John Sayles, the celebrated writer, director, and indie film pioneer, may have 16 motion pictures under his belt, but he still doesn't think he'll ever make a film within the studio system. Maybe that's what's got him singing the blues.
"I continue to work for studios as a writer-for-hire, but there's nothing that makes me think any of them are going to let me do the kinds of things I [want to do]," says the lean, 57-year-old Sayles. The director stretches out in a chair at the Westin hotel in downtown Memphis, where he's spent a day doing face-to-face interviews promoting his latest film Honeydripper, starring Danny Glover.
"My agency got a fatwa just before the strike last year that said 'Don't send us any period movies or dramas.' So they're doing even less of what I do, not more," he says.
"We made [Honeydripper] for $5 million," says Maggie Renzi, Sayles' companion and creative partner for the past 20 years. "This should be a mainstream movie, but our peer movies — films like Juno or Atonement — are spending $20 to $30 million just to advertise their film. It's like pulling teeth for us, trying to advertise with only a million-dollar budget."
Renzi looks into the not-too-distant future and imagines a time when even indie films by someone with Sayles' track record forgo any theatrical release.
That scenario hasn't arrived just yet, and Honeydripper, a character-driven drama about the unique life of a 1950s juke joint on the wrong side of the tracks in the American South, opens in Memphis on February 22nd. Sayles and Renzi are rolling the dice, working overtime, and hoping that their rural, all-black myth about the birth of rock-and-roll will find an audience in the famously musical Bluff City.
"This is not a story about black people's relationship with white people," Sayles says. "We've seen those movies. This is a story about the music. It's about this vital life that goes on without white people around. We've already seen the movies about white kids looking into the windows of the juke joint and the scenes where those kids become Jerry Lee Lewis or whoever. But what about Ike Turner? What about Chuck Berry? At some point, these were the kids also looking in or they were already on the inside."
"The story rattled around in my head for a long time," Sayles says, trying to connect the dots of his various inspirations. "I wrote a story titled 'Keeping Time' in my last collection Dillinger in Hollywood. It's a contemporary story about a 40-year-old drummer in a 20-year-old band asking, "How did I get here?' Well, there's a janitor in that story with arthritic fingers, and at one point he says something like, 'I know I don't look like it, but I used to be Guitar Slim.' And that, I guess, is where it starts.
"So, while I was writing Honeydripper, I was tapping into this real story about Guitar Slim," Sayles continues. "He was an actual guitar player in the mid-1950s. He had a big hit with a song called 'The Things That I Used To Do.' It was before there were rock videos or album covers, and Slim was known to miss a gig now and then. So club owners would turn to whatever kid was around who could play a little bit and say, 'You learn to play this song because tonight you're Guitar Slim.' You've got to think that a lot of the guys who became the iconic R&B guitar players got to be Guitar Slim at some point. That's the story I was drawing from: a world where the audience didn't really care who you were as long as you could play."
Honeydripper, according to Sayles, is about a world that's getting faster and noisier; where war is breaking out overseas, and on the homefront, early solid-body electric guitars are beginning to drown out the previously dominant sounds of piano and saxophone.
"And you have all these musicians who are desperate to play," Sayles says. "You've got Glover's Pinetop, the piano player, who's suspicious of guitar players. There's Bertha, a singer who had her era in the '30s, but she still lives to sing. Even though she's not making any money, it's what matters the most to her. Then there's this other kid who wants to be on the radio and he's cannibalized an old acoustic guitar to make an electric guitar and an amp.
"There was a war in Korea," Sayles says. "There was also another war between the guitar and the piano."