MOYERS: SUNSHINE STATE is John Sayles' 13th independent film. My own favorite is LONE STAR, about folks I knew growing up in Texas. John Sayles makes his movies far from the frenzy of Hollywood.
He's the dean of independent films, which means that to follow his bliss in making the movies he really wants to make, he must also make a living. So he's been the script doctor on some of those Hollywood blockbusters that pull them in at the box office every summer. And he has himself written crowd pleasers like THE HOWLING.
His own films have won two Academy Award nominations, and his novels like UNION DUES and LOS GUSANOS have been hailed by the critics. He's a man with his feet in many worlds but his heart it seems to me in one place: that slower, quieter world where ordinary people have their say with John Sayles' help. Welcome to NOW.
SAYLES: Nice to be here.
MOYERS: Dreams are what you sell. I mean, that's the very essence of American capitalism, isn't it?
SAYLES: Yes, I think that something happened with advertising, probably right around the turn of the last century, around 1900, where it stopped selling things that we needed.
It stopped just telling you, oh, here's a good soap, and started creating things that we didn't even know we wanted. And certainly the history of Florida is the history of advertising. I think that the very concept of leisure in America is intimately tied up with the development of Florida.
People didn't know that people other than the moneyed classes could have this thing called leisure, and developers went down there and bought land for pennies an acre because it was considered uninhabitable, created this dream of The Sunshine State, of the vacation paradise.
And then with the money they got in advance from people who hadn't been down there, actually dredged the swamps and created the land that they eventually sold to the people who came down.
MOYERS: But you caught another Florida. I mean, you show that Florida, but you caught another Florida. The Florida I know, the Florida I've seen as a journalist, the Florida we all saw in the last presidential election when at the end of that election Darwin rules, the strong win, and much of what happens is done under the table.
SAYLES: Um-hmm. Yes, I mean, Florida has always been fascinating to me. It's such a diverse state. There are people from the northeast, the midwest, different parts of the south, from Cuba, from Haiti.
It's a microcosm of America in that way in that there are so many different people, and what's interesting to me, so many different ways of seeing the world right next to each other shoulder to shoulder.
No surprise that not just from county to county but district to district people could see the world in totally divergent ways.
MOYERS: How do you know these people? I once suggested that you be drafted into journalism because you have such a good ear for people when...you know, when we go out we listen to people and we come back and write our stories or produce our films about them. How do you find these people? How do you know these people?
SAYLES: A lot of what I do is just listen, eavesdrop, talk to people, hear their stories, try to figure out where they're coming from, and especially doing that without any preconceptions, just kind of emptying your head and trying to not be in an argument or a discussion with somebody but just hear what they're saying and how they're saying it, which is often as important as what they're saying.
In the case of Florida, I'd been going down there since I was five years old...
MOYERS: From...Where did you grow up?
SAYLES: In upstate New York, Schenectady, New York. My mother's parents lived in Hollywood, Florida, just north of Miami.
So I got to see that area before, during and after the Cuban revolution, which changed it enormously. And I got interested I think fairly early on what do people do when these huge sea changes happen, when your world is never going to be the same again.
Who are the people who can kind of go with the flow, and who are the people who just are too rigid? The factory closes and the town dies, or the fishery closes and you're one of 12 generations of fishermen, what do you do then.
MOYERS: Yes, the people Daniel Yankelovich said are marginalized. I mean, they really feel unrepresented, they feel bowled over, they feel out of it.
SAYLES: Um-hmm. Well, I think powerlessness is one of the kind of scariest things in the world -- that and feeling that nobody needs what you do, especially if you feel proud of what you do.
If you're a coal miner and they shut the coal mines down, if you - in the case of SUNSHINE STATE, Ralph Waite plays a character who's the first of his family to get out of the pulp mills and become an entrepreneur. He owns his own motel and restaurant. And that kind of American pride in being your own boss, and then within one generation corporate tourism comes in and kind of sweeps away his dream.
MOYERS: I think Ralph Waite...I think this was his best role. He doesn't over play the blindness.
SAYLES: Um-hmm. Yes, he's somebody who's got diabetes and he's gradually losing his sight. More of what's happening, though, is he's realizing the world has passed him by. The things he cared about, the people whose opinion he valued are gone, and what's there left for him. And it's very frustrating.
MOYERS: There's another dialogue in the film that goes to that point, and in fact, let's take a look at it now.
[VIDEO CLIP FROM SUNSHINE STATE]
Marly Temple: Hi Mama.
Trouble at the motel?
Everything's fine daddy…
Why aren't you over there?
Got a day manager, remember?
Those people steal from you blind if you don't keep an eye on em.
Got it under control.
Are these new ones?
I can't remember when you were here last
They all look alike to me.
Place full up?
Yes daddy, its celebration.
How about the restaurant?
They're keepin us hoppin.
Make it while it's there.
Yes I know daddy.
Steven was callin for you.
He knows I don't live here.
Nice talkin' to him.
Got a screw loose…deep sea diving.
That's his Furman Temple.
Puts pressure on brain.
Steve did a lot things to put pressure on the brain… diving wasn't one of them.
He says he turning over anew leave I certainly hope so. He had such promise.
When did Steve ever have promise?
When he had his musical group and you were in the circus.
Wasn't the circus…we stayed in one place.
When you were performing in the aquarium.
You were all so hopeful.
Well we grew up. Daddy? There was a fellow from a development company over yesterday morning.
Did you give him the boot?
I was thinking this might be a good time if you ever wanted to sell…
Watch them take that beach and turn it into a strip mall.
Well its not exactly in pristine condition at the moment is it?
Did you lift one finger to keep that place running?
I have not.
Then hold your peace.
Worried about those birds.
It is a severely compromised habitat. The sandhill crane have completely forsaken us.
Good they don't know better than to fly off to some place more accommodating to them than they deserve what they get.
Now your seagull that like people they fight each other over every scrap they get.
Your Furman Temple is a strict Darwinian.
She likes to throw her education against me.
Anyway this developer…I told him you probably weren't interested.
You can bet your bottom dollar I'm not.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
MOYERS: That is so...that rings so true to me. I mean, the dream of...the motel is his dream, not her dream.
MOYERS: She's inherited it, it's her legacy, but she wants to get...she wants to defer that dream and get out of it.
SAYLES: Yes, I think very much...I'm always interested in the things that separate us. Is it race? Is it class? Is it education? In this case, it's partly generations.
Ralph Waite plays a character for whom integration was a huge watershed in his life. He could have gone the less dramatic route and stood in front of his restaurant with an axe handle and said, no black people are entering this...this business of mine. And he didn't.
And he's always had mixed feelings about that. He's now starting to realize maybe that wasn't such a big deal. And to his daughter who is running his restaurant and motel now, it's not an issue. Black people come in and out all the time.
His dreams and his nightmares are not her dreams and nightmares. And it's very hard for them to get on the same page and talk.
MOYERS: It is a powerfully poignant moment in which the blacks in the film have to acknowledge that even in the triumph of the civil rights movement, they too have lost something. They've gained a great deal but they've lost something. You caught a very, very significant evolution in American life...let's look at this one.
[VIDEOCLIP FROM SUNSHINE STATE]
"Save an endangered species"
Prettiest beach on the Atlantic coast.
Yeah. It is pretty.
We're gonna help save it. We're having a protest rally on Monday over at the Groundbreaker.
I'm just visiting.
Believe me, they won't know the difference.
So, um, this is like an ecological thing?
We're trying to save an endangered species - us.
Yeah, I heard about this place when I was kid, but I never…
Forties, fifties - Lincoln Beach was it. Only ocean front in three counties we were allowed to step on to. Black folks - I'm talking about the pillars of the community - got together and bought this land. Built the houses. You'd drive through a couple hundred miles of redneck sheriffs, park your ride on the boardwalk, step out and just breathe. Over there was Henry's Lounge. That place used to jump.
So what happened?
Civil rights happened. Progress. Used to be you were black you'd buy black. Jim Crowe days, you need your shoes shined, wanted to ride in a taxi to the train station, wanted some ribs, fish sandwich, chances are a black man owned the place you bought it in. Now the drive-throughs serve anybody. But who owns them? Not us. All our people does is wearing paper hats and dipping out them fries. Only thing we've got left is funeral parlors and barber shops.
Yeah, but now we can do anything.
(laughs) Them that can get over do fine. Them that can't are in a world of trouble.
MOYERS: They can do anything but they don't own very much. That's what he's saying. And he calls them an endangered species. What's going on there?
SAYLES: Well, I think one thing that happened with integration all over America, not just in the south, was that there was a class of people, middle and upper middle class black people, whose economic foundation was based on segregation.
People came to their stores because they had to. They weren't allowed in the other stores. They came to their restaurants, their hotels, their whatever, because they had to.
And just the timing of it was that when those segregation laws were struck down, they weren't only competing with the white guy who owned the little motel on the other end of town, it was the beginning of the rise of corporate America. And you had to economically now compete with McDonald's, with chain motels, with chain restaurants, with this kind of entity that could take three years of a loss to drive you out of business.
So one of the things that happened was that in certain communities with the rise of integration there was a certain disintegration of community that was forced before and now that it wasn't forced it kind of dissipated.
MOYERS: Does Darwin win in the end? I mean, doesn't the steam rolling power of American capitalism sweep everything in its way?
SAYLES: I think for a while, yes. I think what you...you see that people are very resilient, and that they have certain basic needs and desires.
Community is one of them. What you see now I think in America is that people may be rejecting geographical community as the way they define themselves. They may have communities of people who have the same religion.
There are people who are into collecting guns or stock car racing or a certain sport, or just people who stayed in touch with each other on the Web because they have the same ideals...
MOYERS: Who like certain movies.
SAYLES: Who like certain movies.
And you know, it's a harder thing to keep up, but you know, I think people will find those ways around even if the economics change.
MOYERS: Somewhere you said that you like to make movies about cultures that clash, clashing cultures. What do you think is the biggest clash going on of cultures in America right now?
SAYLES: Well, I think right now there is the clash between what we are told and what's really going on. And a certain kind of alienation that comes from that.
Certainly there have always been, you know, the kind of struggle of what are the ideals of America and what is really happening; what is written in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights and what is happening on the street or in the town level.
I think more and more now as media becomes corporate, there's a bit of an alienation in that whatever little traditional values we used to have are being rapidly kind of taken over by stories, and stories that may not have much foundation.
A lot of what's happening in SUNSHINE STATE, Mary Steenburgen's character who plays this kind of sparkplug of the chamber of commerce, says at one point, is, people don't realize how difficult it is to invent a tradition. She also says at some point, people hate history. And what I mean by that is that they hate the real history, because it's often very tangled, it's often not complimentary to who you are and how you got to where you are.
So in America what we tend to do is just rewrite it, to sanitize it, to make it into a story. Once it's made into a story, and especially in a tourist town, when you're selling it, when you're...you know, the Navajo people used to do the rain dance but they have the tourist rain dance and their own rain dance, at what point when you're putting the paint on for the hundredth time or the thousandth time, does it start to affect the real rain dance, does that history not mean anything to you anymore.
And by history I don't just mean who shot who back in 1830, I also mean your own family history, your own roots in an area. At what point do all our values become media values or consumerist values.
MOYERS: So it's not just who owns the land, who owns the beach, it's who owns the stories, who owns the...
SAYLES: Who owns our conception of who we are and what that is?
MOYERS: One doesn't see very many of these characters in Hollywood movies anymore.
SAYLES: Yes, I think, well, that's a long tradition in Hollywood, was creating an iconic America. If you think of the Andy Hardy community, that may have existed somewhere during the Depression in America, but it wasn't everybody's every day life.
To a certain extent those were created as an escape from every day life. And that's something that can actually be a valuable thing for people sometimes, to have that escape.
MOYERS: And if Mr. Smith went to Washington today he'd go as a lobbyist not a representative...
SAYLES: Exactly. Exactly. But I do think there's something else that movies can do, which is...and what I try to do in several movies including SUNSHINE STATE, we live in such parallel communities, such isolated parallel communities.
They may be separated by race. They may be separated by class. One phenomenon you see in SUNSHINE STATE is this new phenomenon of the gated community, which is a choice to live separated from the rest of the world and the trouble and the contention and everything like that.
What I can do in the movies is take the audience and give them an access into each of these little communities and give them a bigger picture. Those golfers have a bigger picture. But I hope the audience by the end of the movie says, wait a minute, you know, I see this and this and this and this, and I can connect some dots here. There's a pattern here.
And if these people are ever going to get more of what they want they're going to have to start thinking in a larger way, not just their little narrow community.
MOYERS: One of my favorite scenes in the movie is where what's said is not really what's happening. They're out on the bayou in the canoe and it's just dialogue, it's just.... And yet if you look closely at their faces you realize there's something else going on behind those eyes. Is that right?
SAYLES: Yes. I think very often I'm interested in not just what people say but for the audience, because you can see things that the characters can't see sometimes. In that specific case, it's that character that Tim Hutton plays and the character that Edie Falco plays.
Just the mechanics of rowing a canoe, you don't look each other in the eye. So they're both open, they can't see each other's faces. They're just getting to know each other. They can open up a little to each other. But, and we can see both of their faces but they can't see each other's faces. And then we can see what's around them, which affects how we take what they're saying.
MOYERS: There's this running current of loss in this movie. It's a wonderful movie. It's a joyful movie on many levels. But there is this running current of loss, particularly of the geographical community where.... I mean, I grew up in Marshall, Texas, a town of 22,000 in northeast Texas.
We all lived within walking distance of each other. Richard Blaylock's daughter, the richest man in town, and I, the son of the poorest man in town, one of the poorest men in town, went to the same high school. We went to the same ball games. We saw the same movies.
We shared that town. That town was ours even though they were rich and we were not. Today people don't, as you say. They don't share the same town.
SAYLES: And I think that any progress, whether it's the integration, whether it's economic progress or whatever, you always have to look at it very carefully and say, what are we losing when we're gaining this.
Is there, yes, this looks like a prize, this looks like where we want to go. But is there something that we're going to have to give up in order to get this?
Very often, unfortunately, we don't...we don't have time to stop and think or question what somebody else is proposing. It just happens, and then we wake up one morning and something we really valued is gone.
But you know, certainly in a small southern town, Mary Alice, who plays the mother of Angela Bassett's character, is talking about her days as a debutante in this black community. Those are gone. They'll never come back.
At the same time, she wouldn't wish back the days of segregation at all. So I think progress is...and as our lives go on, it's always a very, very mixed bag. And nobody gets to start from scratch. You all...all, you know, people start with some kind of baggage. Every new administration in Washington has to deal with the mess that was left or whatever was left over from the old administration.
We walk out into the world, there are people who don't like us automatically just because of who we are, and it may be something our grandfather did or great, great grandfather did. And maybe it would be good to cut some of that baggage behind, but you lose something in the processes.
MOYERS: One of your characters says, a handful of folks make all the deals and the rest of us work for them. And another one says, the little guy ain't got a chance. Is that the way you see America today?
SAYLES: I actually do think that an awful lot of things that happen in America, you know, certainly there's been a lot of talk about campaign reform and our last couple of elections, even people who were formerly opposed to it embraced this idea that really what their constituents were, who they were, were the people who could pony up enough money to keep them in business as politicians.
An awful lot of things don't come under public review. And I think we just have to accept that, but then we have to also question that and say, well, is that the way that it should be? Is that what America is supposed to be about?
And then we also have to say, well, who are we to complain if the things that do come under our review we don't even bother to pay attention to?
MOYERS: [You mean] sometimes the politicians are disappointed in us?
SAYLES: Absolutely. Absolutely. I know plenty of good hardworking sincere politicians who feel like, well, why didn't they come out and vote? Why didn't they come to the meeting? You know, why didn't they pay attention?
And why are people so obsessed with these kind of buzz issues that are symbolic instead of paying attention to things that we really can agree on maybe or work out together.
MOYERS: What your films say is this country is really up for grabs. I mean, America is always up for grabs.
SAYLES: Yes, and I think that that's...there's something great about that. You know, I always say if there are no final victories there are also no final defeats.
MOYERS: Well, certainly not in your films. Thanks very much, John Sayles, for joining us tonight.
SAYLES: Thank you.
MOYERS: SUNSHINE STATE opens in New York and Los Angeles next Friday, June 21st, and then will be out across America on July 4th. Go see it. That's it for tonight. I'll be listening to you on the Web at PBS.org. For NOW, I'm Bill Moyers.