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Megan Ratner discusses Lone Star with director John Sayles

John Sayles' new film, Lone Star, is set in Frontera, a Texas border town shaped by two strong personalities: the bullying, violent, racist Sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson) and his successor, Sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), who is said to have booted Wade out of the county one night in 1957. Wade, hated by the community, was never seen again. But the film is set in present day when Buddy's son Sam (Chris Cooper), who has reluctantly assumed the role of sheriff, finds his every move eclipsed by the achievements of his father. One day, a skeleton turns up on the outskirts of town, its only relics a ring and a sheriff's badge from 1957, and no one but Sam seems to want to investigate.

Like Sayles' earlier feature City of Hope, Lone Star weaves a complex pattern of overlapping stories, but this time the historical canvas is larger. Each of the characters must reach his or her own resolution with the intrusive, inescapable past. This heightens the sense of independence and interconnectedness City of Hope introduced; these characters form not only a community but also a sort of extended family.

This social and historical intercourse finds its most effective expression in the blues, Tejano and country music that underlays the action. Little Water, Big Joe Turner, Chelo Silva, Lydia Mendoza, Lucinda Williams and Patsy Montana are only a few of the featured performers. It's Sayles' smartest move: like the images on screen, the songs refute the easy categories of Anglo, Hispanic and black. By allowing the music to carry the story forward, Sayles frees the narrative from its potentially politically correct, earnest overtones.

Sayles has his own take on movie genres: he's used sports (Eight Men Out), coming-of-age (Baby, It's You), period drama (Matewan) and sci-fi (Brother from Another Planet) to question fundamental aspects of our culture. In Lone Star, he plays with detective and western film conventions (no one particularly wants Sam to solve the murder, and his interest centers on undermining the town mythology rather than upholding it) to prod notions of good guys and bad guys, of history and legend - and ultimately of America itself.

Filmmaker: Like The Secret of Roan Inish which preceded it, Lone Star is about a search for a personal past - a search with mythic overtones. Did these concerns lead you to set the story in the borderlands?

John Sayles: Well, it's kind of the other way around - the story and the border were intertwined. I see that whole area and its cultures as this kind of dysfunctional family. There are all these secrets that go way, way, back. It didn't used to matter what side of the river you were on, but now it's a big deal because of something totally artificial that somebody did. I was thinking about what's sometimes called revisionist history. This country was never just one culture; it was a whole bunch of cultures. Being a country is something that you manufacture. And there's some choice involved. It wasn't inevitable; there was a lot of struggling and killing involved.

Filmmaker: The feeling in Lone Star is similar to City of Hope: a small town that's a world unto itself but influenced by outside events, current and historical.

Sayles: I wanted a small town where the media would be a small part. If you're in a big city, the national media change the story. It's like having a monster movie when the army shows up. I wanted to keep things more personal, on a small scale.

Filmmaker: You've used flashbacks before, but in Lone Star it felt as though the past and the present had nearly equal weight. They actually play off each other.

Sayles: Like City of Hope, we used a lot of master shots to tell the story. Both films take place over three or four days, but Lone Star is so much more about history. I used theatrical transitions so that there would be this feeling [that] there wasn't a big seam between the past and the present. Orson Welles did things like that every once in a while. Basically, you get a background for your tight shot from 1996, you pan away, and when you pan back to where the guy telling the story was, it's somebody completely different, and it's 1957. There's not a cut or a dissolve. I wanted to reinforce the feeling that what's going on now is totally connected to the past. It's almost not like a memory - you don't hear the harp playing. It's there.

Filmmaker: The past is really part of the present for all the characters, especially Sam Deeds.

Sayles: It's in every relationship - racial history, personal history. In all of those histories, you have that question of - how much do I want to carry this? Is [the history] good, or is it possible to say, "I'm going to start from scratch? Do I still live my life in reaction to - for or against - my father?"

Filmmaker: Lone Star draws on the tension between what was and was supposed to have been. Do you think it addresses the larger question of what it means to be an American?

Sayles: Kris Kristofferson looked at the three sheriffs and was reminded of the Israeli general who said, "Well, I was a warrior so my son can be a poet." Charley Wade is the Teddy Roosevelt-era guy who says, "Hey, there are dark people and they're inferior. If you're going to get anywhere in the world, you have to be bold, so I'm going to kill them and take their land." The next generation says, "Oh they're not bad; let's give them a little something back and we can all live together. But I'm still in the driver's seat." And then there's the third generation that reached its fruition in this country in the '60s, where people said, "What have we done? What a terrible legacy we have - we stole this land" or, "We brought these people over in slavery." They question everything and can't really enjoy being in the driver's seat - they don't want to be there.

Filmmaker: That's certainly true for Sam - he doesn't even want to be sheriff.

Sayles: He realizes his accommodation is going to have to be a personal one. And on a personal level things are possible that aren't on a social level. You can have a relationship with a Mexican girl in a fairly racist border town, as long as you're discreet about it. I think there are a lot of white and black people who are friends, but that doesn't mean things are cool. Eventually it might carry over into something larger, but it takes a long, long, long time.

Filmmaker: Your characters usually offer a good mix of likable and unpleasant qualities, but Charley Wade is just plain evil. What made you decide to make him all bad?

Sayles: Basically, I've run into evil in the world. You read history and there's just really nasty shit. I've been reading a lot about the slave trade, and you just can't say, these were o.k. guys. What they did - and you base character on what people do - was monstrous. And there were monsters on that border. The problem is that Wade is an official monster who's maintaining the minority of Anglos in power. Even when we were shooting, every time we wanted to get to the river we had to go on some fairly rich Anglo's estate because that's the good land. Even on the other side, a lot of land is owned by the Anglos. That wasn't the way it was when the war ended. So it had to be taken somehow, and it was taken by bandits - sometimes by bandits who in their spare time were Texas rangers - usually with the help of local police and judges. And that's what the politics of the post-Mexican-war period were on the border. That's who Charley Wade is; he's a kind of a concentration of all that nasty history.

Filmmaker: Music always figures prominently in your films, but Lone Star relied on an unusually large number of existing recordings. What made you decide to do this?

Sayles: Whenever I start a movie I sit down with Mason Daring, the composer I work with, and talk about the philosophy of the movie. Because I wanted to deal with three different cultures in two or three different time periods in Lone Star, we decided that these are people who listen to music and it would often be a bridge. For instance, when Delmore Payne [Joe Morton] first walks into his father's bar, you're hearing Ivory Joe Turner singing "Since I Met You Baby." When Sam and Pilar [Elizabeth Pena] dance, you're hearing "Desde de Conosco" - which is "Since I Met You Baby" [in Spanish]. This great black piano crooner had a hit with "When I Lost My Baby I Almost Lost My Mind" on the black charts, but really that was kind of chump change. Then a country-western guy covered it and made a fortune. Then Turner covered his own song with a sound-alike song ("Since I Met You Baby") that crossed over to the white charts. Then Freddie Fender had the first really big rock 'n' roll hit in Latin America with "Desde de Conosco." You don't have to know the history to feel it underneath. Music and sports are very often where cultures meet first, where they blend.

Filmmaker: There were a few scenes that seemed to be shot with a particular piece [of music] in mind, especially the sequence where Wade is killed. Did you go into production knowing what you'd use?

Sayles: I had the soundtrack before we went on location. That scene is set to a Little Walter song called "Blue and Lonesome." There's this great internal violence to it, a pounding rhythm and a kind of inevitable feeling. We went in with musicians and recreated it without the vocal. It's an old blues record, so you couldn't just take the vocal out. The original time-keeping was all over the place, and I cut it to the original song and didn't want to recut. It was really hard for the musicians - they had to make the same mistakes as the original, but they did a great job.

Filmmaker: Your films have a strong sense of control, a kind of novelistic feeling.

Sayles: People say that because [my films] are more complex than a lot of movies are, but [they are] not necessarily literary. It's really pretty hard to improvise too much on a low budget - you just don't have time. On City of Hope, we only had five weeks to shoot. We did 40 locations in 30 days. We actually planned all of the camera movements and described them in the script. We made it for a lower budget because postproduction was very short. There were so many master shots that I probably cut a total of five minutes out of the whole film. Sometimes I'll be able to cut something - I've already made the point, or an actor is so strong in the part that you don't need a scene that was there to reinforce part of the character.

Filmmaker: What was your budget and shooting schedule on Lone Star?

Sayles: About $4.5 million. One of the big reasons it was that much was that we bought a lot of music, [and] music costs have quadrupled since I made Baby, It's You. Back then, we would get three Motown songs for $25,000. Now one Motown song will cost you $25,000. So there were some songs we just couldn't get. I had to cut down on the music; it went down from about 27 songs. But that's all right, it was never meant to be Casino, where the soundtrack album is a great double album. The schedule was seven weeks of shooting, which was a little more comfortable. There were only a couple of different locations, so not too much of our time was spent driving. We shot a lot of stuff in the town of Eagle Pass itself.

Filmmaker: How did you finance this one?

Sayles: Lone Star was financed by Castle Rock. They automatically sell to cable for a couple of million, so that limits their risk. They'll decide how to distribute it depending on who they're affiliated with. Basically, you can't fart in this country without working for Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner. I've worked with them both but never met either of them.

Filmmaker: How much effect do budget restrictions have on what kind of movies you make? And on the process?

Sayles: The more movies I make, the better I am at getting a lot out of the budget. With a $3 million budget, I can be a little more ambitious than I used to be. Even though it's still hard for us to raise money, we can get really experienced people, both actors and technicians. That translates into a high talent-to-time ratio. The budget affects everything that you do. You try not to let it affect the actors.

Filmmaker: Does editing your own work help? Do you find yourself editing in your head as you go along?

Sayles: Yeah, it helps. If you're going to cover from four different angles and one of them is kind of a wide shot, you can move the camera - the actor may wonder why, when we didn't even do a whole take where one of us didn't blow a line, even though it felt good emotionally. I know where I'm going to cut it, and I've got what I need, trust me. It's one of the advantages to controlling the final cut. It's a deal you make with the actor: I'm going to use your best acting take - and it won't be based on some focus group.

Filmmaker: You don't always make the films in the order you write them, but do you think of them as forming a continuum of some sort?

Sayles: They really aren't a continuum. They're like short stories, all over the place. I'm just interested in a lot of different things. So what you try to do is to make the style of the film, the look of the film, the music of the film, who is in the film fit with the story you're telling.

Filmmaker: You work with a lot of the same actors and crew from film to film. What's the motivation?

Sayles: When you're making something with a lot of story lines, a lot of actors, and all these technical problems, and it's very ambitious for the budget, you're juggling a lot of things. Anytime that you've worked with an actor before, you can eliminate a question mark. That's just that much emotional energy and time that you don't have to spend working something out with that actor. You know, I've worked with Chris Cooper a couple of times and I know he can take care of himself. Poor Chris! So many of his scenes in Lone Star involve asking for information. He's so consistent and such a deep actor; we could come to him with only two hours left in the day and say, "O.k., now we're going to do your angle," and he wouldn't feel panicked. He would have been doing good stuff with the other actors all day, but he still had what he needed left.

Filmmaker: There's a strong pragmatic streak that runs through your conversation and your method. You seem bent on telling the story, whatever it takes.

Sayles: I'd say the most pragmatic of all my movies was Return of the Secaucus Seven - we had the budget before we had the movie. I had to think, what can I do well for $40,000 to get it in the can? The difficulty is that it takes a while to think of a way that you can get the same result with less money, time, whatever it is. Some of your best ideas come out of that - I don't necessarily think getting handed everything is the best thing for you.

Filmmaker: Do you see yourself as part of an independent film community? Is there such a thing?

Sayles: I'm not sure how much community there is - it's not like [we] hang out at the Tribeca Film Center together; it's more like a bus station. All kinds of people pass through the bus station, and some are never going to come back. And some end up there day after day - they get stuck there. People have a different relationship to the station, but I'm someone who keeps going back. Not every single trip - sometimes I'll fly - but that's mostly where I end up. So I don't think that there really is a community. To a certain extent, there is a group of people who act in and who work in - and produce - independent films more often than other people. A few of them have long-term relationships, like the Coen Brothers and Jim Jarmusch, who's worked with the Japanese quite a bit. But for an awful lot of people like me, each time out is a different bus. We've made ten movies, and I'd say seven of the companies that distributed our movies are no longer in business. I don't think there's any causality there - but that means that the next time out, we're just looking for somebody else.

Filmmaker: What's your next directing project?

Sayles: It's always a question mark, but I hope to make this movie I've written called Men With Guns (Hombres Armados), a very dark road movie. It will be shot in Latin America in Spanish and Indian dialect, the first time I'll work outside the English language. I don't know where we'll shoot. It depends on the stability of governments, and I need permission to shoot at some ruins. It has to do with where I can get a crew and what will be the cheapest place, because it's got to be very low budget. It's a subtitled movie with no big American actors - or even small American actors. And then there's the rainy season - when they say rain there, they mean it.


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