John Sayles: America in the frame

In a noirish satire, 'Silver City', John Sayles probes the secret history of the USA under George Bush. He tells Phil Hoad why
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"I don't know that we ever will make it all back," says Sayles. "Maybe over the years, on video sales or something." Renzi adds: "We got to tour with it, which was really fun. We were on the road with people like REM... we had the Silver City Express, which was a total blast." Well, it seems they enjoyed that.

After 15 films together, Sayles and Renzi seem to have found the right reasons for film-making. Skewering George Bush in the run-up to last year's presidential elections was the motive for Silver City, not making money. "We were trying to do something to get rid of Bush," Renzi says. "I thought, 'Is there any amount I wouldn't pay?'"

Sayles began thinking about the film straight after the 2000 presidential poll. He felt uncomfortable about how many key stories had been glossed over by a complacent media, and wanted to address the country's "secret history".

"I felt like I was reading about stuff - military scandals, CIA scandals, other scandals - years later in books. How come it was clear that people knew about it when it was happening, but it wasn't showing up in the newspapers?"

He settled on the classic corruption film noir, Chinatown, as a model for his film, which features Danny Huston as a private investigator scouting out enemies of the bumbling gubernatorial candidate Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), after a corpse floats up in a lake being used as a backdrop for an election broadcast. Plenty of slippery characters with fairly discernible real-life counterparts are strewn in Huston's path, including Richard Dreyfuss's Karl Rove-like campaign manager and a Matt Drudge-esque rebel hack (Tim Roth).

Sayles does the rounds of the Colorado community thoroughly, from the sycophantic election mob to Mexican immigrant workers. Silver City has much to say about modern America - perhaps a little too much, so that the tone rests uneasily between satire and noir. It all ends with a slight shrug, and Sayles isn't much more optimistic about the state of the nation. "Even on a Congressional level, on a Senate level, these guys are bought and paid for. And that's just not good for the people - if you want the water to be clean, if you want the schools to be good, that's not necessarily on the agenda."

Sayles and Renzi met in 1974 in New York, while she was working as a casting assistant and he was supporting his writing on the blue-collar treadmill. After writing two novels and some short stories, Sayles ending up pumping out scripts for Roger Corman.

Despite Corman's lurid output being the polar opposite of the features Sayles went on to direct, he says his time with Corman in the late Seventies was his "film school", a brutal education in getting results on tiny budgets. Corman was an oddly prescient figure: "The movies he was making, which were considered B-movies and very low-budget, are A-movies now and being made for $100m."

In 1996's Lone Star, the film Sayles is most famous for, the panorama of Tex-Mex border society was a typical example of the rich tapestry of social and historical forces he tends to weave in his projects.Their next film is Honey Drip, again using a small community (in Alabama) to peer at wider cultural changes, in this case "the transition from blues to rock'n'roll". They're rattling the tin at financiers again, which Renzi says "isn't getting easier" as film-making turns more conservative.

I ask if Sayles would renounce indie self-sufficiency for just one film with a studio. He says his insistence on having control over final cut is a sticking point. Renzi seems to think some middle ground is possible. "John has some patrons, people like Ron Howard and [the Spielberg producer] Kathy Kennedy. I'd like to start a dialogue with them."

It must be a struggle trying to stand their ground in an increasingly commercialised environment, but Sayles and Renzi seem fulfilled. "We've never made a movie we weren't happy with," she says.

Clearly, their partnership is central to their productivity. But are there times when they want different things? It helps that they do different jobs, that they're not in direct competition, Sayles says.

Renzi sometimes wonders whether they should drift more into the mainstream. "And then I remember how much I love the movies we've made. So I think I probably have less doubt than most producers do, and more faith."

'Silver City' is out today