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'Sunshine' of their lives

John Sayles has directed 13 movies in the last 22 years, 11 of them produced by his wife, Maggie Renzi. They span a remarkable range of subject matter, from the sci-fi humor of "The Brother From Another Planet" to the baseball drama "Eight Men Out" to the coal-miners of "Matewan" to the Irish folk tale "The Secret of Roan Inish" to the buried secrets of "Lone Star." And find the link between "Passion Fish," "Limbo," "Return of the Secaucus Seven" and "Men with Guns," which he shot in Spanish in Latin America. And how do they connect with "Sunshine State," his new film about a resort community in turmoil in Florida?

They do all have one thing in common: They were written, directed and edited exactly as he thought they should be. He has no complaints about studio interference. He is the complete independent director, self-starting, autonomous, one-stop shopping. His career is like a rebuke to directors who complain they can't get their dream films off the ground.

"Sunshine State," the new film, stars Edie Falco of "The Sopranos" and Oscar nominee Angela Bassett. It has as usual a cast of name actors willing to work for scale to film with Sayles: Jane Alexander, Ralph Waite, Timothy Hutton, Mary Alice, Mary Steenburgen, even Alan King. They'll get paid more if the movie makes money, and the funny thing is, Sayles' movies usually do make money, because he makes them for a reasonable cost.

The story involves a Florida island where Falco runs her father's motel and restaurant and hates every minute of it, and Mary Alice lives in a once-posh African-American beach town and meets her daughter (Bassett) for the first time since the girl got pregnant in her teens and was sent north to quiet the scandal. Now developers are circling the island like jackals, seeking to buy property to build new high-rises.

This is a textbook example of the kind of project that could not be financed within the studio system. For Sayles and Renzi, it was business as usual.

"We make them for less than anybody else does at our age and with our experience," Maggie Renzi tells me. We're sitting in their suite at the Ritz-Carlton. "We don't have to hit home runs."

She's small sitting on the sofa next to John, his Lincolnesque face framed by the sideburns turning grey.

"What we do," Sayles says, "is come in saying: 'Here's the negotiation. We've made X number of movies; they've all come in on budget; they've all gotten a theatrical release so you're gonna get up to the plate, It's not going to run away and cost more than we're telling you it's going to cost. Here's the screenplay; it'll be very close to this. It may be a little shorter but I'm not gonna rewrite on the set, and the script is finished--which is, you know, rare these days'."

His eyes are focused now on an standard-issue executive across an imaginary desk at a hypothetical studio, "'Assume that you will know nobody in the cast. But we have been getting some really nice casting and there may be some good news for you as far as selling this. Are you interested?' And their answer is often no. But one thing is, it's a good quick no these days. We get our phone calls answered very quickly. Young filmmakers can wander in the world for two years before somebody says, 'Well, we're still not quite sure.' They're waiting for them to get Sean Penn or whoever's hot, Vin Diesel."

The executives want the big names even if they're wrong for the part, Sayles says. He believes in getting the right actor. If they have a name, that's a bonus."

Maggie picks up. "We ask actors to work for us for scale, to live in the same kind of accommodation as everybody else, which is not a suite. We don't even give them a car and they sure don't get a trailer. They get a holding area. And the ones who say 'no' should say 'no,' because they're not going to be happy. But the ones who say 'yes' have self-selected, so we get a group of actors who have a ball with each other."

"Who wanna be there," Sayles says,

"Who wanna be there," says Renzi. "And the same thing happened with Tom Bernard and Michael Barker at Sony Classics. They wanted this film with us in charge of it, with the result that they got it. So there wasn't ever any arguing about it. I mean, we told them we were hoping to get Edie and Angela and in very short order, we got Edie and Angela. And after that..."

"She's hot right now, Edie Falco is," I say.

"You know what?" Renzi says. "People love her; I mean, they just like the woman."

"They feel bad for her character on 'The Sopranos'," Sayles says. "Your plots are all over the map," I say. "Ireland, New Jersey, Alaska, Florida, Texas, South America, the coal mines, the big city, the baseball diamond, Louisiana...and you write them yourself, so it's not like you're buying stories from all over."

"I think about things and I start to see some kind of pattern, something that's happening in the world," Sayles says. "And then it just seems to coalesce. In one case, 'Secret of Roan Innish,' was something that Maggie had read when she was 10 years old. As for Florida, this picture: I've been going to Florida since I was four years old. My mother's parents live there and I knew the Miami area before, during and after the Cuban Revolution and then branched out and saw different parts of the state. And then the last time I was out there, I was just blown away. It wasn't there anymore. It had changed so much. I started thinking, well, maybe that's what I should make the movie about."

"Sunshine State," surprised me, I said, by not doing the conventional things. In a conventional movie, it would have been about the battle of Edie Falco the motel diner owner's daughter against the encroachments of big business. But she's had it with running that damned diner.

"It's not her dream," Sayles said, "What was the dream for one generation doesn't necessarily mean that much to the next generation. You almost can't expect it to. For Ralph Waite's character [Edie's father, who built the motel], it was a huge deal for him to get out of the pulp mill. Out of all the generations of turpentine camp workers. Now he's a business owner, he belongs to the Chamber of Commerce. His daughter grew up with that, hated working there, and that's not her dream at all.

"And take Mary Alice's character. Angela Bassett's mother. She comes from that upper middle black class who had cotillions and stuff but there was also that feeling that they had to act well because the white people were watching and the black people were watching. Angela's from another generation. She doesn't share the ambition, or the fears."

I guess you feel that the developers are gonna come in and destroy the landscape and destroy the community, I said. Yet they're not painted as monolithic. They're kind of ineffectual, disorganized.... "The only guys who actually are powerful," Sayles said, "are those guys on the golf course."

He's talking about Alan King and three other old guys who play golf and philosophize and seem like genial duffers.

"There are a lot of earthlings," he said, "a lot of mere mortals, and there are a few guys who have that inside knowledge. Who know what the deal is. In 'Chinatown' it was John Huston's character. In 'Once Upon A Time in the West,' it was the guy who knew where the railroad was going. Here, it's them."

One interesting character, I said, is Tim Hutton's architect, who begins by appearing to be the outsider who's gonna come in and move everybody out, and ends up just being moved out himself. He's as powerless as his victims and next week he's gonna be someplace else.

"You get into the fact," Sayles said, "that this is a talented guy and he has something that he loves and believes in but it's part of a larger system that has no morals. He's like a guy who wants to make good pictures but works for the studios."

So there isn't clear-cut good and evil here, I said.

"One of the most interesting ones for me," Renzi said, "is Jane Alexander [Edie's mother], who is a woman who still shows up at the Audubon meeting to protect the birds. But she considers that the land that her husband's motel is on is already blighted. To her, saving the motel is meaningless. She hates it. So what I like to think is that she'll hold him up for all that money and write bigger checks than ever to the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Clubs and whatever."

"But she's kinda given up on nature," Sayles said. "Oh, she hasn't given up on nature!" Maggie says. "She goes every day to take care of the poor birds."

"But she realizes that it's a park," he says. "It's nature on a leash, and there may be some little raw pieces where she's gonna try to maintain the habitat..."

"She's very sophisticated," she says.

"People are big and nature is small here," he says, "unlike Alaska, where nature is still big and people are still small."

"It's so like John," says Maggie, "to see the good side of the developers."

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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