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A filmmaker with 'Passion'

Things might be easier, John Sayles sometimes thinks, if he were just starting out--if he had no track record. Then investors might be quicker to roll the dice by putting money into one of his movies. But he's made eight films, establishing himself as a leading (but not often profitable) independent director, and that makes it harder. That's why the success of his newest film, "Passion Fish," comes as such a relief.

"My track record," Sayles was explaining, "is like this. I've made eight films. None of the previous seven has grossed over $20 million. The average Hollywood film now costs over $20 million. So to somebody looking at the bottom line, what that says is, lightning is not likely to strike in this place."

And yet lightning has struck with "Passion Fish," the story of a touchy relationship between a paralyzed actress and her live-in companion. The movie is performing strongly at the box office, and seems likely to win Academy Award nominations for Mary McDonnell, who plays a bitter accident victim, and Alfre Woodard, the black woman who puts up with her because she needs the job.

For Sayles, talking during a recent visit to Chicago, the movie comes just in time. He received probably the best reviews of his career for his previous film, "City Of Hope," which starred Nicholas Cage in a network of stories about crime and corruption in a New Jersey city, but the movie did poorly at the box office before turning into a hit on video. That was the latest in Sayles' series of critical hits with uneven box office records, such as "Return of the Secaucus Seven," "Lilianna," "Brother from Another Planet," "Eight Men Out" and "Matewan."

Yet Sayles keeps plugging along, making uncompromising films, often from a left-wing point of view, and financing their roughly $3 million budgets by acting in other people's movies. (His latest performance, which opened Friday, was in the John Goodman comedy "Matinee;" he's the tall, lanky stooge working for the sleazy exploitation sci-fi producer.) Now comes "Passion Fish," which also opened on Friday, and matches good performances with a depth of writing which makes even the supporting characters seem to have rich lives of their own.

The movie first opened in December and January in New York and Los Angeles, to qualify for Academy recognition, and then it was supposed to close again until late January. But it made a number of year-end Best Ten lists, and business was good enough in those theaters that Miramax, the distributor, decided to keep it running all the way to the national opening date.

Sayles thinks the Oscar hopes for McDonnell and Woodard are better because both have been nominated before--McDonnell for "Dances with Wolves," Woodard for "Cross Creek"--and because their performances are strong in a generally weak field.

"First of all," he said, "they are outstanding performances. So that helps. And it wasn't a particularly strong year for woman's parts in American films. Looking at the usual suspects--the women who have been nominated numbers of times--some of them didn't get to work at all, and some of them didn't work in strong films or get very good parts to play."

If the film does win a couple of nominations, it will be helped more than the typical big-budget film might be. "For a film like ours, which is not going to have a $10 to $15 million advertising budget, getting an Oscar nomination legitimizes the film in the eyes of the mass audience. It's free advertising. Just put the Oscar in the ad. So, yes, there a cold financial aspect, but you hope there's also part that's fun. I love the Oscars. I get together with my friends and everybody says nasty things about people's dresses and the movies they didn't like, and we cheer for our favorites."

Sayles writes most of his own films, and "Passion Fish" was inspired by his own experiences. In the film, McDonnell plays a New York soap opera actress who is hit by a taxicab and paralyzed from the waist down. After rehabilitation, she returns to her family home in the bayou country of Louisiana, and goes through a string of paid companions before finally settling on Alfre Woodard. McDonnell's character does not adjust cheerfully to her new state, and sits around brooding on negative thoughts and sipping on white wine. Woodard will take only so much--which leads to a struggle of wills between the two strong women.

"I worked as an orderly in hospitals and nursing homes for several years," Sayles told me, "and I had a lot of nurse friends who would moonlight as home-care companions. I got fascinated by the relationships between people who spend eight, ten, twenty hours at a time together, and yet don't necessarily have anything in common. They're stuck together; one needs the job and the other needs the care. Often it's a power relationship--one has the power to hire and fire and the one has the power of being physically able to get up and leave the room. And that balance of power might switch during the day. It's not just upstairs/downstairs; downstairs can become upstairs at some point."

In a typical TV disease-of-the-week docudrama, the two women would be best friends by the end of the first act. But it doesn't work that way in "Passion Fish." Sayles writes particularly characters and is true to them.

"Even at the end of the movie," he said, "even though the women are almost to the point where they're friendly with each other, Chantal (Woodard) still hasn't told May-Alice she's having a romance. There are things she keeps private; there are things May-Alice keeps private from her. So although they are helpful to each other, they are still very distinct people. It doesn't end with an embrace and a freeze frame."

Surrounding the two women is a gallery of well-written supporting actors: A gay uncle, two gaggles of friends, a son, and a local handyman (David Strathairn) who May-Alice had a crush on in high school. Each is onscreen only briefly, but somehow has a role much deeper than the screen time would seem to indicate.

"I think some of the depth in my writing comes from having been an actor," he said. "When I finish a screenplay, I look at every part as if I had to act it, and ask, is there enough here to be a three-dimensional character? Or could it use maybe one more line or one more relationship or one more indication? No matter what your part is, you have to believe that you have a life outside of the movie. When a supporting character walks offscreen, we should feel like it would be neat if the camera could follow him, and see what he's up to next." The secret of "Passion Fish," he said, is that the movie isn't really about paralysis or paid companions or any of the surface things. It's about the personalities of the two women.

"Using science fiction for 'Brother From Another Planet,' was a way to get the story into Harlem; it was a way into what's basically a very naturalistic story. The paralysis in Mary's case and the drug addiction in Alfre's case is a way into getting these characters together. The story is about their personalities, not their disabilities. This isn't a movie that finds happy solutions. Mary doesn't walk at the end of it. You don't overcome being a paraplegic; you learn how to live with it. But even more important, you're the same person before and after.

"Preparing for the role, Mary worked with a woman who had been a nurse and is now a paraplegic and she said, 'Well, yeah, here's all the mechanical stuff I'll show you--but let me tell you, if you've got problems before you're hurt, you're gonna have the same problems after, and they're just gonna be a little bit worse."

A lot of the point of Mary's character is she had hit a dead-end before she got run over by a taxicab. She'd had a bad marriage; her career had stalled before it got to her dream; she was getting a little cynical about that. She had gotten to be this bitter, tough, agitated, aggressive New Yorker even before she was hit by a taxi. That's what forces her back into Louisiana--where all of a sudden, a person who would be totally acceptable in New York doesn't fit any more. At one point she says, 'Then how did I get this way?' It wasn't by being run over by a taxi, it was other things, other choices she made, other things that happened to her."

Sayles films have often taken a left-wing viewpoint, as in "Matewan," the story of a bitter labor strike, or "Return of the Secaucus Seven," which preceded "The Big Chill" and was a similar story of friends from the 1960s holding a reunion; the friends were more political in the Sayles version.

You'll have a better chance of getting invited to dinner at the White House now than you've had for a while, I told him.

He smiled. "And a much better chance that I would accept the invitation."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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