In its third year, the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival has already garnered a rapidly growing reputation for stellar programming and special ceremonies awarding wonderful guests with some ever-welcome due. Last year, Mammoth Lakes brought Joe Dante to the town near Yosemite National Park, honoring him with the Centrepiece Sierra Spirit Award, and last Saturday, the good people of Mammoth Lakes have given the same award, which honours maverick, visionary filmmakers, to the great John Sayles.
Sayles’ career is an extremely interesting one, not only because each new project is driven by a yearning to discover and explore unknown territory, whether that be different than his previous thematic or formal endeavors or anyone else’s for that matter, but more amusingly, because of its origin story. Like so many other great directors who graduated from the ranks of Roger Corman’s filmmaking crash courses (with a capital CRASH), Sayles, who penned camp classics like Piranha and Alligator, took the profoundly DIY lessons that Corman’s indie camp had to teach, and applied them to films of a headier scale.
Even if his later achievements like Brother From Another Planet, City of Hope, Lone Star, Limbo, or Honeydripper, for example, seem strange stacked against his earlier screenplays, all of Sayles’ efforts in film and literature are both innovative and thoughtful. I am particularly fond of how Sayles chose to navigate the early years of being offered opportunities as writer/director, first with his directorial debut, Return of the Secaucus 7, and a few years later with his first studio effort, Baby It’s You, two sweet yet wise coming-of-age films, made all the sweeter by the fact that, in between, Sayles penned Joe Dante’s The Howling.
For Mammoth Lakes, the film of the hour is Baby It’s You, Sayles’ charmingly poignant early 60s school film, starring a young Rosanna Arquette in a radiantly one-of-a-kind performance and longtime Sayles actor, Vincent Spano, who will be awarding Sayles with Mammoth Lakes’ Sierra Spirit Award. In Baby It’s You, “The Sheik” (Spano) is an out-of-time Sinatra disciple gobsmacked and bedazzled by Jill Rosen (Arquette). Though Jill is a few leagues above The Sheik, teenage love seizes them against all odds.... That is, until the class divide takes Jill to college and Sheik to Florida. It’s a richly layered film about love and identity in shifting times and how the two collide into the narrative of memory and it’s one well worth seeking out.
Secaucus 7 and Baby It’s You are both films that look backwards and yet Sayles has lived many lifetimes since those particular meditations. With the past on his mind, thanks to Mammoth Lakes, I was able to speak to the 66-year-old filmmaker about some of his visions from yesteryear.
ScreenAnarchy: Do you know why Mammoth Lakes went with BABY IT’S YOU? Was that your choice? Was it their suggestion?
John Sayles: I think they always check what movies they can get because we don't own all our own movies and it can be a matter of whether prints are more or less available. So I think of the movies, they said, "Pick one." I picked Baby It's You partly because it's not seen that often.
I mean, isn't that one of your only, if not your only, studio film?
You know that was with Paramount. I did Eight Men Out with Orion. It was when they went out of business. Don't blame me. I did Limbo with Sony. So yeah I've done three movies with studios where they put up the money ahead of time.
It was the first movie that I did with a studio; The first time I had a budget over a million dollars and got to work with a union crew and all that kind of stuff.
According to Wikipedia, or some such resource, it was the losing of final cut that dissuaded you from sort of working within that system in the future?
Yeah, or it just made me more careful. So I ended up liking the cut that I was able to get of the movie, but I was fired out of the editing room... and then hired back and it was not a pretty process toward the end.
But I got to work with great people. Michael Ballhaus was the cinematographer - he just died a month or so ago - and was just a great world-class cinematographer. He shot most of [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder's movies and a bunch of movies for Marty Scorsese and he was kind of a revelation to work with. And then a bunch of those young actors. It was just fun to work with talented kids starting out.
I bet! Again, sorry to regurgitate things I read somewhere, but at some point I read that there were sort of three forces at work with BABY. There was the book, the source material, which is something of a teenage drama, I think. I'd read it if I could. Did the studio think they were making a sex comedy? Is that true?
You know, I think what happened is the idea for it came from Amy Robinson, who was one of the producers, and was kind of based on stuff that happened to her when she was a kid in Trenton, New Jersey. I had gone to a very similar high school a couple years later in Schenectady, New York and so we pooled our feelings about high school at that time and about the jump that you made when you went to college then. Because you're really kind of going to a working class high school from the Fifties right into the heart of the Sixties. Rosanna Arquette's character; everything cool about her in high school, is definitely not cool when she gets to Sarah Lawrence and she has to do a lot of training.
But, you know, that was kind of what was interesting about the story. I think some of what may have happened with the studio is that Fast Times at Ridgemont High came out. Porky's came out. And I think they just got it in their head, "Geez this is like serious. It's almost like an art movie and we'd like something more like a teen comedy." It just wasn't in the script. It just wasn't in the cards. When they did their cut of the movie it scored one point lower than my goddamn cut. I think they discovered, "Oh that's right, this isn't a comedy." I mean, there's a lot of funny stuff in it, but it's not a teenage comedy.
I was sort of wondering why a film set in 1966 takes its title from a Shirelles song, which was released several years earlier, so it's interesting to hear of all these ‘oldies’ prevailing in the suburbs well into the 60s.
There were oldie stations in 1959 actually. The oldies concept was a very old one. So I was listening to pretty old rock'n'roll - stuff that had been around when I was six and seven years old - when I was fifteen years old. So really, the only non-period music that she couldn't have been listening to from a juke box is Bruce Springsteen. And we don't have that coming out of a juke box. That's kind of more the New Jersey voice of the movie.
Right. It feels like Sheik's theme.
A lot of the stuff is just what the kids would have been listening to.
So if I could step back a couple years and ask you a question or two about RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN. I know that you were coming out of a theatre company and I know that it was suggested that since you have all these locations, you have these actors, the feeling was ‘why not make a movie?’ What I know less about is how the story developed? Why did your mind go where it went with SECAUCUS with this group of friends?
Yeah. Jeffrey Nelson, who was the producer of the theater company that I was in... who also passed last year... I think even more importantly than we had all these good actors and we had these locations was that I had $30,000 (laughter).
When I looked at that I said, "I don't know that much about the physical act of making movies. I've been on a movie set for exactly one day. I did a cameo part in Piranha."
I got to watch Joe Dante work. But let's try to write something that I can do well for almost no money and so that dictated some things. That dictated, ‘oh it's going to be contemporary. It's going to take place pretty much in one place.’ I don't think that we shot more than five miles away from the hotel that we were staying in. The ski hotel that was closed for the summer. Thats where we were staying and we also used it for our interior sets. And I was kind of inspired by Robert Altman's movie Nashville.
I'm not going to get to move the camera very much. How am I going to get movement within the story?’ and I figured, like Nashville, I'd have a bunch of characters and parallel stories and I could always cut away to a different parallel story.
Right. So that got you interested in ensemble stuff.
On top of that, the people that I knew who were good actors, who weren't in the Screen Actors Guild yet, were all like 28 to 31 years old. I just figured well it's not only going to be about a group of people. It's going to be about a group of people turning 30.
In terms of Baby It's You, there's kind of for me a connection between Baby It's You and kids discovering for the first time, oh there are limits. Everything is not possible.
Secaucus 7 is about people realizing that doesn't just apply to our lives. That applies to what we want from life. The world is not necessarily going to turn out the way that we want it to be, no matter how many times we march or strike.
These idealists 10 years later learning to take themselves less seriously, I suppose.
The third one of action in the trilogy is Passion Fish, which is about men in their mid-forties. They're really starting to feel like... old. Not only is there a ceiling; it hurts when you hit your head against it and they're at the point where they almost have to say, "I don't know if I'm going to be happy. I've been really hurt a lot. I'm going to at least try to be happy again." That's just kind of the rhythm of life.
I hadn't seen SECAUCUS or BABY IT’S YOU since I was in my early twenties and I'm now in my early-mid-thirties, which is how old you were making these and the approximate age of the SECAUCUS characters and all that. So I have started looking at these two films as different sides of the same coin. BABY IT’S YOU ends off with characters around the same age as the SECAUCUS 7 when they were youths, busted for their beliefs - pseudo-political prisoners.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah and for instance in Secaucus; none of them have children. My friends who have been political, they tended to be more Vista than SDS types, but they were from a class of people who put off getting married or having relationships where they had children until their early thirties to mid-thirties - some of them all the way almost until they were forty.
Which is far more commonplace in this era.
Yeah and once you have those kids your life changes forever you know.
I don't, but I do.
What always struck me about that is you're sitting there and you have one life and then there's a phone call and your life is never the same. A nine-month biological hormonal change, you're getting ready for the fact that your life is never going to be the same.
Right. Switch: flicked. I imagine there wasn't specifically a real Secaucus 7, but I’m sure you had friends who identified with these characters. Can you talk about your friends seeing that film for the first time, if you remember? Did they recognize themselves?
I went down to Williams College in Massachusetts and I went down to Washington a couple times. Actually one of the times I went down, we did get stopped by a cop because somebody had, I think it was an old postal uniform that they had gotten at a thrift store, and it was on the back ledge of the car and the cop stopped us because he thought it was a police officer's jacket. Yeah they were busting people for having an American flag patch on your jeans. That kind of stuff. There was a certain amount of harassment going on. And it was like a bunch of college kids driving to go to a march and they were already kind of being hassled, which is kind of an interesting bonding experience.
Ironically we decided not to go where people were going to be throwing rocks at the Justice Department or something that night and instead went to Haskell Wexler's movie Medium Cool-
Which was very appropriate because you could smell tear gas in the air in the theater while we were watching it. And the movie was really only available to watch for a week and then the studio pulled it.
Anyway, a lot of friends of mine were not necessarily SDS people but, as I said, Vista people. A lot of people had been arrested for various things. I had some friends who were in the civil rights movement and were arrested down in Mississippi and stuff like that and so there was this kind of feeling of ‘we have a chance to make things work better and a lot is changing - a lot of cultural dues.’
Certainly in some of the places where it actually didn't kind of work out. But that's something that people shared - went through that stuff.
Right. Right. How would you say that SECAUCUS and BABY IT'S YOU, these two early films, I know you had two in 1983, but how would you say they informed the rest of your career, if at all?
You know, I generally don't make things that I just made so I think the success of Secaucus 7 got me on the map. I was a writer until then, a writer for hire and after that I could say, "I'd like to direct as well. I'd like to direct this project that I wrote as well." At least try to get it financed and in the case of Baby It's You, because here was that kind of collusion with the studio, it was just kind of almost self-definition.
I never feel like I'm fighting with Hollywood, but it was just more like if they're aware of me at all, there's a mutual understanding of ‘there’s not much I do that they're interested in’ and ‘there's not that much that they do that I'm interested in’, but sometimes the trains do meet and it's appropriate for me to work in that system. They would have to hire me.
Do you enjoy watching films in your lineage? And I'm not talking about THE BIG CHILL, I'm talking about more like Richard Linklater, who I’d say is interested in similar things. Filmmakers who you’ve influenced in a similar way to how Altman affected you?
Yeah. I'm always interested to see filmmakers where I haven't seen that movie before. You know the plot may be familiar, but their take on it might be different. So it's been a great thing. The democratization causes problems in that there's a lot more competition than there used to be.
I started before there was a Sundance Festival. When I was making my third or fourth movie there might be forty movies applying to that festival. Now there's 3,000 feature films a year. So you just figure what a problem getting something on the screen is. But it's great that the cost of making a movie and the possibility of somebody who has no connections to make an interesting movie are so much greater than they used to be.
Even if you can't get a distributor you can get it on YouTube or something like that. Maybe that's the way to bust in and get a little bit more budget next time.
Do you remember what Mr. Corman or Joe Dante said about seeing your first film that wasn't PIRANHA?
Yeah, I mean, we figured I may only get to do this once, why shouldn't I make something I want to see that nobody else is going to make?
Vincent Spano, Maggie Renzi and John Sayles during Q&A after screening of Baby It’s You. Photo by Jack Burke courtesy Mammoth Lakes Film Festival.