THE MAGIC OF REALISM
John Sayles Interviewed by Carol Allen
Maggie had read the book when she was ten years old and I think partly because the protagonist was a ten year old girl and she could identify and she had kinda mentioned it to me and then I got to read it and thought about it and I think the things that appealed most to me - first of all, it was just a good story. I really like the Selkie story, it's like a lot of native American myths of shape changing or some kind of bond between human beings and animals which I think was very true when people were still hunter-gatherers, you had to intimately know the habits and almost soul of the animals you hunted in order to survive and then from that developed these myths of - that we're bonded together in the spirit of the deer who gives us the bodies of these living deer to support us but it's not a confrontational thing. These are the signs where they tell us where we can find them. I think I also I responded to the way that in a children's book that from the outside looked like a fantasy, there was a very kind of solid centre of reality to it, that the children kind of prevail at the end not by finding a secret passageway or a secret code word or a leprechaun coming and handing them something, but by hard work and faith and a commitment to living on this island for the rest of their lives. That's the deal that they've made with nature.
You say children's story - it doesn't come over as a children's film.
I think that's why - one of the things, to go back to your question, I responded to, that it was a kind of novella for children with a very beautiful - Rosalie K. Fry who wrote the book was also the illustrator with these very beautiful, simple drawings which I also I kind of responded to, I can see that picture. But within that I thought, what were the movies that I liked when I was 10/12 years old and many of them were movies that weren't children's films but had children as protagonists, so I thought of things like early Hayley Mills before she went Disney, Tiger Bay and Whistle Down the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, even Treasure Island which I've seen recently and works as an adult movie, at least the Wallace Beery one which I saw recently, but where a child was the protagonist and I think I responded to that so I felt, OK here's a movie which children will like but it's not necessarily a children's film.
It's a very different territory for you, you tend to deal with sometimes very harsh reality, and in reality terms it's a pretty unlikely tale, a baby surviving with the help of seals, the business of the Selkie, half woman, half seal, even two children repairing three cottages all on their own. You have said, it's a genre which could be called Irish magic realism. What does that mean?
Magic realism came primarily out of Latin America and if you read Gabriel Garcia Marques or Isabelle Allende and some of the other writers who work in that genre what you realise is that the magic in it is a metaphor for the realism. Nobody escapes, even the magic has a price, so it's not whimsy, it's not escape from reality, miraculous things happen in a hundred years of solitude, but nobody escapes mortality, nobody escapes the problems of life and their culture. I think it's very tied to an oral tradition, where your stories are not picked like at the supermarket from the media. They come from your life, they come from your experience, and so fantasy is not that different from reality, fantasy is very much based on the natural world and also there was this ten year old girl who was hearing all these stories and to her the story that could be literally absolutely true of some ancestor who was swept off a boat and he rode on the back of a seal and was saved by this woman, realising that if they put him between these cows the heat would bring him back, she can believe with the same lack of suspicion that she can believe a woman turning into a seal and back again.
You say out of one's own experience, which implies yours. Do you have any affinity, belief in the North American affinity with nature, the Celtic thing that you're going into in this movie...?
The experience I have is that I was not a literature major, I was a psychology major and most of the courses I took in university were in animal behaviour and I've worked with animals in experimental behaviouristic things and what you think about when you're working with those, you have to be very careful not to be anthropomorphic, not to give them human attributes, but you also pay very strict attention to the way that animals, particularly mammals, do communicate, the way that they do seem to have emotions and souls, whatever that is, and then the way that people who live very closely to them, whether it's the Lapps hunting the reindeer or fishermen hunting the kind of fish that they...or whalers and whales, in their stories and in their culture take on those attributes or hope to take on those attributes where they call them self a member of the Wolf Clan or the this or the that, in order to feel some kind of kinship but also just practically to be able to be a better hunter, to know the way the animal is thinking.
I don't know that really answers my question as to whether you believe in some sort of spiritual affinity, animal, nature ...
Oh yeah absolutely, the other thing that is the constant debate in any kind of psychology is what is nature and what is nurture, what part of is natural, instinctual, hard wired as they say now the computer is around, and what part of us is learned, and certainly in just my own life I can tell, ok I'm depressed, guess what, it's winter, the days are too short, I need more sunlight to feel better about things in general, it's some big psychological thing. There is that part that is, you know....they were studying violence in people, trying to find, is there a violent gene or anything like that? What is there that is linked between violent behaviour and just what you're handed genetically and one thing they found, yes there is the genetic link, men are more violent than women and that's absolutely genetic, so what is that combination of things that men have that women don't that makes them more violent, but that's constantly within. You can take any story and look at it from an economic perspective or a feminist perspective or an ethnic perspective but you can also look at it from a biological perspective, what about this behaviour is what we're given when we're born and it wouldn't matter what culture you were raised in.
An awful lot of Americans have an Irish ancestry. Do you?
Both of my parents are half Irish. Nobody got to the States from any of the places they came from until about 1900, it wasn't a real strong part of my upbringing. Being Catholic was but not being Irish, but I think for instance the original book by Rosalie Fry The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, as it was called in the States, was set in Scotland. The reason that I set it - and the Selkie myth goes from the Scottish islands down to the Irish islands and probably the island people have more to do with each other than island people have to do with mainlanders, no matter what their country, but the main reason that I set it in Ireland was, Irish American literature and song is so much about loss, is so much about the place they left behind, about having to emigrate, and here was a story that was about people who had lost their island and were wondering if they could get it back. The two just, from an Irish American perspective, made sense going together.
The Irish more than any other Americans, seem to always be looking back to the old country, going on movies and plays and things. Is that true?
I think so, I think some of it is that by the time they left they had already lost their language, Irish, Gaelic, whatever you want to call it, so there's not that there between them. There are people who make enough money, they go back, they visit, it was not inaccessible politically or geographically, but also I think that it is an extremely strong story and song telling culture, and so that sometimes sentimental, sometimes less sentimental emotion just stuck with people. Also the Irish came in large groups so they were not quickly eaten up by mass culture, they were able to stay Irish for quite a while. The political machines that I grew up around in Albany New York and Boston Massachusetts, were all based on the Irish. They got into group things very quickly. Most of my relatives were in the police. They got into the police, they got into Tammany Hall politics, and so there was this way of staying Irish American, as opposed to totally American, for generations, two or three generations.
Where in Ireland did your family come from?
Some of them came from the Northwest and some of them came from Cork.
How far back?
Great grandparents. I think my grandparents were all born in the States or just born in the States, like their mothers were pregnant as they crossed the Atlantic. On both sides.
Did I understand that the story was originally Scottish, not Irish?
Yes, Rosalie Fry who was British was a coast watcher during WW2, with her binoculars searching for German submarines, and she didn't seen any submarines but she saw lots of seals and she was already a children's book author and illustrator and started asking the local people and I think it was the Shetland Islands, about the seals and they told her these various stories and she crafted The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry and just in thinking about where could we shoot this - could we shoot it on the coast of Maine, could we shoot it with Eskimo people, cos it is a story that recurs in a lot of different cultures. I just felt it would work best for my knowledge and for a general audience being set in Ireland.
Because you yourself are Irish?
I don't think so. I think it's because I was much more kind of well versed in Irish literature and not in Scots, in that sense of loss, loss of a language, loss of a place, even before people had to emigrate they felt, where we shot in Donegal was known at one time as "the congested district". It's not congested any more. There's a lot of walls and little houses but nobody's living in them.
A novella and a film are two very different ways of telling a story. Is it a matter of getting to what is the heart of this story and then, how am I going to tell it in a different way?
Yes I think if you're not going to use what's the soul of the book that you're adapting you should find another book or write and original story and not just use surfaces, so the soul of this story, a very simple plot of a girl hearing these stories about where she came from and the most recent history which was how her little brother was swept away and then hearing this rumour that he may still be alive and possibly being raised by wild seals, and then leading that are her efforts figuring out how to make the seals give here little brother back, that absolutely we kept. Very very close to the book. And then took certain aspects of it and I either exaggerated them or brought some new things in. So the one character whom I invented and brought to the story was the character of Tadgh, whom Jon Lynch plays, whose this kind of disturbing crazy uncle type character and it was mainly because I wanted to add a little bit of edge to the story of her far past and I wanted him to be the teller of that story, because it is......What we found when we started doing more research about the Selkie story, that on the coast of Ireland it was not always a great story that you told about yourself. Certain family names were associated with, "Ah you're descended from seals", and it could be something that made you suspicious, that made other seamen not want to be in the same boat with you, that caused some ridicule. So I wanted that edge of all knowledge is not pleasant knowledge, especially knowledge about your past, maybe something complicating and dark and so I invented this dark figure to be the one to kind of be the spokesman for the natural world. He as one of the characters says, is "caught between land and sea" and he has this understanding of the sea but he's also a human being and he's someone who'd be happy being a seal but there's no way for him to change into one.
Not only the Selkie legend, but you may be Irish, but you had to do quite a lot of research into Irish culture and Irish use of language.
To feel comfortable in the language, and I've done this before, I've written a lot of movies that were in dialects that were not my own. Certainly Matewan was in a kind of archaic West Virginian dialect, Passion Fish was in a kind of Cajun English with a little bit of French thrown in, and some African thrown in as well, so what I usually do is I read as much written by the people who are from that place, in this case I read a lot of the island writers, people who wrote in Irish, it was translated into English, about their lives on those islands, from the 1900s on. I read a lot of Liam O'Flaherty, who was from the Aran Islands but wrote in English, I read some Synge, Riders to the Sea and Playboy of the Western World, to get a feeling for, OK what did the first generation of English speakers sound like. And then you write a draft or two in that, when you feel comfortable making things up in that syntax and then the second thing that we always do is go to the place itself and kind of open the books to the local people and say, OK you knew people who lived in 1947, or you did, in the case of the older people. Do you remember how your grandfather spoke or your grandmother spoke or your mother, father and then in the case of The Secret of Roan Inish we threw out maybe ten or twelve little phrases, that people felt sounds a wrong note, that's too archaic or that's too modern and then they'd tell us, well this is how my mother would have said it. And then you also do that with some of the things that happen, especially because we wanted this so grounded in reality. You talk to people about, OK, how do you make a curagh (?), how do you whitewash a cottage, you talk to a thatcher, you talk to a fisherman and you get details from them which you can add to what's in the book, because Rosalie Fry was occasionally guessing. So it's a process, it's not just something that you hear it and you have it forever.
Has the Irish language actually died out?
No we were on the edge of the Gael Tachd (?), the area where Irish is spoken, basically the north west of Ireland and some of our actors spoke and some of them had to take it in school and didn't speak it especially well but knew it. It's a difficult language, one of the people who helped us with the bit of Irish that's in the film said that he was raised in the north west, when he went to college in the south west he was lost with other Irish speakers because they accent a different syllable so even though they might write the same thing, they pronounced it differently because it was a language that basically was stamped out before mass communication, so each region spoke it's own version. And then some of our musicians spoke it and some of our singers and that kind of thing, so it is still spoken but not widely and it is still one of those things where, if an Irish official does a speech in Gaelic, he's going to leave some people in the dark and a lot of kids who don't grow up with it, it's a subject they have to take at school and struggle through like any other language that your ancestors may have spoken but you didn't grow up with.
Is this the first time you've made a film in Europe?
It's the first time I've directed one, I've acted in Europe and Asia before, but that's not the same responsibility. It's the first one outside America that I've directed.
Because one of the differences must have been when it came to casting, in that in America there are going to be a lot of actors you've worked with or seen their work, whereas I don't know the work, apart from Jon Lynch, of any of the Irish actors in the film. So it was a different casting process I guess?
We heard of John and Ros Hubbard, who'd cast The Commitments, Backbeat, they had done quite a bit which included casting movies where the directors didn't want someone who was known or had necessarily been in film before, so they were used to digging for those newcomers and I was very confident with the adult parts that we would find good actors. There are just so many good Irish actors, there's still a strong theatre tradition so even if you've never seen them in a move or they've done very little TV work, they're good competent actors of a certain age. It's much harder in the United States to find an actor who's only done theatre, who's 45 years old, because if you're 45 years old and you haven't done TV or film, you're probably not a very good actor or you just haven't had much experience. With the children it was just a total act of faith. Ros Hubbard I think interviewed a good thousand girls to find Fiona our lead. And of course she went on all the TV and radio shows in both the Republic and Northern Ireland, she advertised for 10 year old pale girl and she got 15 year olds who were very dark and five year olds, and then a lot of kids who weren't quite right for it. So we didn't have a lot of finalists. We were very relieved when Jeni Courtney showed up, and though she was small and shy with adults who she didn't know, which was kind of proper cos we didn't want somebody who was a real showbiz kid, when she had to read the part of it where she had to be fierce and strong and self confident, she just did it, so she just kind of walked into our movie and there it was.
She has a lovely calm self possession.
She was a competitive swimmer and I think that kind of self confidence that sport can do for you sometimes she carried. And it's also important for us when we work with children in movies that they stay children, we don't make them into little adults so we check out their parents and she had really nice parents, people that we liked personally and we felt like it wasn't to them that their daughter become a movie star. It was important to them that their daughter have a good time and an interesting experience.
You've worked with children before.
Well Lianna, she had two
children, and several of our movies - City of
Hope we had some children in that and what we
often try to do is hire children of people we know,
whether they're actors or not, so we know their
parents and already know the kid and they're
comfortable with us, so on Lianna it was the
daughter of a very good friend of ours and her next
door neighbour playing her brother and he baby sat
for her sometimes so they already knew each other
and we knew their parents weren't going to go crazy
about keeping them in movies or commercials or
You're not very keen on using Macaulay Culkin type kids?
For a certain kind of movie that works but also you just worry about the kid and they're relationship with the parents and the world. I think it's a lot to ask of a child to be the one who.....you know, there's 40 adults sitting around and their lives are affected by what you do and if you don't feel like working that morning they're there getting you to come on the set and giving you toys and all that. The other thing, I'd rather have it be, this is a game we're going to play for a while, then you go back to your regular life, and we're going to ask you to do a lot of things that are hard work but we're going to only ask you to do them on a 10 year old level or a 5 year old level. So with our 4 year old who plays the lost boy Jamie, this kind of wild child who's been raised by seals, the way to direct him was to make everything a game, which is the level he should be able to deal with it on and so a lot of the game was, whenever you see Jeni, who's playing your sister Fiona, don't let her catch you, and he loved that. Even after we'd done shooting he wanted to go on playing hide and seek and he was a little disappointed when all the adults went away, and sometimes we'd let him keep playing the game with whoever, one of his family or one of our handlers because he was still having fun even though the cameras had gone away.
Does this knowledge of children come from your being a psychology major or do you have children of your own?
I don't have children of my own, but I've been around children all my life and lived with friends while they've had their children, and played with them. The ability to play with children qualifies you to be a child not necessarily a parent so being able to make it into a game and play with children - a good friend of ours' kid was in 8 Men Out playing this little news boy and it was great because I had changed this kid's diapers and grew up with him and he'd lived in my house for a while and those kind of things so that to a certain extent he wasn't coming to work, he was coming to play at the things that his father, who was an actor, and I had always been doing and the other thing that I often do is to enlist the actors who are playing their brothers or fathers or adult friends and do the direction through them, so Mick Lally, who plays the grandfather in Roan, who's wonderful with children, I would often have Mick work with the kids and say, OK, here's the direction I could give them but I want you to be the person they're looking to during this scene, not checking with me to see if they're doing it right. And I have often been lucky with actors. John Cusack had to deal with kids in 8 Men Out and he's very good with kids and so I often would have him do the directing. I'd tell him what I wanted but he'd relay it to them, so they're focus stayed on the actor that they were supposed to be relating to.
You didn't waste your time studying psychology, did you?
No, I actually think it was.....if you're going to be a teacher of literature, you should be a literature major. If you're going to be a writer, you should go out and look around the world a little bit.
Was it a deliberate decision on your part not to have children of your own or is it just the way things turned out?
I really feel like that there's enough children in the world and I've really never been interested in being an absentee parent and unless you have the time to really get involved with them I think as I say there's enough in the world. It's not like the world is dying for more children
And of course as your partner Maggie presumably travels round with you ...
Yeah and she was never interested in having children, so if the woman in the couple's not interested it's kind of a done deal.
One other aspect of the film that must be new to you is the wild life aspect. All these seals and seagulls - did this give you problems?
Problems that we knew we were going to have. None of them were surprises. As I've said I've worked with animals before, I've even worked on farms as a day labourer and that kind of thing and animals pretty much do what they are going to do. Sometimes they will exhibit neurotic behaviour, so our main deal with the seals for instance was to not train seals but to habituate seals to humans, so that the seals who appear in Roan Inish are either seals that were always wild and we went up to the Isle of Mull and got some shots of groups of them on rocks which we used in the film or seals who were orphaned seals who were rescued by an animal park and we borrowed them for about a month to shoot the movie on their way to being fed until they were to their body weight and actually trained to catch wild fish to the point where they could be released in the North Atlantic which is where they are now, probably unaware that they are appearing in a movie. So that basically you're job is to understand the behaviour of the animals in captivity but still basically wild behaviour. The advantage with seals is that they're not only food oriented, they're very curious animals, so a lot of the behaviour that we got was because they wanted to know what was going on and if we put something interesting in a certain direction, when they came up, they would look in that direction or go toward that direction or come out of the water to investigate what was going on. And they're also happy if you throw a fish now and then. The seagulls are totally uncurious animals and they basically only worked for food and the trouble with them is they have a very small stomach, so they're a short attention span kind of animal so every Saturday was animal day and we would shoot scenes with the seals and the seagulls and the seagulls were good for about an hour and it was very hard to get their behaviour. The seals we usually got something useable in a day of shooting but it's very difficult to get a basically wild seal doing exactly what you want in the frame with an actor with fog which you're manufacturing and hoping the wind doesn't blow it away while you have films in the camera and the right lens on. So it was just something we knew it was going to be very labour intensive. Not quite as labour intensive as shooting a documentary but in some ways more difficult because we had to have all these background elements and foreground elements there at the same time as the animal did the behaviour instead of just shooting a lot of behaviour and taking the best bits and cutting it together and doing a nature film.
There are definite actions, for example towards the end two or three seals go scurrying back down to the beach. What do you do - wave a fish at them?
The end of the film was actually very serendipitous, these seals were just about ready to be let go and they had been in large water enclosures but they'd never been on a beach before and what we found is that we basically had to net off part of the water that the beach led to so that they couldn't get out because they were not body weight enough or learned enough in catching fish to release and hope that they could survive, plus we didn't want to lose them for the film. But we put them in this huge open space, they'd never been on a beach before and they just had a ball. We let all of them go at the same time. So they did a few things that we wanted them to do - the scene where they chase Jamie back from the water, they did that basically by releasing them, tilting the camera and reversing the film, so they're actually making helter skelter towards the water and Jamie happens to get in their way and it looks like they're chasing him away from the water, but also a lot of the playing they did in the water was, my God we're in the water, are we allowed to be in the water? Maybe we should go back on the land where they fish are, but no, still deciding to be in the water, and they did an awful lot of relating to each other, just to kind of touch base with something comforting, so they would run around frantically and then they'd go and touch noses together, which really gave us the feeling of, ok they're communicating to each other and so much of our job in this movie was to give both the animals and the sky, the sea, the waves, the wind a consciousness, a purpose and a focus that they of course don't really have because they haven't read the story.
Can we talk a little bit more about you and the rest of your career. You're the child of schoolteachers, have an Irish background, what sort of childhood did you have, where were you brought up?
I was brought up in and around Schenectady, New York which is a large factory town - not so large any more any more because they've been closing parts of the plant. It's where Thomas Edison started out, used to be called "the city that lights the world" because it's where General Electric factory started, television also started there, the first TV station was there, kind of a working class neighbourhood or city with a lot of not huge violent strikes but a lot of labour versus management tension because of the electrician's union fighting with General Electric which was a real company town kind of mentality....
So that's where Matewan....
Yes, interested in labour history as just part of American history. I was mostly...I watched a lot of movies and liked movies but paid no attention to who made them. I don't think I even knew that movies were made by people, as such, until I went to college, I kinda felt all the cowboys got together and said, you fall off the horse this time, or somehow magically a camera was there while these real things happened and I was into sports. I played baseball and basketball and football and went to college kind of accidentally. My grades were good enough to get in and it seemed like a better deal than either going back and working in nursing homes and factories, which is what I had been doing in summer vacations when I was in high school or going to the Vietnam war so I ended up going to college
Did you have to go to the Vietnam war anyway?
Basically you had a deferment and while you were in college you were deferred, which I actually didn't believe in. I really felt like that was a sneaky classist way for them to get around the people who had any real power objecting to the war any more than they did, because if only poor and working class kids had to go those people didn't have that much power, and the minute that middle and upper middle class kids started getting killed in Vietnam, the middle and upper middle classes started turning against the war. It was when their children were graduating from college, no longer protected by the thing, and when they started this universal draft. And then even after you were out of the protection of being at the university, there was this draft and if you get a very high number, it was based on your birth date and they took all the birth dates out of the 365 days out of a thing and I knew somebody who was number one so he was definitely going into the service in some ways, he was going to get drafted and I had a high number. I also have a bad back, so I might not have gone because of that, because they don't like to take people with back injuries.
It was as simple as that? If you had a high number you wouldn't get drafted.
Absolutely. Totally unfair, totally arbitrary, and then I knew people who enlisted and some of them enlisted because they were excited about being in a war and it was a family tradition or whatever, and some of them enlisted so as not to go to jail because they were in trouble with the police, some of them enlisted because they just didn't know what else to do with their lives.
This sort of thing came up in your first movie.
Yeah I'd say that in Return of the Secaucus Seven - there are three movies that I've made that are very related to each other, they are about people of a certain age, not even necessarily people of a certain generation. Baby It's You is very much a movie about being in your teens and early twenties and that time of your life when anything is possible and you're just starting to discover that there are walls and ceilings and things that you cannot go beyond and very much in that one, the protagonist is a female character, Rosanna Arquette plays, she realises that this guy whom she is in love with in a way is limited and that is going to run into some walls that she's not going to. She is an upper middle class kid, she's going to go to college, she has academic ability that he doesn't have and he's just going to run into the ceiling of - he's a high school drop out and he's a lower middle class kid and that's where he's going to end up, so that realisation that everything is not possible is a shock when you're that age. And then Return of the Secaucus Seven which was my first movie that I got to make is very much about people turning thirty, when you realise, oh my God, the world isn't going to change the way I wanted it to when I was a young activist or a young idealist. I may be able to hold on to my personal idealism but the world isn't necessarily going in my direction, which is exactly politically what was happening at that time. So the Secausus Seven, people have kind of tried to make a parallel case with The Big Chill. The Big Chill is called The Big Chill for a reason. These are people who've lost their idealism, in some cases realised they never had it in the first place. The people in Return of the Secausus Seven are people who have held onto it and are trying desperately to hold onto it, to idealism in a world that's not that friendly to their ideals any more. And then Passion Fish is very much a movie about people who are turning forty, the age at which you not only realise the world is not going to change the way you want it, your life is not necessarily going to turn out the way you thought it would or hoped it would. It's about a woman who's paralysed, psychologically as well as physically. She's realising, I'm not going to be Meryl Streep, I'm not even going to have the soap opera career that I didn't think was such a big deal, I'm probably not going to be a mother, here I am, a paralysed ex soap opera star who doesn't even have a boyfriend, how am I going to have children? My life is not going to be what I...and then what do you do? Do you roll up in a ball and die or do you find another life that you feel is worth living, do you salvage something out of that? So those three movies, even if the plots are very different, they're not necessarily about a generation of people but there about certain ages for me, so even though it has a lot of the trappings of the 60s generation to me "Return of the Secausus Seven" has always been about people turning 30.
You've also said, my main interest is in making films about people. Surely making any decent film is a film about people?
What I mean about that is that so many films are film oriented, their references are other films, if there's a scale between recognisable human behaviour and movie behaviour - if you think of MGM in the 30s and 40s, that was the fantasy world, that was the escape from the depression, that was somebody with a living room as big as a sound stage and they always lit the background and then you might have something that was stylistic in it's way and wasn't exactly realistic but was closer to realism, which might be Warner Brothers and the film noir and that kind of thing which brought in some of the greyer elements of society and some of the black and white meeting in the middle and some of the heroes were a little bit more like anti-heroes, they could have Sam Spade, they could have outlaws that you rooted for, they could have backgrounds that went into shadow, so if you're thinking of that spectrum of behaviour, the movies that I make, I'm interested in people, even in something like The Secret of Roan Inish, leaving the theatre not thinking about other movies they've seen but thinking about their lives or the lives of their friends or what was the movie itself about and the human behaviour in the movie about, not saying oh that was just like Mean Streets crossed with Seven Days in May, or that was just like the War of the Worlds crossed with Marnie or whatever the two combinations are. And I think that if I have any criticism of other film makers it usually is, this just seems like a movie by somebody who's spent his life in front of a screen and never went outdoors and never had a job other than making movies. I like some of those movies a lot but I'm always feeling, like there are all these other great stories about people that need telling, and if I'm going to spend a year of my life making a movie, I'm not going to make a movie that everybody else can make cos they've seen a lot of movies too. I'm going to make the movie I want to make about something that I think is a great story, that I've read or I've seen in the world but I've never seen it up on a screen.
And presumably it's a story which touches you personally in some way?
Some way whether it's emotionally or it's a part of history that I'm interested in going back to or exploring in a depth that people don't usually explore.
Like Matewan or 8 Men Out?
Yeah, 8 Men Out or City of Hope. City of Hope is probably the closest to my own experience of any of them. Even Return of the Secausus Seven was made about other people. I wasn't that person who was that politically evolved or involved when I was in college but the people that I knew after I got out of college were.
That's the only time you've touched on Vietnam as such isn't it?
Well there is a subtext of it in City of Hope because the main character's brother, whom he lives under the shadow of, was killed in Vietnam, partly because he got in trouble with the law and his father decided, well I'll make him a good man, I'll make him a man, I'll send him to the marines, and that turned out to be the thing that killed him. So there is a legacy of it, an undertone of it there, but my involvement was being involved with not going, with trying to end that war. It's why I think it was very important for Oliver Stone to make Platoon because he'd been there and I went the first day that it opened and I was one of the few people in the theatre in New York City who was not wearing his combat fatigues. People had - the guys who went there had been waiting for that movie to come out. It was a necessary movie. There are a lot of good movies, well not a lot, but there are good movies but there are very very few necessary movies where the need is there for years before the movie is there.
Now virtually every movie that comes out of Hollywood - I'm exaggerating - but there always seems to be some reference to Vietnam - it's the thing that can't be forgotten like the British Empire for the Brits.
Yes and sometimes I find the references kind of easy and cheap and they don't earn them. It's kind of like I was watching an Italian movie the other night set in Tomboli which was this area where a lot of black American soldiers deserted in WW2 and every time they showed a bunch of the black soldiers together they'd play "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've seen", which was just kind of the note they had in old American movies whenever they wanted to deal with race. They'd just show a black face and play "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've seen". Sometimes I feel in American movies it's just an easy thing, like saying, OK, we're going to give this instant significance, we're going to say the word "Vietnam" or say this guy is from Vietnam and that's why he's shooting everybody.
That's usually when it comes in!
Yeah and I feel because it's recent it's kind of sacred ground to me, is that you'd better - the thing that I wrote that dealt with Vietnam the most that I didn't direct was the first time I worked with Alfre Woodard, I wrote a TV movie called Unnatural Causes, which was about the woman who put two and two together and connected agent orange with people who were having special kinds of cancers and their children were having birth defects in the United States and that very very much specifically was about the Vietnam experience but after the war was over at home. And I did a lot of research and I've written about it for other people but it's not something that I've felt comfortable myself making a movie about. I just feel there are better observers of that.
© Carol Allen
A slightly shorter version of this interview was originally published in Talking Pictures No. 16 (Autumn 1996) and part two was published in issue No. 17 (Winter, 1996).
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