John Sayles' Honeydripper: "I Want My Characters to Be Like Your Friends"

In talking about transition periods between acoustic and electric music, Dylan, of course, definitely jumped on board the new movement.

Well, for instance, Phil Ochs, who was having a hard time as a folksinger, came out in a gold lamé suit at one of his concerts. It was kind of an ironic act, you know, Okay, if this is how what I have to do to make money, I'll do a rock-and-roll album. But his heart wasn't in it.

He committed suicide, right?

Eventually. Right after he came out with that album, actually. But Dylan went to rock-and-roll because he wanted to play that stuff. He saw possibilities there. He wasn't going because he was failing. So when Bruce Springsteen made Nebraska, it was because he had a bunch of those songs, and he thought, Well, it's not gonna sell like my danceable music does, but I want to do that.

So, really, one reason why people move on is because they think, There's a possibility for me there. It's not the only thing I can play, but I could do something interesting. You know, as Danny Glover says, "I could do some damage with that." So, you can make either decision, and it may be right for you or it may be wrong for you. For Charlie Parker to stop playing on R&B sessions was the right decision for him, because he didn't think much of it and didn't like himself when he was doing it.

It's been nice - to promote the movie, we put together the Honeydripper All-Star Band, the core of which are people who are in the movie, including Gary Clark, Jr., who is the guitar player. We play the Chicago Blues Festival; we're going to be in Monterey. I'm supposed to do a talk with Clint Eastwood about movies and music. Music is so important to his movies as well.

Films by John SaylesHe writes a lot of his own music. Do you write or play music?

In Honeydripper I have about three credits. What I do is I come up with lyrics and a melody, and then I sit with Mason Daring and he makes it more musical. I can't read music, but he knows what it needs and how to use a bridge and all that. I get maybe a thousand dollars a year from ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] from royalties to the rights of other songs I've written. [laughs] In this film I wrote, with Mason, the gospel song and the song on the final credits and I wrote "China Doll" that Gary sings.

And there are two reasons for that. One is, sometimes you can find the perfect song that has the perfect lyrics and the perfect feel, but sometimes you can't find it. Also, when you write your own, it's a lot cheaper than buying the rights for someone else's song. The rights have gotten so expensive for songs that were pre-recorded. Partly because many of the small labels have been bought out by bigger publishing companies. But then those publishing companies often don't even know what the songs are. For instance, we couldn't use the great Joe Liggins's "Honeydripper," because they were just asking too much money for it. It might have been nice to put in somewhere or to use for the trailer. It wasn't anything we absolutely needed, but it would have been nice to have it in the film. But we just couldn't afford it. The new Julie Taymor movie uses all these Beatles songs. The music fees alone must have been twenty million dollars.

What are you working on next?

You know, actually, film-wise, I don't know. I still write scripts for other people, so I'm writing screenplays to make a living. And I'm writing a novel that's set during the Philippine-American War, which takes place between 1898 and 1901. I had written a screenplay on the topic, but, realistically, we're just never going to get the money to make it. We haven't been able to raise money for a film for several years, so we've been making them on the money I make as a screenwriter.

Also, while I was writing the screenplay, I felt like I was squeezing it to fit the form; while making it into a novel, I can expand it. So it's going to be a very long novel and it's been fun to work on.

Do you think someone else might buy the rights and you can right the screenplay for it?

That usually doesn't happen. My movies have a lot of characters in them and they have a lot of points of view. My novels have even more, so they'd really be better for a 20 to 50-part mini-series than a single movie. It really would be reductive, so none of them have ever been made.

How does the process work for you to go from the solitary act of writing a novel or screenplay and then the collaborative effort of producing a film?

Each one has its plusses and minuses. Certainly, when I'm writing for someone else, I like it. You use all the muscles you use when you write for yourself, but you're helping them tell their story, so you're not as emotionally involved - you just can't be. You hand in a draft and they say what they like or don't like and where they want it to go. And it may be something as simple as, "Oh, look, we just got a 20-year-old to play this part. So the 40-year-old woman? She's 20 now." You know, if it was your own thing, you'd say, "No way," but it's theirs, so you say, "Okay, well, I'll rethink it."

When I'm working on a book, the great thing is I can do anything I want. My last novel, I did the Bay of Pigs invasion in eight pages. And I didn't have to say, "Oh, we have to have tanks and planes." And the costumers say, "We need boots for all those thousands of people." If it's a sunny day, it's a sunny day. On the other hand, when you're making a movie, you're going to get all these people who have talents you don't have. You can have a composer like Mason Daring, you get actors who can do things I can't do, the production designer, the costumer, you know, all those talents I don't have.

Although, I liked your cameo as the liquor delivery guy.

Oh, thanks, yeah. But that's one part. So they can do things I can't do, but I get to choose. And I get to direct those talents. So, in a book, you don't have to raise money to do anything of any scale, it can only be as good as you can make it; whereas a movie can become even better than the script. And that's what we always hope for. And for most scripts, unfortunately - even the good ones - the film gets about 80 percent of what's in the script, maybe 50, if it's not done very well, or the casting was wrong. With our movies, I really feel like they are 110, 120 percent of what the script was.

I wonder if part of that has to do with the fact that you work with a "family," a crew you've assembled and worked with repeatedly.

You know, that's interesting. I think on every movie, or almost every movie, we're working with some people we've worked with before. Certainly Mason Daring. I've almost always worked with the same technical people in New York who do the sound mix and the sound editing. I've had some assistant editors who have stayed with me for a long time. But as far as the cast goes - our casts are so big - usually a third of them are people I've worked with before, but the other two-thirds are new. I'd never worked with Danny or Charles Dutton before. I'd never gotten to work with Lisa Gay Hamilton or Stacy Keach before. But it's great when you're working on something to say, "Oh, I wonder if we can get Mary Steenburgen for a day? She'd be perfect for this."

She was perfect for the role of the mayor's repressed wife.

Yeah, she's great. And she works all the time, so for her to come for one day and put her head in that place. It's really like a little play - that six-minute scene. It's just the two of them, and you have to have awfully good actors to sustain a scene that long. Especially when the character doesn't show up again. So it's nice to have people to call on who you've worked with before. One of the reasons is it's kind of like being in one of those juggling acts where you're trying to keep eight balls in the air? Every time you can take an unknown variable and put it on the table, that's one less thing you've got to juggle. So having worked with actors before - they know how I work, I know how they work - you can just say, "Here's the part. Go to it." And you don't have to worry about it.

I imagine that you are thrilled to see how well Chris Cooper and David Strathairn - actors who have previously worked with you - are doing.

It's great, because they're both really, really good actors. The nice thing is that they're on "the list," so now they can pick and choose a little bit more and actually get paid a little bit more - certainly more than I ever paid them.


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