FRANK STASIO, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan.
Hollywood executives generally prefer sexy, big-budget extravaganzas to smaller movies with complicated characters. For years, independent filmmaker John Sayles has made films that fall squarely into the latter category. Movies like "Passion Fish" about a Louisiana woman's struggle with paralysis, and "Sunshine State" about racial and economic tensions in Florida focus on folks you don't normally see on the big screen. His ensemble dramas weave together the personal and the political without all the bells and whistles of mainstream Hollywood fare.
Before his movie career, though, Sayles found his storytelling skills on the printed page. His novel "Union Dues," originally published in 1977, has been reissued this month by Nation Books. It tells the story of a father and a son from West Virginia, a mining town there, in 1969. It touches on issues seen in his later work: the life and labors of workers, working-class people, unions, radical politics in the 1960s. We'll talk about that today.
Later in the program, a look at the economics of the Postal Service. Since yesterday, you've had to fork over two more cents to mail a first-class letter. Where is that money going, and what is the future of the Postal Service? That's later.
Now John Sayles. And if you have a question about his books or his films, the impact of art on politics and vice versa, give us a call. Our number here in Washington: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. And with us now is John Sayles, joining us from our bureau in New York City.
John, thank you very much for being with us.
Mr. JOHN SAYLES (Author and Filmmaker): Thanks for having me.
STASIO: Let's start with your book, "Union Dues." It's like a lot of your films in some way. The novel functions to take a look at people's history, the history of an era, the personal relationships, but also the times, and in this case, the 1960s. Is that one of your aims?
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah. I think "Union Dues" is kind of a mosaic of a very polarized time in American society. I wrote it about, oh, almost 10 years after, you know, the things that take place in the book had happened. But it was a time in the United Mine Workers Union when things were so polarized that one candidate for president had the other one murdered, it was a time when there were groups in America that thought the whole political system was going to come crashing down around our ears and it was a time when there were more than two sides, but I think dozens of little camps of people with their own view of the way the world worked who were trying to occupy the same space. And it was no surprise that they, you know, had a lot of confrontations because of that.
STASIO: People who know your work know that you're very closely associated with and talk a lot about progressive issues and progressive ideas in American culture and politics. Are they surprised, maybe sometimes disappointed, that you get into some of the internecine fights, that you don't present a united front when it comes to labor or labor unions and radical movements for that matter?
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah, I think only the most doctrinaire people who, you know, are a fairly small group, and they're represented in "Union Dues." Some of the characters are very much like that.
But I think, you know, if you're really going to talk about human beings, you have to talk about there are a lot of shades of gray. And any organization has tensions within it. Any political movement has tensions within it. Certainly, the so-called left or alternative politics of the late '60s and early '70s--there was the biggest split between the people who were cultural radicals and the ones who were political radicals. You could sometimes get them at the same march, but you know, one group would be trying to do levitate the Pentagon and the other would be reading Marx and thinking about, you know, voting and things like that.
STASIO: Talking with John Sayles this hour. His book--novel "Union Dues" has been reissued on Nation Books. And in that book, in the beginning of the book, the son of one of the characters, 17-year-old Hobie, leaves for Boston and you have a number of characters. He runs into drunks, working-class Bostonians, radical hippies. Talk about the art for a minute, the challenge of, as you say, sort of presenting these shades of gray and keeping it moving. You keep the plot moving the whole time with all of the complexity that these characters--both in their personal lives and political lives--present.
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah. Well, the core of the novel I kind of stole from "Heidi," which was one of my favorite Shirley Temple movies when I was a kid.
Mr. SAYLES: And, you know, it was this plot thing where her grandfather is looking for her and she's looking for her grandfather. And just when one goes out the back door, the other comes in the front door. So I have this, you know, kind of page-turning thing of `Will this father find his son? You know, what's the son going to get into? Will the son find his older brother who's kind of a casualty of Vietnam and what--that's going to happen?' And those people travel through all these different camps, all these different worlds, so it's a bit of a "Pilgrim's Progress" or "Gulliver's Travels." And, you know, there are a lot of literary precedents to that--for the spine of the book.
But then I had to have the experience of those particular mind-sets and those particular worlds. And we just live in parallel worlds. You know, the policemen's world is its own tribe, and, you know, the people who were in this little, you know, cult political group, that's their own tribe.
Mr. SAYLES: And they kind of know some of the same things are going on, but they interpret them in such different ways that they might as well be living on different planets.
STASIO: A lot of the action in the book takes place in Boston, but one of the principal characters, the dad, Hunter McNutt, is a coal miner from West Virginia. Coal mining, obviously, has made the headlines given last week's tragedy.
Mr. SAYLES: Mm-hmm.
STASIO: Why don't we hear more--I mean, why is this the only time we hear about coal miners in America, do you think?
Mr. SAYLES: Well, one thing is that we use less coal than we used to. You know, in the early 1900s, everything was powered by coal, so there were coal mines everywhere. People who just got off the boat who had no training were thrown down into the mines because it was a low-paying job that, you know, you could do as an entry-level person. At least today, the people who go down there are much better trained. You know, they're pretty savvy about what they're doing, but it remains a really, really dangerous thing to do. I heard some statistic the other day that almost 2,000 miners a year are killed in China, where they're still in kind of a more Wild West phase of getting coal out of the ground. And, you know, no matter what precautions you take, you know, people are going to die. It's dangerous. It's like, you know, deep-sea fishing. But if you are ever lax in those precautions, you're just playing with time.
STASIO: You started out, as we said--talked about writing novels. You've written several novels, but most of us know you through your films. And did you always know you were going to be a writer or filmmaker?
Mr. SAYLES: You know, I didn't know it. I didn't even know that I was going to be a fiction writer. But I could sit down and, you know, fill a piece of paper and--back in the carbon paper days, make a copy of it on a typewriter for no money. And to make movies, you have to raise the budget first. I didn't know anybody in Hollywood, so although I liked movies--I had been an actor, I had been a director in theater--and it was an interesting world to enter, I didn't know how to get in. And I pretty much wrote my way into it by having novels that I had written be optioned as, you know, properties to be made into, you know, Hollywood movies, and then leveraging that into a screenwriting career and then leveraging that into directing my own screenplays.
STASIO: I'd like to play a clip from your most recent movie, "Silver City." That centers on the politics surrounding a governor's race in Colorado. And in this scene, Dickie Pilager, played by Chris Cooper, lays out his campaign platform for the press. Let's hear it.
(Soundbite of "Silver City")
Mr. CHRIS COOPER: (As Dickie Pilager) Education is a priority. Health care is a priority. Our economy is a priority. The environmental--the whole environmental arena, that's a priority, a big priority. Building new roads and maintaining the present--keeping the infrastructure in place where it belongs, that's a priority.
Unidentified Woman: What isn't a priority, sir?
Mr. COOPER: (As Pilager) What's not a priority...
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
Mr. COOPER: (As Pilager) ...is those matters which are of less of a--not that they're not important, but...
STASIO: Well, you get the idea.
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah.
STASIO: Gosh, that voice sounds awfully familiar. What did you set out to do in that movie?
Mr. SAYLES: Well, you know, the character that Chris Cooper is playing, Dickie Pilager, is very much based on George Bush when he was running for governor of Texas the first time, which I think is a classical example of somebody who, you know, kind of had name value but was not a polished politician. And in the course of the movie, you see him at least learn `I should stay on script. I, in fact, can't ad-lib. You know, I get halfway through a sentence and then I forget where I started. And I mix metaphors and then I try to correct that and I end up somewhere I don't want to end up and I have to rehearse a little bit more.'
But also that, you know, this is a character who--our politicians are very rarely their own actors. There's this idea that the politician comes in with a lot of their own ideas and that they're active figure. Very often nowadays they are somebody who is a front, who is somebody who can get votes who is in concert with the people who put him up and who pay for his campaign and, you know, want them to do their bidding, but they're not the actual brains behind the operation.
STASIO: So you have this idea about how--you know, what's going on in politics and want to somehow present this. And we're seeing a lot more documentaries becoming extremely popular these days. Why not produce a documentary? What--is there an advantage in producing a fictional film?
Mr. SAYLES: Well, for one thing is I wrote this film and we made it, and we got it into a theater before the last election. I see very good documentaries. I read very good books about, you know, what went wrong in the Clinton administration or what went wrong in the Reagan administration seven to 10 years after there's anything anybody can do about it. Documentaries take a long time. It takes a lot of porch time to get the footage, to get the lawyers to pass on it if, you know, there's a chance you might be sued, to edit it, to get it out. Whereas with a feature, very often you can tell a lot more truth a lot quicker by making a fictional thing that maybe keeps the lawyers from your door and you can get it out a lot quicker.
STASIO: But you got to pay those pesky actors, though.
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah. You know, our movies, we basically pay everybody scale...
Mr. SAYLES: ...and that--you know, once they've limboed under that bar, you know that they want to be there for the job, not for any of the fringe benefits.
STASIO: We are talking with author and filmmaker John Sayles this hour, taking your phone calls at (800) 989-8255. You can send us an e-mail at email@example.com. We're going to continue that conversation after a short break.
I'm Frank Stasio. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
STASIO: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Frank Stasio, sitting in for Neal Conan.
The filmmaker and author John Sayles has an impressive and diverse body of work, from movies such as "Matewan" and "Passion Fish" to short story collections like "The Anarchists' Convention" and his novel "Union Dues," which is reissued this month. John Sayles our guest today. He joins us from the studios in New York, and you can join us by calling (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Or send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John, you've written and you do movies. Is there a connection between the printed word--do you know whether a work or an idea is better suited as a novel or a movie, or do you sort of write with the hope that it's going to be both?
Mr. SAYLES: You know, I kind of start out knowing, and then sometimes I'm wrong about it and one switches into the other. There was a four-page section in "Union Dues," a story that the young character tells about his grandfather, that became the basis of our movie "Matewan," which is set in a coal mining strike in 1920.
Mr. SAYLES: A story from my last short story collection, "Dillinger in Hollywood," I wrote first as a short story, but it was 75 pages long and that's--you know, no magazine can print a story that long. And I eventually turned that into one of my last movies, "Casa de los Babys." So there is some, you know, some switching from one to the other, and sometimes you start down the road and it gets too big.
Right now I'm working on what may become a novel based on a screenplay that I wrote that when--years ago when I wrote the first draft of it, it just seemed so big that it should be a 50-part miniseries, but that's an impractical thing to think that you can get made. And I'm coming back to it. We've never, you know, been able to raise the money to make it and saying, `Well, what about a novel?'
STASIO: Let's go to the phones. Sal is on the line from Jacksonville, Florida. Hi, Sal.
SAL (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me. I've been a fan of your movies; I didn't even know you wrote. But I have a question. What is it in your past, or what group of things, has made you--I know you're a--I hate to use the word `liberal,' more humanist.
Mr. SAYLES: Mm-hmm.
SAL: What is it in your past that's made you look at things through the eyes of the people who suffer some of the things that have happened to them, like "Matewan"?
Mr. SAYLES: Well, you know, I think it's, you know, not so much suffering as it's human experience. I grew up in a, you know, kind of industrial town, Schenectady, New York. I went to public schools. There were people of, you know, many different classes and many different races there. Union activity was very important because General Electric was based there and they were always in some kind of struggle with the, you know, IUE electrical workers union. It's just, you know, what's been around me. It's not like I've had to make a special trip into the heart of darkness to find any of these things.
STASIO: Hmm. Do you get a lot of...
Mr. SAYLES: I also took a long time hitchhiking around the country. And one of the things that you realize then is you go into the communities and the things that you thought were important or that were the prejudices of your area, they don't hold those same things. They may have a totally different, you know, viewpoint on the world.
STASIO: When did you do that, the hitchhiking trip?
Mr. SAYLES: When I--actually in the late '60s and early '70s when "Union Dues" is set. Certainly "Matewan" and some of "Union Dues" came from experiences hitchhiking through Kentucky and West Virginia right when the United Mine Workers was having a very contentious election, which ended up with Tony Boyle, the incumbent president, having his challenger, Jock Yablonski, murdered. And a lot of the rides that I got were from coal miners who would say to me, you know, `Well, we got some problems, but you know, it might turn into another Matewan massacre.' And I'd never heard of this, you know, fairly important thing in American labor history, the Matewan massacre.
STASIO: Yeah. You get a lot of credit for the ability to draw characters; not only the character, but then the relationship. We have an e-mail from a listener in Texas who says he loves the way you drew the relationships in "Lone Star."
"Passion Fish"--here's a movie that patiently shows a relationship between two characters, and it evolves gradually over time. In fact, let's listen to this clip from "Passion Fish." It stars Mary McDonnell, and it's a very personal story about a woman named May-Alice who becomes paralyzed from the waist down, and her live-in nurse Chantelle. And in this scene, Chantelle is confronting May-Alice, who hurt herself while she was using the bathroom.
(Soundbite of "Passion Fish")
Ms. ALFRE WOODARD: (As Chantelle) I'm going to get the rest of the groceries. If you want a drink, I'll be in the kitchen.
Ms. MARY McDONNELL: (As May-Alice Culhane) I can't make it out there.
Ms. WOODARD: (As Chantelle) Where's your chair? You're all sweaty.
Ms. McDONNELL: (As Culhane) I couldn't get back into it in the bathroom. It was easier to come out here.
Ms. WOODARD: (As Chantelle) You fell?
Ms. McDONNELL: (As Culhane) What are you doing?
Ms. WOODARD: (As Chantelle) I need to look at your legs.
Ms. McDONNELL: (As Culhane) I didn't hit hard.
Ms. WOODARD: (As Chantelle) I need to look at your legs.
Ms. McDONNELL: (As Culhane) No!
Ms. WOODARD: (As Chantelle) Oh, you got a big bruise under your hip. Nothing's broken, but we need to take you for X-rays.
Ms. McDONNELL: (As Culhane) No.
Ms. WOODARD: (As Chantelle) There's no way for me to be sure.
Ms. McDONNELL: (As Culhane) No! It's my body. I said no!
STASIO: That's Alfre Woodward in that scene with Mary McDonnell from "Passion Fish." This was a somewhat less-political and much more personal film for you. What led you to produce this film?
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah, it was interesting. When I was in college in the late '60s, I saw Ingmar Bergman's "Persona." I had never seen a foreign movie with subtitles until I went to college, and some of them were pretty mind-blowing. And I had already worked as an orderly in hospitals, and there's a central relationship in that movie between an actress who has become mute and this more working-class nurse who becomes her live-in nurse, and there's a real kind of psychological power struggle between them. And I remember, you know, thinking at the time that I saw if this was an America, you know, it would be more of a comedy and the paralyzed woman would be white and the woman who's pushing her wheelchair around would be black. And there's this interesting power relationship within that that's kind of automatic, which is one has power because she writes the checks and the other has power because she's able-bodied and can walk around.
And the idea that these two people would be stuck with each other came when I was at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York having some work done on my back--I have a bad back--and saw about six of these couples, you know, and I realized, `Well, you know, these women may be, you know, married, but they probably spend more time with that caretaker than they do with their husbands.'
STASIO: And in most of your films, you take these relationships and then we begin to extrapolate. They begin to project a larger picture of social relationships and ultimately political relationships. And I read an interview one place where you said something about America being a place in constant negotiation, or constantly negotiating, what it means to be American.
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah. I think that, you know, some of that has to do with this idea of what is promised. You know, America has great advertising, you know, the `Give us your poor, give us your tired,' and that it's a melting pot and that it's a land of opportunity. And then, you know, a third of the immigrants who came over went home, you know, 'cause it didn't turn out to be what they had been led to believe it was or they just couldn't make it. That's a negotiation.
Our politics--you know, our city politics--one of my movies, "City of Hope," is about the politics of a dying city with, you know, the Puerto Ricans and blacks finally getting power when there's almost nothing left to steal. You know, whenever you have that promise and people think they should have something and then there's somebody in power saying, `Not so fast,' you're going to have some serious negotiation. You know, even just the--if you look at, you know, a 20-block area of Chicago, it's probably been blockbusted three times. You know, it's probably been blockbusted to put black people in and get white people out and then gentrified in the other direction.
STASIO: Well, the other thing you could say about your films and books is that it presents a portrait of a power struggle, where, you know, the haves are really doing--you know, they're stealing power, and it's portrait that's not always a pretty picture. And yet you talk about a country in negotiation. Is that a hopeful sign? Are we doing--do you think that Americans are, even though it looks a little grimy and messy at times, doing things better and actually making better progress than other democracies, other developing countries?
Mr. SAYLES: You know, I think there is the opportunity for progress. And there are societies that have become so static that there is no opportunity for progress without something blowing apart. We're not always moving forward; sometimes we're moving backwards, you know, which is some of what "Silver City" was about.
Mr. SAYLES: But there's at least that possibility. You know, so far we--you know, since the Civil War, we have not had an armed conflict that was trying to take the government, you know, out of power. Most countries at some point have had the military just say, `We're tired of what these politicians are going to do. We're going to replace them for a while or forever.'
STASIO: (800) 989-8255 is the number to call. Robert is on the line from Anchorage, Alaska, the setting for the movie "Limbo" as it turns out. Hi, Robert.
ROBERT (Caller): Hello. Actually, "Limbo" was set in Juneau (unintelligible).
Mr. SAYLES: In Juneau.
Mr. SAYLES: A big difference there.
ROBERT: It's one of John Sayles' more enigmatic movies. I remember that extremely open and ambiguous ending where you don't know whether the principals are going to be saved, or I guess it's murdered...
Mr. SAYLES: Uh-huh.
ROBERT: ...is one that sort of left the movie audience in Anchorage sort of stunned and dissatisfied and muttering as they left, although...
STASIO: And asking the big question: `Juneau?'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah. ...(Unintelligible) it turned out.
ROBERT: Nobody seemed to know. But actually, I enjoyed it. I thought it was a very challenging and provocative ending. But...
Mr. SAYLES: Mm-hmm. Well--and it is a movie called "Limbo."
Mr. SAYLES: That's a consumer warning as well as the title.
ROBERT: Possibly people didn't get the message from the title.
But in many of your movies, and your book, you have a--it seems to me, a moral, political message. And I'm reminded that people are now talking about Steven Spielberg as someone who hammers home a message in a movie like his most recent one, "Munich."
Mr. SAYLES: Mm-hmm.
ROBERT: And I'd just be interested in hearing you free associate a little bit on the very different paths that you and Steven Spielberg have taken as directors, if it's not so different that you really...
Mr. SAYLES: Well, we've actually crossed paths a couple times. I've worked for Steven a couple times as a screenwriter; nothing that's been made yet. But I think "Munich" is an interesting thing, 'cause if you've seen the movie, he doesn't so much hammer home a message as he hammers home a very ambiguous situation. You certainly don't walk away from that movie, you know, singing the soundtrack and saying, `This is the way we have to act.' The process of seeing the movie is kind of what the characters go through. It's kind of--you know, it's long and it's harrowing, and there are no easy answers at the end of it.
So certainly, the message is we should pay attention to this stuff, we should question this stuff. But I think often with my work the fact that it deals with recognizable human behavior, that the people don't live in a kind of fantasy netherworld but live in the real world, and nobody gets to start, you know, from scratch in that world, people take that as being a `messagey' film. For me, it's just I'm not going to ignore anything that's there.
STASIO: Talking with John Sayles today, filmmaker and novelist. His 1977 novel "Union Dues" has just been re-released in paperback. He's the writer, editor and director of a number of films, including "Lone Star" and "Silver City." You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Frank Stasio. We're taking your phone calls at (800) 989-8255.
And you have a great deal of control over your films, as I just suggested, and you do have a message. What do you do to make sure that it doesn't become too heavy-handed? Do you have your films edited? Do you--how--what's the editing process for you during the scriptwriting?
Mr. SAYLES: Well, because I started as a novelist, I got used to writing the third, second and third draft of a book or a short story. And for me, you know, the writing of the screenplay is a first draft, and then the shooting of the movie and working with the actors is the second draft, and certainly the editing is the third draft. And I do quite a bit of rewriting in that third draft during the editing, and some of it to make sure that there is some kind of balance, that the human beings don't disappear, that you can infer a message rather than feeling like you're grabbed by the back of the head and having your face pushed in it. As long as people are feeling dramatically involved with the characters, whether they love them or hate them, I think you're OK.
STASIO: Your movies very often deal with subjects--the subject of narrative itself, storytelling, myth. Now in "Lone Star," the myth is paralyzing. It's larger than life, it's bigger than truth, and the characters are just stuck with it, and they can't get out of there. "Limbo," as we suggested, and "The Secret of Roan Inish"--is that case, the story is transformative, and it allows people, you know, who are stuck to imagine new possibilities. And you seem to be very keen on this idea. I love the scene in "Roan Inish" where the little girl, Fiona, has a second encounter with her cousin, who is described by the family, I believe, as `a little different, don't you know.'
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah.
STASIO: And this is her second encounter. She's seen--this little girl has seen her brother alive, and he is still at the young age when he was lost at sea. So he hasn't grown up, but he was killed at sea. She is convinced it is her lost brother. And she's tried to talk to him; he keeps running away. And now along comes this cousin, who apparently expected this to happen all along. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of "The Secret of Roan Inish"; water)
Unidentified Man: So have you seen him?
"FIONA": Why does he run from me?
Unidentified Man: Why do you chase him?
"FIONA": He's my brother. He's lost right there.
Unidentified Man: Aye, he isn't lost at all. He's just with another branch of the family. Why are you looking at me like that?
"FIONA": Don't know whether to believe you or not. People say you're daft.
Unidentified Man: Ah, they have the reason.
"FIONA": Have you ever seen him? Have you ever seen Jimmy?
Unidentified Man: Well, I may be daft, girl, but I'm not blind.
STASIO: Another way of seeing. You talk about the power of literature, of the power of narrative. Tell us about that.
Mr. SAYLES: Well, one of the things I was dealing with in "The Secret of Roan Inish" was the idea of an oral tradition. You know, today we can walk into a, you know, video store and say, `Well, I'm going to, you know, go into this world and watch this thing tonight,' or, `watch this thing tonight,' and it might be, you know, Scotland in the 1500s, or it might be a futuristic science-fiction movie.
Oral tradition is a very, very different thing. It tends to be stories that tell you who you are and where you came from. It's one of the ways that cultures, you know, define themselves. These are the stories we tell about each other 'cause when you tell them to young people, it tells you how to be--certainly Native American stories were very much--there's usually a creation myth and one that's about, you know, how to be a young man or a young woman and, you know, how to mature and what honor is and, you know, who you owe your loyalty to.
So I set "Secret of Roan Inish" on an Irish island, a very remote island, about 1948. So this is a little 10-year-old girl who's never seen a TV show or a movie. And in the course of the movie, there are various strategies for telling stories from the past. Sometimes we hear a narrator and see what they're talking about. There's one sequence where the little boy drifts away in this little raft, and you don't have any--it starts with somebody telling the story, and then it's no dialogue; just pictures.
So, to a certain extent, one of the things I was playing with is: How do we define ourselves anymore? And you mentioned "Lone Star" before. Sometimes we are defined by myths that are dangerous and that we have to get rid of.
STASIO: John Sayles, my guest this hour. Our conversation continues after a short break. And more of your phone calls at (800) 989-8255. I'm Frank Stasio. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
STASIO: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Frank Stasio sitting in for Neal Conan.
Here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following today on NPR News.
An appeals court has refused to dismiss money-laundering charges against Congressman Tom DeLay. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals also refused to send the charges against DeLay to a lower court for an immediate trial.
Doctors are seeing some encouraging signs from ailing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, now breathing on his own as doctors have begun to cut back on the sedatives that are keeping him in a coma.
You can hear details on those stories and much more today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.
Tomorrow NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin will be here. He drops by from time to time to TALK OF THE NATION. He'll answer your questions. Give us a call tomorrow anytime with your comments about NPR News, about news coverage in general.
Also tomorrow, we'll have an e-mail challenge. You can start by sending suggestions today. Here's the question. You can send in your e-mail. Question is: What should our era be called? Is it the Dark Ages? No, that one's been taken. Can't be the Middle Ages. What is our era? The Nuclear Age, the Renaissance, Great Depression--all eras named after the great changes in technology and philosophy, economics. What defines our era? Send your nominations to email@example.com, and be sure to be `Name That Era' in the subject line.
And John Sayles is here with us to talk about our era, which he has documented so well in fiction. Let's talk about the technology. You talk about a film like "Roan Inish" that looks at the oral tradition. Then we go to print literature, and that's how we define ourselves and how we find meaning. And now we go into this visual media, where it's not so linear, but that's how we get our messages. Does that change the nature of the society itself, do you think, the way we're getting our messages?
Mr. SAYLES: Well, it certain speeds things up. I'm doing research right now for a book that's set around 1900, and at that time Hearst or Pulitzer would have a dozen people on the staff who were artists, who would draw pictures. They really couldn't just take a photograph and put it into the newspaper yet. And some of those were political cartoonists, and they were very, very important in the stance of the newspaper.
Today we have political blogs, and people are very creative at manipulating, you know, imagery that's been out there and that anybody can grab onto, and those are our new political cartoonists. And you can go on right-wing ones and left-wing ones and specialty ones and whatever, but it's very, very fast. It's, you know, hours after something is, you know--you know, stand-up comedians are doing jokes about it...
Mr. SAYLES: ...and it's on all the blogs. It used to be, you know, a week, a half a week before there would be a reaction to something that happened in the world.
STASIO: Let's go to the phones. Herb is on the line from San Antonio.
HERB (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon, Frank. Thank you very much for taking my call. It's a great pleasure to speak with you, John Sayles.
Mr. SAYLES: Thanks, Herb.
HERB: I want to go back a bit, first of all, and thank you for the wonderful variety and great diversity of the work that you've done and given to us over the years.
Mr. SAYLES: Thanks.
HERB: I want to take you back about--1984 to still what I think is one of the great classic films of the '80s and maybe for all time, a "Brother From Another Planet." And I primarily want to mention the fact that two--well, several of the actors that you cast in that show are still working, including two very prominent actors: Joe Morton, who played the mute of the planet, and David Strathairn.
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah, David's been in seven of our movies. You know, he was the lead in "Limbo," and he was in "Matewan" and "Eight Men Out." And David's somebody I knew from acting with him, and, you know, when I acted in my own movies, he was the only actor I ever let stand behind me 'cause I always knew he was going to do something interesting.
HERB: (Laughs) And he did, indeed, in--when you guys were the catlike creatures ...(unintelligible) Joe Morton.
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah, we were the original `men in black.'
HERB: Yes, you were. I was going to--in fact, I was going to say that. You were the original `men in black.'
Mr. SAYLES: No.
HERB: But I just--also, I believe I'm correct in saying that you're part of the Roger Corman progeny that come out, you and...
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah, I wrote about three movies for Roger.
HERB: Yeah. He spoke of you--I saw him at in Winter Park, Colorado, a few years ago, and he spoke about how proud he was of your success and the things...
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah.
HERB: ...that you've been able to accomplish. So...
STASIO: Well, Herb, thank you for your call.
HERB: Well, thank you very much. I surely appreciate it.
STASIO: And we are taking your calls today with John Sayles, who's my guest--(800) 989-8255. We talk about the impact of these changes over time, and you were talking blogs and everything happening much more quickly. And, again, if you think about the power of the word to transform, to give us possibilities, are we so sort of caught up in this world of which, you know, kind of competing facts and who's got the latest information, hard data, that we're just either not giving ourselves the time to imagine other possibilities or the formats are too fast for us? They're not really appropriate?
Mr. SAYLES: I think one of the things--it mitigates against analysis. You know, events happen so fast. You know, somebody said there are not just red states and blue states; there are red facts and blue facts now.
STASIO: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. SAYLES: And because there's another crisis every other day or, you know, another crisis is being put in front of us that we should be worried about it, nobody really takes much time to go into any depth about any of these things. One of the things that I dealt with in "Silver City"--you know, my kind of A story--was not so much, you know, the politics of our moment, but what does it mean to be a journalist?
Mr. SAYLES: Are you a truth-teller, or are you part of the entertainment business?
STASIO: And if you take the time to tell the truth and, you know, act on the imagination, have you missed the moment?
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah. Exactly.
STASIO: Things are moving so fast. Let's go to Jeff out in East Lansing.
JEFF (Caller): How are you doing?
JEFF: Big fan. One of the first films that I saw--two of the first films: "Seacaucus 7" and "Brother From Another Planet."
Mr. SAYLES: Oh, good. Thank you.
JEFF: Yeah, great work. I'm a black writer and filmmaker, and you seem to be one of the few filmmakers that consistently features serious black characters in drama especially, I think. Can you talk about that? I guess I find it frustrating as a viewer that ...(unintelligible) not much into the filmmaker, who's constantly trying to raise money--myself to make my own work. But that's really lagging out there.
STASIO: Thank you, Jeff.
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah, I think some of it is just the--what people perceive as the economics of the business, which is, `I don't get this, so I don't think a general audience, which means an audience like me, is going to get this.' And, still, very few film executives, who are the people who finance films, are other than white. You know, it's just a fact of the world. You know, my own interest was, you know, not so much to, you know, play "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," but that's the world I grew up in. There were people of a lot of different races, and they had romances, and they had their own politics, and they had their own family troubles. So, you know, it's kind of in American movies--if, you know, a tree falls in the woods and it doesn't hit a white person, did it really fall?
Mr. SAYLES: You know. And it hits a lot of different people.
STASIO: But let me ask you another question about that. We've seen more independent films, and I guess you could argue with that if you want and disagree. But it does seem that the independent film industry is a little stronger today, but does that also mean a sort of a ghettoization of theme, that people are making their own films about their own ideas and their own neighborhoods?
Mr. SAYLES: Well, I think it's not so much the neighborhoods that's the problem, which is that if you're making a--you know, what is now called a credit card film and you're 20 years and you went to film school, it's--you know, usually they're about 20-year-olds with their problems after they got out of college.
STASIO: Yeah, right.
Mr. SAYLES: You know, there's that limitation...
STASIO: Yeah. Right.
Mr. SAYLES: ...of experience. And even if you wanted to be, you know, you don't get to make "The New World" or "Munich," you know, on your mom's credit card. You know, you just don't have the money to do something that ambitious.
STASIO: So you don't see this as a problem or that we're getting more boutique and maybe the themes are thinning out? These kids are going to grow up, and it'll be....
Mr. SAYLES: Yeah, you hope that they continue to get to make movies, and that is definitely a problem, which is that there's still only 52 weeks in the year; there's only so many distributors who handle non-Hollywood films. And something like the Sundance Film Festival gets a thousand features every year. There's not time in your life to see those thousand movies or even 50 of them, if there are 50 good ones.
STASIO: Well, we hope that you continue to make the good movies that you have, John Sayles.
Mr. SAYLES: So do I.
STASIO: Thanks for being with us.
Mr. SAYLES: Thank you.
STASIO: John Sayles, filmmaker and author, joins us from the NPR bureau in New York. His novel "Union Dues" has been re-released this month. For an excerpt of that book, you can go to our Web site at npr.org.
Our program continues when we take a look at the Postal Service. Where's it going with these rates going up and up and up? Stay with us.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.