film, “Amigo,” which opened in August, is set in the Philippines during the U.S. occupation. Sayles is also a celebrated author. A winner of the O. Henry Award, he recently published his first novel in 20 years. It’s called “A Moment in the Sun,” and it is a sprawling work which takes the turn of the 20th century in its sights — from a white racist coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, to the first stirrings of the motion picture industry, to the bloody dawn of U.S. interventionism in Cuba and the Philippines. We spend the hour with Sayles, discussing his work and career. “However small your audience is, however frustrating it is to get your version of the world or what you want to talk about out there, it’s part of the conversation. And if you shut up, the conversation is one-sided,” says Sayles. [includes rush transcript]

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Video squareStoryJun 17, 2011“A Moment in the Sun”: An Extended Interview with Independent Filmmaker, Author John Sayles
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with the legendary independent filmmaker and author John Sayles. Over the past three decades, he’s directed 17 feature films, including The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Matewan, Lone Star and Eight Men Out. He’s also a successful script doctor, rewriting the scripts of many Hollywood blockbusters, including Apollo 13. John Sayles has often used his films to tackle pressing political issues, as well as themes of race, class, labor and sexuality. His newest film, Amigo, which opens in August, is set in the Philippines during the U.S. occupation.

John Sayles is also a celebrated author, a winner of the O. Henry Award. He’s just published his first novel in 20 years. It’s called A Moment in the Sun. It’s a sprawling work, which takes the turn of the 20th century in its sights, from a white racist coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, to the first stirrings of the motion picture industry, to the bloody dawn of U.S. interventionism in Cuba and the Philippines. We sat down on Wednesday, before John Sayles left for the Philippines, and I asked him about his epic historical novel, A Moment in the Sun.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, I got sucked into this. I was doing research for my last novel, Los Gusanos, and I came—kept coming across this phrase, “the Philippine insurrection,” or “the Philippine-American War.” And I said, “OK, I’m 30-something years old. How come I’ve never heard of this?” which got me suspicious. You know, usually when we win a war—and we won that war—we celebrate it. And how come, you know, Amigo is probably going to be the third movie ever made in the United States about the Philippine-American War? How come there are no novels about it? How come it’s not in our history books? And then asking my Philippine and Philippine-American friends what they knew about it, they said, “Well, we kind of know about it, but it was not taught in our schools.” How is something that—that’s like not teaching the American Revolution in American schools. You know, how does a piece of history, where probably a million Filipinos died, get plowed under like that? And why? So that’s some of what the story is.

And then—and I found the other big thing that was happening in the United States at the time was the last nail in the coffin of Reconstruction was being nailed in in North Carolina, the last of the, you know, former Confederate states to bring in the Jim Crow laws, to disenfranchise their black voters. And the two were linked. And so—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how they’re linked.

JOHN SAYLES: Well, I think they’re just linked by race, which is that whenever you look into anything historical, you have to think of what’s the worldview of the people who are living then, who are the actors in the play. And the worldview then was an extremely racist one, and not just from the yellow journalists and, you know, the rednecks or whatever, but college professors and presidents were spouting, you know, eugenics and other kind of racial theories that basically gave them a kind of green light to go and do whatever they wanted in the world, as long as it wasn’t to white people.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we have just been talking about Puerto Rico. President Obama has made the first presidential visit in half a century, Puerto Rico, which—the key moment when the U.S. occupied, 1898, which—talking about the Philippines, talking about Cuba. Now, most people aren’t familiar with this history. And you chose the dawn of the 20th century as your backdrop. So, talk about the connection between the Philippines and Cuba.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, I think that the interesting thing for me was that there was this switch in the mentality and the self-image of Americans. We had certainly done things that were imperialistic before. We had, you know, defeated and taken over the lands of Indian nations. We had taken a big chunk of northern Mexico. But we didn’t think of ourselves, or want to think of ourselves, as imperialists. In a few-month period, from the time that the United States defeated the Spanish in Cuba, we went from saying, “OK, we’re the lovers of liberty. We’re here to liberate these people from oppression, from imperialism,” to, “Oh, let’s not leave the Philippines.” And it was, I think, a combination of opportunism and ignorance.

There was a thing called the Teller Amendment that—when we were discussing in Congress whether to fight the Spanish and kick them out of Cuba. And they were doing horrendous things in Cuba. They were doing—you know, its concentration camps were literally called “concentration camps” there. People were being starved. People were being murdered in Cuba. When we were debating whether we were going to actually have this war with Spain, a congressman named Teller said, “Well, this isn’t because you want to take over Cuba as a territory or a state and exploit it.” And the expansionists said, “Oh, no, no. This is just pro bono. This is, you know, because we love liberty.” And he said, “Well, put it in writing.” So the Teller Amendment was written. But because of ignorance, people didn’t also kind of know that Spain was sitting in Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. So, when we won so quickly the war in Cuba, the expansionists said, “Well, those places also are being controlled by the Spaniards. We could kick them out of there. And they’re not covered by the amendment.” So, all of a sudden, there was this kind of second wave of that war.

And what’s interesting, you know, some of the characters in my book, in A Moment in the Sun, end up being people who probably, for their various reasons, volunteered for the war, because it was not a time when we had a big standing army, so more than half of the people who fought in those wars were volunteers, to liberate the Cuban people, and instead found themselves in the Philippines killing Filipinos, to take over the Philippines as an American territory.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip of Amigo, because it is related to this book, and I want to talk about how it is afterwards. But from the beginning of this film that’s coming out in August, shortly after American soldiers have taken a small village in the Philippines, they’re visited by their commanding officers.

COL. HARDACRE: Everything locked down here, Lieutenant?

LT. COMPTON: Yes, sir. We took the barrio with no resistance. Only a couple of runaways.

COL. HARDACRE: Pick 10 you can trust, and work out the billeting.


COL. HARDACRE: Can’t have the monkeys sneaking in behind us while we’re chasing Aguinaldo off the island. I need a garrison here.

LT. COMPTON: My boys are hot to go, Colonel. Staying here would mean—

COL. HARDACRE: I need a garrison.

LT. COMPTON: Yes, sir.

COL. HARDACRE: Hell, for all I know, ol’ Aggie’s hiding right in this village. Smoke him out, and end the war. Lord knows I can’t tell one from the other.

PADRE HIDALGO: May I thank you, Colonel, that you deliver us from captivity?

LT. COMPTON: This is Padre Hidalgo. The local insurrectos had him caged up in the bodega, along with a couple of dons they had caught.

COL. HARDACRE: We’ll get you back to Manila as soon as we can, Padre.

PADRE HIDALGO: These are my children. Their souls are in my care. Cannot leave this place.

COL. HARDACRE: You’ve got yourself an interpreter, Lieutenant. Zuniga!

ZUNIGA: Si, jefe.

COL. HARDACRE: Vamos with us.

ZUNIGA: A sus órdenes, Colonel.

COL. HARDACRE: You hold on to [inaudible] and some coolies to hang the wire tomorrow, and you keep it singing. Get these people up out of the dirt, for God’s sake. We’re supposed to be winning their hearts and minds!

LT. COMPTON: Yes, sir!

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from John Sayles’ upcoming film called Amigo, which is also the subject of, well, part of his tome, his remarkable novel called A Moment in the Sun. Explain what we’ve just listened to and watched.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, the policy, somewhat like in Vietnam, the military policy in the Philippines changed two or three times. The first part of the war was a more conventional war. The Philippine Republic had an army. They had a constitution. They had taxes. I don’t think most Americans knew that at the time. They thought they were fighting a bunch of, you know, savages. And certainly, in A Moment in the Sun, one of the things that you see is the media of the time, including the political cartoonists, that, from the beginning of the conflict, when the Filipinos were still our allies against the Spanish, they were drawn as something close to a Cuban or a Mexican—off-white, raggedy clothes, straw hat. And then, within weeks of the beginning of the Philippine-American War, they were drawn as coal-black savages with grass skirts and bones in their nose and crazy hair and wooden spears.

What happened at the very beginning was there was a conventional war, which the Filipinos lost badly because they had no artillery, among other things. They were very badly trained and armed. And then it turned, after the first year, into a guerrilla war. This was the beginning of the guerrilla, when there was at least an attempt, at first, to win the hearts and minds of the people. That’s a phrase that goes back to Teddy Roosevelt, and even further back to the Bible. We associate it with Vietnam, but it gets resurrected not just by Americans but by other people whenever they occupy a country. When that doesn’t work out, there’s usually a second phase, which is the kind of tough love. “Hamletization,” we called it in Vietnam. In the Philippines, it meant usually surrounding people with barbed wire, killing all their caribou, burning their rice fields, and saying, “From now on, you eat American canned goods, like our soldiers do, so we can keep track of you.” And, you know, that’s common in most wars of occupation, not just American wars of occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: We did get a question in advance on Facebook from Carlo Angelo Vargas, who asks you, “How important was it, as an American filmmaker, to shed light on the Philippine-American War in your film Amigo?”

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, I think—I think, first of all, I think it’s important to know how we got where we are, how we got where we are in our relationships with other countries, how we got where we are psychologically as Americans. And a lot went on in this very, very short period. I think, for Filipinos—and as we’ve been starting to show Amigo in the Philippines—I think the important thing is this very important part of Philippine history has kind of been robbed from the people. And only recently have Philippine historians been able to resurrect some of it, to know that Filipinos resisted, that they had a Philippine Republic in, you know, 1898, that there—they had their own constitution, partly based on the U.S. Constitution. What was usually taught in Philippine schools for years and years and years was, oh, the Spanish were here for 300 years, and then they sold us to the Americans for $20 million, leaving out this resistance, leaving out, you know, the very important part, that there was a Philippine Republic that was disappeared very quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: John, would you read from your book, A Moment in the Sun?

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah. Let me find a chapter. One of the offshoots of the war was the American Anti-Imperialist League, and the most famous people in that were Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain, people who probably didn’t agree on anything else in their lives. But it also included a lot of Southern racists, who were afraid that—or just racists, not necessarily Southern racists, who were afraid that American boys were going to come back with Filipino wives. You know, so very strange bedfellows in this coalition, like a lot of antiwar coalitions. The chapter is called “Correspondence.”

[reading] They have a new hero. And, the Humorist supposes, he is fitting for the age. Not a Washington, stoic, partriarchal, erect upon a towering steed on a hilltop surveying the conflict; not a Lincoln, haunted by carnage, magnanimous, no, positively bereft in victory, understanding that too harsh a palliative may vanquish not only the disease but also its host; not even a Grant, steadfast, straightforward, implacable—it is a Funston.

A banty rooster that crows at the opening of a news scavenger’s notebook, a bully boy on the field of battle whose idea of sport is to take no prisoners, a Kansan Custer who leaves caution (and humility and compassion and, that antiquated notion, honor) to the wind, and whose biography, when inevitably published, can bear no title more apt than Pluck and Luck.

The subterfuge is nothing new. Homer is chock full of it, the wily Odysseus time after time proving to be more a confidence man than a warrior. Intercept the messenger, yes, decipher the code, forge documents—such intrigues are all accepted in the Great Game. Aguinaldo, in his jungle retreat, believes he is to be reinforced, General Lacuna writing to confirm he has sent a company of his men, along with five yankee prisoners. A bold plan, and admirable in that aspect, with an element of risk. Funston himself, with his chosen officers, dressed in rags of uniforms, marched through the hostile wilderness by loyal Macabebes disguised as Filipino insurrectionists. Ninety miles of pain and privation, through enemy territory, lost at times, hunger and thirst a constant, fearing discovery, or, perhaps worse, mutiny. Finally, exhausted and starving, unable to go farther.

“Only eight miles from the enemy stronghold,” he boasts, “and too weak to move.”

This is where the story diverges from the parable of the Trojan Horse.

Emissaries, Macabebe scouts able to pass as Tagalos, are sent ahead to beg for food. Sustenance is delivered to their camp, the ruse maintained. Nourished, their fighting spirit restored, the party marches triumphantly into Aguinaldo’s bailiwick, his much smaller compliment of soldiers turning out in parade dress to welcome them, and then—

The Humorist imagines himself a man at the prow of a lifeboat, peering over a restless sea. Perhaps it is in time of War. He spies a figure tossed on the waves, desperately swimming, survivor of some maritime calamity, each stroke more feeble than the last and about to go under. He bids the oarsman put his back to it, the lifeboat plowing through murderous swells, till he can lean forward and stretch his arm out to that solitary victim, reaching, reaching, and finally the exhausted wretch able to clasp his wrist with one hand—and plunge a dagger into his heart with the other.

Funston is the man with the dagger.

He is the toast of the Nation.

AMY GOODMAN: John Sayles, reading from A Moment in the Sun. There is a huge debate about torture in this country. Can you talk about the Philippines and torture?

JOHN SAYLES: Well, it’s, I mean, notably where the United States first learned the technique of waterboarding. It was called the “water cure” back then. There were, at the time, congressional commissions, investigations. People came and talked about having taken part in that.

AMY GOODMAN: You show it in your upcoming film, Amigo.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, it’s in the film. It’s in the book. It was a method of getting information. The information sometimes was good information—it got something done. Other times it was useless, because people would just say anything that came to their head to, you know, stop the torture. It was probably cruder than as practiced right now, in that the reports are that a great number of the people who were subjected to it died, drowned. And there’s some question as to whether, you know, some of the people who were administering it just figured, “Well, that’s what we’re going to do is we’re going to kill this person. You know, they don’t know anything, but we might as well make an example here.” It was something that was controversial in its time and continues to be controversial. I think that soldiers on the line have a different feeling about it than people back at home, soldiers on the line feeling either, “Well, maybe this could save me or one of my friends,” or, “I hope I don’t have to take any part in it. You know, I didn’t sign up for this.”

One of the things that—one of the reasons that A Moment in the Sun is so large is that it’s a very complex story. War is a very complex thing. One of the main sources that I used in my research for it was letters home and diaries of soldiers who were sent over there, many of them volunteers, some of them regular soldiers. And from the same company, from the same unit, with the same experiences, you can find one soldier who’s a warrior, who’s just over there, loves what they’re doing, you know, “This killing goo-goos is better than a rabbit hunt”; another who is just kind of, “Well, I signed up for this, and I’m supposed to kill who they tell me to kill. And, you know, it’s hot and dangerous, and I don’t like it much, but, you know, this is the job that I signed up for”; and a third who might be horrified by what he’s being asked to do and what the United States is doing in that country, and have some political analysis of it. And those are guys who have to get along with each other in some way and support each other.

AMY GOODMAN: There are so many stories in this. I mean, how does Wilmington, North Carolina, relate?

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, Wilmington was, in 1898, a city that was probably two- or three-to-one African American to white. Because African-American men could vote—women of no race could vote at that point—they had city councilmen who were African American, firemen, policemen, who had the right, even if they didn’t exercise it very often, to arrest white people. And that didn’t sit well with the kind of old bourbon Democrats, who planned a secret coup that started with intimidating black voters from coming out. Eventually, they purchased a Gatling gun. It was demonstrated to the leaders of the black community, and then told, “Tell your people not to vote tomorrow.” On the day after election day, the Gatling gun was kind of wagoned around town. A lot of people were killed. And pretty much anybody they didn’t like, black or white, was put in handcuffs, put on a train, and sent into exile. And after that, a new government was sworn in that day. So it was a racial military coup, that was countenanced by the federal government, because, by this time, they really had decided, “OK, we want Southerners to vote for us. We’ve already pulled our troops out.” You know. And I think, in certain cases, just, “Well, things must have been out of control there. I’m glad the white people got them back under control.”

AMY GOODMAN: Is this period, this critical period at the cusp of the 20th century, an allegory to what’s happening today in Iraq, in Afghanistan?

JOHN SAYLES: I think it’s unavoidably allegorical to almost any kind of occupation. You know, certainly Amigo could have been set in France during the Nazi occupation, in Algeria during the French occupation, in Vietnam during the French, Japanese or American occupation. You know, those kind of situations where the occupying force is more powerful, has more technology, doesn’t really understand the culture—or care to understand the culture that much—and has very, very specific goals that they’re trying to, you know, get across, you’re going to have these situations. You’re going to have people who are caught in between. You’re going to have, usually, a local group who’s willing to work with the occupying force, because they never got along with the local population. In the Philippines, it was a group called the Macabebes. You know, it might have been the Crow Indian fighting against the Sioux. You know, when Cortés invaded Mexico, most of his shock troops were indigenous people, not Spaniards. Those things occur over and over and over and over.

And I think that, you know, for just a citizen, one of the things that I think you should be able to take from history is ammunition to make you suspicious, to make you ask the second question, and not just accept the first thing you hear, from anybody.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary filmmaker John Sayles. His new book is called A Moment in the Sun. His film Amigo just opened in the Philippines, where John Sayles is right now. When we come back, we speak with John Sayles about Matewan, about The Return of the Secaucus Seven and his other films. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Lift Me Up” by Bruce Springsteen. The song was first released in the soundtrack of John Sayles’ 1999 film Limbo. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to my conversation with the legendary independent filmmaker and author John Sayles. I asked him about his film Matewan.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, Matewan is a movie about a labor strike, a coal miner strike in 1920 in West Virginia. The way that the coal operators tried to keep workers divided in those days was what they called a judicious mixture, which would be to hire a third hillbilly miners from West Virginia, a third immigrants from Yugoslavia, Italy, wherever, and a third black miners from the South, where the mines were just tapping out, and they would come up and be—trying to use them as strikebreakers. Often housed them in three different places, put them into the mine from three different places so that they couldn’t even meet on the job. And they thought, “Well, these people will never get together and form a union.” But in fact, the conditions were so bad and the pay was so bad that they found ways to find each other and ended up forming—the UMW was one of the most integrated unions of that time.

AMY GOODMAN: United Mine Workers.


AMY GOODMAN: So this is John Sayles’ film Matewan, an excerpt, a scene in a striker encampment in the woods, beginning with a visit by the company’s hired muscle attempting to threaten the striking workers and their families.

HICKEY: You people have been put out of Stone Mountain Mine housing. And some of you have seen fit to take along certain items of food, furniture and clothing that don’t belong to you, but belong to the company. As of the day of the strike, your scrip ceased to be legal tender, meaning that any item of food, clothing and furniture not paid for in cash money must be turned over to me and my deputies. I suggest that you all cooperate. See my boys? They didn’t get much sleep last night, so they’re kind of jumpy. Besides, we got the law on our side.

HILLARD ELKINS: You ain’t no law! You got to slip around the real law. You just got guns is all. You’re just thugs.

HICKEY: Yeah, maybe you’re right, sonny. We just got guns. You still gotta hand in them goods.

HILLARD ELKINS: Yellow scab herder, you!

MRS. ELKINS: Hillard, you get up from there.

JOE KENEHAN: You got a list of goods?

GRIGGS: Don’t need one.

JOE KENEHAN: How you gonna know what belongs to the company and what don’t?

GRIGGS: He’s the red, Hickey. He’s the agitator.

JOE KENEHAN: Everybody see I don’t got a gun on me?

HICKEY: What good do you think that’s going to do you, red?

JOE KENEHAN: You shoot me, folks will know it was murder.

HICKEY: Well, that’s some cold comfort. You listen to me, red.

ISAAC: We was hunting. You folks were making an awful lot of commotion.

SHEB: You scairt all the game away.

ISAAC: This your machine? Heard it last night, too. It’s an offense to the ear.

GRIGGS: Hold it, pops. You’re talking to the law here.

SHEB: He ask you anything?

GRIGGS: Where’d you get that thing, pal? Spanish war?

SHEB: No. War between the states.

ISAAC: You all get in this machine and get back into town, where you belong. Ain’t but one law out here, and that’s the law of nature.

HICKEY: Let’s get the hell out of here.

ISAAC: Folks, try and keep the noise down, you’ll do fine. Help yourself to the bird and the rabbit. If you see any hogs, he’s probably ours. We’d appreciate it if you’d leave him be. Good day to you.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of John Sayles’ Matewan. As you watch, what are you thinking?

JOHN SAYLES: Well, it’s interesting that that story hasn’t quite ended. The Matewan Massacre, which ends my film, was the prelude to an American incident called the Battle of Blair Mountain, which was the first time that bombs were dropped from airplanes. And in fact, they were dropped by American citizens on American citizens. And right now, as we speak, there is a second Battle of Blair Mountain, which is Blair Mountain had been named a historical landmark, then was unnamed because a coal company wanted to take the top of the mountain off. And a kind of coalition of people who think that it’s important history to keep this site the way that it was and environmentalists have joined together to try to fight the mountaintop removal of Blair Mountain. It’s a story that doesn’t end in West Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the massacre at the time, that you cover in Matewan.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, the massacre, at the time, was one of the few times that the coal miners actually won one of these armed engagements, if you can say a massacre is ever winning anything. People on both sides—

AMY GOODMAN: The year?

JOHN SAYLES: This is 1920. And eventually, the Baldwin-Felts Agency—the two guys who were kind of beating up on people at the beginning of that clip were from the Baldwin-Felts Agency, which was very much like the Pinkerton Agency, kind of the Blackwater of the time—ended up marching into town to evict a bunch of people. At that time, they had threatened and shot at and beaten enough people that there was a bunch of miners hidden around town with guns. And when there was a confrontation between the sheriff and the mayor and the heads of the Baldwin-Felts Agency in the middle of the street, pretty much at high noon, the miners who were secreted when the shooting started—and it’s still unclear who started shooting—were in a better position to shoot at the people who were out in the street than the people out in the street were in position to shoot at them. So, more of the Baldwin-Felts agents got killed than miners and civilians did, but there were people killed on both sides.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve gotten a question in on Facebook from Madhasudan Katti, who posted this question on Facebook: “Given that you directed one of my favorite American movies, Matewan, about the early days of the labor union movement in this country, I would like to know what you think of the current efforts to undermine unions. Are we being pushed back to the days of Matewan? And also wanted to know what you think about the general decline in the public perception of unions.”

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, well, this is a long story, but I would say, you know, two things happened. Federal judges and state judges, under both Democratic and Republican regimes, have changed legislation in the favor of companies against unions for the last 30, 35 years. So it’s much harder for a union to go on strike without breaking the law than it used to be. Unions had a very, very brief moment in the sun, pretty much starting when Franklin Roosevelt got into power. And some of his appointees, judges, were more favorable to the right of workers to collectively bargain.

Right now, certainly the conservative Republican agenda is to undo the New Deal. You know, they’re not just trying to undo what recent Democratic regimes have put in; it’s to undo the New Deal, to take us back to something like the ’20s or the ’30s, when unions were pretty much outlaw organizations, considered outlaw organizations. And since so few people are unionized today, their thrust now is not necessarily against industrial workers, but against public service unions, starting with the teachers.

And I think that years of anti-union propaganda, plus mistakes unions have made, you know—and sometimes just mistakes they’ve made and sometimes things that they have not been able to avoid, like organized crime taking over their unions and using them for purposes other than what they should be used for—have undermined people’s kind of image of what unions are. And there are places like Wal-Mart, that if you’re going to work at Wal-Mart, you have to watch a couple weeks of anti-union propaganda in order to hold onto the job.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

JOHN SAYLES: They will literally say, “If you want this job, you know, for a couple hours a day your first week, you’re going to have to come and you’re going to have to sit and watch these movies,” and they’re anti-union movies.

AMY GOODMAN: This question was sent to us by David Thurston Martin, who asks you, John Sayles, “The FBI has issued new guidelines that loosen rules on the surveillance and infiltration of activist groups. In your classic 1987 film, Matewan, you dealt with a subject rarely portrayed in the media: the role of agent provocateurs in infiltrating and disrupting social justice movements. In the context of the FBI’s new guidelines, could you talk about Matewan’s relevance today?”

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, I mean, this is always—you know, this is one of the things that you always have to keep a very close eye on, which is, absolutely, law enforcement agencies need to have certain powers of surveillance. There are people out in the world who are going to hurt other people, who are going to take advantage of other people. But there’s the trade-off, which is that you don’t necessarily trust those people to only be doing what they’re supposed to be doing, those law enforcement people. They can also be just used as a weapon of whoever is in power at that moment.

And when the FBI has been misused or misused its own power, we’ve had some, you know, enormous problems. And some of them have been the use of agent provocateurs, where you get—you know, there used to be jokes about, if you want to find the FBI agents in New York City, just go to the Communist Party cell meetings because a third of the people are agents or, in some cases, agent provocateurs. During the civil rights movement, there were a couple really disturbing incidents where one of the people in a car murdering civil rights activists would be an FBI informant. And there were some question as to, you know, OK, are they there—are they provoking something, or are they trying to stop something? You know, your article about the guns being released into Mexico is another one. And sometimes it’s just bad strategy, and sometimes it really is the agency being misused.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get your start in film?

JOHN SAYLES: I basically came so far from the outside—it’s like how I got my start in writing. You know, I was somebody who sent something over the transom. I just sent an unsolicited manuscript to a publisher, and they—it was one of the—one out of 2,000 or 3,000 that they got that year that they published. In the case of film, I had acted and directed in theater. I knew a lot of good actors. A friend of mine who I had worked with in theater said, “You should make a movie. You’re starting to write for movies. You have $40,000 in one place. Why can’t we make a movie?”

And so, ignorance being bliss, I—in the case of Return of the Secaucus Seven, it’s the only movie I’ve really made where the budget came first. And I said, “So, what can I do well for this budget? What can I talk about that is worth making a movie about? Well, what do I have? I have a bunch of friends who are very good actors, who are all turning 30. Why don’t I make a movie about people turning 30?”

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about them. Who were these actors that you went to college with, and friends?

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, I mean, I had worked with Gordon Clapp, who’s been on NYPD Blue and, you know, a bunch of TV series and movies; David Straithairn, who has had quite a bit of success as both a theater actor and a film actor; other people who didn’t necessarily keep acting but have stayed—you know, are writers now or directors or whatever. And it was an interesting moment, and it doesn’t necessarily exist anymore, where it was—there were a few independent distributors. There were very few independent movies being made, so the heads of those companies would look at anything with sprocket holes. So we actually got distribution for this off-Hollywood, off-off-Hollywood movie we made.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s go to an excerpt of The Return of the Secaucus Seven, your directorial debut. The main characters are in a small jail cell, explaining to their cell mate why they call themselves the Secaucus Seven.

J.T.: Hey, you know, we’ve got almost all the original Secaucus Seven here.

CHIP HOLLISTER: What’s that?

IRENE ROSENBLUE: An in-joke. You had to be there.

MIKE DONNELLY: It was one of the last big Washington marches, and we all ended up going down from Boston in a station wagon.

IRENE ROSENBLUE: Which Jeff had borrowed from a friend of his.

JEFF ANDREWS: An acquaintance.

J.T.: Yeah, some dude he thought he knew real well.

MIKE DONNELLY: We didn’t all know each other that well yet. It was me and Katie, and Jeff and Maura, and J.T. and Irene, and Frances. Frances was the other one. We get on the Jersey Turnpike, and we’re low on gas, so we got off in Secaucus.

IRENE ROSENBLUE: Right where you pick up the Lincoln Tunnel.

MIKE DONNELLY: In two seconds, we’re busted.

J.T.: Every cop on the Eastern Seaboard was out that weekend trying to pick off pinkos on their way to Washington.

MIKE DONNELLY: The guy looks in the back of our trunk.

IRENE ROSENBLUE: No warrant or anything.

MIKE DONNELLY: And there’s a rifle and an ounce of dope.

J.T.: Yeah, right, right. The cop says, “Rifle is OK,” right? But, ooh, that marijuana.

MIKE DONNELLY: At first we thought the guy who loaned us the car was an FBI plant who set us up.

JEFF ANDREWS: It turned out he was just stupid.

MIKE DONNELLY: So, we spend the night in the cooler.

IRENE ROSENBLUE: Adjoining cells for men and women, segregated from the rest of the prisoners.

J.T.: Right, so we don’t poison their minds, right?

MIKE DONNELLY: And we get hysterical, calling ourselves the Secaucus Seven and doing numbers from Jimmy Cagney and George Raft and—what was that movie?

MAURA TOLLIVER: Salt of the Earth.

MAURA, IRENE and KATIE: “We want the formula! We want the formula!”

CHIP HOLLISTER: Did you get sentenced?

J.T.: No, no. The turd that busted us must not have watched Dragnet or something. He made such a mess of the case, the judge had to throw it out of court.

JEFF ANDREWS: Kept the ounce, however.

MAURA, IRENE and KATIE: “We want the formula! We want the formula! We want the formula!”

AMY GOODMAN: “We want the formula,” The Return of the Secaucus Seven. What’s “We want the formula”?

JOHN SAYLES: That’s from a movie called Salt of the Earth, which was made mostly by filmmakers who had been blacklisted. Many of the people who performed in it later became blacklisted, including a Mexican actress, very wonderful Mexican actress, who, you know, through our State Department working on the Mexican film industry, was pretty much blacklisted in Mexico, not just in the United States. That was about a strike in the Southwest, made in the ’50s. It had a very difficult time actually getting on a screen. Haskell Wexler, who was a cinematographer on a bunch of our films, actually helped it get developed. They took the name of the film off the film cans, and he got it into a laboratory in Chicago, so—because no other laboratory in the United States would even develop the film.

AMY GOODMAN: With The Return of the Secaucus Seven, you had $40,000.


AMY GOODMAN: You filmed it all pretty much in just one or two places.


AMY GOODMAN: This place you were hanging out in in New Hampshire.

JOHN SAYLES: New Hampshire, right.

AMY GOODMAN: And in a bar.


AMY GOODMAN: And you used your camera people as extras when you needed to, changing their clothes as they would walk through in the bar to get more people.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, yeah. I think, you know, it was a good kind of film school in just figuring out: what can we do well for this amount of money? What can’t we do? How long does it take to do a tracking shot? Oh, if it takes that long, we’re not going to be able to move the camera. Making Amigo, our 17th film, the advantage is we’ve been doing it for that many films, for that many years, so our planning is a lot better. We’ve done things before. So I get a lot more out of $40,000, or in the case of Amigo, a million-and-a-half dollars, than I used to. But still, you’re always, when you’re making a movie—and I think this is true for even people who work on multi-million big Hollywood productions—you have to make choices. You have to say, “What’s the most important thing for the story at this moment? Maybe we’ll spend our money there rather than on something else.” You may have to rewrite. You may have to refigure right on the set, on the day. But you, finally, can’t lose sight of what’s the story you want to tell.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary filmmaker John Sayles. His new book is called A Moment in the Sun. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: If you’d like to get a copy of this interview, you can go to our website at But we’re going to jump right back into the end of it, to the film Sunshine State. In this scene, a young African-American man walking on the beach in Florida is invited by an older African-American man to a public meeting about the future of the beach.

DR. LLOYD: Prettiest beach on the Atlantic Coast.

REGGIE PERRY: Yeah. It is pretty.

DR. LLOYD: Well, if you want to help save it, we’re having a protest rally on Monday over at the groundbreaking.

REGGIE PERRY: I’m just visiting.

DR. LLOYD: Believe me, they won’t know the difference.

REGGIE PERRY: So, this is like a ecological thing?

DR. LLOYD: We’re trying to save an endangered species: us.

REGGIE PERRY: Yeah, I heard about this place when I was a kid, but I never—

DR. LLOYD: Forties, '50s, Lincoln Beach was it. Only oceanfront in three counties we were allowed to step onto. Black folks—I'm talking about the pillars of the community—got together and bought this land, built the houses. You drive through a couple hundred miles of redneck sheriffs, park your ride on the boardwalk, step out and just breathe. Over there was Henry’s Lounge. That place used to jump.

REGGIE PERRY: So what happened?

DR. LLOYD: Civil rights happened. Progress. Used to be you’re black, you buy black. Jim Crow days, you need your shoes shined or wanted to ride in a taxi to the train station, wanted some ribs, fish sandwich, chances are a black man owned the place you got it in. Now the drive-throughs serve anybody. But who owns them? Not us. All our people does is wearing paper hats and dipping out them fries. Only thing we got left are funeral parlors and barbershops.

REGGIE PERRY: Yeah, but now we can do anything.

DR. LLOYD: Yeah. Them that get over do fine. Them that can’t are in a world of trouble.

AMY GOODMAN: From Sunshine State. And so, what happens?

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, that’s based on American Beach, which is a place in northeastern Florida that was founded by the head of the African-American Insurance Company, which was an insurance company started by an African-American man so black people could bury their own people, would have enough money to bury people when they died. He wanted there to be a place where people could go to the beach, because the beaches in the South were all segregated at that point, and needed the intercession of Eleanor Roosevelt to be even allowed to buy this beachfront property that nobody else wanted and that he had the money to buy. Once he bought it, it became this kind of Mecca. And as the guy says, caravans of people used to drive down from all over the country, but especially the North, and party on this beach for weeks and weeks and weeks. There were homes there, originally just for employees of the African-American Insurance Company, eventually open to anybody—including white people, but only black people bought there. It still exists, but it’s a shadow of its former self, and partly because of integration.

And I think, you know, one of that—that gets into something that I think is always interesting, which is that any sort of change, any sort of what we would could consider progress, there are complex things that happen. There are unforeseen circumstances. So, with integration, or at least surface integration, some of the cohesiveness of the African-American community disappeared. Some of the middle class disappeared. You know, those black entrepreneurs, who could at least—everybody black would come to their store. That wasn’t—you know, they were—and then the world became more corporate, you know, and so just entrepreneurs of that size, no matter what race they were, started to disappear.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re known as a fierce independent voice, and also you give voice to people who aren’t usually heard in the mainstream media, like African Americans, like Chicanos, like Latinos—an early film on sexuality, on lesbians, Lianna. Has independence been key to all of this?

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, I think so. I think, you know, finally, the movie business is a business, first and foremost. And generally, as a writer for hire—and I’m not really just a script doctor. I write scripts based on books or ideas or whatever.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what that means, by the way.

JOHN SAYLES: Well, that people hire me, and they say, “OK, here’s a book we want you to adapt to a movie,” or, “Here’s a movie to rewrite,” or, “Here’s a historical incident. Write a movie about that.”

AMY GOODMAN: Or you’re particularly known for working on dialogue, your ear.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, dialogue, but, you know, just as a general screenwriter. But very often, the decisions that are made from that point are about, “Well, let’s not make him that radical or, let’s not making him this, because then he’s going to be more likely to be ambiguous to the audience. We want him to be just a good guy.” And what movies do very well, and what most movies are about, is about polarized good and bad, and not complexity. You know, complexity messes up most movie scenarios. So, when you’re independent and you’re not trying to make back $100 million of investment, you can be a little more risky and say, “Well, it’s a more complex situation, or I see the world in a more complex way.” My characters aren’t going to necessarily be quite as heroic, no matter what side they take. They are going to be more like most people, which is that they have very kind of mixed agendas. And on some days they have good days, and some days they have bad days, you know? They’re like our friends. We want them to do well. We want them to do the right thing, but they don’t always do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Hollywood has wrecked the movies?

JOHN SAYLES: No, I think that Hollywood is just trying to figure out how to make money. You know, it is more corporate even than it was in the '40s and ’50s. And I think what they've done is that they’ve gone for the sure thing, which is, their marketing tells them these are the people we know go to the movies right now. They tend to be young people. These are the kind of movies that they tend to like right now, so that’s all we’re going to make. So it’s not so much they’ve wrecked the movies, but they’ve kind of painted themselves into a corner and have just given up on certain audiences.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip of Lone Star, set near the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, a parent-teacher meeting erupting into clear fault lines between white parents and Chicano parents, who want a more diverse portrait. The two teachers leading the meeting—one white, one Latina—try to resolve the tension.

TEXTBOOK COMMITTEE WOMAN: Just tearing everything down, tearing down our heritage, tearing down the memory of people who fought and died for this land.

MEXICAN-AMERICAN FATHER: We fought and died for this land, too. We fought the U.S. Army, the Texas Rangers.

ANGLO FATHER: Yeah, you lost, buddy. Winners get the bragging rights. That’s just the way it goes.

MODERATOR: People! People! I think it would be best if we don’t view this thing in terms of winners and losers.

TEXTBOOK COMMITTEE WOMAN: Well, the way she’s teaching, it’s got everything switched around. I was on the textbook committee, and her version is not—

MODERATOR: We think of the textbook as a guide, not as an absolute.

TEXTBOOK COMMITTEE WOMAN: It is not what we set as the standard. Now you people can believe whatever you want, but when it comes to teaching our children —

MEXICAN-AMERICAN MOTHER: They’re our children, too. And as the majority in this community, we have the right.

ANGLO FATHER: Oh, yeah? Well, the men that founded this state have the right, the right to have their story told the way it happened, not the way somebody wanted it to happen.

DANNY: Eh, eh. The men who founded this state broke from Mexico because they needed slavery to be legal to make a fortune in the cotton business.

PILAR: I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification.

ANGLO FATHER: Are you reporting this meeting, Danny, or are you running it now, huh?

DANNY: Just adding a little historical perspective.

ANGLO FATHER: Oh, yeah? Well, you call it history; I call it propaganda. Now, I’m sure they’ve got their own account of the Alamo on the other side, but we’re not on the other side.

PILAR: There’s no reason to be so threatened by this.

ANGLO FATHER: And we’re not about to have our schools taught that way!

PILAR: Excuse me. I’ve only been trying to get across part of the complexity of our situation down here, cultures coming together in both negative and positive ways.

TEXTBOOK COMMITTEE WOMAN: If you’re talking about food and music and all, I have no problem with that. But when you start changing who did what to who.

TEACHER: We’re not changing anything. We’re just trying to present a more complete picture.

TEXTBOOK COMMITTEE WOMAN: And that’s what’s got to stop.

TEACHER: Look, there’s enough ignorance in the world without us encouraging it in the classroom.

TEXTBOOK COMMITTEE WOMAN: Now who are you calling ignorant?

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Lone Star. Talk about Lone Star. And isn’t that what you’re trying to do, make things more complex, show their complexity?

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, at least raise those questions, at least try to get people to question the official version. And so many people learn their history from media, unfortunately, because, you know, quite honestly, I don’t think there is really—certainly not in Hollywood—history is just—it’s a backdrop. You know, if you like the costumes, if you can dress people up and have them shoot at each other, the history is useful until it’s not, and then we’ll just change it. The bias is for entertainment, not for accuracy in whatever happened. But I think, you know, control over your own story, control over your own history, is very important.

One of the things that inspired me to make Lone Star was seeing how our legends, the things that we believe about ourselves, can be useful and they can be destructive. It was made during a lot of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. People were fighting each other over legends, basically, over “Oh, you people, back in the 13th century, did this to us, and we owned this land in the 15th century.” Well, these were things that there was some history in them, but mostly they were popular legends. The popular legend of the Alamo is one that needed to be looked into, what was really going on there. And as one of the guys says, the freedom that was being fought for truly was the freedom to own slaves. You know, Anglos could not get rich in the cotton business unless slavery was legal. Mexico had outlawed slavery. And that was what rankled them the most and made them decide, “Well, we have to break away from these fascists who won’t let us own slaves.”

AMY GOODMAN: As we begin to wrap up, a question came to us by email from Pia Massey, who asks if you have any tips for sane survival for artist-activist types.

JOHN SAYLES: Well, I think the sane survival—one of the things is to think of your role not as somebody that, you know, if there are no final victories, there are also no final losses, and that things have gotten better. They usually haven’t gotten better because of what’s been going on at the top. They’ve usually gotten better because of what’s been pushing from beneath. You know, the politicians are only going to be as good as we force them to be. And that however small your audience is, however frustrating it is to get your version of the world or what you want to talk about out there, it’s part of the conversation. And if you shut up, the conversation is one-sided. And I think that’s the important thing about—any one movie that I’ve made isn’t that important, but the fact that I make the movies, the fact that other people make movies that try to get into, you know, recognizable human behavior and what’s going on in the world, is important because it’s part of the conversation. And, you know, as I was talking about with A Moment in the Sun, when people have more information, they at least—they at least have the possibility of acting differently. Whether they want to know that or not, it’s harder for them to just kind of keep the blinkers on and do what they ordinarily would do, when confronted with that other information.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary filmmaker John Sayles. He’s also an award-winning author. His new book, his first novel in 20 years, is a historical epic called A Moment in the Sun. His film Amigo comes out in August. It’s opening now in the Philippines, where John Sayles is right now.

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“A Moment in the Sun”: An Extended Interview with Independent Filmmaker, Author John Sayles

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