Man With a Movie Camera

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

Twenty years of fearlessly moralistic, duct-tape-and-string, Leo DiCaprio-free independent filmmaking hasn't earned John Sayles an Oscar, but it has ensured him that sneaky flattery: imitation. Native American novelist and screenwriter Sherman Alexie claimed recently that he was aiming for Sayles's career--only a more prolific version. When I relate that quote to Sayles, over morning coffee at Backstage at Bravos, he laughs and wishes Alexie luck. And then he describes the time-consuming difficulties of making indispensable movies like Eight Men Out, Matewan, and Lone Star. His trump card, he stresses, is his screenwriting gig: Doctoring Hollywood scripts such as Mimic makes him "a lot of money by anybody's standards"--money that seeds his films and, not immaterially, provides his living. "I hope Sherman knows that!" he jokes.

A big, physical man with a graying mane of hair, Sayles will eventually admit that he has created an enviable body of work--or at least that he's made the films he wanted to make, the way he wanted to make them. (Which serves as his definition of "independent film," by the way.) The movie that he's come to Minneapolis to promote, Men With Guns, is no exception. Set in an unnamed Latin American nation, it follows a naïve city doctor (Federico Luppi) whose greatest pride is that he trained medics to treat backwoods Indians. When he tries to track those young people down, though, the doctor discovers a country outside his ken, a world of atrocities and numbed survivors. Told almost entirely in Spanish, with English subtitles, Men With Guns is ground-zero visceral, talky, and pointedly populist. A John Sayles movie, in other words.

CITY PAGES: Lone Star was such a fabulously cinematic movie--that intricate plot stretched over three different time periods with tons of characters. By comparison, Men With Guns is told in brutally simple fashion.

JOHN SAYLES: To me, the story comes first. Then I think: "What should it look like? Is it going to work like a big novel, where people are going to have to make all these connections? Or is it something like this, where it has a fable quality to it?" The villagers in this movie are known as "the cane people," "the corn people," "the salt people," partly because I didn't want to get into the details of any specific country. Many of the incidents in the movie didn't even happen in Latin America--they're based on things that happened in Vietnam or Russia or Bosnia. To get across the general theme--that so many people in so many places find themselves caught between men with guns--it felt like, "Well, this has to be very, very simple." It has to be realistic: You have to feel like these people can live and breathe, but finally they're living out something that's archetypal, beyond ideology.

I also wrote the first draft in Spanish, the second in English, and the third in Spanish--not because my Spanish is that great--eventually I had somebody translate it into better Spanish--but because it's simple. My problem with subtitled movies is that I feel like I'm missing something: They're saying 20 things, and there's one sentence there. Here, I wrote so you could translate and not miss anything. To have the dialogue seem real but have it be very simple was a challenge. Often it seems like a Catholic catechism--a very call and response kind of dialogue, instead of overlapping, as it does in my other movies.

CP: One of the characters in this movie suggests there may be places white people shouldn't go. What was it like filming in Chiapas?

JS: Our crew was almost all Mexican. We had very few Anglos who just spoke English. So when we went into small towns, it was like, "Oh, here are these Spanish-speaking people"--as opposed to whatever their language was. There might be five people in the whole village who spoke Spanish. So the invasion was not a bunch of gringos--it was a bunch of Mexicans [laughs]. It never felt like we were an American film crew. It just felt like, "We're a film crew." Many of the people in these villages had never seen a film. After a take, they were like, "We have to do it again? But we did it the way you asked the first time!"

CP: So you hired villagers as extras?

JS: Yeah. Many of the actors hadn't been in a movie before either--likely because if you watch TV in Mexico, you'd think you were in Switzerland. It's a country where 80 percent or more of the people look Indio in some way, but you don't see them on TV or movie screens. They're about where we were in 1950. A lot of our people were theater actors, or dancers, or just people who came to open calls because they thought it would be fun to be in a movie--like our little boy [Dan Rivera Gonzáles], who'd never acted before.

CP: Your villagers are portrayed as quite passive--there's not much resistance to the men with guns.

JS: One of the things that this movie is about is willful ignorance. The doctor is certainly guilty of that. But there's willful ignorance on the other side, too. If you're in one of those villages that has chosen not to speak Spanish or even to allow people to speak Spanish, if you're wearing your traditional clothes and growing your food in the traditional way--that's a terrific way to keep your culture pure. But on the day that a truckful of guys with automatic weapons shows up, with a paper written in Spanish that says, "We own this land--get the fuck off it," you can't argue with them. You can't even read that paper. And you don't have those automatic weapons. There's a price for that ignorance.

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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