As John Sayles recalled during a recent stop in Los Angeles, he cast an Equity show in New York years ago, and 300 actors showed up over two days for an open call. "You're supposed to give them two minutes and take their headshots, and everyone of the actors said, 'You're really the director?' because the [producers] usually sent the production manager or the stage manager," he recollected. "These actors had never met a real director at one of these cattle call things. I felt bad because I actually didn't end up using any of them for that play. But I read a couple of those actors later, and I remembered them years later for other projects."
With Sayles an actor gets the real deal. "I was an actor before I was a writer or director. I have that sympathy at least," offered Sayles, whose writing/directing credits include the films Brother From Another Planet, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, Lone Star, and Sunshine State. His latest feature, Casa de Los Babys, opens this month and tells the story of group of North American women in an unspecified South American country living in a single hotel as they wait for their baby adoptions to come through.
Known as one of America's most respected and talented independent filmmakers, Sayles seems to center his films on personal relationships. A storyteller at heart, he admits to writing stories ever since he was very young. Holder of a bachelor's degree in psychology from Williams College in Massachusetts, he also acted in summer stock and submitted stories to magazines while in college. Looking back at his choice of major, Sayles told Back Stage West that his interest in psychology parallels his passion for writing.
"I think an interest in people is the common thread there," he said. "Once I discovered that there was such a thing as a screenwriter and a director, it stayed in my head as a possibility."
Before entering the film arena, Sayles began writing novels, including Pride of the Bimbos (1975), and Union Dues (1977). In the mid-1970s he wrote scripts for low-budget producer Roger Corman; their collaborations include Piranha (1978), The Lady in Red (1979), and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). He wrote and directed his first film, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, with $40,000 of his own money. "I got stuff published first before I got anything made as a movie, so I think I got spoiled," he said. "When writing a short story or a novel and getting it published, you pretty much get to do the first, second, and third drafts yourself without a whole lot of interference. So when it came to making movies, that's the way I wanted to do it. I didn't want to just do one part of the process and leave it at that."
Sayles also has a habit of casting great actors, whether well-known or up-and-coming, and Casa de Los Babys is no exception. His ensemble includes Daryl Hannah, Lili Taylor, Mary Steenburgen, Rita Moreno, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden, and Susan Lynch. He admits he mainly looks for depth and versatility when casting an actor. "It's often the ability to play a subtext, because often in my stuff somebody is saying one thing on the surface and feeling something else below. With David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Joe Morton—actors I've worked with a bunch of times—one of their great strengths is their ability to play that subtext, to be saying, 'Where were you on the night of the 13th,' when really what they're saying is, 'What kind of human being was my father?' Not every actor can do that.
Sayles also looks for an actor's ability to get gritty. "Usually when I do an audition, I act with the actors, I'll play all the other parts," he shared. Although for the most part that can work to the actor's advantage, it occasionally creates a problem, he said. "I came into town a couple of days early to audition some people for Silver City that we're trying to make in Denver. There's a scene where a guy is supposed to be a really tough labor contractor. At some point he's supposed to take the character I was reading and throw him against the wall. And there's a moment where you see the actor saying, 'Oh, do I really throw the director who's going to hire me against the wall?' I read a bunch of guys, and they all finally said, 'You know, I'm an actor; that's what my character would do.' That's important to me."
He also prefers to work with actors who are team players. "If they are actors who have worked a lot, we check to see how they are as co-workers, if they can deal with the fact that it's going to be a low-budget production, that they may not even have a trailer, and that they're going to be living at the same level as everybody else. We tend to do this most-favored nations thing where the best-known actors get paid the same scale as the person who's just starting, and some people just can't deal with that or don't want to at that point in their career."
When asked which aspect of his craft he prefers, he quickly responded, "The editing. Because you know you're going to get to make the movie. It doesn't matter if it's day or night, you're still getting to write because you're changing things and moving things around, and you're still getting to work with the actors [even though] they're not there. One of the first things Marcia Gay Harden said to me [while filming Casa de Los Babies] was, 'There are so many ways I could play this.' And I said, 'Yeah, let's see them all.' Sure enough, every take she did something not very intellectually different but emotionally different. Where that take took her—because she played such a volatile character, and it certainly kept the other actors on their toes, like they would be with that kind of personality in real life—gave me this enormous wealth of things to use in the editing that I could mix and match and build this character out."
He continued, "In theatre, acting is a collaboration among the director and the actor and the playwright, who may be long dead. In movies you add the editor—sometimes unfortunately you also add six studio executives who never met the actor, plus a focus group in Milwaukee. I kind of eliminate that, so really I'm able to say to the actor, 'The deal is between you and me, but remember I'm going to be the last word on this. But I'm also going to protect you, and I'll always use what I think is your better performance.' And I tell them, 'Embarrass yourself. Please go ahead, do something you're not so sure of, and if I think it's embarrassing or it's not appropriate I'm not going to put it in the movie, and studio executives are not going to get hold of it and stick it in because they like it or think you look sexy or whatever. It's just not going to go in the movie."
Up next for Sayles? "I have these two epic historical projects," he said. "One is called Sometimes in the Sun. It's set during the Philippine Insurrection which is right after the Spanish American War. [It deals with] what happened in the Philippines, which was very much America's first Vietnam. And then there's another movie that I was trying to make up until just a month or so ago, called Jamie McGillivaney. That was a Robert Carlyle project. The Scottish actor just called me up out of the blue. I really like his work, and said I've got this idea about a Scottish Western set in the mid-1700s. It's a big story, kind of way beyond The Last of the Mohicans, although it's set in the same era. But those kinds of movies are not cheap to make. Casa de Los Babys is a movie I shot for $1 million in four weeks. You can't do that with these."
And while they certainly sound epic in scope, those films are also sure to focus on the explorations of the human interactions for which Sayles has become much admired. BSW