In Go For Sisters, the new movie from legendary independent filmmaker John Sayles, two childhood friends cross paths again at fragile moments in each other’s adult lives. Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) is a recovering drug addict just out of jail; Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) is her new parole officer. But while Bernice should immediately recuse herself from the renewed relationship, she comes to rely on Fontayne — and her underworld contacts — when her son goes missing near the Mexican border. Together, the women recruit a disgraced LAPD detective (Edward James Olmos) who they hope can help them navigate the underbelly of Tijuana and rescue the young man.
Sayles, 63, has been making these kinds of movies — character-driven stories about oft-ignored segments of the American population — for more than 30 years, and Go For Sisters is a return to the southwest locale and Latino-American confluence that he visited in movies like Lone Star (1996) and Casa de los babys (2003). “I’m just kind of interested in those ideas of loyalty and friendship and the way people can drift apart and why,” says Sayles. “And then I always figured I’d have to attach some kind of adventure to it.”
Sayles got his start writing scripts for Roger Corman in the 1970s, and he took his screenwriting salary from movies like Piranha to direct Return of the Secaucus 7, a 1979 movie he made with his college pals, including David Strathairn, for around $40,000. He received Oscar nominations for penning Passion Fish and Lone Star, and continued to finance his filmmaking career as one of Hollywood’s most reliable script doctors, giving a polish to hits like Apollo 13 and The Mummy.
Go For Sisters, which opens in New York City on Friday, is another truly independent film; Sayles paid for it out of his own pocket. In 19 days, he and his cast and crew traversed 65 shooting locations in two countries to piece together an intimate action-drama. “There’s a certain kind of energy that you get from working that fast,” he says.
Sayles took time to discuss his new movie — see an exclusive clip below — the shrinking world of independent film, and the fun he had directing Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Looking back over your resume of work, there’s a recurring theme of characters stuck on difficult moral quandaries, whether it’s members of the 1919 White Sox in Eight Men Out, or Chris Cooper’s sheriff in Lone Star. What are the stakes in Go For Sisters?
JOHN SAYLES: All of the characters basically have to risk something of themselves for somebody else. The woman who is the parole officer, her son has been kidnapped down in Mexico because he’s gotten involved in something illegal. All of a sudden, she has to break the law; she realizes she needs some help from the other side of the law. And then the woman who’s just out of prison, all of a sudden, she’s being asked to break her parole left and right to help her old friend out, when she’s trying to get her self straight. The ex-detective does it for money at first but then you start to realize this is for some kind of redemption for him. He’s got to go down in the underworld, and basically just kind of throw himself into it without the badge, and live on his wits. So all three of them are in these areas where it’s, “Well, what would you do?”
Once you line up a project, do you knock on studio doors to see if there’s interest or have you given up on that route?
The studios really just aren’t in that business. I remember, five or six years ago, one of the studios issued this fatwa, saying “We don’t do drama.” And what they meant is they do big tent-pole movies that are mostly Superman/Iron Man things, they do slacker comedies, and they do horror — mostly vampires and zombies these days — and that’s it. They don’t do just straight adult drama anymore. So unless you’re coming with George Clooney or Brad Pitt or something like that, it’s just a waste of time to go to the studios. It’s just not what they do. If you handed them the movie for free, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. It’s not the kind of thing they would know how to advertise, and it’s not the scale they want to work on. So you do try the few independent distributors, but most of them are not putting up money for movies these days. They’re just saying, “We will handle the prints and advertising.” This one was pretty much designed to be, “How much do I have in the bank or could I have in the bank by the time I finish it.” It’s well under a million dollars.
Doesn’t that violate the golden Hollywood rule of never putting your own money in the movie?
Yeah, which is why I’m a New Jersey filmmaker and not a Hollywood filmmaker. [Laughs]. But there are exceptions. I admire Mel Gibson for putting his money where his creative desires were, and there are some other people who have done that. John Cassavetes was famous for mortgaging his house every time he made a movie.
I noticed your movie was unrated.
We’ve done that before. I feel like it’s extortion. The MPAA charges you money to have a bunch of guys and women look at the thing and put a rating on it. They’re very unequal. They’re totally whimsical. Studios get away with murder, and independents, because they don’t have the clout, can’t put the pressure on the MPAA to get the rating that they want. And there’s handful of magazine and newspapers who won’t run the ad if it’s not rated. There’s a few theaters that won’t, but not the theaters that we play in. I don’t know what it costs now — $200 to $500. We need that $200 to $500 for something else. [Ed note: The actual cost for an MPAA rating would likely be more than $2,000.]
Over your career, you’ve written or doctored studio scripts to pay the bills and finance your own projects. Do you still get those calls?
They usually don’t call me unless they really have quite a big mandate to change the thing a lot. Quite honestly, mostly what I do these days is pitch. What has changed the most for writers in the movie and TV business is that what happens now is some middle-level independent producer will come and say, “Well, read this article or look at this book or think about this historical thing. Would you be interested in it?” Then you talk and maybe they say, “Okay, we want you to do this. Now come with us and sell the project.” Then you end up going to all the cable networks or all the studios, and basically I’ll do a half an hour to an hour pitch. So I’m doing a lot of work for free these days. I’m pitching something now that I pitched about seven years ago, and because so many new players have entered that cable world — like Amazon and Netflix — the people who I was involved with said, “Well, it’s time to bring this thing out and try to get it made again.”
With your background as a novelist, writer, and filmmaker, I feel like you’re extremely well-suited to work in the current age of TV drama, which seems to value patient and meticulous storytelling, as well as the moral complexities that your movies are known for.
If you’ve read that book Difficult Men, there was this period when all the cable networks wanted [another] Tony Soprano. Not just an anti-hero, but basically a bad guy. You know, Breaking Bad, or the guy in Mad Men, or Dexter, and I think my vision wasn’t dark enough for them. But we’ll see. [Laughs] I’ve got about three in various stages right now. One’s a miniseries thing I’m working on with the people who made the Hatfields and McCoys.
What is it about?
Too early right now. I’ve actually lost jobs before by talking about them too much. People get weird about that stuff. We’ll see if they get made or not. So much doesn’t get made. You just never know. And the reasons things get made are often a little whimsical, when you come down to it. People would like it to be science, but it’s finally a guess.
You mention television, but what’s next for you? Another book, a movie…?
I’m writing like crazy and I’m [earning] about a third of what I used to — like every other American worker. So my ability to finance my own movies is getting to be less and less possible. So I imagine unless someone taps me on the shoulder and says, “We want you to direct this or we want you to write and direct this,” I doubt if I’m going to get to continue to make features. But I’m still getting work as a writer, so I’m very lucky. I can still make a living and kind of rebuild the war chest. And you never know, everyone once in awhile, one of our movies actually makes its money back or makes a little profit.
You’ve mostly worked in the indie world, but in the mid-1980s you also directed three Bruce Springsteen videos at the height of his Born in the U.S.A. fame.
The craziest one was the “Glory Days” video, because he’d just gotten married for the first time, so he was more famous than God. It was really crazy. There were people with giant telephoto lenses and what I do remember is being out on Route 3 in New Jersey going to a location in our little caravan of four or five vehicles, and a weather helicopter from one of the rock and roll radio stations had been dispatched to follow us and tell the fans of New Jersey where our caravan was going. So there was no way we could hide. But he’s very good about that. When fans do corner him or come up and say hi, he’s pleased and is nice about it. But if one in 100 [persons] is a little bit crazy or scary, and you have 500,000 [people] who know who you are who see you during a day, that’s a lot of crazy people. I remember my assistant editor running out in the rain in Hoboken out of the old Maxwell’s Club pretending to be Bruce and jumping into a limousine, like the Beatles used to do, so we could sneak him out a different door.
The other thing that was fun was “I’m On Fire, which was the first one where where Bruce played a character. What if it wasn’t just him singing on a stage [like in “Dancing in the Dark”] so I got to think, “What would be the perfect entrance for Bruce Springsteen be?” And as it is, he rolls out from under a car with a little grease on himself. I just felt, yeah, that’s so much like the characters in the song.