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Talking About the Sunshine State

Groundbreaking film-makers John Sayles and Maggie Renzi talk about their upcoming release, "Sunshine State," Florida, the triumph of advertising and being on a roll.
 
 
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The collaborative relationship of John Sayles and Maggie Renzi has transformed independent filmmaking. "In terms of popular culture, what movies probably do best is to simplify things, make things heroic," Sayles says. In contrast, Sayles and Renzi have made films -- such as "Lone Star," "Men With Guns," and "Matewan" -- that examine difficult issues of memory, dispossession, identity, and culture. Their latest collaborative project, "Sunshine State," which opens in select cities on June 21, is no exception.

The film, starring Edie Falco of "The Soprano’s," Angela Bassett, Mary Steenburgen, and Timothy Hutton, explores conflicts over the commercialization of a northern Florida beach community. Since working together on the path breaking 1980 film "Return of the Secaucus 7," Renzi has produced eleven films written and directed (and in some cases edited) by Sayles. Four of their films have been recently restored and are being released to theaters by IFC Films (see www.johnsaylesretro.com for details). This summer, Sayles is shooting in Mexico for a new project called "Casa de los Babys." In April, Sayles and Renzi received the "Storytellers Award" from the Taos Talking Picture Film Festival. Sayles and Renzi's film, "Sunshine State," opens June 21 in New York, Los Angeles and selected theaters (released by Sony Pictures Classics).

Q: What gave you the idea for "Sunshine State"?

John Sayles: I had started off planning to make another film set in Florida. I was scouting the Gulf Coast of Florida, looking for locations for a movie based on a short story I had written some years ago about treasure hunters. And I was unable to find the Florida I had remembered, even though it had been only 12 years since I had last been down there. I was amazed by how much Florida had changed. That old-fashioned, tacky tourism had just disappeared, and had been replaced by corporate tourism. All the small Florida towns now had 7-11s, Denny’s, and chains like that. Most of the Gulf Coast was covered with gated communities and condo villages.

I started thinking about what those changes mean for a community, and I started thinking about the Florida I remembered. Looking through the Lonely Planet guide to Florida, I came across a story about American Beach on Amelia Island, north of Jacksonville. It was a black-owned beach that started in the 1930s and was a place blacks could go where they did not have to deal with segregation. I had heard of American Beach before, and I knew people whose parents and grandparents had visited there. So I visited, and it seemed like a great centerpiece for a story. The movie is about a number of people’s stories, paralleling and crossing each other, a bit like my movie "City of Hope" in a way. We worked with wonderful people on this project, including Angela Bassett, Edie Falco from "The Soprano’s," Mary Steenburgen, Miguel Ferrer, Timothy Hutton, and Jane Alexander.

Maggie Renzi: "Sunshine State" is a story about these two women, each of them a daughter in a different family, who refuse to leave their community. It’s about Mary Steenburgen and her struggle to keep the faith, and her marriage. The characters are immediately engaging. You get this great collection of people in this community, and you care about them. You care whether or not Edie Falco and Tim Hutton will stay together. Your engagement is not about plot, but the people.

Q: Do you see the film as commenting on changes that are happening elsewhere in the United States?

Sayles: Absolutely. Because Florida has always been up for grabs, many things happen there first. It’s a state with many people who come from other places. So community roots may not go very deep in some cases, while in other cases they go very deep.

To me, Florida has always represented the triumph of advertising, making people believe in something before they have even seen it. The population density of Florida was relatively low until people started advertising real estate there. People bought land that did not even exist yet. It was literally water that was dredged and filled using the money people sent in to buy plots of land.

Q: Are you also commenting on corporate influences in culture, with the greater concentration of media outlets?

Sayles: Sure. You see more homogenization and corporate influence in every business -- especially in the entertainment business. Diversity is challenged by the concentration of these international conglomerates.

I experienced this as a fiction writer. There are fewer and fewer houses where you can publish your work. The people I know in television say there are only five places you can sell your work now, and eventually you are working for Rupert Murdoch. You also see this with news media, where there are fewer and fewer newspaper chains. In radio, these huge corporations have bought up enormous networks. This consolidation is connected to the deregulation that happened under Presidents Reagan and Bush, and which has continued.

In the film industry, independent film making still exists. You still have some indy theatres. But all the money is made in the chain theaters and the big studios. It’s a little like owning three small restaurants in one community versus owning McDonalds. But this had already happened. Indy films have been making an inroad into a market that was already established.

Q: What is your philosophy of collaboration?

Renzi: My job is to serve John’s vision, to find out what he wants and try to make that happen. But what has evolved over the years is a second obligation: to make the experience of working on the film the best possible -- for me, the people working on it, and John. That’s the part that so many people, certainly producers, don’t focus on. If they do, then I don’t understand why there are so many horror stories about working in the movie industry.

It’s been so rewarding to meet people who have worked with us on films over the years. People talk so fondly of working with John. That’s huge for me, to feel like one thing I did to affect people’s lives is to give them one of their best working experiences. Since we spend more time working than we do writing poetry or in bed with our partners, that’s really important.

"Sunshine State" is as perfect a working experience as I could hope to have. It has to do as much as anything with my personal maturity. You have more experience and don’t take things as personally. Then sometimes just everyone comes together. Working in Florida in winter was also a wonderful experience. Money helps. Of course, it’s better if we can afford to put people up in condos on the beach. It’s better if we have enough money that we can shoot shorter days.

At a certain point, though, I don’t think too much money helps. We set the standard low. Our actors don’t have individual accommodations. All of the actors make the same wages, Screen Actor Guild wages, plus 10 percent for agents. They don’t have cars and don’t bring their entourage. John and I have the same accommodations, and eat and work with everyone else. So, the message is clear: we are all here to work, not to compete and show each other how important we are. We are here to work together on the same movie and complete our own piece of the puzzle.

Sayles: The main thing is that you are trying to make the same movie. There are areas where you work very closely together, and other areas where you go off and do your own thing. You have to know what the other person is doing, but not the details of how they get it done.

Q: How do you decide which projects to take on together?

Sayles: It varies. Very often, I will get this idea about a project, and Maggie will read it, and is interested or not interested. In the case of "The Secret of Roan Inish," that was a book Maggie read when she was 10 years old and had for years said we should make into a movie. After a couple of projects, I read the book and we decided to go ahead with it.

Renzi: If I feel a big emotional connection to a project, that’s important. Another factor that’s important is if I think we can do the movie well for the money involved. When John started talking about making a new film with the actor Robert Carlyle, I was excited because it presents new challenges. I feel ready for that. The movie, which is a period piece set in Scotland, Quebec, and the United States, is of a size and complexity I have never dealt with before. [The project's working title is "Jamie MacGillivray."]

Q: Do you have any other projects that have been sitting on the shelf that you hope to film?

Sayles: In addition to the Scottish film, I have an epic that I wrote about the Philippines insurrection that has been waiting around for several years. The Philippines insurrection was America’s first Vietnam. It happened at the turn of the century, right after the Spanish-American war. The Filipinos had been fighting the Spanish for many years, and then the Americans entered into the picture. In almost a mock battle, the Spanish surrendered to the United States, because they were afraid of the Filipino people, who they had been abusing and literally torturing for many years. And the United States didn’t leave.

The movie focuses on a group of black American soldiers who join the army, thinking that it might help uplift their race. And while they are fighting in the Philippine’s, being called "nigger" by their commanding officers and by other soldiers, blacks at home are seeing the rollback of the freedoms that were won during the period of Reconstruction. Most of the segregation laws, the rise of Jim Crow, come in this period 1880-1900. So they’re off supposedly fighting for freedom, and at home they are losing most of their rights.

Renzi: We’re on a roll right now. "Sunshine State" is really good. And this retrospective of John’s work is putting his career in a certain perspective. I am feeling very optimistic right now.

Now that this retrospective is over, I am also hoping to have some more time to work on issues that are of social concern. Not that the movies we make aren’t about social issues, but there are also interesting things going on with people who are looking to make films and distribute films in a really alternative way, to cut loose from this whole system of agents and distributors. How can we find ways to empower people to make movies that come out of a community or an individual soul, and don’t cost more than $1,000? Figuring out how to create a new means of production and new means of distribution will take some time.

I am interested in seeing if I can be useful in that way. At age 50, I am realizing there’s a lot of things I know now. I am interested in talking to people who are saying, "I know that’s the way it’s usually done, but can we do it differently?" There are people who are willing to explore new avenues, and I want to figure out if we can help empower them.

Speaking at film festivals, I am meeting a lot of young people who want to make movies that are about something. Not just "I loved this girl who didn’t love me." You definitely see people interested in alternatives to globalization and people who want to see movies about progressive issues. And film can do that. Other people can make "Matewan."

Q: Do you worry that films like yours, which deal with ambiguity and complex -- and often political -- storylines, will be harder to make in the current environment, with Hollywood consciously waving the flag?

Sayles: This has always been an issue. In terms of popular culture, what movies probably do best is to simplify things, make things heroic. In movies, so often, reality is polarized. You have good guys and bad guys. There was a short golden age of ambiguity in film in the 1960s and 1970s, but then from the 1980s on, we have had all these movies in the Arnold Schwarzenegger mold. The good guy is not just good, he’s superhuman. The bad guy has to be an arch villain, and there is no middle area. Most studios are trying to guess what people want to see, and think that if they make a few flag-waving movies, they will be successful. But I’m not so sure about that. Look at the Mel Gibson film "The Patriot." I don’t know how many drafts they went through to get that version of history, but it’s as spurious a version of history as you can get. Everything was crafted so you could have this ending slow-motion shot with Mel Gibson and the flag. But it didn’t work. It didn’t turn into a platinum movie. Flag waving alone is not going to sell tickets.

Anthony Arnove is the editor of Terrorism and War, a new collection of interviews with Howard Zinn published by Seven Stories Press.