Few filmmakers inhabit the sensibilities of independent film like John Sayles.
The legendary writer/director behind “Matewan” and “Eight Men Out” is having perhaps his greatest accomplishment, 1996’s neo-western masterpiece “Lone Star,” re-released via the Criterion Collection in a striking deluxe package. The movie, an intergenerational mystery that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, has largely been forgotten in the years since its release, which is why Criterion’s resurrection seems so important.
The supplemental material is just as fascinating, including a new conversation with Sayles and director Gregory Nava and an interview with director of photography Stuart Dryburgh, who dryly recounts that he wasn’t Sayles’ first choice.
TheWrap spoke to Sayles about where “Lone Star” came from, where it’s been, and how it’s just as hard to get a movie off the ground today as it was when he was coming up. Also Sayles gives us his commentary on the Mel Gibson movie “The Patriot.”
Where did “Lone Star” come from? It’s got novelistic qualities, so was curious as to whether it started life as a novel.
This just was always a movie. And I think partly because it came out of other media stuff. I started thinking about the legend of the Alamo, that I had been introduced to, first through the Fess Parker Davy Crockett television series and then through the John Wayne movie in 1960. And that is I got to learn more of the complex history of Texas and Mexico and Texas and the United States and the War of Texan Independence and then the US/Mexican Wa, and then the Civil War and the complications in Texas during the Civil War. Sam Houston, you know, basically being the guy who was their George Washington, and then even though he owned slaves saying, “We shouldn’t join the Confederacy, we worked so hard to be part of the country, let’s not leave,” and they basically just said, “Fuck you, you’re out of here.”
It was really complex, interesting history. I started saying, “Okay, what is this thing with this legend?” And that it stayed so limited, but solid, and part of our iconography for so long. I started to think about how legends are part of what we want to believe about ourselves, that part of how we define ourselves, to ourselves and to other people. What happens when they become destructive? What can be done about that when they’re destructive? And that’s why history, quite honestly, is still a battlefield. The teaching of history in public schools is one of the fronts on that battlefield. And I felt like, well, so many people learn their history from movies, which is probably why they don’t know what really happened. Because the movies really don’t care about what happened. It’s just about, well she looks great clothes, let’s do that period. I remember watching the was the Mel Gibson movie that set during the Revolutionary War.
“The Patriot!” You know, all of a sudden, he goes back to his plantation, and it’s like, “Who are these black people are so happy to see him?” Are they on an agribusiness tour or something? Let’s just leave out the part where he’s a slave holder. I know, it was based on Francis Marion, who is the Swamp Fox, so well, let’s make the British guy kind of a Nazi, so we can really hate him. Anyway.
I felt like, “Okay, I think it would be useful to make a movie that deals with this stuff in a complex way, and gets into that, that, you know, Menudo on the border. And then one of the things I felt like is, okay, well, there’s not a big standing population on the Texas border of African Americans. But I know several really important racial incidents that happen there. I know that the Buffalo Soldiers were stationed in Fort Huachuca and Arizona, I know that the Brownsville incident was why we didn’t have black combat soldiers until the Korean War. There’s this part of the heritage of Texas too. And so I just figured, Okay, I’m going to create a town that’s kind of a composite of a bunch of towns down there. My father was, during World War II, stationed at Fort Sam Houston and got a taste of the racial vibe around that that base. It just seemed like, this is a good place to tell this story. There’s just so much happening and so much history that people but can’t say out loud. It’s a good thing to make a movie about.
You’re also playing around with the myth and scope of the western. Was that part of the draw as well?
I mean, certainly the movie west, is part of how we defined ourselves. I didn’t go west of Buffalo, New York until I was out of college but I knew all those movies. And some of the historical idea you have of what went on in the early westerns, the kind of black hat and white hat westerns and shoot-the-Indians-off-the-horse westerns, but also that the people themselves, it’s just like, cops watch cop shows. In Los Angeles for years, LAPD officers watched “Dragnet” and the “Dragnet” TV show dealt with LAPD officers to get stories and information. You can’t really separate them.
I’m writing a novel now that takes place from about 1927 to 1943. And it’s about a lot of characters, like a lot of my stuff is, I’m doing the historical stuff – World War II is in there, and a race riot in Detroit and the depression, the stock market crash, but also, I’m having people go to movies and all of a sudden, they’re talkies, and there’s cartoons. And there’s baseball. It’s set in Detroit, partly, and they won two World Series during the time I’m writing about. That’s part of who we are, is mass culture. If you if you go back to Jamie McGilvery, there’s not much mass culture. It’s the 1750s. Thomas Fielding is a character, and he’s just starting to write novels, but very few people are literate, and even fewer of them would read a novel. It’s just not a factor that it is today.
“Lone Star” came out in 1996. And there was a VHS and a DVD but nothing since. It’s not streaming anywhere but you can buy it digitally. Where has it been?
They go into somebody’s library. And if it doesn’t look or smell like enough money to really exploit it they forget about it. Like our movie “Matewan,” it took us over a half a year to actually find out who owned it. When we went out, I think it was MGM and said, “We’d like to talk to you about our movie that you own the rights to.” They said, “We don’t own that movie.” We said, “Look a little more carefully.” And then it took a couple more tries. They said, “You know, you’re right. We do have that movie.” And we said, “Do you have the materials? You have the negative?” They said, “Yeah, no.” They weren’t planning on doing anything with it.
The couple movies that I’ve had anything to do with it that that never happened to were “Eight Men Out,” which always plays during World Series and playoff week, and always plays during Halloween, they play “The Howling.” There’s a reason to dig up any movie that have that content. I imagine “Major League” and “Field of Dreams” and stuff like that play during World Series week as well. And horror obviously the Freddy Krueger movies and stuff like that play during Halloween, but “Lone Star” is just a one-off movie and those can easily get stuck in a closet somewhere and just forgot about.
Do you ever want to direct a big studio movie? Reading about your new book, it sounds like a giant historical epic.
That was a screenplay. You know, “Jamie McGilvery” was a screenplay that I wrote for Robert Carlyle, 20 years earlier, and we just never could raise the money for it. My next book, which will come out about this time next year, from the same publisher, is called “To Save the Man.” And it’s based on the screenplay that I wrote about the Carlisle Indian School in 1890, which is the same time as the Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee massacre. And you know, so that’s what happens to screenplays that sit around for 20 years – you realize that they’re never going to give me the money to make this.
Yeah, it’d be fun to make a big budget movie. I wrote a movie on spec called “Them Again,” which is a giant ant movie, like a reboot of them, but knowing, Oh my god, we could do so much more with a special effects. I send it to Joe Dante and said, “You should direct this.” And we haven’t gotten any traction. Warner Bros., which owns the property, they’re going through so many problems. I think they can’t be bothered. But I would love to see that movie get made, because it’s really funny.
I’ve got this western I’ve been trying to make for years, and we’re still hoping to raise money. And I’ve got another even cheaper movie set in a bar in Chicago during the Chicago Convention of 1968. And I haven’t been able to raise that money. And they’re not that expensive. It’s just it’s really hard to get a free-standing feature made.
When I go into a meeting with somebody who has asked me to help them pitch a feature idea, the first question is, “Well, could it be a series does that so it’s getting made?” After the strikes, the streamers are having to realize, “Oh, I think we’re losing money here.” I don’t know if that’s going to be as fertile a world as it used to be. But I started hearing directors who work in that world saying, all they keep telling me is it’s all about this, it’s all about this. Who knows what will happen in the future, you’re riding the current when you’re trying to make movies at all, whether they’re independent or mainstream. And if you’re lucky, you know, you catch a good wave. And if you’re not, you’re wiped out again and again.
“Lone Star” is on Criterion now.