Risk and Reward

With 'Limbo,' filmmaker John Sayles takes and unexpected turn along the Alaskan frontier, asking his fans to trust and follow

July 02, 1999

John Sayles may be the most important American filmmaker whose work Americans don't go to see. At 47, he has made a dozen movies, most of them finely observed portraits of the communities, tribes and individuals that form the texture of American culture. Sayles seems well on his way to creating a vivid and detailed celluloid quilt of American life and history, with each square steeped in a deep sense of place.

His first film, "Return of the Secaucus 7" (1980), was an ensemble coming-of-age comedy about a group of former 1960s radicals; "Baby, It's You" (1983) was a romance about crossing class lines in New Jersey; "Matewan" (1987) was about a 1920s coal miners' strike; and "Eight Men Out" (1988) told the story of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox" scandal.

More recently, Sayles has made films with a pungent sense of the American geography. "City of Hope" (1991) was a sprawling ensemble drama set in the crumbling cityscape of the post-industrial Northeast; "Passion Fish" (1992), which starred Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard, concerned two women who forge an unlikely bond on the Louisiana bayou; and "Lone Star" (1996), Sayles' most acclaimed film to date, told the sprawling tale of several families living on the Texas-Mexico border.

But taken together, Sayles' movies, which he produces with his partner, Maggie Renzi, have grossed less than $50 million, a sum that probably approaches George Lucas' catering bill on "The Phantom Menace." "Lone Star," the director's most popular movie, grossed just $12 million.

That Sayles is not more popular may be due to his weakness for polemic. Nor is his politics couched in palatable Hollywood-size morsels; they are usually expressed in awkward, speechy passages. Some filmgoers complain that Sayles' social conscience results in self-conscious, un-visceral movies that feel less like entertainment than civics lessons.

(Detractors may be surprised to learn that he supports his filmmaking habit by rewriting mainstream movies such as "Apollo 13," "The Quick and the Dead," "Mimic," "The Mummy" and the television movie "Passing Glory." They may be less surprised to learn that Sayles is also an author of novels and short stories and in 1985 received a MacArthur "genius" grant.)

Since its initial release last month, "Limbo" hasn't silenced many of those critics. In many ways it hews to what are now Sayles' own moviemaking conventions. Set in the fictional town of Port Henry, in southeastern Alaska, the film begins as the story of a small frontier community, with the usual large ensemble of players embodying the issues currently in play in the region: the environment vs. encroaching development; the disappearing canning industry; the threat tourism poses to Alaska's culture of individualism; and, of course, fish.

But then, "Limbo" takes an unexpected direction when three characters -- a haunted fisherman (David Strathairn), a lounge singer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and her teen-age daughter (Vanessa Martinez) -- become stranded on a deserted island. Suddenly, what looked like a "typical" John Sayles film has become something else -- at once simpler, more primal and much more frightening.

Sayles spoke to The Sun in Washington last month.

What made you go from the sprawling narratives and casts of characters of "City of Hope" and "Lone Star" to the fundamental triad in "Limbo"?

It was just kind of where the story brought me. I had traveled in Alaska with Maggie about 11 years ago and had been very struck by the place, and had been thinking this would be kind of a cool place to set something. It really has a lot of personality, people are really tied to the culture and tied to the land in ways that they aren't in other places.

And Steven Lang, who plays the bartender in the film [and] who's worked as a grip in a lot of our movies told me the story, because he had been a fisherman in Alaska, about a guy who caught so many fish that the boat sank and a couple of guys drowned. And just the hubris of that story, that you're punished for doing things too well, you know? Who is that survivor, and do they trust anything ever again? It's like people who get struck by lightning. They're always kind of not sure about anything.

I started thinking about risk and people who had been burned. It could be somebody who's had a really bad marriage and divorce and messy custody case or something like that, and they may get married again but they never really risk again emotionally, they never really put themselves into it 100 percent. Then I started thinking about making it a triangle in some way, and how once you're over 30 it gets harder and harder to find a match. You have standards which you didn't necessarily have when you were 20. You're a more formed person. And you add children to that and it gets even harder.

The beginning of "Limbo" looks very much like a typical John Sayles movie, with lots of characters, each of whom has a distinct and emblematic relationship to the community.

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