from Sayles on Sayles (ed. Gavin Smith)
Fundamentally, you've always talked about your work in terms of storytelling. Lone Star, even more than The Secret of Roan Inish, seems on one level to be an examination of the role of storytelling in people's lives and in the shaping of society.
Yeah. You know, history has the word story in it, and I think the main thing I was thinking about in writing the movie was: "What do we need history for? What do we use it for?" And that's history both in the kind of larger social sense of "Remember the Alamo," but also personal history. You know: "Mom made me do it," "If only my brother had been nicer to me, I would be a happy person today." And at what point do we say, "Okay, you can't blame history, " or, "You can't take credit for history." At the end Chet says, "My father says you have to start from scratch and pull yourself up from there," which isn't true. Nobody does that. Everybody starts with some kind of handicap or advantage, and that's their personal history. And it's also their group history. I was interested in the way those two interact: both the personal, and the social and group history. But also, "Is there escape from that?" I'm always interested in responsibility and when we expect people to just be responsible for themselves.
Lone Star is about discovering the truth behind the legend, and the power that such legends exert over a community's sense of itself, yet it's also a reworking of a classic myth, the myth of Oedipus.
I wanted that idea that you have to be careful of what you look for, because you might find it.
It's an interesting double movementthe narrative keeps moving further back in time while also moving forward in time. Sam talks about his story being over, yet he is actually constructing a story and becoming its narrator.
Very specifically what that was about is that both Pilar and Sam are people who are on the verge of either accepting that they blew something or something was blown for them. In Pilar's case, she married this guy, she had his kids, and he died. And so, where do you go from there? You know, you're almost forty. With Sam, he is forty, and he wasted his marriage to this crazy, female football fan. And he's realized, probably only a couple weeks after taking it, that, no, he doesn't want to be sheriff, that that was something he had to deal with about his father, not something he wanted to do. And the question is being asked constantly through it, "Are you doing something that's about you or is this something that's about living up to the legacy that's been left to you?"
That double movement you were talking aboutSam is trying to deal with a father who is dead. Pilar almost accidentally finds out about a father who she didn't know was her father. And Joe Morton's character is trying to deal with a father who's alive. There are these parallel things. Sam is the one who is going back into the past, he's the one who's digging the deepest in a way. On the other hand, Joe Morton's son is looking for roots. But he's got the live museum, he's got the grandfather there. So, okay, "Where do I come from? Did it just start from scratch like my father said or is there something behind it?" So he goes back and he finds his grandfather. And it was very purposeful that the grandfather is into Seminole Indian history and that their big talk finally is in front of a museum exhibit. It's about roots. There is a positive side to remembering that stuff. On the other hand, you have a last line in the picture, "Forget the Alamo," which I once considered having be the title of the movie. There is an extent to which romantic love is antisocial. Not marriage, which is very social, that's when you make it public, and say, "Okay, we're going to follow certain rules. We're now allowing the rest of the community into our relationship. " It's why a lot of people get along fine until they get married. It's a social contract whereas romantic love is automatically antisocial. So when they say, "Forget the Alamo," they have to say, "Forget what society thinks, forget society's stories. We are going to do this thing together." They can't stay in Frontera, around her mother and other people who know eventually, the thing is going to get out. So there is also the sense that sometimes what you have to do is just forget history, you have to escape it.
At the end there's a real attempt to deny some of society's taboos not just incest but also interracial marriage.
You can do that on a personal level, but probably not on a social one. There are interracial couples, but it's not something that is generally accepted in society, either by black or white people. You can have black friends, but that doesn't mean that black and white people are getting along. That's individual accommodation, which is very different from what society is doing.
Do you agree with Otis when he says, "Blood only means what you let it"?
Everybody takes what they want to. Once they get to that point of maturity, they say, "This is going to mean what I want it to mean." Being black can be this huge point of pride or of pain. It can be something where you say, "Well, other people may have a problem with this but I don't, I'm going to go on with my life, and I'm going to try to have it not be about race as much as I can. Now, that doesn't mean that other people are going to allow me to have it not be about race. But me personallyI'm going to live my life as a human being. It's a fact. It's not a quality of my character." It's the same thing with, "My father was the sheriff of this town." At some point you have to decide, "How much am I going to let that mean to me?"
Do you see the father/son dynamic in the film as a metaphor? Father/son themes run through much of your work. Is it something which particularly resonates with you?
It's not a big bug for me. I think it happens in life so much that it's almost not a metaphorjust what is. There are those metaphors that are so close to what's going on they go beyond being metaphors. I remember talking with Kris Kristofferson about the plot and he wasn't involved in the father/son story. He was talking about how to him the three sheriffs represented three generations. He was saying, "This could be the generation, this could be the story of some Israeli colonel saying, 'I was a warrior so my son could become a poet."' In America you could have the generation who says, "Look, I may be a hard-ass, and I may be an asshole, but I want my children to live in peace, so I'm going to kill all the Indians and all the wolves." And then you have the next generation who says, "Well, I'm still going to be in charge, and I'm not going to feel bad that Dad killed all the Indians. But I'm going to make life a little easier for them. I'm going to go to the reservations and make sure that they get their government handouts." The third generation is the one that says, "Oh my Godwe were so terrible, killing all those people. Look at how we've treated them. My grandfather was an asshole. My father was an asshole."
However, you also have the guys who want to go back to their grandfaall these different people in the pot. From the Pat Buchanans saying, "This is a white, Christian nation and we are in a holy cultural war to keep it from becoming multicultural and to keep our workers working and fuck everyone else," to the people who want to say, "Forget the United States. We live in the world. We're part of the world community. And human beings are the tribe." There're so many gradations between those views in American society right now. I'd say that's because we've been around a certain amount of time. If you went back a hundred years, you wouldn't have found that last gradation. You would have found people who said, "Well, Jeez. Do we have to kill all the Indians? Can't we just put them on reservations?" and that would have been a Liberal. The Conservative would have been the guy who said, "No, we need a Final Solution. We have to kill every last one of them, because they are expensive to maintain." It's almost not metaphoric, as I was saying. It's so literally what went on.
How did the subplot with Del and the army base emerge in the writing?
I wanted to have these three communities, where we were basically in a part of Mexico that somebody had drawn a line underneath and made into America, but the people hadn't changed. So, the Anglos got to run things, but it was still basically a Mexican town. And where do the blacks fit into that? Well, they're kind of mercenaries in this case. A lot of that thinking came out of the Gulf War. I saw, time after time on television, black men and women being asked, "So, what was your part? Why are you here? What do you think of this war and everything?" And time after time I heard people answer, "This was the best job I could get."
And then I started seeing those who were officers, and then there was Colin Powell. And then I saw a lot of interracial couples who were married and in the army. And I realized, well, here is what used to be, only a few years ago, one of the most racist and retrogressive parts of society maintaining the status quobeing the institution where even though it's about going and killing other people, there seems to be a certain degree of equal opportunity. Or if not equal, better than in the free market. If black people are saying, "This is the best job I could get," and they feel like there's some chance for advancement, that's much better than they feel like in the free market.
I started thinking about the Buffalo Soldiers, the Negro-Indian scouts, which I actually knew a bit about before I started writing this, how, yes, they were part Indian, but they were there working for the white people against other red people. How there comes that point where, yes, you can move up as long as you're willing to be the mercenary or the hired gun. In Batista's Cuba, many of his hitmen were black. That started to fascinate me. Here's a strange thing that history has done in this country. It has said, "We're going to do this and that on the surface about equal opportunity," but because the army finally is a part of society that we can control to a certain extent, because people have to take orders, all of a sudden this becomes the place where black people can make a life for themselves. And it's more controlled than regular society. There's that line when Del's talking to the private, and she says, "Outside it's just chaos." And he's thinking, "My life would have been me coming into the bar at night where people are fighting and killing each other and divorcing each other."
I knew the social aspect firstI wanted the ruling class that was having to give up the reins. I wanted the people, the Mexicans in this case, who are taking over the reins. And then I wanted there to be this mercenary class, the blacks. And then I started thinking about who the representatives of those classes were going to be, and I wanted more than one. In each of those groups, I wanted to also have a personal story that was important. So, the driving narrative is about this murder mystery, and the black people would be an enclave, one small neighborhood in an army base, which is this artificial little world, and you really knew when you were in that section of town. And then I basically had the idea, "Well, what if it's not just this guy who's seen it all and owns the roadhouse, but he has something to deal with, which is a live son."
It's curious that the subplot is more moving than the main plot.
One guy's dealing with a father who's deadit's history and there's something always slightly removed about history. I try to make it a little less removedin the transitions there's no cut or dissolve. I tried to make it immediate, in the same place. But there's nothing we can do about history. We can learn what really happened, but we can't change it. His father's dead. He can't change that relationship. He can change how he feels about it, but he's not going to have that scene with Dad or anything like that. And the same thing with Pilar. Both the person she thought was her father and the one who really was are both dead. But the one person who can is this bar owner who has a son, and they've had this chilly nonrelationship for years and now they have to deal with each other. So that's got to be more moving, because it's immediate.
What's the significance of the long scene between Sam and his exwife, Bunny?
One of the things is that we have been doing all of this poking in the past about Sam's father, but Sam was a kid when that was happening. Sam is the protagonist, the one leading us through the plot, but I noticed as I was reading it myself that so many of his lines are just simple reactive lineshe's asking questions. He doesn't have any huge speeches. I tend not to do those big Paddy Chayevsky speeches for the main characters. I'll often give them to a secondary character, and they may be more thematic than anything else. In Passion Fish it's the "Anal Probe" speech, which is a metaphor for life, and for limitations. That scene with Bunny serves two purposes. One is metaphoric: This is a woman who has not escaped the past. It's clear that the weight of her family and their money doomed the marriage. The two of them came into it carrying this shit on their backs that made it impossible. He was still in love with another woman and he was still dealing with his father who wasn't there and was eventually dead. She was still dealing with her father who was very much there, and who gave both of them very little room to breathe. And you imagine that she has this incredible, fierce loyalty and love for her father that's also a fierce hatred. And some of that was, we've seen that Sam was this kid who was ripped out of this Romeo and Juliet thing, but then what did he do? Well, what he did was he tried to go to a totally different world. And he couldn't make it, because history wouldn't leave him alone and the weight of society was waiting for him there. And it wasn't his father, it was her father. There's still a chance for Sam. He and Pilar at the end of the movie are basically embarking on a second life. Bunny is someone who's not going to have one. She is absolutely trapped in that room. You can see her thirty years from thensame person, the room is just messier.
One of the thematic links between the different strands is the idea of needing to belong to some group, which is also very moving.
Especially in the United States, which is not a traditional culture. Never was.
And her tribe is the Dallas Cowboys.
Absolutely. But it's a very artificial thing. Sports are timeless in a way. Besides being such a Texas thing, they are somebody else's drama. Every year there is another NFL, another Super Bowl. They are so vicarious, it just seemed like a great metaphor for somebody who can't live their own life because it's too painful. There are all these subcultures in America that you belong to because there is the illusion of, and sometimes there really is, choice in America. What do you choose to belong to? Have you chosen? If people choose to be macrobiotic and they belong to that, that becomes what they are about. They choose to be a Crip or a Blood if they have more limited options. But there are choices that are more responsible and more personal, where you actually take care of somebody else and have to deal with somebody else and have to affect and be affected by the world. And then there are choices that are totally vicarious. With May-Alice in Passion Fish it would be to watch soap operas and live their soap opera lives with them, and many people have made that choice. Their strongest emotional lives are on television.
Is Bunny's name intended to echo Sam's father's name, Buddy?
Well, not so much. It's just that you try to characterize people through their names. And the name "Bunny" is a diminutive, a child's name and a nickname. She's someone who's still, at least in her relationship with her father, infantilized. It's a bit literary, and it's a bit wasted. At one point I was thinking of having some of Sam's old campaign posters in Bunny's garage, until I realized he wouldn't have had them up there, and the slogan for his election campaign for sheriff would have been "One Good Deeds Deserves Another." And the deeds of the father are visited on the son. That's very literary. He is who he is because he is kind of a buddy to a lot of people, a crony. In the same way, Pilar is solid like a pillar. And Mercedes eventually has mercy. You give a feeling to people through their names, especially the ones you only see for a little while.
The final moments of that scene are interesting. Sam tells Bunny, "You look good," and she says, "I like it when you say that, Sam. "It implies a kind of agreed deception, a mutually convenient denial of reality.
It's also one of the moments where Sam is most like Buddy. Think of how Buddy ran the town. There was a lot of deception, a lot of, "Well, we both know it's illegal, but it's not hurting anyone. So I'm going to look the other way." Which is kind of like saying, "You look good, Bunny." Instead of saying, "Honey, you're a mess. Get yourself to a shrink." In the rest of the movie Sam is the guy who doesn't want to come to an accommodation, doesn't want to cut anybody any slack. He's the Grim Reaper kind of guy, who says I want all the facts on the table, and I don't care who it hurts. The second time he acts like his father is at the very end of the movie. He says, "Well, that's the truth. But who is it going to do any good? It's one of your unsolved mysteries."
Does it represent growth in his character?
Yes, to a certain extent because he was so extreme in the other way. He's not going to become Buddyhe's not going to become a corrupt sheriff. He's still a man of principle. But there is that point where being a certain kind of man of principle becomes just being a weapon. Buddy's feeling is, "Yes, there are all these statutory laws, but my job is to help people in this town live without fear, so if they are doing something that is statutorily wrong, but I don't think is messing anyone upI'm not going to bother." There's something more mature about that, than, "These are the rules and we're going to live in a Calvinist universe. And any time there's any infraction, I'm going to nail you for it." Reform administrations and reform politics are often very Calvinist.
Is the derelict drive-in movie theater where Sam and Pilar meet at the end another manifestation of the need for a community? Did you intend to invoke the collective experience of movies?
Yeah, that's where people came together. Like in Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, it's the place where all the kids met and our society was created. To a certain extent what I wanted that to be is, "Okay, this is where we were torn apart. The last place we were together." I wanted the sense that they are looking at the screen as if something may come up, but the screen is wasted. There are the ravages of the past. So in that last image, I wanted both the sense that they are going to go forward, something could be projected on that thing. But they're not the fourteen-year-old kids that they were. They've had some damage. Things have fallen away. They're different people. But that doesn't mean that their love is dead.
What was the film being shown in the flashback? It looked like a Corman "women in prison" movie.
It was Black Mama, White Mama, which was an AIP movie that Jonathan Demme actually has story credit on. It was one of those Filipino jobs. It was basically The Defiant Ones in a women's prison. Pam Grier and Margaret Markowthey're handcuffed together and they escape. Once again, it may be a little literary, but it's about people of different races being chained together whether they want to or not.
Of all your films, this has the most complex use of point of viewpointwe get overlapping perspectives of events in the flashbacks, and often one person begins telling Sam a story and then somebody else finishes it, talking to Sam from a different time and place. Why those extreme yet almost imperceptible shifts?
For any history that you read, you have to consider who's recounting the history. How do they see the world? What's their agenda? Because Lone Star's involved with history, I wanted people to get that idea that the answers Sam is given are always going to be influenced by the person who's giving them. "This is where I was in the room, this is what I saw." "This is me being the hero of the story." Sometimes they're lying. Or lying to themselves. But always keeping to that idea that this is not what happenedthis is how I remember what happened, like Citizen Kane, in that one keeps getting a more complete picture of Kane because different people know different sides of him. I wanted there to be that guide who starts you into the story, and then you get into it, and you live it immediately, but I wanted there to be that little residue of somebody watching. So when we see Eladio Cruz killed, we cut away to the guy who started the story, hiding under the bridge. And that's where his story is coming froma witnessed murder. At the end, Otis introduces the story. It starts with him and the poker game and Charlie Wade coming in, but when we come out of it, Hollis is also telling the storywe start changing points of view within the telling of it. When you see the close-up of the gun firing, the one which kills Charlie Wade, there's one shot shooting left and there's another shooting right. Two people, different points of view. If you're one guy, it's an eyeline problem. Whose point of view is this from? So let's do it two ways.
Did you attempt to change the style of the film depending on whose subjective state you were depicting?
Yes, according to who they are and according to their emotional state. Within each of those stories, Sam is always the listener, but there are different strategies. Sometimes the voice comes in at the beginning and a different voice picks it up at the end. So the point of view changes. But I also wanted the emotional state of what was being told. The first one that we see is kind of a tall tale. It's a guy bullshitting with his friends at a table, and so I wanted that to feel like a Western. Because when Hollis the mayor tells the story, he is going to embellish it and make it into a real showdown. And so the shooting of it was a little bit more strict, very much the same cuts and lines you would get if it were a Western showdown. And it had all the fetishistic items: the guns, and the hats, and the badges. Whereas in the last story that's told, it is very impressionistic. There are no lines anymore. We don't hear what Charlie Wade is saying when he's telling Otis to go. We know the kinds of things he would be saying. The scene where Eladio Cruz is murdered, we go from this very close-up imagination of what is going on to these wide shots, which is the guy under the bridge. He's guessing what happened and what was said close-up, but he was basically seeing from a distance. So it's not literal, but I wanted each one to have a different emotional content. Some of that emotional content would be the emotions of the person who's telling the story. It was also for some variety in the movie, so that every story isn't the same. Certainly you always try to evoke what you want the audience to feel. How claustrophobic do you want them to be? How distanced do you want them to be? How close do you want them to be? How much of a surprise do you want it to be when Charlie Wade shoots the guy? How much tension do you want to evoke, even though it's the past? You want the audience at a certain emotional state when they come back to the present and there's Sam taking this thing in.
The fluid visual transitions between past and present suggest something like magic realism.
I wanted the past, those stories about his father, to be so much more present than when you play the harp and do the lap dissolve. Sam is still about the past, because as quiet as he is, he is still an other-directed individual. He carries his father thing with him, mostly in a resentful wayhe has to live under this guy's shadow. Same thing with the transitions in City of Hopethey were all written as well. You don't cut to another part of the room, you are brought there by the camera. A cut is very much a tear. You use a cut to say there's a separation between this thing and that thing. And so in Lone Star, I didn't even want a dissolve, which is a soft cut.
What motivated the canted camera angles in Lone Star? For instance, the opening shot of the scene where Mercedes is sitting in her yard drinking?
It's usually about the emotional state of the character, because I don't have much time with them, because there's a lot of business to take care of. That particular shot says, "This is supposed to be someone who's home relaxing; she's making herself a cocktail and she's got nice music on in the backgroundbut there's something off about her life, something unbalanced and unsettled."
Why does the scene where Sam drives to see Pilar have such a lyrical, abstract tone to it?
It's like the nighttime boat ride in Passion Fish. It has some of the same otherworldly, lyrical mood. This is the part of Sam's life that he still has a chance to change, the part that if he does it right, is outside of society. I wanted something about what's going on inside him, which has got to be very hopeful, purely emotional. This is their own little world of two; you don't see another personthis is what the relationship used to be. It has its own light. There's more dissolves than anywhere else. It has a different kind of music. It is a kind of time-out for Pilar and Sam. And that's what you hope a personal relationship can be.
The wide-shot of them in the empty restaurant alone with the jukebox, echoes the final shot of the film with them at the drive-in.
The jukebox holds some of their past. The song they play, "Since I Met You, Baby," or "Desde que conosco," is also playing on the jukebox when Del walks into Otis's place, a different version of it. That's very subtle, but that's how different cultures use the same song. It was a song that was a hit on black stations, and then it was the first hit for Freddy Fender, the first Hispanic rock-and-roll guy. He took rock and roll, black music that was becoming used by white people, and brought it to Latin America. I don't know whether anybody would have picked that up.
Why did you call the film Lone Star?
It has an immediate visceral impact and then a historical resonance. Sam is very much the loner in this Western tradition, trying to bring justice to the situation, as far as he's concerned. A wrong has been done and he's going to right it, even if it costs his father's reputation. It's kind of like High Noonthe man against the town, that's how he sees himself. By the end, what you hope is that he doesn't see himself that way anymore. He's starting to reintegrate himself in society. "I've got to leave you people alone with your legend." Very literally, Texas was the Lone Star State before they were part of the Union, after they had kicked the Mexicans out. They were a republic. Because they had their eye on becoming part of the United States, they said, "We'll be the Lone Star. We're the individual who is eventually going to join the society." One of the reasons why I chose Texas for this thing is because the state of Texas has a compressed history that is like a metaphor for the history of the United States.
How do you approach the interplay of foreground and background characters in a film like this?
When I write, having been an actor, one of the things that I do is go through and play every part, and ask, "Is there a three-dimensional character here? What are the connections between this character and the rest of the story, and can I have more than one connection between this character and the rest of the story, thematically and just in terms of plot?" In your average Hollywood movie there are two leads and everyone else is basically an extrain mine the secondary characters start moving forward and become primary. It's like the way that I mix soundif you're in a bar, and it's noisy, the background sound is mixed up closer to the foreground sound, which makes it a little harder for people who don't hear very well. I'm not the only person who does it that way; Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese do it that way. The secondary characters have got to have their say. Even if he doesn't get a lot of air time, the guy who stands up in the school board meeting and says, "Hey, we stole it fair and square, buddy. Winners get to write the history," well, he's got a point. And you can't make him one-dimensional. Every once in a while when watching an otherwise interesting movie, all of a sudden there are, let's say, these cops and they're one-dimensional. Just the bad guys. And that's very, very useful for an action/adventure movie. In Los Gusanos one of the characters is a political torturer. He does terrible things to people. And that's his job. I was interested in what the guy thinks and what could possibly be going through his head. And so I did a lot of reading about it, accounts by people who used to do torture. What do you have to think of yourself to be able to do this? What does being that person do to you?