John Sayles by David L. Ulin

BOMB 63 Spring 1998
Bombcover 63 1024X1024
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John Sayles, writer/director of Men With Guns. All photos by Shane Young. Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

I met John Sayles on a rainy afternoon in mid-January, the kind of day when even a lifelong New Yorker might have trouble identifying the city’s charms. There’s an icy wind coming off the East River, and traffic is at a standstill, yet Sayles seems comfortably aloof in short-sleeves and khakis, sitting in a conference room at the Sony building in midtown. On the walls around him, mementos mark Sony’s finer moments; meanwhile, floor-to-ceiling windows yield an intimate view of the canyons of Manhattan, which from 20 stories up assume a nearly human scale. Sayles, however, pays little attention to any of it, focusing instead on his eleventh film, Hombres Armados, or Men With GunsMen With Guns is an odd film, even coming from someone like Sayles, who has long pursued a delightfully idiosyncratic vision of his own. Inspired by a character in Francisco Goldman’s novel The Long Night of White Chickens, it tells the story of Dr. Fuentes, a physician in an unnamed Latin American country whose greatest legacy is a program training young doctors to go into the mountains and work with the Indians there. When Fuentes sets out to visit his former students, he discovers that they have been killed, and their villages devastated, by an army who considers any attempt to improve conditions a revolutionary act. For Fuentes, the experience is nothing less than a revelation; a political naïf, he has always believed the government’s account of the guerrilla war in the mountains, while supporting the inherent logic of the status quo. What makes Men With Guns truly distinct is Sayles’ decision to shoot the entire film in Spanish and a variety of Indian dialects, and to release it to the world with subtitles. It’s an astonishing choice for an American director, especially one whose last project, Lone Star, was as close to a commercial breakthrough as he’s had. For his part, Sayles tends to dismiss the challenges—economic or otherwise—of working in another language; “Dozens of foreign filmmakers,” he says, “have come over here and worked in English, there’s Michael Radford, for instance, who did Il Postino. He’s a British guy directing a movie in Italian from a book that was set in Chile where people spoke Spanish, and that worked fine.” Still, with Men With Guns, Sayles has produced, in essence, an American foreign film.

David L. Ulin There’s a certain risk for an American filmmaker to make a movie in Spanish with English subtitles. How did the idea to do Men with Guns this way evolve?

John Sayles The idea of the film was always that it would be in whatever language the people spoke in the place where we made it. Built into the story is the notion of a man, Dr. Fuentes, who is ignorant of his own world, to the extent that he is surprised when he goes outside the city and people don’t speak his language—in fact, they speak a half dozen other languages—and he can’t communicate. The story was always partly about his frustration. Half the time he has to have a little boy interpret for him. He’s never sure if he’s actually getting the real answer, or the proper information. His frustration comes not just because there is a difference in culture or class, but because it’s another language, and maybe even a different way of looking at the world. So, the story is based on things that happen all over the world, not just in Latin America. Certainly, I could have done a very similar story in Yugoslavia, or in Africa, the Soviet Union, or even in the United States in a different time period. But for now, it made the most sense to set it in Latin America. It never really says in the film exactly where it is, just that it’s someplace where the white people congregate in cities and the indigenous people live in the countryside, and they don’t have a whole lot to do with each other in a positive way.

DLU You highlight that notion by having an American couple reappear throughout the film. Their relationship with Dr. Fuentes parallels his interactions with the Indians.

JS That’s a little bit of a refraction. To a certain extent, the Americans are on a parallel trip. They geographically show up in the same places as Dr. Fuentes. The first time they meet him, he is defensive about his country. He is still positive. And each time we meet them, he’s a very different person, but they are exactly the same. They are the teflon American tourists.

DLU They don’t ever see what’s really going on.

JS Because it’s not going on for them. They may have read about the atrocities, they might actually know more about his country in a factual way than Dr. Fuentes does, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to feel it. Whereas the doctor can’t help but feel it. It’s his country, his students.

DLU You say this story could have taken place anywhere, in Latin America or Yugoslavia. What about it originally attracted you?

JS The basic idea was of somebody who thought they had done something from their best intentions, something that was supposed to be good for people in the world, but that turned out to be a disaster, something that got people killed. How do you deal with that? What happens when a person or a culture starts to examine its own life, its foreign policy? Let’s say you’re a Christian, and you grew up hearing about the wonderful missionaries. But then you start to think, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to go to Mexico and burn all their temples and destroy their written history, and put people through torture if they wouldn’t convert to Christianity. Maybe, you might think, that was a little heavy-handed; maybe there was another way to have handled things. The idea for this film started with something I heard during the Gulf War. Some newspaper took a poll where over 65 percent of the respondents said that they really didn’t want more information from the news media about the Gulf War. They liked it fine that they were being censored, that the military was in charge of what they heard. They wanted to hear the good news, that we were winning. They didn’t want to hear any of that negative, nasty stuff that might make them wonder why we were involved in the conflict in the first place. Not that they didn’t think there was something negative going on. They just said, we don’t want to know. I was interested in that kind of voluntary ignorance. When we were first talking about this movie to Americans, who were having a hard time with it, we used the Kathie Lee analogy: Yes, I’m sure she didn’t know those companies were using immigrant labor and paying them minimal wages, but she should have known. She just didn’t ask questions when she could have asked. And that’s very much who the main character of this film is: a liberal living in a conservative society. He may be soft-hearted compared to a lot of people, but still he’s a society doctor for the head of the military.

DLU He certainly comes off as someone who considers himself to be a good man, someone who is operating from his best intentions in many ways.

JS Yes. But he is a doctor. And one of the negative stereotypes of a doctor, which is often true, is of somebody who is very sure of his knowledge and very sure his particular specialty is the cure. Dr. Fuentes to a degree is coming from that place. He feels like he’s doing a good thing for that poor little culture, but it’s not coming out of an understanding of their culture, it’s coming out of a regard for his own.

DLU Bravo tells him, “You’re the most learned man I ever met, but also the most ignorant.”

JS And he is. Both. Ignorant is not the same as stupid.

DLU In some sense, the film is about the doctor’s progression from political ignorance, or naivete, to a kind of political awareness.

JS Yes, and he can’t return once he has it. He can’t be that society doctor anymore. But then again, he also can’t go back and start bugging the general when he’s got his finger up his butt, saying, “Why aren’t you nicer to those people? What are you doing out there?”

DLU In the end, though, he does get his legacy.

JS He gets a piece of it, but a very, very poor piece of it. Cerca del Cielo is no paradise when you finally see it. It’s a bunch of poor Indians on the thin edge of subsistence, and his legacy only lasts as long as that stuff in his medical bag. So that’s a very small legacy. But that is worth something.

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Frederico Luppi as Dr. Fuentes in John Sayles’s Men with Guns.

DLU A lot of your films have, at heart, the notion that once you learn something, you can’t go back. Certainly, that’s true of Dr. Fuentes. Is this fundamental to how you look at storytelling, or just a happy coincidence?

JS Well, it’s pretty classic. In Norse mythology, Odin gets knowledge but Raven plucks out one of his eyes as payment. So, yes, he knows a lot, but he can only see out of one of his eyes, so his vision of the world is skewed. Once you know something, I do think it is very, very difficult to act the way you did before. Probably the most interesting movie I’ve seen that deals with this is Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. I’d read most of those Raymond Carver stories at one time or another, but only when they were all put together did I realize that every one of those stories is about the burden of knowledge. That’s not unusual, but I think it is interesting for Americans who live in a media culture. Modern entertainment, and I include news in entertainment, affords an opportunity to know an awful lot, but it also trivializes stuff, and makes it seem like it’s happening to somebody else, like it’s not real.

DLU If news is entertainment, do you think it’s even more essential for art, film, and literature to address the reality of what’s going on?

JS I think, sometimes, yes. For instance, Steven Spielberg did a really interesting thing in Schindler’s List, where he had that one little girl in red while everybody else was in black and white. All of a sudden you realize here’s a person, a character I want to follow. You can isolate her, and then all of a sudden the horrible atrocity seems more personal. I think what fiction can often do is get emotionally more at the truth by making something more dramatic so you can’t click off, so you do get personally involved in a character or characters, and you start to feel that these are people I know, instead of thinking that what you’re seeing happened to people in a land far away, in a time long ago, where I’ll never go.

DLU You wrote the first draft of the screenplay for Men with Guns in Spanish.

JS Very bad Spanish.

DLU What was it like to write in a language not your own?

JS This movie is going to be subtitled everywhere in the world, because there are five or six very different languages in it. Even in Mexico, where it was filmed, it will be subtitled. Having seen a lot of subtitled movies, the thing that bothers me most is when I feel I’m missing what the characters are really saying, when the subtitles have been boiled down to something very simple. So more than having written the first draft in Spanish, I wrote all the drafts in subtitles. I was very aware of the brevity of what people said, the simplicity of what they said, of not having people talk at the same time so that we could keep the subtitles accurate.

DLU So no really long speeches.

JS Well, if there are long speeches, there are enough pauses, and they are made up of shorter, non-complex sentences. Really, what it was about is that my ordinary dialogue is a little more indirect, a lot more baroque and ornate, and a bit more metaphorical. Very often, I think, speech is used as music; it’s not important what they’re saying, but how they’re saying it, or even that they are talking at all. But in this film, it is very direct. It’s almost like a Catholic catechism. Dr. Fuentes asks the questions, and very often he gets an answer—usually not the one he wants to hear. He has to work hard to get the answer, because he doesn’t understand like a local person would.

DLU How did you deal with the Indian dialects?

JS With the Indian dialects, we gave them the dialogue in Spanish and asked them to translate and then run it by their friends and relatives, orally. Damian Delgado speaks Nahuatl—which is the Aztec language—but not often; it’s really his parents’ language. So when he translated Domingo’s lines into Nahuatl we had him run them by his relatives, and I just had to take their word for it. Emotionally, it certainly played the way I wanted it to. Like when the guys from San Cristobal do the scene about whether they’re going to sacrifice themselves for their village, all the emotion was there.

DLU That’s one of the most powerful scenes in the film. You don’t realize they’re actually talking about sacrificing themselves until…

JS The guy finally says, “And me, Moisés Ibarra,” and you realize, “Wait a minute.”

DLU So you shot that scene without knowing, exactly, what was being said?

JS I would say to the actors, you’ve got to tell me if you make a mistake. And occasionally they would. But usually, it was fine. For instance, at the beginning of the film, the woman is speaking to the little girl in Kuna, which is a Panamanian Indian language from a little island that was never even under Spanish rule. It sounds almost like a Polynesian language. But the little girl had to learn Kuna phonetically from the woman who plays her mother. Then the woman, who was a very good teacher, said, “Now start to remember what you’re saying. Don’t just say the words back to me!” So the little girl actually had some feeling and inflection in what she was saying, but she was speaking a foreign language.

DLU If nothing else, all these languages make Men with Guns more of a collaborative effort than many of your other projects. How was it different from your usual way of working?

JS I just had a couple more people to talk to after each performance, the ones who were concentrating on the accents and mistakes. Sometimes I would pick it up if somebody flubbed a line, but sometimes I wouldn’t. I was looking at the emotion and at whether the characters were hooking into each other. Which, actually, was a good way to work, with somebody else watching the other details. If someone blows a line, usually I hear it right away because I wrote it. It’s in my head. If they leave a word out or transpose something, or paraphrase a little bit, I’ll usually say, “There is a reason that was written that way!’

DLU Were there particular challenges in directing in a language that you don’t primarily speak? In terms of communicating with actors or getting ideas across?

JS No. I pretty much worked in Spanish with everybody except for the cinematographer, who’s Polish. English is maybe his fifth language. He doesn’t even speak Spanish, so I would speak English with him.

DLU One of the nicest things, texturally, about the film is the kaleidoscopic sense of language. It always bothered me as a kid to watch movies where the Nazis spoke in English with German accents.

JS Gorky Park was my favorite one, where all the Russians were British except for William Hurt. He got to be an American. But it’s a tough thing to do. Subtitles are very tough for some people to read. So economically, it’s a tough decision for a big budget film to make. This is a movie that cost $2 1/2 million, and we think of it as a world movie. The United States is only one of the markets—a good market, but only one of the markets for it. I’d say the only time when language really caused us to take extra time was when we were working in an area where most of the extras didn’t speak Spanish. I would be feeding information to the interpreter while we were looking at the extras, telling them a story, telling them what we wanted them to do, for the background action or whatever. The interpreter would interpret it into whatever language they spoke. We had one incident where I had said, “So after the doctor and his friends pass on this pathway, this woman should watch them go by, and after they’ve gone by a little bit she should follow them a ways, and then when she gets to the sapling, she should just grab on to the sapling and look at them go away!” What the interpreter translated it as was that she should grab onto the sapling and look at it. This woman had never seen a movie before, which many of our extras hadn’t, and she didn’t know why she was doing any of this stuff. Looking at the sapling seemed as reasonable as anything else to her. So on the first take, she’s running and it’s a great take, and then she just keeps staring. She looks like she is stoned on acid. Oh yeah, that’s why this is close to heaven.

DLU That’s a peculiar irony of this project. You’re introducing people to film by actually putting them in one.

JS Right. Not necessarily by showing them one. The little kids loved the video assist. We always had a big bunch of little kids around speaking these beautiful little bird languages whenever I would look at the video assist.

DLU In Men with Guns, it seems that not only are you taking on the politics of a certain culture, but its artistic language, as well. There’s an element in this film of magical realism—certainly in terms of the Indian woman and her daughter, who come in and out of the film as a kind of chorus. To what extent was that intentional, and what was your purpose in merging fantasy and reality in this way?

JS I was interested in different cultures with different ways of looking at the world, and when they come together, the extreme difficulties of them understanding and having any positive interaction. Like the story of Padre Portillo and the village that sacrifices itself. He runs away, and that haunts him, but he misses the point to a certain extent, which is not that he’s a coward for running away, but that his faith is a very different kind of faith than theirs. Even though the villagers took on the outward trappings of Christianity, still they have the old time religion that they had before the Christians came, and that religion is tied to the land. It’s not portable. Padre Portillo’s religion, on the other hand—he could be a good Catholic in a phone booth, in an airplane, in Guatemala, in France, in Madrid. If he’s doing what a good Catholic is supposed to do, he’s a good Catholic. But their religious tie is to the land. They cannot be good people of their religion if they are away from their land. Those physical elements make up their religious beliefs, and their gods and their ancestors are tied to that land, are buried in that land. And if they lose that land, they have lost their past and their future. If Padre Portillo walks away from that village, it’s just because he’s not supposed to get killed and be a martyr if it’s not for anything. Land isn’t important: God is important. But God and land are inseparable to those people. So with the magic realism of the mother and daughter at the beginning of the film, one of the things I wanted to get at is that this is a different way of seeing the world—one that’s not necessarily practical. Here is a woman who can tell there’s a doctor coming, who can tell he’s going to stay, but she can’t foresee a mine three feet in front of her.

DLU Or even foresee that the reason the doctor’s going to stay…

JS Is because he’s dying. But yes, there is a spiritual life she has that these other people don’t really have; that the Westerner doesn’t have, that the man of science—as he calls himself—who believes in progress doesn’t have. I also wanted to get into the two-sidedness of this equation. Yes, the doctor is voluntarily ignorant. But the people in those villages are also voluntarily ignorant. There is that price you pay for keeping your culture pure, for keeping it from being watered down. There are villages in Chiapas where you can’t take a picture, where they see you with a camera, you’re out of there. Where yes, they let the Catholic priest in twice a year, but then they get him out before the sun sets. The priests can do a couple of marriages and births, and though the people there are Catholics, they don’t like priests hanging around. They keep their culture very, very pure. They don’t tolerate people who speak English, or people who dress in Western clothes. Look at the Amish. Look at the Hasidic Jews. But the price you pay for that isolation is that you don’t have power in the greater world. When they come and say, “We have a piece of paper here that says we own the land,” you can’t read their language. And if you do learn that language, then you’re ostracized from your own group and no longer trusted by them.

DLU You make the point in the movie that the doctor’s initial experience of Indian people is as service people and as people on the street.

JS The first snapshot of the movie is of a white guy who is totally at home in a glass and plastic modern city, and then there are these Indians sitting on a sidewalk begging for alms who are totally lost.

DLU The section of town they inhabit is called Los Perdidos.

JS Yeah. The lost people. But the last shot of the film is the doctor sitting on the ground in a place where he’s totally lost and where he could never survive, where the Indians are the ones who are comfortable and at home.

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Damian Delgado as Domingo, the soldier, and Tania Cruz as Graciela, the mute girl, in John Sayles’s Men with Guns.

DLU There’s an allegorical element to the characters you bring together in this film. You’ve got the doctor, the soldier, the priest.

JS The Indian woman in the beginning of the film is telling a story. It’s a mystical story as well as a practical story. And yes, she becomes a character in the story, and her daughter becomes a character too. But it is a story that she’s telling that’s almost magical: Once upon a time there was a doctor.

DLU It’s almost like The Wizard of Oz. The doctor picks up people along the way. Like the Tin Man, the Scarecrow…

JS But they all don’t get what they want.

DLU Maybe. Still, there’s a mechanism by which they all get redeemed. The priest gets redeemed by saving the others, which absolves him for having deserted the village. And the doctor, he is redeemed too, even if it’s in a small, temporary way.

JS He doesn’t know it, though.


JS I think the little boy, though, the next thing smoking through… If those guerrillas come along, he’s going to say, Can I go with you? If the army comes through, he’s going to say, Can I go with you? If somebody says, I’m going down to civilization because I’m hungry, he’s saying: I’m going with you. He likes it that Cerca de Cielo exists. He’s a kid with a story—but he’s not going to hang around there if he can’t eat. The one person for whom Cerca de Cielo really is a paradise is Graciela. Because she probably lived in a place that wasn’t much richer or better off than that place, and her village has been destroyed.

DLU At least she’s away from the army.

JS That’s it. All she really wanted was a place where there were no men with guns, and she’s found it. And she’s the one who smiles at the end. Domingo is bitching, “There’s got to be another place beyond this that’s better,” and the little boy keeps saying, “This is where the people eat sky and shit clouds!’ But she’s the only one who really can breathe, and her stomach ache is gone.

DLU Throughout your career, from Pride of the Bimbos through Men with Guns, you’ve written about things beyond your own experience. Why?

JS It’s a basic philosophical thing, which is that, to me, communication should be about understanding, not territoriality. The minute you say I’m from an area or from a neighborhood, and I’m going to know things that an outsider is never going to be able to know and understand, then what’s the point? If you’re not qualified to write about it, what makes you think you’re qualified to watch it and understand it? If you’re qualified to watch it and understand it, you’re capable of writing it. It’s not a big leap to look at another culture and say, Here’s what I understand, here are, the things that are common to everybody.

DLU A universal appeal.

JS Yeah. I’m not saying that it’s easy to do that kind of thing, you do really have to pay attention. But if we’re going to say that any sort of understanding is possible, then somebody writing about a culture that’s not necessarily theirs is possible. Otherwise, you start straight-jacketing and saying blacks can’t write about whites and whites can’t write about blacks, and men can’t write about women and women can’t write about men. Well, why should a 30-year old be able to write about a 40-year old? Or a 20-year old, just because they’ve been one? Certainly, there is cultural imperialism among writers, not just corporations. You have to always be aware. Whose eyes am I seeing this through? And who is my audience? I feel I have a responsibility to be not just a fiction writer, but a reporter as well. And a good reporter quotes people well. We always run the last draft by local people and say, “Tell us the specifics. We may have the general things right, but how do you catch a catfish?” And they say, “Well, you ain’t gonna catch a catfish around here in August!’ So you either change the fact that it’s catfish, or you change the month you’re catching them. You change those details as much as you can to try to be more accurate to reality, and it might be something that seems very small, but somebody says, “In our culture, you just wouldn’t say that!”

DLU Your work has never been commercial, exactly, but with Men with Guns, you’re really going out on a limb. What about the non-commercial aspects of this movie? Do you expect it to be a hard sell?

JS All our movies have been a hard sell, in a way. Generally, our movies work by word of mouth. The statistic is something like one percent of American movie-going is to subtitled movies every year, and I would say probably between five and ten percent of movie-going is to independent films. So I don’t think we’ve made something that our core audience, which continues to be people who are willing to go look at something that they’ve heard is an interesting movie, won’t buy. People might catch up with it on video; that’s been true of all our movies. I think this one is less likely to break through to the extent that Lone Star did, where it actually did start to get some play dates in malls and major venues. But once again Men With Guns is a $2 1/2 million movie, and if you’re thinking of the United States as one of the markets for it, as long as you don’t start buying major T.V. ads, you have a good chance of actually making your money back. And getting it out there in the world.

David L. Ulin is the author of Cape Cod Blues (Red Dust), a chapbook of poems. HIs work appears in the Los Angeles TimesNewsday, the Chicago TribuneLA Weekly, and Salon. Currently, he is writing a book about Jack Kerouac for the University of California Press.

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BOMB 63, Spring 1998

Featuring interviews with Gillian Wearing, Mona Hatoum, Jim Lewis, Dale Peck, Maureen Howard, John Sayles, Steve Earle, Martin McDonagh, Victor Garber, and Alfred Molina.

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