“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 2]

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Continued from “Part 1” here.

Your characters in Secaucus 7 are very natural; it’s as though you knew them like friends. I’d like to know how you developed your characters, how you chose them, and how you made them come alive.

I don’t really remember writing the picture. I wrote that in two weeks. But I sort of had the idea in my head beforehand. I wrote a few of the parts for actors who I knew I wanted to use. They weren’t those actors, they weren’t playing themselves, but I said, What can I write for David that he would have fun doing? I’d start writing this character. What can I write for Maggie that she would have fun doing? Another character. As the story started to fill out, I wanted to balance certain things, so I’d write another character. And then the trick in the directing was, I wanted to have that great luxury of the screenwriter, to tell them to say what I’d written and not paraphrase it or anything like that. There was no improvisation in the film. Even the charades game was totally scripted. Even the little one-liners and sound effects—not the ums and ers, but everything was scripted.

The problem was to get actors to realize that it might not feel like acting, what they were doing, but it was. What helped in that respect was that we got a very good crew and the crew was interested in the story. They weren’t interested in just picking up their checks. They helped the atmosphere of the filming. They were living with us, with the actors. They were interested in the acting, the actors were interested in the technical part. So it wasn’t a question of an actor sitting in a Winnebago getting a call and then walking in front of a bunch of technicians whose names he doesn’t really know and trying to act naturally. It was a situation where you were living with people. You knew them, you would be talking with them one minute, I’d say “OK, let’s get this thing going, get in front of the cameras.” I’d talk to them and they’d start behaving almost more than acting. Most of my directions were to get things more relaxed, lower-key, less dramatic—”No acting, please.” There was acting, and only because most of them were very, very good actors could they get that feeling of making up lines that were totally scripted. And that’s real hard to do—to act in an almost documentary style when all your training says, “You have to take the text and bring it alive.”

I’m beginning to get an image of you writing like Hunter S. Thompson. Do you lock yourself up for two weeks with a bunch of speed? How do you do a screenplay in only two weeks?

I don’t drink, for one thing. I write fast. Usually if I don’t get something the first draft, I’m in trouble. I write longhand or type without punctuation the first draft, and then the only rewriting it gets before I send it in is when I type it in the final version. It might take time while I’m writing it to think it. Before I type it out finally, I read it out loud, even the stage directions. But I just write fast, and I carry things around in my head before I start writing. Sometimes I carry things in my head for a couple of months. I don’t have that luxury sometimes when I’m writing for hire, especially on rewrites.

My first novel I wrote in bus stations, on people’s floors, in about twenty different places. I can tune out. I can write pretty much anyplace because once I get into the story, that’s as real a place as anywhere else, so I just sorta tune out where I am and I get into that story and I carry it around and people ask me things and I say, “Huh?” It’s never been a problem for me. Other people have a harder time or have to take more time. I’m lucky that way. It meant that I could finish the film within a year because I was able to juggle three scripts at one time-that is, do a rewrite on Battle Beyond the Stars, and do Howling and Alligator at the same time, and a TV-movie to pay for the lab costs. I had this slightly embarrassing thing of meeting this agent, and I thought that nobody knew I was doing three scripts, but it turned out that this agent represented all three of the directors that I was writing for. He asked me if I was represented, because he knew I was making all this money working on three scripts and he wanted to get in on it.

Could you talk about the TV-movie? How did you come to do that, and was it different from the world of features?

The made-for-television movie was a thing called Perfect Match. It was written for Lorimar and CBS aired it a couple weeks ago. It came on opposite Jaws and The End, so it didn’t get as good a rating as it should have. It turned out OK. The producer had read something that I had written—I don’t know what anymore. He wanted to hire me. I had written at that time four features that were either made or in the process of being made. He brought me this true story. It was what is known in TV business as a “crip flick”: somebody spends some time in a hospital during it. In this case it was a young girl who, when she was 16, gave up her child for adoption; when she turns 32 she develops aplastic anemia and needs a bone-marrow transplant, has to find her adopted daughter, and when she finds her the daughter hasn’t been told she’s adopted. They brought me that true story and then they just let me loose.

The main hangup was that CBS wouldn’t let them hire me. It took them three months of negotiating because I wasn’t on their list; I didn’t have a “TVQ,” I didn’t have a TV credit. CBS said, “Why don’t you use so-and-so, why don’t you use so-and-so?'” The producer was very good; it was his first TV-movie but he was willing to wait three months and dicker on with them. He actually took a beating—not a beating, but he lost some of his points in the film because he wanted me to write it. And he held out for the actors, too. They wanted to use people with much more TV-visibility than he wanted. He held out and it paid off, in both the script—if I might say so—and the acting.

The other problem was that after I wrote it and liked it a lot and was off the picture—Lorimar had promised us that we could set it in San Francisco, so I wrote it specifically for San Francisco, very specifically. The network said, “We’re only going to give you a million-two to make the picture instead of a million-six.” They had to cut back on the budget and they said, “You have to shoot it in Los Angeles. We’re not going to let you go up to San Francisco.” I was off doing other projects and a new producer, a new executive producer, was put on it at Lorimar, who was the guy who was the executive producer of Dallas and Knot’s Landing, who’s used to rewriting every script that crosses his desk. Having to set it now in Los Angeles gave him the excuse to start rewriting it. There was nothing I could do about it. There’s about 20 percent of it that I didn’t write: about ten percent out of that 20 percent is passable, and the other ten percent makes me cringe—it’s really bad. I was able to talk the producer and director into cutting some of those scenes; they had to cut some of it anyway because of length.

When you’re dealing with TV, you’re lucky if anything that you wrote … I don’t know, in all my meetings with TV, I’ve found the people much more impossible than feature people, even people who make exploitation pictures. The pressure in TV to conform to network standards in this and that and the other thing, and not to upset the audience, and all those kinds of things, is so much stronger than in a feature. They don’t want to gamble. More often than not, in low-budget pictures, those guys are gamblers; they aren’t going to sit over your shoulder. So I had a pretty good experience with the director and producer [of the TV-movie], but the network took things out of all of our hands occasionally.

Do you take into account that there will be commercial breaks when you’re writing a TV-movie? Do you plan for that rhythmically—”Put the break here”?

I talked to the director and I said, “Do you want me to write the commercial breaks or don’t you?” and he said, “Naw, don’t bother with that, we’ll find ’em.” And he found ’em, and they weren’t that bad.

Did you pick up any bad habits from journalism that you had to destroy before you could learn to write scripts?

I didn’t do any journalism until after I had written scripts. I’ve done very little. I hate it. There’s something I don’t like about going up to people and asking them questions that I wouldn’t ask them if I was just a person and not a reporter. What I don’t like about it is, they answer me, and I wish they wouldn’t sometimes. I wish they would have sometimes the integrity, or not be impressed by the media, enough to say “Fuck off!” This year I went down to—Atlantic sent me—I’m writing a novel about Cuban exiles, and so they. sent me down during the Freedom Flotilla thing. I tried to speak Spanish, and my Spanish isn’t very good; but I found enough people who could translate and get the thing across, and I talked to a lot of refugees. I wrote a piece and they didn’t publish it quick enough and the story got old so they didn’t run it.

The other thing that I did, New Republic sent me to the Republican Convention. I started interviewing people, and they were so wary of the news media that they gave me very political answers, very .guarded answers; and this was right down to 15-year-old girls who I was asking, “Why are you wearing a STOP THE E.R.A. button?” They had been warned not to talk to reporters, or what to say, so I couldn’t get anything genuine out of people. I ended up writing the article by walking around and eavesdropping. I can remember a page or two of dialogue verbatim for about half an hour. I’d walk around, hear a conversation, write it down, and so the whole article is written basically as if I’d had a tape recorder, and I just edited it. It came out to be one of the best articles I’d written. Journalism, the only bad habits I think that you can get into is doing it at all, ’cause I don’t like it.

Did you use a union crew on Secaucus 7?

No, I couldn’t afford a union crew. My literary agent at that time—who has since quit the business and gone to be a fish-farmer in Maine—grew up with a guy who was an assistant sound man for a small commercial industrial-film outfit in Boston that had shot a lot of 16 but never done a feature. I got in contact with them. They hired their rival three-man team from across town who had also shot a lot of 16, and they formed our crew: we had a seven-man crew who had never done a feature before but had shot a lot of film and were technically very proficient, and who were willing to work for about half what they usually would, in order to have a feature on their list of credits. And I lucked out: I got really good people.

I cut the film. Since I wasn’t looking for the film to make any money back, one of the best things that you can ever do—and it’s so expensive that it’s hard to recommend it—is write a film, shoot it, and then get to edit it. You see all the things you didn’t cover as a director. You see all the things you should have written as a writer. And editing a film is the closest you get to writing. Editors and writers are very close together, and when they’re different people, and especially when the studio is starting to take the movie out of the hands of the director and the writer, they’re usually pretty much sworn enemies. Editors can save a director’s ass or a writer’s ass, but they can also wreck what they did.

How could you get the film released if it wasn’t a union shoot?

Roger Corman doesn’t use a union crew. He sometimes needs an IATSE bug, a trade union bug [seal of the International Association of Theatre and Stage Employees—here pronounced yotsee], on the picture, and what he’ll do, if the picture’s gonna do well enough to play in a lot of cities where a projectionists union is gonna not show it if it doesn’t have the bug on it, he’ll buy it. It’s a penalty you pay to the union. The union hierarchy gets the money, and very often that’s all they care about. That’s the way it goes. With my film, the unions were pretty generous about the fact that the film wouldn’t have been made if you’d had to use union people. They aren’t going to bother you if it doesn’t have a IATSE bug on it. Once you start bidding upwards of a million dollars on a project, you are taking bread out of their mouths; if you’re going to spend a million dollars, you can pay union people to shoot it and you should. It didn’t really present a problem to me and it hasn’t in the distribution of this film.

My favorite character in Return of the Secaucus 7 was the wise guy who worked at the gas station. Did you have some particular purpose in mind for him?

What I was interested in with the gas station attendant was bringing into the film some of my experiences of growing up in a working-class high school where most of the people didn’t go to four-year colleges, or college at all, and running into those people later on. A lot of people have had the experience of having kids, getting married when they were in high school, got a job right away and had a couple more kids, and now they’re behind the eight-ball. There’s a tendency for people who went to college and people who didn’t go to college, who knew each other back in high school, to think that they have less in common than they do. I was interested in having that character be somebody who in a less realistic film would be used as an object of fun. I think of Old Boyfriends, the John Belushi character, when the woman [Talia Shire] goes back and looks up a high school boyfriend who’s sort of a greaseball who put her down in high school and she’s able to make fun of him.

There are those characters—I wasn’t interested in writing that guy. I was more interested in writing a guy who was very intelligent, who could have gone to college, didn’t choose to, partly likes what he is doing and is partly bored shitless by it. Even if he didn’t go to college, he has a lot of the same ambivalences about his life that the people who did go to college have.

Starting with that, I said, Here’s this character, here’s what I want him to represent or be—how can I work him into the weekend ? Well, he’s single. Do I have somebody among these college friends, these sort of antiwar-activist friends, who’s single, who he can pick off? In fact, couldn’t he be a guy who, every year, he just sort of hangs around to pick off a different girl ’cause there’s always a different one who’s loose that year? It’s new blood in town. I mean, his line in the film is “All the women around here are either married or wise to me or both.” He’s sort of like Eddie Haskell. After a while people get used to your line. So I had the idea, OK, I’ll have him get together with Frances after she’s disappointed at not getting together with a guy that she’s been wanting to get together with for years, and this is finally her chance, and he gets snapped up by somebody else. She’s loose—how do I work him into scenes where she’s around? how do I introduce them? His action becomes two things. Getting together with Frances is one. The other is: who was his friend among this group when he was back in high school, and are they going to be able to get together, or is it just going to be awkward between them?

And that also provided one of the things that the character Mike, who was his buddy in high school, went away to college, is now a teacher, is sort of avoiding him throughout the weekend—that’s one of the actions of his character: What happens during their meetings, or nonmeetings? How would they talk about each other? And then when they meet, what happens? So basically each of those guys and the relationship between them has a progression. And I say; OK, here’s one situation where Ron [the gas station operator] is going to meet these guys—what does he say to Mike, or does he say anything to Mike? So once you have what you want out of a character as far as function within the plot, then what you want is a theme out of that character, what you’re trying to express with that character, then I just try to plug it into the action.

Very often I will just say— In this case, because I was writing for a budget, I would say, I wanna have a scene where people jump into Crawford’s Notch, because it’s real pretty and I know we can just go there and climb down the mountain and jump in the water, and it’ll get us out of the interiors. What can I have happen there? And then I just put all those people in my mind in that situation and say, What conversations might happen here? What characters—I have eight characters, the Secaucus 7 and Ron—what are the possible combinations? That’s a lot of what what’sername that wrote Nashville, Joan Tewkesbury, did: Who are these people and is there someplace they can meet? What would happen if they meet? Would it be a passing encounter or would it be a confrontation? And over the weekend that’s basically what I had. I had a definite progression that I wanted within the weekend for everybody, and then I just went back to every single character and said, Where does this character start out? What is this character upset about or happy about? Where are they gonna be at the end of the film? And then you start plugging them in and seeing where they cross.

It just came to me. It starts very technical like that, and then once I start writing I just— One line follows another. Edward Albee claims—and he may well have done this—that he had this idea for a play named Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and he wrote the first line, and then he wrote the second line, and the second line had to be answered, and then he wrote the third line and built on that. Once I know the outline of a film, that’s pretty much the way I write. People just start saying things and then I think of the next thing that’s gonna be said—or done, in the case of a less verbal scene.

Was Secaucus 7 autobiographical at all?

No. There’s one or two stories in the film that I’ve been told, but it’s not an autobiographical film. It’s about people I know, or composites of people I know, but it’s sort of like what Tom Stoppard does with, you know, putting James Joyce and Freud and somebody else in a room together and writing a play about them talking. Except I use people who really do meet, and I just put them together in a room and have them talk, or do something.

Do you start with a storyline or do you start with characters and let them make the story take shape?

In Return of the Secaucus 7 I started with characters, and the story evolved from the characters: what can I have these people do that will reveal them to the audience?

Did you have an end in mind when you started?

No, not at all. That was a situation where I decided that what the film should do, the experience for the audience should be to spend a weekend with these people as they spend a weekend with each other: If they know these people and recognize them, fine; maybe they’ll know a little more about those people or about themselves. If they don’t know them, maybe they’ll be a little more understanding, or have met people they ordinarily wouldn’t have given the time of day to.

Whereas with something more plot-oriented, like my rewrites, like rewriting Piranha or The Howling, the question is, How do you keep the people in the river when they know the piranhas are there? And then what you try to do is either keep the people out of the way so that they don’t have to do anything that gets in the way of the plot, at the same time that you’re trying to keep them realistic enough, or a certain shade of realistic. You don’t want people in a movie like Piranha to be too realistic because it’s a fantasy. If anyone of your friends or anybody you knew was eaten by carnivorous fish, you would think it was awful and sort of stomach-turning. Within the world of that film, you have to write it slightly more broad than real life, so people can click off the real feelings about people being eaten alive by fish, and click into this world of the film. I don’t like horror movies much if—I don’t go to see Chainsaw Massacre or anything like that. There’s a limited number of horror films that I like, because some of them I just can’t click off. Some of them, it either reminds me of real life or is just gross, past my gross limit.

Continue to “Part 3” here.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.