John Sayles Talks Baseball, the Deep South, and Honeydripper
John Sayles has written and directed sixteen films and been nominated twice for the Academy Award for screenwriting, yet the filmmaker lists some surprising influences.“I never thought about being a writer. A writer wasn't something I wanted to be,” Sayles says over fried oysters and countless soft drinks at a recent dinner at City Hall restaurant. “ An outfielder was something to be. Most of what I know about style I learned from Roberto Clemente.”
A filmmaker who’s been labeled “indie icon” more times than December snow has been forecast in his hometown of Schenectady, Sayles is also the author of five works of fiction, a National Book Award nominee and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (a/k/a “the genius grant.”) One of Sayles’ most noted films, Eight Men Out, dramatizes the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal, and Sayles’ first novel, Pride of the Bimbos, relates the travails of a transvestite softball team, so it's no surprise that he can talk baseball and the steroid scandal. He also touched on the beginnings of rock and roll which inform the changing times within his sixteenth and latest film, Honeydripper.
Eight Men Out deals with culpability and corruptability, not only of a baseball team, but the sport and, by extension as America’s Game, the country itself. Now I realize that you can only lose your innocence so many times, but do you see any parallels between the Black Sox scandal and the recent release of the Mitchell Report?
Well, I think certainly for younger kids, yeah. Those are their heroes. You know, fans, they want to believe the best, despite every evidence in some cases, about the players that they’re fans of.
The parallel to me is that you can’t just point to the baseball players in the Black Sox scandal. It was a labor situation. All the sportswriters kind of knew, you know, that people were gambling on games. There were coaches who were gambling on games. You know, Ty Cobb was probably gambling on games. And just like that situation, not everybody who took steroids is going to get caught in this thing. The owners absolutely knew the guys were juicing, you know, and if they had cared about that more than they cared about the fact that they were getting this incredible jolt in attendance because of the home run derby that was happening, it would’ve stopped like it did in the NFL.
Not that there aren’t a couple people getting away with taking steroids in the NFL, but they really jumped on it fast. You know, they had a couple people die. And those guys work hard. Their problem actually is toning the guys down a little in football, because they’re going to kill each other. You know, even without steroids they’re going to kill each other they’re so big and so fast. But they got on it right away.
And the baseball people just decided, You know what? We’re going to have a double standard about this. We’re going to say it’s bad and we’re going to look the other way. Somebody was asking me the other night, Is there a movie there? And I was saying, Yeah, but it’s kind of a science fiction movie. You know, it’s like Alien Nation where they take that green stuff and they turn into something else. But the interesting part is the pressure. You know, if I don’t make the team this year, I’m nobody. Not every one of these guys is Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens.
Danny Glover’s character in Honeydripper, Pine Top Perkins, is not all that far removed from those players. He does whatever he has to do to hold onto his bar, which is not only his livelihood but a large part of his identity.
He steals liquor belonging to his competition. He makes a deal with the closest thing the movie has to a figurative devil. He defrauds his customers once by presenting a fake Guitar Sam and he has every intention of defrauding them again by turning off the power and faking a robbery so he can take all the money. And worst of all, he steals the money that his wife has set aside for his stepdaughter’s beauty school education. And yet we empathize with Glover’s character. How is he different? How does Pine Top get to be the hero when we excoriate players like Chris Donnels and Tim Laker and F. P. Santangelo who were also trying to hold onto their livelihood and their identity?
Well, I think in this case, you know, some of the interesting tension of the movie is he’s doing these bad things. Some of it is what he’s doing it for. He’s not doing it to leave town with the money. He’s not fighting to save that building. In this weird way he’s fighting to save the fact that, you know, in Harmony, Alabama, there’s one black man who’s his own man. And somewhere, without articulating it, he understands that that’s not only important to him, you know, to not be the janitor for the mayor, but it’s important to everybody in his community that there’s somebody like that.
As a black man in Harmony, Alabama in 1950, he’s an underdog already. And Americans love their underdogs. Can major league baseball players still be underdogs once they’ve reached that level of accomplishment?
You know, I think many of them can. If they’re Jose Canseco and they start talking about themselves in the third person, probably not. It really depends on who they are. Barry Bonds is not going to catch any breaks just because the press doesn’t like him.
But there are players who have been caught and outed in the past two weeks that if the story was told the right way we could make them every bit as much of a hero, a protagonist, as empathetic a character as Pine Top.
Oh, absolutely. I think, for instance, Mark McGwire, the way that he handled it when he started talking about it, has remained fairly sympathetic. And because of who he was before and his attitude and that kind of stuff. Let’s just say all the players who bet on games didn’t get caught. There are guys in the Hall of Fame that didn’t get caught. I’ve always felt that Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame and there should be an asterisk that says, you know, Dumbass.
Rose wasn’t any more morally challenged than Ty Cobb.
Yeah. And that’s the asterisk. Not the greatest human being in the world, but he belongs in the Hall of Fame because of his playing. That’s what it’s supposed to be about. And if we got rid of every dumbass, you know, about a third of the people would disappear. So yeah, you don’t sympathize with his methods or what he did, but I sympathize with the guys in that situation.
Setting carries more than its share of the load in a number of your movies. Brother from Another Planet has to be set in Harlem. Matewan has to be set in West Virginia. And then there’s Roan Inish and Ireland, Sunshine State in Florida and Silver City in Colorado. Honeydripper takes place in Alabama, but “Keeping Time,” the story its derived from, doesn’t have a particular setting.
At what point do you know that Honeydripper is set in Alabama? And does anything happen to the screenplay once you’re physically in the state that would reflect setting’s importance?
95% of the script is just Deep South cotton country, you know. And that comes from, Where does all this music come from? It comes from the South. Where does the blues come from? It comes from the Delta and spreads out from there. So it’s not a New Orleans story. It’s a Deep South story. When we started scouting we needed a de-commissioned Army base because of 1950 being the Korean War and that’s part of the story. And we found one in Anniston. And, you know, Alabama has a kind of unheralded blues past. They’ve got the same kind of blues stuff as Mississippi does, just not as well-known people. You start saying, What’s specific about that? And I think the 5% that’s left. It shows up in a couple of kind of minor ways.
You know, Stacy Keach’s character, I started thinking about Alabama and the sheriffs there and stuff like that, Bull Connor or whatever. And actually I went back to George Wallace, and I said to Stacy, Your guy was a boxer like George Wallace was. The key to his character and the key to him keeping control of people is he keeps them off-balance. He’s not a psychopath. He’s not even in his heart a hateful guy, but he’s willing to use all that stuff because he’s corrupt and he wants to win. And he will be nice to you one minute and then he’ll fuck you the next. And so that got in there a little bit.
Every once in a while you just find something very local that kind of works for you. There was Hank Williams, his legacy. The stories about him learning guitar from this guy Tee Tot who lived in this little town that we ended up shooting in, Georgiana. That idea of a kid listening to, you know, an adult and picking up and then becoming the next generation. In that case it was interracial, but in the case of those two kids at the beginning and end of the film, that was one of the things I thought about that was kind of specifically hooked up to that legacy.
And that comes from having a physical presence in Alabama.
Yeah, and talking to people. You know, getting to talk to them about their stories. Most of the Hank stories we heard were basically about that duality of him. He would sing in the honky-tonks and drink and pass out, and then his friends would put him in his car, drive it to the church parking lot and leave him there because he’d promised to sing in church the next morning. He really had quite a few important songs that were religious songs, and that was a big part of his music and a big part of his life. And somebody would come out and give him a kick five minutes before he was on, and he’d wander in in his wrinkled clothes and sing at church.
Speaking of legendary 1950s musicians, in “Keeping Time” the character is actually called Guitar Slim, but for the movie you change it Guitar Sam. Is that to give you more freedom to create the character you want? So you’re not trapped by the historical?
It’s mostly just the leeway. Guitar Slim actually was about two years later than this guy would’ve been. You know, he really didn’t kind of hit big until ’52 and I’m setting this in ’50. And yeah, if there’s going to be a character who doesn’t show up and it’s not somebody who everybody knows, you might as well fictionalize it slightly. But he is the guy who came up with the long extension cord.
The long extension cord used to play out in front of the club.
And missing the gigs. He was known for that as well.