sunshine state written and directed by John Sayles, produced by Maggie Renzi, with Angela Bassett, Edie Falco, James McDaniel and Timothy Hutton. 127 minutes. A Sony Pictures Classic release. Opens Friday (August 9). For venues and times, see First-Run movies, page 70. Rating: NNNN
After 15 films in 22 years, John Sayles is beginning to look like the grand old man of American independent cinema.Novelist, playwright, occasional actor, typewriter for hire, Sayles not only writes all the films he directs but edits them as well, having asserted more than once that "you write every film three times -- the first time when you write it, the second time when you direct it and the third time in the editing room."
He also has an unerring eye for acting talent and creates roles that attract it. While Alfre Woodard, Joe Morton and Elizabeth Peña have extensive careers, it's hard to find better roles in their filmographies than the ones Sayles gave them in Passion Fish, City Of Hope and Lone Star respectively.
If this means he's less enthralled with the visual aspect of filmmaking -- one critic accused him of "distrusting" the camera -- it also means he's a pillar of humanist sensibility in a CGI world.
Speaking to Sayles by phone, I mention his apparent lack of interest in visual style.
"There's that thing in certain Hollywood movies where everything is so art-directed that it looks hermetically sealed, even if they're set outside," says Sayles.
"I've shot three films with Haskell Wexler (Matewan, The Secret Of Roan Inish, Limbo), and he always prepares, then looks at me and says, "It's time to fuck up the frame.'"
In his latest film, Sunshine State, Sayles returns to the theme of rampant development that seemed to be animating Limbo (until the characters wandered off to the Alaskan island). All the characters are involved in a wrestling match over a strip of north Florida beach, part of it historically African American, part of it occupied by an assortment of white characters.
"In Alaska that development is a long climb -- it's about 50 years away," notes Sayles. "I decided, "Let's go to the place where they've been doing it for 50 years.' Florida was never sold as a place with wonderful farmland. It was always sold as the American idea of leisure.
"I'd written a short story about 10 years ago called Treasure, set on the Gulf Coast. I went back to the coast to see if I could still set my story there and it had developed beyond recognition. I was bummed out. Where did my location go? I thought I might write about this tidal wave of change."
The story centres on two characters, Desiree (Angela Bassett), who left home at 15 and has never returned until now with a new husband in tow, and Marly (Edie Falco), who wanted to get out but wound up stuck behind the counter in her father's restaurant-motel.
Desiree's trying to make peace with her mother; Marly's trying to hold onto her father's property as the developers circle like buzzards.
"When I was writing it, the only actors I had in mind were Edie Falco and Angela Bassett. We built from there. In the last 10 years it's become more acceptable for name actors to appear in off-Hollywood movies. The American indie film movement has some real problems, but well-known actors have discovered that they can do things they can't do in mainstream films. It's like doing theatre -- nobody gets that much money doing a play. They're happy if they break even."
The cast of Sunshine State includes a pair of Oscar winners in Timothy Hutton and Mary Steenburgen, and an assortment of veteran character actors: Bill Cobbs, James McDaniel, Miguel Ferrer.
Sayles points out that the film also deals with entrenchment.
"One of the thing that was instrumental in the plot was the love-hate relationship America has with rootedness," says Sayles.
"You'd see Marlon Brando show up in a movie and the town couldn't deal with him, and then somebody would eventually escape. It would be a wonderful small town, like the one in The Majestic, which we all kind of wish existed. That tension in the United States is the contrast between the one character who wants to get out and the character who comes back, though with a lot of trepidation."
Sayles is currently in South America making a new film, Casa De Los Babys, about American women seeking to adopt South American children. It stars Marcia Gay Harden, Steenburgen, Lili Taylor, Daryl Hannah, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Vanessa Martinez.firstname.lastname@example.org
also opening: BLOOD WORK -- HAPPY TIMES -- THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE -- THE LAST KISS -- MARKOVA: COMFORT GAY