The term “independent” in the film world has come to mean many things, but at one time, it was reserved for labors of love that used non-studio financing to delve into deeper emotional or political waters than the usual Hollywood blockbuster. One man who has let that independent flag fly for over forty years is John Sayles, whose steady and thoughtful creative output has yielded award-winning books (Union Dues, Los Gusanos, A Moment in the Sun) as well as revered films such as Return of the Secaucus Seven, Brother From Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, Honeydripper, and the Academy Award-nominated Lone Star. His film school was on the job in the Roger Corman camp, scripting low-budget horror films such as Piranha and Alligator. Having famously polished the occasional studio script (Apollo 13, Mimic), and reportedly having written the screenplay for the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park franchise, Sayles has found a way to continuously write and direct his own pointedly personal and political dramas that answer to no one, save himself. A true pioneer, he is often referred to as the godfather of independent film.
During the 1980s, Sayles directed three music videos for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, resulting in memorable clips for the songs “Born in the U.S.A.”, “I’m On Fire”, and “Glory Days”, which repeatedly reinforced Springsteen’s position as an artist who could command the small screen as well as a stadium. From the politicized documentary footage and onstage performance ferocity of “Born in the U.S.A” to the smoldering night ride of “I’m On Fire” to the middle-age reminiscence and bar-room rock of “Glory Days”, Sayles hit all three out of the park; all three songs hit the Billboard Top Ten Singles Chart, pushing the album to multi-platinum sales, and catapulting the image of Springsteen as a working class hero, singing about the everyman, into the worldwide pop culture consciousness.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF MUSIC VIDEO spoke with the filmmaker about his new film Amigo, which opens today, his work with the Boss, and his thoughts on the relationship between film and music.
Let’s talk about Amigo. Did your book A Moment in the Sun come out of the screenplay or the other way around?
The way it kind of evolved was that for my novel, Los Gusanos, I did a lot of research about relations between Cuba and the United States. And in that, I went back as far as the Spanish American War. And kept running into this fact of the Philippine American War, and wait, there was a Philippine American War? I had cousins who lived in the Philippines and I knew where it was on the map, and I knew a little bit about its recent history, so how come I never heard of this? I looked into it a little bit, and it was very strange to me that most Americans, including myself, had never heard of the Philippine American War – that we won! We usually celebrate the wars that we win, even the little ones, even the Indian wars. There’s several movies about almost all of those campaigns. And now that Amigo has been made, that’s only the third movie ever made dealing with that history at all.
Why do you think that is?
I think that Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of being imperialists, and no matter how you cut it, no matter what euphemisms you use, that’s what we were doing. And at the time it was very open, I mean, the opposition to that war that Mark Twain and other people got involved in was called the Anti-Imperialist League. It was such a racialized time. The Rudyard Kipling poem “Pick Up The White Man’s Burden”? If you look it up, the subtitle of the poem is “America and the Philippines”. It was an open letter to the United States saying that we the Brits have done our white Christian duty — and it is a duty, not just an opportunity – it’s your turn to help sort these little brown buggers out. “To wait, in heavy harness, on fluttered folk and wild, your new-caught sullen peoples, half devil and half child.” And that’s where the people who wanted us to take over the Philippines were. And the Boer War was happening at this time as well. There was a huge racial element to it – they’re not white, so how could they possibly govern themselves.
What is the story in the film, the through-line we follow?
The through-line is micro-history because we didn’t have much money to make it. It’s 1900, and it’s the period when the U.S. army was chasing General Aguinaldo, the leader of the Philippine army and president of the Republic. They had a congress and a constitution during this moment in the sun that they had between the Spanish surrendering to the Americans, as it turns out, and the Americans deciding to take over the island. There were several months in there where they got to say “we want to be a republic, too.” Their constitution is very much based on the American Constitution, so they are chasing him north, trying to catch him, and the Filipinos have given up after a year of trying to do frontal assaults. They realized that without trained soldiers and artillery, this just isn’t going to work, so they’ve turned to a guerrilla war. It takes place in one little village, and the “Amigo” of the title is mayor of that village, whose got twelve American soldiers including garrisoned in his town after they come in and take it over, but his brother is the head of the “insurrectos”, the guerrillas who are still in the area fighting the Americans.
What were the logistical challenges of shooting in the Philippines?
Because we were there for fifty years or whatever, the heads of our all-Filipino crew spoke English, unlike when I shot in Mexico, where I was often directing in Spanish. I would say the challenge is that they have many many talented people and a real film industry, but there isn’t a tradition of independent movies. The norm there is for them to work 24 hours – there are no unions — then have an unpaid 24 hours to recover, and they start up again with another 24 hours working. The organization of a film or any kind of shoot isn’t what we’re used to. We had to do a hybrid. We worked much more Hollywood hours, especially on the days where the union actors were working.
That sounds like the type of situation your old boss Roger Corman encountered often.
It is in a way that its labor intensive, which is what I learned from working with Roger Corman, because I’d gotten to be on the movie sets of the films I had written for him, and I certainly had never been on a movie set before. I’d never been to film school or looked through a camera before. I learned about the labor intensive part — what is labor intensive and what is capital intensive, say, or what you need to have a lot of equipment for, etc. What I did with my early films such as Return of the Secaucus Seven was to write with a budget in mind. So for Amigo, since we don’t have much money (laughs), these independent movies we have invested in ourselves, it gets back to the original screenplay, which was called “Sometime in the Sun”, which is a fraction of what’s in the novel, with a fraction of the characters. We realized after scouting it for locations in the U.S., that no one was going to give us the money to make this movie, so I put it aside for several years. Seven years later, I thought it would be an interesting idea to put into a novel. I felt like I was trying to put too much into two hours on the screen. I started playing with it as a novel, and then that evolved. I went back to the Philippines to do some research for the novel, and I was riding around with Joel Torre, who became the lead in the movie, and we had become friends. We had got to talking to him about the movie business there and what things cost, and I realized that I could shoot a movie there for one third of what it would cost in the United States. If I can figure out something that takes place on a very small scale, I could make an interesting movie, and I thought about this phenomenon that happened during the Philippine American War. Because these village mayors were put between a rock and a hard place, hundreds if not thousands of them were killed by one side or the other. And I tell people that this is a situation that occurs not just in the Philippines, it happened in Nazi-occupied France and French-occupied Algeria. It happened in Vietnam. It’s happening now I’m sure in Afghanistan, where the local warlord has these two pressures. He has a technologically superior nation who can bomb the sh*t out of them saying, “We’ve taken over your village, now cooperate with us,” and close blood relatives who are in the resistance against that. How do you survive, and who do you serve? You’re bound to piss off one side, if not both.
What is it that attracts you to stories about the struggles of the oppressed, or people struggling against the larger agendas of corporations or governments?
The thing that’s interesting to me is the mental part of it. There is often a choice. Drama to me is when a character can go one way or the other, and you don’t know which way they are going to go. Especially in our movies, people don’t act heroically. You hope that they’ll make the right decision, but they don’t always, just like your friends or sometimes yourself. We made a movie called Limbo, and that movie for me was about the idea that more people are afraid of hell than are desirous of heaven because you have to take a risk to get to heaven, so they stay in limbo. That can be a bad marriage they stay in, that can be a job they hate, but often it’s an oppressive political or social situation. To stick your head up and protest against it is a real risk. How badly do people have to be treated before they take that risk? Our movie Matewan is about just how bad the situation had to be in the coal mines for white hillbillies, black miners from Alabama and immigrant miners from Italy and Yugoslavia to put down their racial prejudices against each other and fight together against the coal company bosses. Look at the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, where three ethnic groups that don’t really like each other in the recent past have massacred each other. When the Taliban came in, they formed the Northern Alliance. I’m interested in those type of situations where the definition of the word “we” gets changed. Who you decide will be your brother or your opponent, but also that moment when you decide, “I can’t take this anymore. What do I do?”
I’m also interested in what are we going to accept as the truth? [My film] Lone Star has a guy who is saying, “What is the truth, but what’s the accepted truth? I’m going to find out what really went on with my father, but that may be a legend that I don’t want to mess with, because, why mess his reputation up? Maybe he was a better guy than even I thought he was.” For the guy in Amigo, he has to decide, “Am I going to cooperate with my brother in the guerillas? Maybe we’ve already lost.’” At what point in a revolution or a cause do you start f*cking people up by holding out? Are you a traitor on Tuesday, when if you held out till Thursday, you were just being smart? That’s tough. People have had to make these decisions throughout human history. And then history may come around afterward and say, “Well, this guy was just a collaborator, and this guy was an Americanista and a placater and just looked after his own interests, but this guy over here who held out for five years is the true patriot.”
Do you ever think you’ll come to a point where you feel you’ve resolved your need to tell stories with political underpinnings?
That seems unlikely. It’s such a part of human existence. I actually think there’s a more than a 50/50 chance that I’ll never get to make a movie again. Quite honestly, it’s not that easy to get money together to make movies these days than it was when we started. It’s certainly harder than it was in the mid eighties, especially for us, since we have a track record that doesn’t include any platinum hits. Even when we make a movie now, it’s almost impossible to get it into an art theater these days.
Speaking of struggling to get films made, I heard an interview with Jeff Bridges where he said that the benefit that studios see in a first-time filmmaker is that they’ve never made a bad movie.
And to a certain extent, they don’t know how hard it is! I always say to young filmmakers that when you make your second film, you either have to pay people or get new friends, unlike your first film, where everybody’s working for free because it’s exciting for everybody, and you don’t know how much work it’s going to be.
Is Return of the Secaucus Seven a hard one to watch now, in terms of it being your first film?
Quite honestly, you look at it as a home movie. I work with so many of those people still, there are a few little kids in it who are now 34 years old and have kids of their own. I’m afraid it’s impossible to see some of your movies as movies anymore, but more like time capsules of actors you know, crew people you know, or places you were. But it’s very unlikely that I’ll get to do another movie, and if I do, it’s going to be very very low budget.
Do you find yourself saying that after every film you make at this point?
You’ll find most independent filmmakers say that. And what they know is that if they happen to get lucky and get a medium-sized hit, or even a big hit, they’ll get another couple of chances, but if they don’t, they’re just back to square one and they might as well be just coming out of film school and trying to make movies again, having done it for twenty years. I mean, it’s an expensive form of storytelling. I certainly have stories that I’ve written that I’d like to make and stuff like that, but you can’t think about your career as such very often, especially if you are an independent filmmaker. You try to make things, and almost none of the films I have made were made in the order they were written.
Matewan we made about seven years after I wrote it. Eight Men Out was made eleven years after I wrote the screenplay. You keep trying. All of a sudden, there might be an actor who can help get it made, or in the case of Eight Men Out, the company Orion who made it had already turned it down twice, then they changed their minds on the casting possibilities, and the producers had just made Desperately Seeking Susan for them, which had made a lot of money, so all of a sudden, those producers were not neophytes, but people who looked like maybe they had the magic touch.
Going back to your film Baby It’s You — is that where your relationship with Bruce Springsteen began?
Not with Bruce, but with Jon Landau. He had been his manager for a few years, I had been speaking with our producers Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne about the music and how mostly we’d be trying to get source music from 1955, 1960 when the movie is set. Getting music then was not as expensive as it is today. Putting that soundtrack together today would cost much more than the movie. But in those days it was still somewhat reasonable. There were a lot of publishing companies that held the rights to these songs. They hadn’t all been snapped up and consolidated into three or four publishing companies who charge a lot. What I had to do with the period songs that I was using was have a backup song, so I would go three deep so I’d have three choices. But then I said, you know, much of this story seems like a Bruce Springsteen song, including that it takes place in New Jersey. I’d figured I’d like to use some Springsteen songs in it – not coming out of the jukebox, but where it would be a great emotional underpinning for the scene that’s happening.
We contacted Jon Landau and said to him, here’s the deal: we know that he hasn’t had his songs in movies before, probably because he cares about how they are used, so we’ll go ahead and shoot the movie, we’ll cut the songs into it, and then you get to see the movie, so you don’t have to make a deal now, but after, consider whether you like the way it’s used and then maybe we’ll try to make a deal. They said, yeah, sure, go ahead. So we did. They saw it and apparently liked it because they said sure, great. Bruce Springsteen has always owned his own publishing, and I believe CBS Records owned the performance. They were very generous with the publishing side. That was the first connection. Then someone I was living with made a dance film for PBS, and she used some Bruce Springsteen’s songs, and PBS has a deal where you can pretty much use any song you want without paying the licensing fees that regular television pays. Through that, we got to meet Bruce. Then when he decided to start making rock videos, which became a part of the business you were expected to be in if you were putting records out, they got back in touch with us.
When you recall shooting the Springsteen videos, what’s the first thing that jumps into your head?
Well, certainly the first one [“Born in the U.S.A.”], I remember that Vietnam was still in people’s heads. I had actually gone to the 1980 Republican Convention to cover it for a magazine, and was struck by the whole “Morning in America” thing that Ronald Reagan did for his first nomination. And part of that was this idea that we didn’t lose in Vietnam, this kind of negation of that. “Let’s put that behind us.” So it was interesting that Bruce was not only opening his concerts with “Born in the U.S.A.”, which had that verse about his brother being killed in Vietnam and probably not for any good reason – the Viet Cong is still there and he’s gone. And he was very pointedly have American vets at the shows in a special section, some healthy but som e of them in wheelchairs, and many who were involved in organizations of veterans against the war, like Ron Kovic who wrote Born on the Fourth of July, and Bruce would introduce those guys. That struck me about that tour, and there was that weird thing of the Reagan people trying to co-opt the song, and him saying, “People, read the lyrics. This is not a celebration of unthinking patriotism, this is actually about thinking about that stuff, and that we’re not living up to our ideals.”
In the case of the “Born in the U.S.A.” video, the only real mandate we had was “This should be gritty,” and we do gritty. So we shot it in 16 millimeter, it was mostly documentary footage. Ernest Dickerson, who was Spike Lee’s cinematographer, actually had shot [Sayles’ film] Brother from Another Planet. We shot most of it in Jersey — we were living in Hoboken at the time — and we shot some of the Vietnamese neighborhood in L.A. For the concert footage, we shot four nights at whatever that venue is down by USC. They obviously wanted to use the record track for the video, but Bruce didn’t want to have to lip-synch to it for a performance in front of an audience. We just figured if he wears the same clothes night after night for at least that song and we shoot in from many different angles, maybe we’ll be able to rough synch it, and, you know, match the drummer, try to keep the same beat as the record. Bruce was not a guy who was having a rhythm machine drumming for him – every night it was something different, and that’s great! Every night, you get into the groove, and the song has a slightly different character than the night before. But the great thing was that we got to go to four Bruce Springsteen concerts! (laugh)
It looks like you shot film of some American troops for “Born in the U.S.A.” Where did you shoot that?
We got some National Guard guys in Jersey, yeah. (laugh) We shot that on a football field or something, having them go through their paces. And we went to the Vietnamese neighborhood in Los Angeles to shoot the child, because it was a part of the song.
The troops and the child are great contrasting images.
That was still heavily on our consciousness – the lessons of that war and the wounds of that war. They were in some of those songs. That why [the child] had to be a part of the montage of images. Each song is like each movie – it’s its own universe. Sometimes, even on the same album, a song takes you to a different place and needs a different tone and a different visual attack to it.
“Born in the U.S.A.” is interesting concert filmmaking because it doesn’t have many wide shots. It feels much more intimate.
The one thing true of his concerts at that time was he didn’t have a big screen. It was a fairly big hall, but what we were trying to do was not so much show the audience, but be as interspersed within the energy of the band, especially with Bruce’s performance of the song, and have a grittier look for the song than some big widescreen thing.
Where did the home movie stuff come from?
(Laughs) We shot that.
Really? The prom stuff too?
We did that. We shot some of that stuff at the Stone Pony as well. It was so loud – I think Alvin Lee was performing that night. We had to write on pieces of paper to communicate because Ernest and I couldn’t hear each other (laughs). And Michael Ballhaus shot with us. Michael had come in to shoot the second camera when we shot the concert footage for “Born in the U.S.A.”. He worked for Scorsese later [Ballhaus was director of photography on Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and The Departed]. He had shot a lot of Fassbinder’s movies, and had been my cinematographer on Baby It’s You. I had Ernest on ‘A’ camera and Michael on ‘B’, and what was great was that “Born in the U.S.A” was usually the first or second song they did on that tour, so we’d shoot, wrap and watch the rest of the concert.
For “I’m on Fire”, you have a storyline. How was that developed?
With “I’m On Fire,” it’s a very unusual song to get on the air, first of all. In Bruce Springsteen’s work, it reminds me most of “Because The Night”, which he didn’t even have on an album until he started doing compilation things later on. That song was always a highlight when he’d perform it, and it has a heat to it, a driving quality to it. And “I’m On Fire” is a really well-crafted song. It’s got a tone to it that is really kind of unique. For “I’m on Fire” and “Glory Days,” the songs are basically stories, and Bruce had some ideas on what the story in the videos would be. I tend to say that those are the only two movies I’ve made as a director for hire. I came up with shots and stuff like that, but Bruce had a real idea of what he wanted the video to be. They were good ideas, and they were fun to work on.
How did you know that Bruce would be such a good actor on camera?
I think the fact that he was interested and willing to do it made me feel comfortable with it. This is a guy who people have been trying to lasso and drag into the movies for years by that time. You’d have to talk to him about this, but he’d been resisting it. I think he really understood the character, and that’s a big thing with an actor. And he doesn’t have to talk much! It’s a brooding character in a brooding song. I think he really understood that about the guy. That part I wasn’t worried about. I never call people “non-actors,” I call them “new actors”. New actors understand one thing, and if they are storytellers and show up and say they think they can do this, that’s a good indication that they’re going to be okay. You’re not asking them to do something that they are not mentally prepared to do, and I think it came down to the fact that he really understood the character.
We never see the girl’s face in “I’m On Fire”. Was that your idea?
The song is so much in the character’s head that I didn’t think that she should be a character, that she should almost be iconic. So the legs belong to a model who we hired, and the voice is Maggie Renzi, who was the producer of the videos [she is also Sayles’ creative and life partner]. It’s a moody, moody song. So much of it is about the internal mood of this guy. I’d say my major contribution to it is that if Bruce Springsteen was going to play a character and have an entrance, it should be kind of a working-guy entrance, so I have him slide out from under the car. So many of his songs are about a social distance between people.
Which is also an interesting thematic element of some of your work.
Yes. And in the case of that song, I really felt like there’s so much distance between them that, let’s see iconic things. Let’s see her legs and a little bit of the clothing, this incredible car that she owns, and this house that she lives in, literally a “Mansion on the Hill” – it was a mansion overlooking Los Angeles – and realizing that, as much as there’s that physical heat I’m getting from the song, there is this gap. And that idea is something that Bruce had brought to us.
That moving shot over the bed is great. Did that take a while?
Not really. We were dealing with professionals. None of these videos took that long. They were fun to make. By the time we made “Glory Days”, the only problem with making them was that Bruce had gotten so famous, there were TV crews and telephoto lenses and fans and everybody trying to find out where we were shooting. So planning how to avoid them and just get your work done was a big part of the problem.
Most people think that the “Glory Days” video was shot at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, but that’s not true, right?
We actually didn’t shoot that one at the Stone Pony. We shot it in Hoboken. It might have been a room we got from Maxwell’s. They were about to go on tour, so for the band, it was like a rehearsal. I mean, for a film shoot, you do the song a bunch of times, and they were lip-synching, but kind of rehearsing. They hadn’t been on the road for months and months, and they were just about to leave on a tour, so I think in that way, it was fun for them. Kind of a kickoff, them thinking they’d be able to practice their chops while they do this. The kids in the video — I think they were nephews or nieces of someone. You’ll have to ask someone else about that.
The “Glory Days” character is basically this guy, and it’s about what happens to his dreams. It’s very personal, like a lot of his songs, so the character is thinking about himself as well. The story that Bruce had in his head is this guy alone on this ball field, thinking about his own past glory as a baseball player, whatever dreams he had. Then at the end, when the wife and kids show up in the distance, you realize this is a guy who does think about ‘what could have been,’ but he’s okay with what did happen. It’s not a dark story. Whereas with “I’m On Fire” – there’s a real kind of heat and darkness to it. It’s very unresolved in that way. I think “Glory Days” is a much more fun, rockin’ song. It’s got a real energy to it. It doesn’t end on a minor key or in a very dark way. There’s a kind of acceptance. When you are young there are all these paths you can take, and eventually, you have to choose one. And that’s not a song about somebody who chose the wrong path. There’s a nice resolution that is in keeping with the spirit and tone of the song.
As far as shooting music videos is concerned, this was an isolated moment in your career, because you never shot any more of them. Did you ever think you might want to shoot another one?
In my case, I have two jobs. To make the independent films I want to make, I have to write a lot of screenplays for people, so I really did have other things to do. It wasn’t something I pursued. Shortly after we worked with him, Bruce had a video crew go with him to shoot when he started playing those bigger venues. They started having a video screen, and they did a very very nice job of moving the cameras around so the people way in the back could really see the players. It wasn’t like I was the house videographer. Also, I feel like there’s a certain talent to it, and some of those guys who started doing rock videos have gone on to become feature directors, but I think the talent is closer to making commercials in that there may be a storytelling element to it, but it’s really about making a very short iconic statement. In the case of me working with Bruce, he’s a storyteller, and those videos are storytelling videos. They’re narrative. An awful lot of videos aren’t narrative at all. They just find an interesting visual technique, or technical trick, or costume, or setting, and the band does their song. And that’s almost anti-narrative. So I really feel that sometimes the videos work because the concept worked. Sometimes the song is not even the best song by that group, but the concept and the song came together in such a way that the song took off because of the video. In the same way that you remember a commercial but you might not necessarily remember the product. So sometimes because of the video, that marriage of visual concept and song was so visually interesting, there are a few groups you think of because of their video, not their song.
As you know, we recently saw the passing of E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, which is such a massive loss to that band.
It’s interesting. One of the things that first struck me about Bruce Springsteen’s music was that saxophone in there. Our last movie before Amigo was Honeydripper, and we got to work with Eddie Shaw, who is a saxophone player who was Howlin’ Wolf’s sax man. That movie is set in 1950, and what you see is that in 1953 or 1954, the saxophone disappeared from rock and roll. Some of what the movie is about that transition, that battle between Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry basically started taking his piano player Jimmy Johnson’s part and transposing it onto the guitar, and as the guitar became electrified, it could now blast out sound and become the lead instrument. With a piano acoustically, if you just hit the keys hard, you could take over. So in early rock and roll – you can call it rock and roll but it was called rhythm and blues in those days — the two big instruments were the piano and the saxophone, and very often a conversation between the two. If there was a guitar, it was off to the side somewhere. All of a sudden, with the advent of the electric guitar, and then within a year or so, the electric bass, the blues could become the pounding part of rock and roll. The piano became very secondary and just disappeared from rock music for a while. Jerry Lee was doing it, but it became rarer and rarer, and the saxophone disappeared altogether. So one of the things that always struck me about Bruce and the E Street Band was that he had two keyboard players and he had that sax. When they’d play, there was a history of early rock and roll there, available at his fingertips, in the concerts and especially in the albums. He could just tap into those roots. People kind of overlook how good a guitar player Bruce is, also, because he’s got such good guys around him, especially when he added Nils Lofgren. I’m not sure how conscious this was, but having a black man playing a wailing rhythm and blues sax, it’s an allusion to where that music comes from. I’m sure that wasn’t conscious – Clarence was in the group because he sounded great! He was a great guy, brought a great energy to the band, not only on stage.
It’s hard to imagine how they’ll handle Clarence’ absence since his sax was such a part of the band’s signature sound.
When you see a good band, there’s a dynamic to it, and bands go through personnel changes. I was just listening to Keith Richards’ book on tape, and what you realize is that the Rolling Stones have survived because enough of the original elements are still there, and when they’ve had to change something else, they’ve gotten good players and interesting players, but it’s a slightly different band. When you make those changes, like when Danny Federici [E Street Band keyboard player] died, things change. I think Bruce understands that it’s not the same band if you don’t have the same players. You don’t replace someone like Clarence. What’s been my experience with each new album Bruce puts out is seeing where the music takes him. He commits to whatever he is doing. He doesn’t do anything half-heartedly. Also, Bruce carries an incredible song list with him. I’m sure once or twice a night they’re playing something they hadn’t played in a while. You’ve got to have a band that’s really together to pull that off.
What made you go back to him for a song for your film Limbo [Springsteen wrote and contributed the song “Lift Me Up”]?
That goes back to finding someone who understands the character that they are playing. One of my main characters is this not-very-successful singer up in Alaska, and she knows she’s good, but she knows that she’s never going to get to be Bonnie Raitt or Lucinda Williams, and she sings covers mostly. There’s a nice section of dialogue where she talks about every once in a while, once a night maybe, there’s a song where how she feels and how the audience feels all comes together – these moments of grace. I thought of Bruce, and how he could do concerts on automatic pilot if he wanted to, but every night goes out and tries to find those moments of grace. He tries to connect with the audience that night, in that moment, time after time after time. He, at least, understands that character. And he understands the bigger thing, the idea of limbo, the idea of people living in limbo – the fear of hell being greater than the desire for heaven. Could be a bad relationship, a job they hate, a political situation where if you stick your head up you might get it cut off. What does it take to take the emotional risk? That’s the theme of a lot of Bruce songs.
By the time you approached him about Limbo, it had been quite a while since you’d worked together. Had you stayed in touch?
Every once in a while, we’d call them up if we were going to be in the same place at the same time. We saw him play in Milan, we saw him in Denver. We thought a song for this film was something he’d be good at, and I believe it was a song he’d already been playing with a bit. Also, he’d been doing an acoustic tour, and he was able to sing in that falsetto. I just loved it right away when I got the tape. It was a nice thing for him to do — he came and watched the movie and all. I think he’s got about a dozen songs in some form or order he’s working on at any given time. He writes constantly, and it was an associative thing where he thought that hey, this song might fit. It hit the mood, and it was so perfect, we modulated the sound of the airplane that segues into the song into the key of that song. It made a nice transition.
To me, it’s always interesting to see an artist in one medium work in another. I had done a pilot called “Shannon’s Deal,” and the producer had gotten Wynton Marsalis to do the music for it. This was just when Wynton was starting to get well known, and it was unusual to be using jazz for a TV show. He hadn’t done any scoring at that point. I went to that first session where they were recording the music for the first episode. I saw this learning curve where he was just watching the scene, and by the second cue, he understands that he’s playing with these guys, the cast on the screen. This wasn’t about making a song that everyone’s going to be humming the next day. Part of the song has already been written up there on the screen. Just to see those players in that situation is always interesting to me.
You seem to have explored music’s onscreen possibilities more than your average filmmaker. What is it about music that you connect to? Did you grow up listening to music?
I had a transistor radio and I’d stay up late at night. You’d get stations at night you couldn’t get during the day. And the local stations played pretty good stuff. I’ve been writing something based on this book Girls Like Us, about Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell and Carol King. At one point, Carole King’s husband was a guy who played in a group called The Myddle Class that had a version of “Wake Me Shake Me” that only played on a couple of radio stations, and one of them was my local radio station. I listened to whatever I could hear, I didn’t really have the money to buy a lot of records, but I listened to whatever was on the air. And because we had relatives in the South, we used to drive down there, so I used to listen to a lot of country and western. I was an Elvis guy when I was a little kid. Because I didn’t read music magazines and I was just listening, I didn’t know that one type was called country and western, one type was called rhythm and blues, and one type was called rock and roll, it was just music. I liked stuff from pretty much every genre that I was hearing.
For me, there’s this funny alchemy. When the composer on sixteen or seventeen films of mine and I get together, one of the first things I do is send him the script and we start talking about what the music will sound like. It might be very obvious, like in the case of Matewan, we agreed that we had to get [bluegrass pioneer] Hazel Dickens to sing on the soundtrack. We got him to play a character and sing on camera. But we also agreed that we have to take the banjo out. The banjo, because of its association with Flatt & Scruggs and Bonnie and Clyde, was just wrong for the tone of the movie. I figured that if we can eliminate that happy tone from the vocabulary of the music, we can get that dark nature to come through. You know, more moody hill music, not the foot stomping hill music. Another example is something like zydeco music that works in a film like Passion Fish, so there might be something that’s obvious. Another one is that for Limbo, we listened to a lot of Neil Young, but didn’t use any. For Sunshine State, we listened to a lot of Lynrd Skynyrd but only ended up using one song, and we agreed that it wasn’t a Jimmy Buffett, Redneck Riviera type of movie. So what we do is think, what is the music going to do and what is the tone of the movie? You want music that seems like it could be in the same universe, definitely. A lot of it is establishing a musical vocabulary. Sometimes it’s not even picking a genre of music, it’s picking instruments. Ry Cooder does this very, very well. He finds a key when he scores a movie, and the movie pretty much stays in that key. Obviously, Paris Texas is the most famous example – because all the jeans commercials ripped it off!
I often talk about the differences between fiction and movies because I do both. One of the main differences is if you are writing fiction, you can get people to feel things and know things and get them excited and all that, but it has to go through their head first. They have to read it, digest it, and then it produces whatever emotions it does. Movies do that, but they work on a totally visceral level, and Akira Kurosawa called music something that causes a multiplier effect, and that means when the music is right, in increases the emotion. It doesn’t overpower the scene. It doesn’t tell you what to feel, certainly the way I use it, but it increases your emotion and it informs your emotion. It might even be ironic, but it’s a part of the emotion, and it’s visceral. So a lot of the alchemy of choosing a song for a scene is that you cut the scene to it, or you put the music in the scene later and try to cut it. Sometimes you thought it was the perfect song, and it’s just too much and draws attention away from the scene because it’s too good a song, the lyrics are too interesting, whatever, or other times it just makes the scene drag, or it’s hurrying the scene up too much. Very often you just keep going with trial and error, trial and error. Martin Scorsese is a master of this. He’ll pay fifty thousand dollars for something to go with the kitchen door opening or something (laughs).
It’s hard to top DeNiro coming into the bar in Mean Streets to “Jumping Jack Flash”.
Or “Mickey’s Monkey” or any of that stuff. And so for me sometimes you have a song first, and you’ll even play it on the set. ‘Wooly Bully’ was like that for Baby It’s You, and I was blasting it, so the kids are really moving in the halls to that song, they’re energized by that when we’re shooting, and even after the song shuts off and the scene dialogue starts, they’ll still be energized by it. There’s a scene where Vincent Spano enters the cafeteria and the vice-principal, who is his arch enemy, enters from the other side, and you realize that they are going to have a confrontation. There was no dialogue until they actually face off, so I played “Don’t Mess With Bill”. I had it in the cut until the final cut of the movie, but then I felt that it was just too ‘on the nose’. They’re basically dancing and moving to “Don’t Mess With Bill”. I think that once there were talkies, it became such an essential part of filmmaking, and I think Scorsese deserves the credit of taking it out of the Max Steiner style, and using popular music in an emotional way, rather than just what’s on the jukebox.