Way Down South with John Sayles
By James Calemine
John Sayles’ films command respect. His latest film, Honeydripper, takes place in Alabama during the 1950s. Honeydripper counts as Sayles’16th film which contains a stellar cast and homage to southern blues music. Honeydripper includes the strong line-up featuring Danny Glover, Stacy Keach, Charles S. Dutton and musicians Dr. Mable John, Keb Mo, Gary Clark Jr. and Howlin’ Wolf’s saxophone player Eddie Shaw.
Sayles began his career working with the great Roger Corman. Later, Sayles earned the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship given to individuals with rare originality. Some of Sayles’ great films include The Brother From Another Planet, Passion Fish, Eight Men Out, Matewon, Silver City, Lone Star, Sunshine State, The Howling and a script called Night Skies that served as the provenance of Steven Spielberg’s film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. I respectfully suggest you explore his work.
Sayles serves on the board for the Austin Film Society. The National Film preservation Board of the United States decided Sayles’ film Return of Secaucus 7 would be one of the 25 films selected in 1997 for preservation in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
Spielberg commissioned Sayles to write the script for Jurassic Park 4. Sayles’ cinematic scope casts a wide penumbra on diverse subject matter. Sayles’ film Baby It’s You was the first film ever to feature the music of Bruce Springsteen. Sayles also filmed Springsteen’s videos “Born In the U.S.A”, “Glory Days” and “I’m On Fire”.
Sayles’ Honeydripper tells the story of a family dealing with domestic, cultural and musical changes. Danny Glover’s character, "Pine Top" Purvis, an old piano player tries to save his juke joint by recruiting a hotshot guitar legend for one last glorious night which will make or break the establishment’s future. Stacy Keach plays a cantankerous sheriff. The film’s house band includes Gary Clark on guitar, STAX legend Dr. Mable John (who served as a Ray Charles Raylette), Henderson Huggins on piano and Howlin’ Wolf’s saxophone player Eddie Shaw.
Mr. Sayles was generous to extend his time to Swampland. In this interview we discuss his latest film, southern culture, filming in Hank Williams’ hometown, Flannery O’Connor, southern literature, the all-star musical cast of Honeydripper and other gems from one of America’s great filmmakers.
Your cinematic geography never stays in one place. You’ve filmed in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, West Virginia, and many other locations, but with Honeydripper you’ve finally filmed in Alabama:
JS: Yes, this is the first time I would say we’ve worked in the traditional Deep South.
In Honeydripper, Keb Mo’s character is not the Devil, but a very mischievous spirit. Discuss your intention with that fabled character…the blind, bottleneck slide player who seems to know the musicians' secrets…
JS: The way I explained it to Kevin (Keb Mo) Moore that he was kind of a spirit to the music and very mischievous. So, for Danny Glover’s character…only two characters can see the blind guitarist, and they’re both musicians. For Danny Glover’s character he’s really the ghost of Christmas past. This spirit reminds Glover’s character of this murder he was involved in and this dogs Glover’s character in his mind. Then for Gary Clark’s character, he’s really the guy who makes sure he gets there for his date with destiny. He kind of pushes the music forward. So, yeah, he’s not the Devil at the crossroads, but he really knows that guy.
Yeah, like he says…the Devil has the first guitar, and this guy has the second one.
The economy of dialogue in Honeydripper is excellent. Southerners are militant about how they are portrayed in film and I think this movie does not shame southerners.
JS: I spent quite a bit of time in the south as a kid. I had relatives in southern Florida and in Jacksonville. They even lived in Georgia for a while. So I remember coming down and just soaking up the language. One of the things you realize is that any state has three or four accents.
You play the liquor man in the film.
JS: Yeah, I just went and hung out at the Piggly Wiggly and it all came back to me.
You were the meanest guy in the movie.
JS: Just about. It’s one of those things where I kept asking myself…I’m 6’4 and Danny is 6’2, and I felt like without pushing it too much, I thought it might help a little bit.
Talk about filming Honeydripper in Hank Williams’ home town.
JS: We really didn’t know until we settled on the place and started talking to some of the people who run the town. We just liked the look of it. We knew we were going to be shooting in Greenville, which is about ten minutes north. We scouted both Arkansas and Alabama because we needed cotton and a de-commissioned army base because we needed barracks still standing that we wouldn’t have to build. As we looked around for the main street of the town we found Georgiana (Hank’s hometown). It’s one of those towns where most of the new stuff is not on the main street. You might have a shopping mall, but it’s a couple of blocks away so that those railroad tracks were still there. Two of the four were still active so we had to work around the trains. We had to have warning from the CSX when to get off the tracks. Then we started getting Hank stories from all the local people. He’s very popular there now, but I think when he was around he was considered a sort of juvenile delinquent.
The hometown syndrome?
JS: Yeah. A lot of stories of driving Hank unconscious from the honky tonk and parking him asleep in his car in the church parking lot because he promised to sing a church song the next day. Ten minutes before he’d sing, someone would wake him up, and he’d come in and sing at church. In Honeydripper I tried to get some of that duality. There were people who were just church people and some were just honky tonk people, and some tried to do both. Hank was somebody who throughout his life those were two strands of his music that were very important to him and very popular.
In Honeydripper, Glover’s wife, Delilah, walks a fine line between those two worlds.
JS: She’s somebody who says in the film, ‘I sang in those bars, and that her first redemption was meeting him' (Glover) and he got her out of drinking too much and feeling bad about herself. Now she’s heading for her second redemption. If you think about those people who pick cotton—and it was white people as well as black people. Everybody we met under 50 in that part of Alabama had picked cotton when they were a kid. For a lot of those poor sharecroppers and itinerant pickers, Saturday night was where you transcended that tough life that you’re going to go back to Monday. Then if there was a revival tent and they often stayed for a whole week—that was like the circus coming to town. That was not just religious transcendence, but it was entertainment. There was music and you got to dress up and see your neighbors and get into the spirit of things. Delilah is trying to wrestle with this thing—she’s hearing the preacher and things at church that her husband might be a bad man, but she knows in her heart that’s not true. She’s trying to figure that out.
In some ways, she’s the hero…
JS: I think so. What I told Lisa Gay Hamilton (Delilah) there’s a Reverend telling her the Lord is telling you where you’ve got to be, and then all of a sudden the Lord tells her where she’s got to be, and…
…It’s by her husband…
JS: Yes, by her husband. As much as he’s pissed her off by stealing her daughter’s money or whatever, she understands him and understands how important this situation is because he’s not just fighting for the juke joint. He’s a black man in 1950 in Alabama who is his own man. How did that happen? What does that mean to him? Or the community? That’s what he’s going to lose, not just the four walls of the club.
Stacy Keach really did a great job in portraying a rural southern sheriff.
JS: Well, you know, Stacy is from Savannah originally, so he came up down there. He was saying when I hired him the first two movies he shot were in Alabama. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was shot in Selma. He made a movie called The Traveling Executioner that was shot in Alabama. He’s spent a lot of time down there. His way of controlling people in the town is to keep them off balance. So, sometimes he’s humorous, sometimes he’s friendly and in the same sentence almost he can turn on you and get right up in your face.
…One minute he says his wife’s cooking is awful…
JS: …And in the next he’s arresting you for vagrancy and selling you to the highest bidder as an unpaid county laborer. So, he’s corrupt and he’s racist in a kind of paternal way, but he’s not a sadist or murderer. He’s a guy who—I think—controls his town fairly well by knowing as much as he can about people. So, his scenes with Danny Glover’s character are loaded. He hasn’t figured this guy out yet. He bemused—sometimes mad—and amused because this guy pushes back. What gives?
...An intense atmosphere for Alabama in 1950...
JS: It was always personal. People know each other as mothers—they know the other’s history. So they had no mercy on anyone from the outside. So, this kid guitar player who comes in on the train, of course he’s going to get picked up by the cops, and thrown onto the chain gang. There’s no history with him so they don’t owe him anything. Whereas, those towns—the racism was there, but those people also kind of took care of each other and they certainly knew each other. People with the same name—some white—some black—and they knew how they had the same name. it was extremely personal.
It must have been thrilling to have Mable Jones—one of Ray Charles' Raylette’s-- in Honeydripper.
JS: Oh yeah. It was one of the things that was the most fun in the movie. First of all, I got to steep myself in the music of that moment. Some of the point of the film is all these people were listening to each other. There’s gospel, there’s jump, there’s swing, there’s old fashioned steel guitar blues, there’s pop ballads, and there’s country western. I used a Hank Williams song—you know—in the movie “Move It On Over”, which if you listen carefully is “Rock Around the Clock”. It’s rockabilly before anyone was calling it rockabilly. Then to get these good musicians—Benny Shaw used to play with Howlin’ Wolf for many years. Mable, of course, had her own career as a singer. She ran the Raylettes for Ray Charles. Gary—the guitar player—is a phenomenon. We got lucky. A fellow we know who runs the South By Southwest music festival, the minute he heard what we were doing he said, ‘He might be too young, but you’ve got to check this kid out. He was born and raised in Austin, playing this music since he was 14'. To get them all together on the stage is what you hear in the movie—except for Danny Glover, who’s faking the piano. Although he took lessons, his hands are in the right place…everything is live. A solo was different on every take. They were just listening to each other, jamming on a general theme we gave them.
How long did it take to film Honeydripper?
JS: We have a very ambitious movie on a relatively low budget. You plan a lot and then shoot very little. We only had five weeks to shoot. We only had Danny Glover for three and a half weeks because he had a movie before us and a movie after us, so the shooting was very intense. We were in Alabama a couple of months planning things and making sure the locations made sense—working out the schedule to get the actors in the same room at the same time. There’s a couple of shots where Danny is looking at Keb Mo and they weren’t there together, which is kind of appropriate because Keb Mo is a ghost. Danny didn’t have to work too hard. He didn’t have to talk to anyone. We had a couple curve balls thrown at us. You wake up in the morning and the cotton field we were going to shoot had been picked overnight because they were afraid there was gonna be rain. The machines pick the cotton so fast, so we’d have to have an emergency scouting report and find some more cotton we could shoot in. the people in the towns were really nice. That revival tent scene—The New Beginning Ministry—those 8 people singing are the best of their singers and all the people in the congregation sing as well, so that was tough picking eight people who get to sing the gospel. Albert Hall was the actor who plays the reverend—you might remember him from Apocalypse Now—he was the captain of the boat…
…They called him Chief…
JS: …That’s right. He gets the spear in the chest at the end. He’s from Bessemer, Alabama. So he remembered the revivals because he went as a kid. The call and response from the people was the whole thing. We’d just say, ‘You’re going to have church for a while. He’s going to repeat the sermon a couple of times.' We tried not to do it too often, but we got such energy from the local people. Like everywhere I’ve filmed—on Amelia Island, Texas, Louisiana--and hiring 15-20 people for smaller parts, they’ve got the accent. They understand the story and we didn’t have to fly them there. It’s a nice bond with the community.
The music from Honeydripper will appear as a soundtrack, right?
JS: Yeah, Rhino Records will do a soundtrack that will come out in early February when we go wider with the movie.
I think Danny Glover rises to the occasion in this film.
JS: He’s the guy having the crisis. This character grew up with music. Blues doesn’t go back that far…it goes back just before 1900 in the Mississippi Delta. He’s 50 in 1950. So, he’s somebody who’s grown up with the music. He’s played in New Orleans with Buddy Bolden and was at least around when they were playing. Then he went through the jazz into swing—his big era with the touring bands and still plays boogie woogie—and traditional blues and now there’s this new thing on the horizon. A subplot to the movie there was this brief battle in the early fifties between the guitar and the piano for a struggle of dominance. The minute they got the solid body guitar and amplifier that went with it, the piano players’ days were numbered in rock and roll. Y’know, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and Professor Longhair held out and still had careers, but I think it was just portability. You think of a poor kid who can get that four dollar Sears & Roebuck guitar in the mail…
…And get on the train with it…
JS: Yes, exactly. You can’t take a piano on a train. Those garage bands in the sixties until the electronic fold-up keyboards you could put in the van came out it just wasn’t portable. So kids stopped learning how to play the piano. The saxophone wandered off to jazz. The Muscle Shoals sound kept those instruments around. Later Bruce Springsteen brought it around with Clarence Clemmons, but the guitar really took over and I think that’s what this character is sensing. He knows there’s a place for him in the music, but he’s not the lead guy anymore.
It’s a changing of the guard.
JS: Yeah, you know it happened in the movies when they went from silent to talkies. I just think about the guys in the negro baseball leagues in their 30s and their 40s when baseball integrated. They know they weren’t going to get called up when they had Jackie Robinson. The negro leagues died within four years of integration. But, I’m always interested in those big sea changes. Who are the one’s who can jump on this new thing? Who are the one’s who stay behind?
Like walking a tightrope between cultural boundaries…
JS: Yes. For example, Bob Dylan could’ve said, ‘Hey, I’m a folk musician. I’m not playing electric guitars'. But he saw, ‘My God, what could I do with that thing?' It was a good decision for him.
You’re a formidable fiction writer, what are your feelings about the writing of the southern writer Flannery O’Connor?
JS: She’s unique. She’s one of those people that I’m a big fan of. There’s such a strong tradition of fiction writing in the south. Flannery O’Connor is one of those southern writers who are absolutely unique—a different way from looking at the world. Her stuff is very spiritual in a way and very strange in a way. I think she’s in the same tradition as Eudora Welty. Harry Crews is a guy I really like. Of course, Faulkner, but John Huston made Flannery’s Wise Blood which was a nice little movie within that literature. She’s not adapted many times I think because she’s so unique and poetic. You hear traces of those writers music in Lucinda Williams.
I also think The Drive By Truckers…
JS: True. Lucinda’s father was a professor at LSU of literature. I met her one time and she met Eudora Welty at a University class. A lot other imagery, fun and darkness really come out in her music.
Have you seen Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men?
JS: I haven’t seen it. I’m a friend of the Coen Brothers, so I’m looking forward to it. Somebody told me they were going to make Blood Meridian which is the goriest, scariest book I’ve ever read. So, I don’t know how they are going to pull it off. He’s an intriguing writer—he’s a little bit more on the Texas side of the southern writers these days.
Back To Honeydripper, I think Glover did a fine job singing Howlin Wolf’s “Goin’ Down Slow”.
I asked Danny if he played any instruments when I first met him and he said no. But being an actor, when we told him he was playing a piano player, he started taking a bunch of lessons. So, we took the guts out of a piano and he was just banging away. It’s physical that playing. A lot of clubs were so small; they had to learn to play standing up because there was no room onstage for a piano stool. Nobody is a boogie woogie piano player who starts playing past the age of fifty.
So, Honeydripper hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles December 28?
JS: New York and L.A. to qualify for an Academy Award. Then it will open wider basically starting on Martin Luther Kind Day. In Atlanta we’re doing a big thing down there. Generally, it will open in February. For us, it’s a small independent movie when you start you hope to grow from there. We’ll hit about 40 cities and hopefully wider. I know we’re going to Savannah and Memphis and Atlanta. We’re doing a big thing with Hands on Atlanta. You’re in Atlanta, right?
JS: I lived in Atlanta for a little bit in the early seventies right when they were tearing everything down (laughs)…expanding the city. There was a joke at the time, if Atlanta is the Athens of Georgia, then what’s Athens? Its hip there, they’ve got a lot going on.
Well, good luck with Honeydripper and thanks for your time.
JS: Thanks James, it was good talking with you.