From the archives!
Here is my interview with writer/director John Sayles, first published in June, 1996.
In the latest film by Independent filmmaker John Sayles, a skeleton – unearthed after a 30-year rest – leads sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) on a deeply disturbing dig into his own past. In the process he also finds out a great deal more than he expected, unearthing a few metaphorical skeletons that lie under the surface of the sleepy Texan border town called Frontera where he and his family have always lived. Also in his search Sam manages to recover a lost love – exquisitely portrayed by Elizabeth Peña – but the countrywide network of graft and corruption ultimately closes in on them.
To tell his tale, Sayles has woven a layered and multi-generational drama and history from the lives of three key characters: an Anglo-American sheriff, a Mexican-American teacher and an African-American Army officer. Says Sayles, “Part of my idea in making LONE STAR was to treat the culture of the border as one large, dysfunctional family.”
When two off duty sergeants find skeletal remains and a rusty sheriff’s badge on an abandoned rifle range, Frontera’s current sheriff, Sam Deeds, son of the late legendary Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughy), begins an investigation. Sam soon learns that these are the remains of a corrupt sheriff his father was reputed to have run out of town, Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson).
Sam’s hostile relationship with his aggressive father had driven him out of Frontera and it was only after the old man’s death that he returned to fill his shoes. Indeed, Sam’s quest is only one of the many plot-lines that enrich this vivid tale.
John Sayles is a subtle, patient craftsman. He knows that for great fiction that is rooted in history, you have to have a great deal more than a string of throwaway lines. Sayles also has a gift for gently demonstrating the eerie strangeness that lurks beneath the dusty, bland surfaces of everyday life. He also employs a graceful camera technique to effortlessly drift from the present day to the past and back again.
Most evident in his work is a non-didactic, liberal political consciousness that gives dignity to all creeds. Here Sayles has presented a fairly sympathetic portrayal of the Mexican plight and I was wondering how that goes down with American audiences today?
“One of the things that LONE STAR is about, to me, is the way in which American culture has always, always been many cultures. As in many places, the dominant culture gets to write the history. That border story is very old. The Mexican border wasn’t even closed until about 1930. Mexicans could come into the United States and work and go back and there was no border patrol. But during the Great Depression there was this idea that Mexicans were taking jobs that other people wanted to have so a lot of Mexican- Americans and Mexicans were deported. Anybody with a Mexican name was rounded up and put over the other side. To me, one of the things that makes the United States an interesting and good place is that there are so many cultures and different languages and people who come from different places and bring something to the mix.”
Sayles adds that when the economy is bad, as it is in the States, then there is fear and that fear can quickly become something that is a little fascistic.
But the question must be posed: historically, did the deportation of the Mexicans during the Depression actually open up jobs for so-called true Americans’?
“Probably in some places it did but not near the border. One thing that is interesting about the Texas-Mexican border is that the culture on both sides, the majority of the people are and always were Spanish speaking. One of the reasons I was interested in setting this movie on the border is that here is this arbitrary, artificial line. What’s happened over the 150 years that it’s been there is that the two cultures have started to separate. Mexican culture and Mexican-American culture are not the same thing anymore.”
He adds, “You get a character like Mercedes, who owns the restaurant, who is a Mexican-American and who says, I don’t want these wet-backs on my lawn,’ even though when she was a girl, she was in that same river crossing.”
Sayles film touches on and hopes to shed light on a battle over culture that is still today raging in the United States even within Presidential politics, as well as all over the world. His idiosyncratic insight into complex characters and interwoven lives has never been used to more effect than in this excellent, mature film. Along with the Coen Brothers, Mike Leigh, Cameron Crowe and Jan Sardi and Scott Hicks, Sayles has been nominated for Oscar for best original screenplay. All bets are on.