“We Got Over 90 Setups One Day”: John Sayles on Eight Men Out
Few directors in the history of American film have presented a perspective on the human condition as complex, varied, and compassionate as that of John Sayles. The quintessential independent filmmaker, he once said, “I’m interested in the stuff I do being seen as widely as possible but I’m not interested enough to lie.” He has remained true to that ethos from his directorial debut, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, to his most recent gem, Go For Sisters. No one tells the truth with as much humor, pain, sympathy, irony, or expansiveness as Sayles, a man to whom no aspect of experience seems foreign. Many of his best films – Lone Star, City of Hope, Sunshine State, Silver City – are sweeping portraits of communities in which Sayles gives enormous casts of ensemble characters their full due; when dealing with political material he makes complicated observations, not cheap points. He’s the greatest living cinematic chronicler of 20th-century America, but his vision has also extended to an allegorical Spanish-language exploration of culture and violence in Central America (Men with Guns) and a charming children’s folk tale set in Ireland (The Secret of Roan Inish). He’s written great low-budget monster movies (Piranha, The Howling) and big-budget studio family films (The Spiderwick Chronicles), and often combines multiple genres and tones within the same pictures (The Brother From Another Planet, Passion Fish, Limbo). I know of no other writer-director, past or present, dead or alive, who surpasses him in terms of both breadth and depth.
One of Sayles’s greatest films will be available in a new Blu-ray edition from Olive Films on November 24. The true story of the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, in which eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of throwing the World Series, Eight Men Out (1988) is vintage Sayles: an enormous ensemble piece that includes athletes, journalists, titans of business, lawyers, fans, judges, and more, across a wide socioeconomic spectrum. Even the smallest of these characters is fully realized, and the movie works as both a detailed character study and an epic meditation on the disconnect between American myth and American reality. It’s also one of the two best baseball movies ever made – coincidentally, the other one, Bull Durham, was released the same year by the same studio. In anticipation of the Blu-ray release, I interviewed Sayles about the making of Eight Men Out in particular, and his approach to writing, directing, editing and sound in general.
Filmmaker: I want to start by asking a little about the origins of the project. As I understand it you wrote Eight Men Out years before you made it – even before you were really a screenwriter. When did you first become aware of and interested in the true story, and what were the circumstances that led you to write a screenplay about it?
Sayles: I had heard of the Black Sox scandal when I was a kid, wondering “How could anybody be so low as to throw the World Series?” When I was in my early 20s I read a long prose poem by Nelson Algren, one of my favorite writers, about the players (he was a Chicago guy) in which he footnoted Eliot Asinof’s non-fiction account, Eight Men Out. When I read Eliot’s book I not only got details nobody else had written about (Eliot talked to several of the players just before they died) but understood the scandal more as a labor situation and a failed conspiracy than as guys deciding to just be evil. I had written a couple novels and gotten them published shortly after I got out of college, and knowing nobody in the film business (I was working as a meat packer in Boston) wasn’t sure how to pursue my idea of writing and directing for the movies. I got laid off at the sausage factory and was directing and acting in a summer stock company when it was time to sell my second novel, and so had to get a literary agent to do the deal. He mentioned that his literary agency had a deal with a film agency – my second novel would therefore be offered as a “property” to this outfit. I didn’t think it was meant for the movies, but got the address and phone number of the agency and queried them, and they said, “Send us an example of your screenwriting.” Without even inquiring as to the availability of the rights, I adapted Eight Men Out. As it turned out, Evaarts Zeigler, the head of the movie agency, had been Eliot Asinof’s literary agent over twenty years earlier, and handled the sale of the book to its publisher. He read the script, called and said I’d done a good job but there was a curse on the project, and if I came out to LA they’d “see what they could do with me.”
We moved out to Santa Barbara and in a couple months the agent assigned to me got me a rewrite job on Roger Corman’s Piranha. Eleven years after I first wrote it I got to make Eight Men Out almost exactly following that first draft – I even used the storyboards I’d made for the baseball game coverage.
Filmmaker: Watching the film again recently I was struck by how much it had to say about America in 1919, America in the year the movie was made (1988), and even America now. The extremely sophisticated examination of class and how money and power are wielded in a capitalist society, and of the disconnect between what America wants to be and what it is, are as relevant now as ever. Were those kinds of ideas things you wanted to consciously explore, or were they just natural byproducts of the story and situations?
Sayles: The incident that was most strongly in my mind when I wrote the script was Watergate and, later, the movie All the President’s Men. The disjoint between the official story and what was really going on in the White House was similar, plus I was struck by how most conspiracies fail because their perpetrators are a bit ashamed of what they’re up to and don’t have enough meetings – people think everyone’s on the same page and then you get a loose cannon like Gordon Liddy running around. What Eliot brought out so well in his book was that because there was big money at stake the conspirators were almost totally exonerated – their confessions were stolen, witnesses tampered with, Comiskey ready to levy some minor fines and take his valuable players back – but they’d thrown a wrench in the works by making Judge Landis the lifetime czar of baseball. Landis was a piece of work, often reversed in his decisions because of high-handed and prejudicial behavior on the bench, and had sent most of the important anarchists in the country to jail for resisting our involvement in WWI. The grand jury trial wasn’t a quest for justice but for publicity – the players were celebrities – but the revelation of the fix, added to the hypocrisy of Prohibition, helped make the Jazz Age a very cynical time, not unlike the Watergate trials and the pardoning of Richard Nixon.
Filmmaker: The script and film have a real challenge in the sheer number of characters you have to introduce and develop, and I think you did an amazing job of quickly establishing all the important figures and their relationships in the first twenty minutes or so of the film. Now, some of that is casting, but the screenplay is a virtual clinic in how to clearly and concisely define character – how did you attack that problem of taking a very complicated ensemble story and making it something an audience could easily grasp?
Sayles: One thing I realized early on was that I had a bunch of white guys pretty much the same age with short haircuts wearing uniforms in the days before they had numbers on them. So I introduced each character three times in the opening twenty minutes or so. This is all done through action – either on the field, in the locker room or in the first stirrings of the conspiracy. One of the things that kept us from getting financing for so long was the studios’ worry that there were too many characters to follow – but I wanted to make Eight Men Out, not Three Men Out and a Baby. I did choose three of the characters – Eddie Cicotte, Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver – to be more emotionally sympathetic, and they are the guys whose wives we meet. You always want to give the audience a way in to a movie, and when it has a complex plot it’s good to have a couple people to pick from to guide them along. TV series get to do this much more organically, but there’s a tradition in sports and war movies of getting to know and care about a whole squad of guys. My movie Casa de los Babys is unusual in that I do it with a group of women.
Filmmaker: Had you always planned to direct the script? What finally got it off the ground?
Sayles: This was always a project I wanted to direct. A director I’d written a TV movie script for told me he knew that the producers Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford had an option on Eliot’s book. I got in touch with them and said I not only wanted to direct it but had written a script. They were new to producing in Hollywood and thought this combination would get it made right away – after all, I had made a feature they’d actually seen (Return of the Secaucus Seven). We started taking the project around together and got nowhere for several years. In the meantime I got another couple of low-budget independent movies made, and they produced Desperately Seeking Susan for Orion Pictures. Orion had already turned the project down twice, but we took it back to them one last time with Barbara Boyle – who’d had RKO interested when she worked there – and this time they said yes. I believe it was because there were so many young actors they were excited about working with who were also on our list of hopefuls. They said if we could get three of the guys who were on both of our lists, it was a green light, and we landed John Cusack, Charlie Sheen and D.B. Sweeney. John had originally turned down the part of Eddie Collins, because he didn’t think he could turn a believable double play at shortstop, but agreed to play a guy whose nickname was once “Error-a-Day Weaver” at third. When I started I had a wish list with people like George C. Scott and Martin Sheen on it, but time passes and people aren’t ballplayer age anymore (which is how I ended up playing Ring Lardner instead of right field). Once those three were on board we had a free hand in casting and chose people who were at least athletic, even if baseball wasn’t their best sport. A former major league centerfielder named Ken Berry came on as our trainer/skill coach and did a great job keeping the guys from pulling muscles and working with them on the specific skills they’d have to show off for the movie.
Filmmaker: What’s your casting process like in general? Do you read and audition actors, or do you have other ways of deciding on who’s right?
Sayles: In general if I know an actor’s work I just try to talk to people who have worked with them, to see if they’re likely to fit in with a fast, low-budget style of shooting, rather than making them read. Actors who are new to me or who don’t have much on film I try to read with myself, taking the other part in the audition scene and seeing if they can adjust to what I do. I remember for Eight Men Out putting the catcher’s mitt on with a few guys to see how they threw. There were some very good actors we didn’t cast just because they looked too much like someone else or their obvious position/character had already been cast. There is a lot of chemistry to ensemble acting, and sometimes it can be as simple as being tall or dark or having a deep voice – something to set you off from the others. Perry Lang, who plays the benchwarmer Fred Mullen in the movie, decided he’d never wear his hat – which really worked for a character who didn’t have many lines.
Filmmaker: In this film you have a number of actors who have to play multiple things at once – they’re hiding things from the outside world, each other, and in some ways even themselves. How does an actor convey that sense of complexity and ambiguity, and how do you help them?
Sayles: I always write bios for all the characters, no matter how small their parts. This is stuff not in the script that I think will be helpful to the actors in figuring out who they are and what their attitude toward the other characters or in a certain situation should be. So Joe Jackson is the best player on the team, but lacks confidence because he grew up poor and illiterate and isn’t sure when the other guys might be making fun of him. D.B. played him with a sense of joy in the field and a feeling of worry and caution off it. That subtext is really valuable if your scenes are going to have any depth to them. My favorite moment of subtext is when Kid Gleason (played by John Mahoney) is on the witness stand, and though he thinks his guys did a terrible thing, he still likes them and was thrilled to be their manager.
Filmmaker: Part of a director’s job is figuring out what each individual actor needs to do his or her best work. Here, you’ve got many scenes with a multitude of performers, some of whom may have very different ways of working or who are susceptible to different directorial approaches. Was that ever a problem, and if so how did you solve it? How do you keep egos in check on a movie like this where you’ve got a lot of guys and a lot of testosterone?
Sayles: You learn to handicap your actors as quickly as you can – who is great on early takes and begins to fade, who needs some warming up – but we were shooting so much in so little time, especially on the ball field, that everybody got into the rhythm of it and tried to bring their A-game right away. I would run from a camera set-up on the field to one ready in the stands, while a second unit was in the outfield filming numbers on the scoreboard or whatever – I think we got over 90 setups one day. We’d set the camera up over the pitcher’s shoulder toward home plate, then rotate different pitchers and batters in till we’d shot that angle out for all the home games (uniform change between home and away), then point toward first base and do the same. It always felt like an easy day when there was just “acting” and nobody had to hit a triple on cue. Our days weren’t too long because there was no night baseball in 1919 and I don’t like shooting to drag on – things were very well planned and we had a great crew. Testosterone was appropriate in much of the film – you just try to direct it in the proper direction, like any good coach.
Filmmaker: The scenes between the guys and their women are interesting too. There aren’t many of them, but they really resonate. How do you convey those kinds of relationships in a minimal amount of screen time, both in your writing and camera placement and in terms of how you work with the actors?
Sayles: The scenes with players and their wives were important to humanize the characters and to remind the audience that the on-field player can be somebody with a totally different vibe in civilian life. There are some very mild-mannered guys who are dangerous psychos if you put a football helmet on them. A lot of what I do is to trust the actors to read their bios and know their lines and then hook into each other in front of the camera – I really don’t direct much until I see what they have to offer first. You might want to intensify or diffuse the action, create a distracting element for them to fight through, change the power dynamic between them in some way, then see what happens. I try to keep the camera movement and staging simple but tell the story with it. One of my favorites was how they’d shoot JR in the old Dallas series – he’d step into the foreground to mix somebody a drink and we’d see him plotting and making devious faces while the victim was behind, less powerful in the frame and clueless as to his attitude.
Filmmaker: Tell me a little about how you covered the ball scenes. Did you let the innings play out with multiple cameras, or were you putting it together in small pieces, or…how was it done?
Sayles: The World Series box scores of the time not only indicate hits, runs, errors, but what happened on each play. So I kept literally with who did what, just dropping the needle down at different points to tell the story of that particular game. The biggest problem we had, in those days before CGI, was filling the stands. You can’t have a World Series with empty stands. So DP Bob Richardson and I did tests of different focal-length lenses from different spots on the field and had PAs step off to mark the outer edges of the frame. To shoot from third base toward first we might need one thousand extras to fill the stands with a 50mm lens. Whereas with a 100mm lens with might need only fifty – as long as we didn’t try to pan. So the first question every morning was “How many extras showed up?” and that would tell us what lens we could use for shots with the stands in the background. Bob also decided to keep the shadows and movement of light somewhat consistent by always having the people in the stands back-lit – we’d move around in the same arc every day, shooting toward home, then first, then center, and ending up shooting toward third base. We had games broken down into “blue sky baseball,” “slightly overcast baseball,” and “bummer baseball,” according to the mood I wanted for the game, and because the weather in Indianapolis would often change at lunch, we’d often shoot sections from several different games on the same day. Sometimes we had two cameras running – for double plays, for instance – but usually there’s one angle that “sells” physical action best, and I pretty much went with my storyboards. I needed DB to hit a real triple, with us starting on a dolly behind the plate and tracking to meet him sliding into third base, the ball and outfielders always in view, and he hit a perfect one in the gap within about ten minutes of shooting. Left-handed, which is not his natural swinging side. If you compare to film footage of games from that era, our guys look pretty similar, though the pitching isn’t as fast. I chopped some frames out in the editing room to speed that up a bit.
Filmmaker: What was your philosophy regarding camera movement on the film?
Sayles: I always, within the limitations of time and budget, try to tell as much of the story visually as possible. This is not just camera movement but costuming, color, staging, choice of lens, relative screen position of the characters, editing – anything you can use. The best results are often setting some action up (like a baseball game) where the characters have some freedom of movement that is organic to the moment, but choosing how you see it and what you light or don’t light, show or don’t show very carefully. The same “documentary” footage can be cut to make totally opposing points. A lot of the first part of Eight Men Out is meant to immerse the audience in the world of the players, the world of the owners and reporters, and the world of the gamblers. You’re in a crowd. Later on there are more scenes with just two characters and you’re allowed to sit back and make some value judgments about their activities. During the Series games the cutaways to players and people in the stands help keep us informed of how the fix is progressing (or not) and to touch base emotionally with some of the people we’ve met who we might empathize with. While shooting you are gathering ammunition to tell the story in the editing room. I had John Tintori edit this film, cutting right while we were shooting, but I’ve edited most of my own movies and I’m always cutting in my head while I direct, keeping in mind what will be needed to put the story together in post. Cooks do the same things, but maybe with fewer ingredients.
Filmmaker: Tell me a little about your collaboration with Robert Richardson and what contributions he made to the visual style.
Sayles: Bob Richardson sat down with me before shooting with some still picture ideas he had gathered and we agreed on a “philosophy” of the look of the movie. After that our conversations were mostly practical – what to shoot in the light of the moment – and then he came in to time the film, adjusting color and density, in post production. He did an incredible job in the eight weeks we had to shoot. If you’re a camerahead you might notice that in the late scene where Comiskey calls Eddie Cicotte into his office to screw him out a bonus, Bob has the room get progressively darker as the conversation progresses, matching Eddie’s mood. The scene is long enough that you don’t see but rather feel the effect emotionally.
Filmmaker: Richardson also shot City of Hope for you, and that movie had an expansive 2.35 frame. Here you’re shooting 1.85. Both movies are large-scale ensemble pieces; why did you choose 1.85 for one and Scope for the other? In general do you have a preferred aspect ratio, or does it just depend on the material?
Sayles: We chose to shoot City of Hope in Scope specifically because there were many Steadicam shots where we “traded” groups of actors in conversation, losing one group to follow another, and Scope let us fit them all in the frame side-to-side as they passed. Eight Men Out, being a period film, was much more expensive to fill the frame (the extras problem especially) and there were things we had to hide, like light towers in the outfield, which I often blocked behind a foreground actor. The wider the screen, the more you have to hide. In Scope you don’t pan very quickly (doesn’t look good), where in narrower aspect ratios a quick pan can add energy to a shot or catch up with new information or an arrival to the scene. My first movie, because we thought it would only play on something like PBS, was shot in a square TV format, and when we got theatrical distribution and blew it up to 35mm I had to lose information on the top or bottom (or both) of the frame for that aspect ratio – leading to some really ugly compositions.
Filmmaker: I don’t know of any American filmmaker who gets as much period detail with limited resources as you do – I couldn’t believe how little money you had for Honeydripper, for example, which looks like a $50 million movie. Eight Men Out is dense with details, both in terms of the production design and wardrobe and in terms of the sociological/anthropological elements. What are your tricks or secrets for transcending your financial and time constraints to give your films scale?
Sayles: Period detail has two purposes – to make you believe the story and to actually tell the story. Obviously, something way out of context in 1919 like a digital watch or an aluminum bat is going to challenge your belief in the setting. But a well-chosen detail, foregrounded, can also be a story-telling device. The little pincushion gloves those guys wore – at one point Charlie Sheen’s centerfielder just leaves his in the grass between innings – and the clunky bats and heavy woolen uniforms change the way baseball feels in the days before the “rabbit ball” and people hitting lots of home runs, and affects the way even the best players move. The crystal set the boys listen to a game on sets the time period, but also tells how desperate they are for details of a game they can’t necessarily afford to go see. Nobody is wearing period underwear and we were using “live” modern baseballs instead of the old rag jobs that would get dented out of shape easily, but that’s fine because it’s invisible to the audience. There are plenty of tricks to stretch a budget – I have run the same extras in front of the camera multiple times in a shot, changing their shirts in between. I’ve shot a scene on the other side of the fence of a National Guard installation to get some free Jeeps and APCs in the background. I pretty much cut in my head as we go so there are no “safety” takes, I shoot way out of sequence and move the lights as few times as possible, etc. In the opening of the courtroom scene we were delivered a crane not as versatile as what we had asked for. I had Bob set it up in the courtroom, saw where it would go, and then staged the scene of the players arriving to that. It’s part of the fun of filmmaking for the crew, as long as you’re not compromising the story.
Filmmaker: What kinds of visual references did you have for the look of the film? Were you looking at photographs of the era, films, etc.? Did any other movies influence you?
Sayles: There weren’t any baseball movies I was referencing – I wanted the play to be better that most (William Bendix portraying Babe Ruth, for instance) and to feel more three-dimensional. I did watch whatever footage of actual games of the time was available. Part of our deal with Orion was that the movie would be two hours or under – and the script was over 120 pages. Rather than cut scenes, I showed the cast a Jimmy Cagney movie called City for Conquest, in which everything you can imagine happens in under 90 minutes, and told the guys that except for the southerner Joe Jackson they should all try to spit it out as fast as Cagney – it’s the Roaring ’20s and they should have that edgy, big-city rhythm.
Filmmaker: Did the movie change at all in the editing, and was there any conflict the studio?
Sayles: The film came in just under two hours and had enough of the actors that the studio wanted in it, so there was no interference with the final cut. I think the movie kind of broke even over the long run – Orion went bankrupt shortly after the release so it’s hard to tell. They started the company with a bank loan rather than a pile of cheap real estate that would eventually be worth zillions, so had nothing to fall back on when things got tight. They made a lot of good movies in a short time though.
Filmmaker: The epilogue where we see Shoeless Joe playing under an assumed identity in a small town is so beautiful and poignant and heartbreaking. It says so much so simply. It also has a slightly different photographic feel from the rest of the movie – how did you and Richardson achieve that look, and what was your intention with it? It’s a great way to end a great movie.
Sayles: Mary Cybulski, who worked on a lot of my movies as a script supervisor, was doing very early paint-box visual effects back then and advised me on things I could ask for in timing and effects for the end sequence with Joe jackson. We desaturated the stock for that sequence, pushing it toward black and white, and then faded to a sort of sepia, slow-motion look for the credit sequence of the guys just having fun throwing the ball around before a game. That’s what they lost – some pure feeling for the sport that rarely survives when you go professional, honest or not. Joe Jackson hears the little Hoboken crowd cheering and it cross-fades with the big stadium cheer and he’s back there for a minute.
Which brings me to sound, the other major element in movie storytelling. The toughest thing in the mix was to blend various crowd sounds we’d recorded or borrowed from other movies to get what was appropriate for the moment. Sometimes I’d run tension-inducing tones under the crowd noise, increasing in volume till a turning point and cutting off abruptly – or I dampened some bat sounds and brightened others depending on the mood of the story during that particular hit. Sound is never literal in movies, and along with the music it helps set the tone, rhythm and mood of what’s going on – I tend to mix background voice up closer to the principal actors, like Robert Altman or Martin Scorsese, and that adds to a slightly less “Hollywood” feel. We even punched up the bat swishes (added from the foley studio) at certain moments – people strike out with a vengeance. Sound mixing is the last really creative thing you get to do on a film and really important to the process.