Renegade’s Tale: John Sayles Interview

Oliver Webb-Carter

Our editor met John Sayles to discuss his recent novel, its history and Hollywood today.
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John Sayles Interview

I first watched Lone Star soon after it came out in 1996. This atmospheric film, centred on a small-town grappling with its past, is both a whodunnit and a social commentary. The town in question was in Texas and where three communities, White European, African American and Mexican American were still learning to live together after a traumatic past. It was clear its writer and director had a strong appreciation of history, and so when I learnt John Sayles had written a new novel, set in 18th century Scotland, England, Martinique, Canada and America I was keen to meet him. The Highlands and the ‘45 did not seem to be a natural area of interest for an American filmmaker, but the mention of one name, an actor, soon cleared that up.

‘Robert Carlyle, the Scottish actor, called me up…about a Highlander who was defeated at the Battle of Culloden. Instead of hanging him, they transported him to the New World and he got involved with the Sioux Indians. I said, “Well, if he lives to be 200, he’ll get involved with the Sioux Indians. But there’s plenty of Indians that were encountered on the East Coast. And I just liked the idea so much I…wrote a screenplay for Robert to be in, and we came over to Scotland and toured the Highlands and we scouted in Georgia and Florida for those locations. We scouted in Canada, and just were never – it was…an epic movie…but we never were able to raise the money for it. And so some 20 years later, I just felt like… I still love that story. And I went back into it.’

And what a story it is, taking the reader from the battlefield in the Highlands to the New World via London, the West Indies and Nova Scotia. He’s quite right, it is an epic. There is something hugely seductive about the frontiers of those American colonies prior to the American Revolution and the establishment of a new country. The story deals with native tribes, Highlanders and Native Americans, bumping up against a technologically more advanced adversary.

‘…What I was trying to get at in the book is that…in the States…our history was most: civilised people came over to this country and encountered savages…Mostly in the movies that I saw when I was a kid, it seemed like all they did was dance around the fire at night, and then go scalp white people. Their cultures were not represented in any way. And one of the things that I learned over the years as I got interested in it, is that the native cultures, especially on the East Coast, at that time, were highly evolved. There was what we call the Iroquois Confederacy, which was five and eventually six or seven tribes that came together to rule their area – very complicated diplomatic politics with other tribes around them. Very complicated. The economy, because all of a sudden, there were these goods that they could have. Rifles instead of bows and arrows and steel pots instead of having to make six pots out of clay every year and they got hooked on those consumer goods. All of a sudden, they had to kill a lot more deer than they used to, just to eat and wear. And all of a sudden, they’re in their enemy’s territory, poaching their deer and their enemies are in their territory, poaching their deer; and then there’s a whole beaver-thing where beaver hats get popular in Europe. The beavers disappear, and they’re killing each other over beavers. So, it was just as complicated as the War of Austrian Succession, which you hear about in the book.’

We do, and in it Sayles, through the hero Jamie MacGillivray, gives a quite beautifully pithy summary of the causes and state of play of that war between the Old World nations. But since the book began as a screenplay, and is now an epic novel, clearly new elements of the story emerge?

‘What happens when you do that with a screenplay, of course, is it starts to expand. And so the character of Jenny, who in the screenplay was on seven pages, appeared and reappeared once more – she becomes a third of the book when I discovered there were some women transported and one of the boats was taken by a French Privateer…freed in Martinique, and I thought of this starving barefoot girl, all of a sudden in Martinique, and there’s mangoes and good food and it is a totally different culture and a new language and she’s one of those people who is absolutely uneducated, but adventurous and really smart.’

Jenny, a Highlander too, meets and comes under the protection of a French Army officer in the French colony, so adding the West Indies to the tale. With the two main characters having suffered so terribly under their Hanoverian overlords, they are quick to ally themselves to Britain’s natural enemy. There is a savagery of this period that is captured so effectively by Sayles – something that Ian Mortimer (see cover feature) would presumably be happy with.

‘I learned about bloody law in in the Britain of that time, in the Three Kingdoms, I realised, “who are the savages here?” They’re still hanging people until they’re not quite dead, and then eviscerating and throwing their entrails on a fire – so the dying person can see their entrails! And all before they cut their head off and put it on a spike. So, one of the one of the things that was going is this idea of what exactly is savagery? What exactly?’

The similarity between the Scottish clans and the Native American tribes is an interesting one.

‘The clan system has a lot of parallels with some of the more or less evolved, politically, tribes in [America] at the time…I always had this idea that one of the modes of survival, if you are a linguist, if you are good at languages, you are valuable, and you might be able to survive by your wits… “I can speak French and English, and now I can speak, Lenape.” And those treaties between the natives in America, and Europeans very often, there were six languages or so being spoken, because nobody spoke one to one, and of course, things get distorted – about land and life and war and tribute…The Indians wanted to understand what we’re making our mark on. But they might have to go through Mohawk to Lenape to German to Dutch to English to French.”

The language aspect of the novel makes it even more rich, with Erse (Scots Gaelic) as well as other Native American languages being spoken. There is even a character who becomes valued by a particular tribe because he has learnt their language and can then pass down their stories of the past, playing the role of their Homer.

Of course, since Sayles is a distinguished filmmaker, I was keen to get his view of Hollywood today. The seemingly endless superhero films are a source of some frustration to me. Are the studios running out of ideas?

‘Well, for one thing is studios are on their last legs. Most of them have been bought by corporations – Warner Brothers is now a big part of a conglomerate. The idea is market research and the money people are definitely at the wheel. What they have decided is, it’s really hard to get people into a theatre, and the one thing that they can make that gets people into the theatre are continuing stories. So it might be Thor: Ragnarok, it might be Spiderman, it might be Indiana Jones, it might be the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park. But if we make one of those, we have a guaranteed audience. A certain number of people are going to come.

‘The best work is being done on TV series. Much better in Europe than in the States, but still…there are some very good series happening here and they’re coming from the streamers. I’ve seen five movies since COVID ended in theatres and they’ve been screenings. There are 300 seats and five of us there.

‘It’s another Mission Impossible with Tom Cruise or a sequel to Top Gun. It’s a proven commodity, whereas something new, a new drama, who knows? It could be the best drama in the world. And we can’t get people in. So the economics have always driven in it.’

As I mentioned at the start, Lone Star is one of his films that I love, but with the above in mind, I wondered if it would be made today? What Sayles has to say saddens me, as it seems such a waste of talent.

‘It’s really hard for me. I’m just not on the list right now. That’s just age and some of that’s track record that I have never made, in the last 20 years, anybody any money. Things might have done well, but not if you make $2 million for people they’re not interested in Hollywood. They’re there to make $20 to $100 million in profit. We could put it in the bank and the interest would be $2 million. So what if we wasted our time on with me as a director? Somebody else might be able to direct who had just had a hit and could take that very screenplay and get it made. They probably would have to cast it differently. Chris Cooper probably wouldn’t be the lead. Somebody who had had a big hit recently would be the lead. We were very lucky. Sometimes we got independent funding. Twice I worked with the studio and once it was terrible and once it was fine. But that was a different time.’

Sayles now has Jamie MacGillivray which would make a wonderful TV series, even if Robert Carlyle is a bit too long in the teeth to play the lead, but perhaps the ‘Auld Fox’, Lord Lovat who makes an appearance in the novel?

‘They just have to spend the money. And from the Outlander series, the costumes are in a wardrobe somewhere. They could use some of those…[Carlyle] would be in it, but I’d like to get him involved somewhere. It’s so much fun to imagine travelling around the Highlands of Scotland with Robert Carlyle to knock on doors with you.’

A happy thought, and so who knows, perhaps we’ll see Jamie MacGillivray in a Netflix series out soon.

John Sayles is a writer, producer and director of a many critically acclaimed films including Lone Star (1996), Eight Men Out (1988), Passion Fish (1992) and Go for Sisters (2013). He is the author of six novels, the latest being Jamie MacGillivray: The Renegade’s Journey. You can listen to an extended version of the interview on the Aspects of History Podcast.