John Sayles told the Chronicle why he returned to the border for his 19th feature film, Go for Sisters. But he had more to say: about his writing process, how he works with actors, and – spoiler alert! – the film's ending.
Go for Sisters focuses on SoCal parole officer Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), who turns to her old friend Fontayne (Yolonda Ross), now an ex-con under her charge, and a former cop with failing vision (Edward James Olmos) to help her search for her son, who's gone missing in the underworld of Tijuana. The film, which had its North American premiere at South by Southwest this year, returns to Austin this week for an engagement at the Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane. Sayles will be present for a Q&A following the Austin Film Society's screening Saturday, Dec. 7, 7pm. He'll also attend a special AFS screening of his 1987 film Matewan Sunday, Dec. 8, 8pm, at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre. Here, the writer-director starts by sharing a behind-the-scenes example of how, 35 years into his career as an independent filmmaker, he still has to make adjustments on the fly.
John Sayles: The hardest thing about Go for Sisters was that we had less than a million dollars, we had 19 days to shoot it, and we had more than 65 locations, meaning more than 65 times that we had to move everybody. And that adds to your day, adds to the difficulty, and it takes away from the time that you have to work with the actors and actually be shooting. But those places are part of the story.
Austin Chronicle: Couldn't you grab your screenwriter around the neck and tell him to simplify things a little?
JS: I did as much of that as I could. And sometimes you can piece it together. For instance, there's the little scene where you see them crossing the border at San Diego to Tijuana, and you see cars going to the border control booths. Well, we got a guy up on a bridge, and we had checked with Homeland Security and all the agencies that we thought we needed. He got his tripod up. He was getting in focus, shooting at the cars going into the booths, and somebody from yet another agency arrested him and took him off the bridge. So I had six seconds. I slowed it down in post to eight seconds, and then the rest of what you see was shot in the San Fernando Valley, and when they go up to the booth, it's actually a car wash. Which is built basically the same way, but we put a guy in uniform in there, and when you put the two together, it looks like, "Oh, somehow they got permission to shoot going through the border crossing." So there are certain things you can do, but you've got to go to the real place to get the real feel, so at the end of the movie, you're really walking around the streets, and let me tell you, if you shoot in the red light district of Tijuana, they don't shut it down. They keep doing what they're doing if you're shooting a movie or not. So all of our extras in that sequence are free, and they're going about their business.
AC: So as your three leads try to learn what happened to Bernice's son, you take them not just across the border into Mexico but into the Mexican underworld, with human and drug traffickers, then, on top of that, into the part of the Mexican underworld run by the Chinese. When you as a writer go into those places that are not of your background, not of your culture, do you feel like you're trespassing?
JS: You always feel like any character you write – unless it's autobiographical, and I have not yet written in fiction or in movies an autobiographical character – you're a visitor. And you're trying to figure out what goes on – what goes on literally, what are the written rules, what are the unwritten rules, what's the rhythm, what's going on in peoples' heads. There are places that I feel like I've penetrated better than others and places where I feel like I couldn't do that.
So I've made two movies in Mexico, you know, where the whole movie was shot in Mexico. Neither of them is set in Mexico. They're set in somewhat imaginary Latin American countries, 'cause I don't feel like I … I would have to spend years and years to understand the details of Mexican culture and politics, whereas City of Hope, which takes place in Hudson City, which might as well be Newark or Jersey City or Hoboken or any of those places, I could write that in a couple of days and feel like I don't need to do any research. I know this world and I know these people. So yeah, you're always aware of that, but the act of writing about anybody else, if it's not self-confessional autobiography, is pretentious. You're pretending. You're trying to figure out how other people live, think, see the world, and you're presenting it in story form to somebody else.
AC: When you were putting your leads together, there's so much that's dependent on Bernice and Fontane's past relationship, that history that we need to feel is there. Is there anything you did or LisaGay and Yolonda did to develop that?
JS: You know, they emailed once or twice. They had met at a party that we had the night before we started shooting. I don't really do rehearsal, acting rehearsal, so what I do is I send them a bio, and the one thing that I made sure was in both of their bios was some language about what kinds of friends they were when they were friends and why they were friends. They kind of completed each other as friends. Bernice was the one who was better at academics and had two parents, but was a little bit of a scaredy-cat. Fontane was the one who didn't do so well in school, and she only had her mom, who had kind of a drug problem but was bold and would take chances and would do things that were fun. But somehow she condescended to hang with Bernice and, in her mind, Bernice condescended to hang with her, and they really liked being together. And that's what they're trying to get back. And that complementary thing continues in this adult relationship.
So yeah, you try to give the actors the ammunition, but a lot of what it really is is hiring really good actors, giving them a good situation, putting them in it, and putting them in the arena and having them work it out, scene by scene. They got to do the first scene in the movie first, and after that, everything was out of sequence, so they really just had to play the moment honestly and discover those things about each other, not as characters but as actresses, too.
AC: I can't recall having seen a character with macular degeneration onscreen before, but my mother has that, and watching Edward Olmos play that so specifically was really powerful. Was that something he had any experience with?
JS: No. I realized this could turn into the old crow helping these two girls out and coming up on a white steed, and even though he's off the force, he's still got all his skills and everything. So I wanted something to cut that. And I figured, "What if he's lost some of his skills? What if he's lost his sight?" We knew a guy named David Levine, who used to be the caricaturist for The New York Review of Books – you've seen his caricatures – and in his last two years he had macular degeneration. He couldn't draw a fine line anymore, and he ended up doing watercolors, kind of out-of-focus stuff. And he said, "I'm gone. I can't do my job anymore." Seeing him go through that, and talking to him, and seeing how he had to move his body to really see you, and seeing the times that he faked it, where he looked right at you and you knew he couldn't see you, but he just felt like, "I don't really want to get into it right now, I'm just gonna pretend I can see this person, and I know where they're sitting, and I'm gonna point myself at them," gave me this idea. And I always write a bio and had sent Eddie his bio for his character. And then I said separately, "Check out this macular degeneration thing. There are some specific things about that form of losing your sight." I wanted to see, how far is he going to take it? He's going to make it into something that works for his character. And he took it very extreme. He took it that this guy is extremely affected. In fact, it's getting a little worse by the end of the movie than the beginning of the movie. So he has to fake certain situations. He really can't do certain things anymore. And in situations where he doesn't want people to know it, he's very still. He hasn't had it so long that his head is starting to wander, like Stevie Wonder or somebody who's been blind all his life, so he can still pass in certain situations. And then there are others that he just tries to avoid because he can't do them anymore. So when he gets that gun, he knows it's just for show. And in some ways, he's just showing his clients that he's serious. 'Cause he knows he can't use it anymore without endangering innocent people.
AC: Are you ever still surprised by what actors will bring to these stories as you've written them?
JS: Oh sure. It's why I tend not to hire actors to do something they've done before. I want to be surprised. And we don't change lines. We don't change the plot. But they can come back with another take that's, "Oh, I could do it this way." And I say, "Oh, I never thought of that. That may end up in the movie."
AC: The interactions among all three of the main characters – and the choices they make, the way they push themselves to do things they haven't done before or that they don't know that they can do – are what make this such a strong story.
JS: Thanks. I kind of started with this idea that there is no redemption without risk, and they all at some point realize that, and they take the risk. And they take the risk for somebody else, not just for themselves, and that's the hard thing. That's the hard thing human beings have to do, and it doesn't always turn out well. In a Q&A the other day, someone asked me about the ending, and I always just feel like the ending of a movie has to be earned by the rest of the movie. And I didn't feel like this particular story and the tone of it earned a sad ending. So they just get lucky and the kid's not dead when they find him. They do everything to find him, and they do everything to get resolution, but resolution is different than than the kid luckily being alive, and they made the phone calls and stepped on the button just in time for the Chinese to decide, "You know what? This kid's more trouble than he's worth, and we're not gonna get any money out of him. We should just cut him loose."
AC: It felt to me like an organic outgrowth of that story rather than an ending that was imposed on it so the audience walks out of the theatre feeling a particular way.
JS: Yeah, that's what I mean by the movie has to earn the ending. I think Argo did that very well. It's a real story, but also the way they told it, the way it was written and directed, you feel like, "Yeah, they coulda gotten away with that." And you realize a Hollywood studio would not have made it unless they did walk out, but they were really happy when they found that story.