Man With a Movie Camera

Indie-film maverick John Sayles shoots his new Latin American civil-war movie guerrilla-style

And then you have this other phenomenon, which is spoken about a couple of times in the script, like when the blind woman says, "When an Indian puts on a uniform, they become white." When we filmed in a very tough market town in the middle of nowhere, we cast all these extras, and we wanted there to be a mix of people wearing traditional outfits and people wearing Western clothes. Half the extras who were from the town came in and said, "I'm not wearing that Indian shit. Who do you think I am--Tonto?" And these are people who look like identical twins to the people from the hills. In their heads, they are Latino. Once you put on Western clothes, it does separate you from who you were before, who your father was. It wasn't that mass, we're-all-in-this-together-against-the-white-people feeling.

When we were shooting in Chiapas, there was a guerrilla war happening. Very often the villages that were too tense for us to shoot in were tense not because of Zapatistas versus the government, but because they had split down religious lines. Just as the Catholics were getting a little more worldly with liberation theology and saying, "Well, maybe you can improve your lot on earth," the born-again Christians--in many cases, with the help of the U.S. government--came in and said, "Forget about this life; it's all about the afterlife." They're much more fundamentalist--and apocalyptic. Villages would split right down the middle and be at each other's throats.

CP: Although Men With Guns goes for a general Latin America scenario, it does feel intensely regional--as most of your movies do. What does it take to get comfortable with a locale?

JS: I do kind of a two-tiered attack on that. One is I go to the place before I write the screenplay and really pay attention. Then in the pre-production of the movie we'll go down fairly early--because with low-budget movies you have to be together, you can't just throw money at problems--and I'll go fact-checking. This includes having local people who do the things the people in the movie do--or who are the people in the movie in some way [laughs]--read the script.

I find that regions really do have a character. The character of the land and the character of the culture in that place really does affect how people see the world--and what the political strata are and whether people are more or less fixed into their strata.

CP: Was it difficult to get backing for a Spanish-language movie?

JS: It ended up not being so bad. I started this movie pretty much on my own. I was one of the major investors in The Secret of Roan Inish and haven't made my money back yet. So I was going from zero, and I wrote a lot of movies for other people and built up my war chest. I figured, "Okay, maybe I'll have to shoot 16mm, really guerrilla style, for a million that I can scrape together myself." Then the producers were able to find two investors. It's only a $2.5 million movie--half of what Lone Star cost. For the investors, the good deal with us is that we have made 10 movies, all with a theatrical release. You know, about 700 feature films a year are submitted to Sundance--maybe 70 get some kind of release. One out of 10 even get a trip to the plate. At least with us you get a director who's going to open somewhere, a chance to get your money back.

Men With Guns starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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