Entertainment: Man with guts

An interview with filmmaker John Sayles, director of the spanish-language film "Men with Guns."

By Michael Snyder

Published March 13, 1998 10:18AM (EST)

Certainly one has learned to expect the eclectic from film director John Sayles, whose canon includes everything from satirical sci-fi ("The Brother From Another Planet") and historical docudrama ("Eight Men Out" and "Matewan") to fanciful Irish folk tale ("The Secret of Roan Inish") and lesbian coming-out story ("Lianna").

In 1996, Sayles was on a roll with "Lone Star," the most celebrated and successful movie of his filmmaking career. His tale of interwoven American and Hispanic families in a Texas border town was honored with an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay and saw bigger box office receipts than any of his other films, including "City of Hope" and "Passionfish."

Yet Sayles, who is also an accomplished novelist and author of short
stories, did not do the obvious with his follow-up to "Lone Star." Rather than use his growing clout to go the big-budget/big-star Hollywood route, this Schenectady, N.Y.-born maverick made what is essentially a Spanish-language film, "Men With Guns (Hombres Armados)"
-- complete with subtitles.

But "Men With Guns" is a powerful, provocative work whose themes of cultural difference transcend language. The story of an aging Latin American doctor (Federico Luppi) who travels from the city to rural parts of his revolution-torn country in search of his former students, "Men With Guns" is about the journey of an idealist who finds himself alienated from his countrymen, a stranger in his homeland.

Recently, Sayles spoke with Salon about "Men With Guns," colorblind casting and the difference between politically correct and politically conscious filmmaking.

Was it a risky proposition for you to do a film in a language other
than English?

Scorsese just did it with "Kundun," which is set in Tibet. John
Frankenheimer did it a couple of times. I'm fluent enough in Spanish to
direct a movie in it. I can speak it and write it. I only have trouble
if there are three people in a room speaking Spanish as the same time.
As far as "Men With Guns," it was a combination of the story and the
actors. The lead actor, Federico Luppi, was someone I wanted to work
with. He speaks English, and that might have worked, but I've seen
Marcello Mastroianni and Gerard Depardieu speak English in films and I
always think it affects their acting.

The main character in
this film learns that not everyone in his Latin American country speaks
the same language once he gets out of his capital city. In a way, it
puts the English-speaking audience in his place. It's an interesting
phenomenon: If a tree falls and it doesn't fall on an American, did it
happen? The studios think that way, so "Under Fire" was about an
American in the middle of a foreign civil war. This is the same topic
from the view of a Latin American in his own country.

But a lot of things I had in mind writing it didn't even have to necessarily happen
in Latin America. It's really a generic title: "Men With Guns." I put in
elements of Bosnia, Vietnam, Russia.

Won't the distribution of a film like "Men With Guns" be difficult?

The people at Sony Classics have marketed Depardieu and other
foreign stars and subtitled films. They'll treat this the same way and
put it in those theaters that present subtitled movies. If we get good
reviews, we'll hope that the very few moviegoers that check out a
specific director will go see it. That core audience is about 5 percent of the
overall box office. If we get them, I'll be happy. For me, the relative
commercial success of "Lone Star" was a pleasant surprise. It broke out
of the art houses and played the malls. I think its success had a lot to
do with it being set in Texas. It's is a big state with a lot of people
fascinated about their own history.

"Lone Star" also had a Latin American flavor. Is
there a particular obsession at work?

Not really. I'm interested in making movies about cultures clashing,
and the U.S.-Mexico border is our hottest border -- it's certainly not the
one between the U.S. and Canada. But I am comfortable around Hispanic
culture. I spent a lot of time as a kid in Miami. My grandparents lived
there. After the Bay of Pigs, Miami really changed. I eventually was
inspired to write a novel about the Cuban community. And for years, I
lived in Southern California in various Mexican or Chicano
neighborhoods, so I like and understand aspects of the culture.

But my next movie takes place in Alaska. It's not like I'm going to be stuck
doing the Spanish thing. It's just the foreign culture that I'm most
familiar with. And I'm fascinated by that split between First World and
Third World that you find in Latin America and don't find here.


You've made films about labor strife, a famous gambling scandal,
interpersonal dynamics, awakening sexuality and civic corruption? Would
you call your movies politically correct?

I don't think of my films that way. I do think of them as
politically conscious. I think that all movies are political in one way
or another -- even mainstream films. I can make a case for "Adventures
in Babysitting" as a political film, in that it deals with aspects of
race and contemporary culture. It may be done unconsciously, but it's
political, as is "Forrest Gump" and many other films that are considered
mainstream and apolitical.

It's true that I get flack from extreme people on both sides of the political spectrum, saying that what I do is not correct from their point of view. And I'm always trying to be aware
of what's going on in society when I make a film. When I have a black
character, I try to think what does the black experience have to do with
this character. It's not colorblind casting. It's a situation where I have to ask how being black or female or old affect the character in the story. In "Passionfish," there was a relationship between a white woman and a black woman. But it wasn't really about race. It was the fact that one was handicapped; one wasn't. One wrote the checks; one didn't.

What's your opinion of colorblind casting?

The further in the past and the further in the future you go, the
less important matters of race become. You don't know if Klingons are
black. They could be. And in classical theater pieces, it's not an
issue. But if you're doing a historical piece like "Braveheart," you
don't hire Wesley Snipes.

Who are some of your favorite actors?

I like John Cusack. I really enjoyed him in "Grosse Point Blank." I
think Julianne Moore is wonderful. And Leonardo DiCaprio. It's great
seeing Sean Penn back to acting. And for me, it's about giving them
something interesting to do. I'm pleased with how good the acting is in
"Men." The Indian actors are almost invisible in Mexican film and TV,
unless they're playing maids. And it was a joy to work with Mandy
Patinkin and Kathryn [Grody, his wife, who has the only
English-speaking part in the film besides Patinkin]. Mandy has such great comic timing.

What's next for you?

I'm doing that film in Alaska. It's called "Limbo." It's a sort of
Joseph Conrad thing about a fisherman who doesn't go to sea anymore.
David Straitharn is the only actor who's signed so far.

It sounds so different from "Men With Guns." Are you consciously
trying to create challenges for yourself or find new audiences with each
new film by deliberately changing genres?

Each one is its own world and has its own problems -- I don't think of
them as a great lump -- and each one is released in a different world.
Some are with commercial potential, others won't do that kind of
business. Since "Men With Guns" is a subtitled movie, that eliminates a
large segment of the audience. But there isn't a particular target. "The
Secret of Roan Inish" wasn't made as a children's film. It was based on
a children's book, but I wanted to give it enough edge to appeal to
adults. Some of my other films I wouldn't inflict on a kid.

Any plans to write another novel?

I don't know if I have another novel in me. Maybe a short story
collection. That's kind of the way I look at my films -- like a
collection of short stories. I'm not like John Ford, being most
comfortable in Monument Valley, or Hitchcock, comfortable in a suspense
thriller. I'm all over the place.

Michael Snyder

Michael Snyder is a writer living in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Michael Snyder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------