Behind the Scenes Honeydripper

The movie centers around Nina, a young, unmarried waitress at a Mexican restaurant who finds herself pregnant and without work after coming in late several days because of morning sickness. Jose, the restaurant’s chef, is taken by Nina’s plight and becomes her sole confidant. Jose helps her walk through her decision on what to do with her pregnancy. In the process, he bears secrets from his own mysterious past, which reveal his tenderness and passion for her and the child she is carrying.

At the recent Monterey Jazz Festival, held back in December, Clint Eastwood and John Sayles shared a stage to talk about the blues. Seeing this two American mavericks of the film world sitting side by side, talking about a music that they both clearly loved, was telling. Eastwood is one of popular culture’s most iconic figures; Sayles is his underground counterpart, the writer /director/actor/composer/script doctor who never quite got his face on the cover of Time magazine. Or any other magazine, for that matter. Not that it would seem to bother the great man himself. Having started out, as with Martin Scorsese and James Cameron, working with B-movie king Roger Corman, Sayles made his first film, Return Of The Secarus 7, with the $30,000 he’d saved up writing scripts. And it’s been pretty much that way ever since, Sayles becoming one of Hollywood’s most in-demand script doctors, the big bucks they’re willing to pay for his services on such movies as Apollo 13, The Fugitive and, most recently, The Spiderwick Chronicles, providing the filmmaker with the money for his low-budget, fiercely independent films. Despite successes such as Matewan (1987), City Of Hope (1991), Lone Star (1996) and Sunshine State (2002), Sayles and his long-time partner, Maggie Renzi, still struggle to get their movies made. Which may explain Sayles’ recent threat to give up directing to concentrate on literature.

Meanwhile, his latest film, Honeydripper, charts the changing of the guard, as blues gave way to rock’n’roll, the effect being felt strongly by a blues club owner (Danny Glover) who is having trouble keeping up his payments.

Q:We read that, when you were putting Honeydripper together, you planned to put a band from the movie together to tour colleges, to help promote the film. Has that happened?
A: They both happened in a kind of limited way. Academia moves very slowly [laughs]. We got about four colleges who took advantage of a marketing course, and came up with their own ads, things like that. And then we had the Honeydripper All-Star Band, which is made up mostly of people from the film, and that played maybe half a dozen or so blues and jazz festivals. We played the Monterey Jazz Festival, and we played Toronto, and Seattle, and Chicago, New York, Long Beach, a couple other places. We may put some of the guys together for Europe, but the problem is, they all live in different parts of the country, so, it’s very expensive to fly them all to the same place.

Q:It’s kinda hard to get small films like Honeydripper noticed, without blowing twenty or thirty million on advertising…
A:Yeah, and we just didn’t have that [laughs]. Basically, the only money that we had to distribute the movie was the advance that we got for it, and a little bit more here and there, but we’re going to end up spending about two million dollars, which just isn’t very much. You don’t see much of a dent for that. To enter the conversation, you’re talking about ten. We played very well in the places that we played, but still, that means that you leave and an awful lot of people didn’t know we’d been through town. 

Q:The film offers up a wonderful brew – the legend of Robert Johnson, the birth of rock’n’roll, the arrival of the electric guitar – were they all swirling around in your head as you wrote this?
A:I think some of it is just in the popular imagination. Some people think rock’n’roll just appeared when white people started playing black people’s music, but it’s much more complicated than that. It’s such a hybrid. Growing up in the fifties, I just listened to whatever was on the radio, and that was mostly straight rock’n’roll. And eventually, you kinda realise, oh, this music came from somewhere, and it leads you to blues and jazz, and you start to realise, oh, the country and western guys were listening to the blues guys, and the blues guys were listening to The Grand Ole Opry. So, everybody was listening to everybody, and I felt that inevitably, the music was going to speed up, and get more complex, because life was speeding up and getting more complex, and, all of a sudden, there’s this catalyst, this technological leap; the solid body electric guitar, and the amplifier that comes with it. And that really leads to this battle between the piano and the guitar, that lasts six or seven years, and the guitar just wins. It’s cheaper, it’s mobile, and it can play the piano parts, the honking saxophone part, and pretty soon, the guitar is the dominant instrument.

Q:Was it hard not to get too mythical about it? To get lost in the Robert Johnson-sells-his-soul-to-the-devil kind of storytelling?
A:We tried to do both at the same time. There is that physical element of the blind guitar player who only appears to other musicians. But, those guys mythologised themselves. That’s a lot of what the blues were all about. Pick any rap song now, and count the number of times that they say ‘I’. The same thing with blues songs; a lot of them were bragging songs, a lot of them were exaggerating songs. So, I think that you try to take some of the mythologysing and keep it there, because it was part of that life, but then, also, a lot of the rhythm of Honeydripper is from just trying to figure out why that Saturday night was so loaded, why it was so important. If you work, as they say in the movie, from can until can’t for six days a week, and you have so little left at the end of that week, because of the segregation, because of the economic hardships of that time, you need to bust out on the Saturday night. And it can come out in joy, and it can come out in violence, and that’s really what the rhythm of Honeydripper is leading up to that. Why that Saturday night is so important – not just the one in the movie, but any Saturday night.  

Q:It’s not quite The Last Picture Show, but there’s a sense of one generation giving way to the next, an art form on its last legs as a new one finds its feet.
Whenever you have a period of change like that – and it could be in the movies, when the silent era ends, and the talkies begin; it could be in a fishing community that has no fish left, and the sixth generation of fishermen have to say to the seventh, ‘You’re going to have to figure out something else to do with your life’ – that’s always tough on people, and I’m always fascinated by those people who find a way to move on, and those who choose to stay behind. There are those who just said, ‘I’m not playing that stuff’.

Some of them were jazz people, and they did have somewhere to go. They weren’t going to make a whole lot of money, but they did have somewhere to go. Some of them were the blues people who just kept plugging away.

That rhythm & blues era is a very short era – it’s about eight years, in-between the swing era and rock’n’roll. And Ruth Brown, who was going to play the older woman, but died whilst we were shooting, and Louis Jordan and Winonie Harris, there was a whole bunch of these people. It was kinda like Woody Allen’s Radio Days – these people were really well-known for a short period of time, and then it just didn’t last. This rock’n’roll thing just swept everything off the charts, and they still played, but to a fraction of people they would have played to in their heyday.

Q:Given that you’ve always stood outside of the Hollywood system with your movies, do you make commercial considerations when putting a movie together?

A:I make audience considerations, which are not necessarily commercial considerations. If I made commercial considerations, I wouldn’t be making the kind of movies that I make. They wouldn’t be period movies, they wouldn’t have anybody older than thirty in them, they would be absolute genre movies, but all the time, you’re trying to figure out ways to keep the audience hooked.

So, the problem we’re having – we’re still opening in the United States; we’re doing a very, very slow release – when people see the movie, they’re clapping along to the music, they’re cheering, but getting them into the theatre in the first place is tough. It plays older than 25, so, we just can’t do it on the web – which is the cheapest way of doing it, but it’s the domain largely of the under-25s – and older cinema-goers – anyone over 40 – just don’t go the movie theatres in great numbers.  

Q:Certain kinds of movies make all their money on DVD and TV rights, the cinema release seen almost as the marketing campaign…

A:Yeah, but we don’t have the money to lose though [laughs]. Unless we can get a company with the money to lose who’ll back us, we don’t have that luxury. So, what you try to do is keep it in the theatre for as long as you can, and pick your theatres carefully. Which is why we’re still opening in some places.

During the Oscar rush, a lot of those cinemas that a film like ours would normally play was booked up with the hopeful candidates, and so we’re going into some of those cities now. We opened at the end of December, so, we’ve been around for a while. I think, to a certain extent, I think the future of movies is going to be this hybrid. A lot of it is going to be digital projection. About a quarter of our dates are already digital projection.

We shot the movie on film – Dick Pope did a great job – and you send it out by satellite, in a really nice form, and then it’s up to the projectionist to keep the right tone. So, you know, it’s not too red, and it’s not too blue, and all that kind of thing. So, each projection of it is going to be a little bit different, but that happens with prints as well. When you did a long run, the print quality used to go down a little bit towards the end.

Q:Looking through the press cuttings, I found a line from a Premiere review last year for the Battle Beyond The Stars DVD box set; ‘Although John Sayles now rules as the king of the intelligent contientious indie flick in the day, he was a bright wannabe filmmaker toiling in the land of the Bs’. Do you agree – have you earned those stripes?

A:It’s like you’re the king of a very small, very insignificant country [laughs]. It can also mean that this guy has never really made it, and has never been accepted by Hollywood, and can’t get funding for his movies, that’s what I’m the king of, if I’m the king of anything.

There’s only a handful of us who are still making movies that way. Jim Jarmusch is still trying to make movies that way. Henry Jaglom still makes a movie every now and then. David Lynch. Generally what happens is, people can get adopted by Hollywood, and have a degree of success there – and it can be very varied – or else they just don’t get to make movies. There are an awful lot of good filmmakers who just don’t get to make movies. We’ve been very lucky in that we’ve gotten to make 16 movies in 30 years.

Q:Some would argue that Hollywood has pretty much swallowed the indie set, a move started by Miramax, and now continued with the likes of Sony Classics and Fox Searchlight…
A:Yeah, most of the big independent movies are made by a large studio’s classics division. They have to be actually good, to get an audience to start watching them, but once they do, then those companies have the funds to just pour money into them. Juno is going to make over one hundred million dollars, which is pretty incredible for a little movie. But it’s not a little movie that came from nowhere. It’s a little movie with a big studio behind it, so, when it started to catch fire, they could just keep fanning the flames through advertising. I’m sure they’ll spend twenty million or so on advertising, but they know they’re going to make a profit on it.

Q:I know you’ve sworn off big studio pics – are you tempted to go the Classics division route?

A:You know, there are people who get to work in that division, and it’s very healthy, as they get to make their own movies, but they just haven’t asked me. There’s nothing morally wrong with it. It’s just studios thinking about what people are hot, and what kind of movies are in. Mostly, what they’re looking for now are youth comedies. Or comedies  in general. Sideways is a good example of a nice movie that kinda flourished in that system. Little Miss Sunshine, Juno… there’s some meat to them, but they’re basically comedies.  

Q:Talking to Werner Herzog recently, he’s uncomfortable with being feted, acclaimed, honored, etc. I’m guessing you’re probably the same…
A:Yeah, because there are so many people around who came before us, and who do the same things, that singling me out as the one last independent director doesn’t make any sense. We do like to go to film festivals, because they do two things. One is that they’re often a good launch for the movie itself, but also, they build up an audience. They build up an audience very slowly, if they’re a good one. And they’re willing to take a chance on a movie that isn’t a big Hollywood production. And we’ve found that the audience for that kind of film has grown, especially in the areas where there are good film festivals.

Q:They have The John Sayles School Of Fine Arts in your hometown of Scheneday – did you allow yourself a few hours of unbearable smugness about that?

A:You know, that’s a town that’s really struggling – it’s pretty much like the city of hope. It’s a town where the General Electric company used to be, but they pulled out, building by building basically, and it’s a city now where the main industry has left. There are a lot of those cities in Britain like that, where the population has halved, and the schools are in big trouble. We go there maybe once a year to do a class for their arts programme, and it’s not like a school that’s drawing from the elite of the world. It’s just a regular school, and this is a way of keeping some of them interested, keeping them from not dropping out. So, it’s really important that way.

Q:It’s been three years since Silver City – tough getting the budget for Honeydripper?
A:Oh, yeah. We basically had to fund Silver City ourselves, and we still make a little bit of money from our old movies, and then, I write a lot of screenplays, so, we financed Silver City ourselves, at the last minute. We thought we had someone interested, but then, two weeks into the shoot, it fell apart. And then Maggie Renfi spent a full year trying to raise funds for Honeydripper, with Danny Glover attached. And then we hadn’t raised any money, and then the cotton got picked, and we had to wait a whole year before the cotton was ready again.
And in those two years, I wrote lots and lots and lots and lots of screenplays for other people, so, we financed the movie ourselves. But I don’t think I’m going to be able to keep doing that. I don’t think there’s the money in screenplays that there used to be. We were fairly successful in the recent strike, but, on the other hand, the studios are making less, and hiring fewer writers. We won the battle, but the war goes on, and it’s getting tougher for us.  

Q:You’re famous for kicking big scripts into shape – do you enjoy that, or is it just work?
A:The first draft is always a lot of fun. The first draft is always when they’re still confident in their ideas, and you’re confident in your ideas, otherwise you wouldn’t have taken the job. And I’ve been lucky in that I’ve only ever taken jobs where I felt, well, there’s a movie in here that I would like to go and see. So, it’s not condesending, ever.

When you get into the third or fourth draft of some of these things, the studio can be losing that confidence, because they’re beginning to see the problems, now that you’ve put them out there on paper. Or, they’ve already tried to get Brad Pitt for the lead, and he said no, making it a very different movie in their minds. And then it gets a little political, and often, by the third or fourth draft, I’m working on my second or third set of executives. Who come in and say, ‘Jeez, why did we buy this thing? Why are we making this?’. Or, very often, I’m working without the director attached, and after I’ve done two or three drafts, the director arrives and wants something completely different.

So, it’s really just the first draft that’s fun, because that’s the pure writing part…

Q:Thanks to your parents, Mary and Donald, you grew up a good “Catholic aetheist”. Do you know where that heritage stems from?
A:You know what, I don’t. Both of my parents are part Irish, but there’s also some German in there, some Finnish. I think some people came from Galway and some people came from the north.

Q:Was that part of your attraction to making The Secret Of Roan Inish here in 1993?
A:That film is actually based on a children’s book that’s set in Scotland, and at the time that I made it, I felt I had read more, and I knew more, about Irish culture than Scotch culture, and they both had that sulkiness. It was a very easy transplant from something near the Isle Of Skye to something on the Irish coast. I had read a lot of the island writers, who had written in Gaelic and had been translated into the English, so, I actually knew quite a bit from them about the life on those islands. And I had come across that sulkiness in Irish lore as well as Scotch lore, so, I felt it would be an easy switch. We went to Ireland not knowing who any of the Irish actors would be. I think John Lynch was the only guy whose work I knew at all, and that was just the early stuff. Part of the fun of it though, finding these actors…

Q:Your parents called you John Thomas?
A:Yeah, John Thomas Matthew. All the kids I knew basically grew up with the names of the apostles.

Q:John Thomas – that seems a bit cruel…
A:Oh, yeah, but they didn’t know that though.

Q:Finally, and most importantly, I need the phone number, email and favourite flower of Yaya DaCosta, the rather fetching young New York girl who plays China Doll in Honeydripper…
A:Sure. You know, when we were doing the sound mix, the sound mixer at one point stopped the screen on a close-up of Yaya, and said, ‘That’s the new screensaver for my computer’. We’re getting that reaction in a lot of places.
It’s interesting. She was in America’s Next Top Model, where you don’t get paid and they try to invade your life for a while, but she never really wanted to be a model. She always wanted to be an actor. She’s from Harlem, speaks three languages, and went to Brown University, so, it’s really been fun travelling around with her. Even just to see the look of the stares on people’s faces…

Q:Actually, meant to ask – anything else planned?

A:Right now, I’m working on a novel. We’re going to have to wait see if we make any money on this movie before we can think about making another one. I’ve been working on this novel for quite a while now, and it’s getting pretty close to being finished. It’s set during the Philippine-American War, from 1898 to about 1903, and it’s a huge, epic historical novel. It’ll be six hundred pages or thereabouts, so, that’s been keeping me going on all the long airplane flights.

There’s nothing to do on an airplane, so, you need no discipline at all to write. So, I usually do my research when I’m at home, and then two or three chapters to work on for when I go on the road.

A third of the flights are delayed or cancelled, so, you end up with another three or four hours to kill. We got an extra four hours at the Dublin airport, so, thanks for that…

Words : Paul Byrne

Honeydripper Opens in Ireland on May 9th