Beyond Borders: John Sayles on Lone Star and America’s morally murky legacy

Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) unearths the sins of the past in Lone Star (1996).
Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) unearths the sins of the past in Lone Star (1996).

With the arrival of Lone Star on 4K Blu-ray from Criterion, independent-cinema icon John Sayles speaks to Mitchell Beaupre about political filmmaking, the difficulty of both making and distributing movies—and how we should all forget the Alamo.

We have to accept some complexity and we have to accept that culture and history are battlefields, but we’re not in this fight. We’re watching it, but maybe by watching it from a little bit of distance, we can learn something about how other people see it and really have a better idea of what probably really did go on.

—⁠John Sayles

“John Sayles does not make bad films,” writes Sam in their four-star review of Silver City. The Letterboxd data holds that to be true: Across eighteen feature films, the average rating for Sayles’s filmography is a mighty impressive 3.6 out of five, in a career spanning back to 1980’s Return of the Secaucus Seven. From the beginning, Sayles was a bootstrap independent who has become an icon for the pioneering spirit of those making movies outside the studio system. Secaucus Seven was self-funded with $30,000 that Sayles earned writing scripts for Roger Corman, a practice he continued to employ by writing or doctoring screenplays—including Alligator and Apollo 13—to finance his directorial work alongside his producer and partner Maggie Renzi.

Beginning his career as an author, it’s easy to see how Sayles’s literary background channels into his features. The novelistic sprawl of characters spreading perspectives across numerous cultures and communities allow us insight into a world outside of our own. That’s certainly true of Lone Star, his 1996 tale of sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper, in one of many collaborations between the actor and director).

Deeds returns to the Texan border town he grew up in, where he tries to uncover the 30-year-old mystery of a former sheriff (Kris Kristofferson) who many believe was murdered by Sam’s father, Buddy (Matthew McConaughey). Not that the town minds, as Buddy is about to be celebrated with a local courthouse named in his honor. At the same time, Sam begins to reconnect with former high school flame Pilar (a transcendent Elizabeth Peña), while Army Colonel Delmore Payne (Joe Morton) arrives in town with his own complicated history and familial conflicts.

In a review of his 1992 film Passion Fish, Corey remarks, “I worry that John Sayles will be forgotten by film culture. His films are exquisite little masterpieces that they don’t make in America anymore… Watch this or any John Sayles film right now.” Immersing yourself in a Sayles picture feels like being transported to a different time—not just in his ability to fully engulf you in a location but because these types of humanist, sensitive stories that encourage dimensional understanding of others are tough to come by in our current landscape. It’s a reason why Sayles hasn’t had a feature made in over a decade. As Liana puts it, “John Sayles, that magnificent bastard, is a true independent.”

Not only has it been tough for Sayles to get movies funded but once they’re out in the world, it can be nearly impossible to have them seen and preserved. Many of his films, like 1999’s existential Alaskan masterpiece Limbo, are only available on DVD, while others, such as 2010’s Amigo, can’t be found anywhere—not for physical or digital purchase, nor even on a streaming service. Lone Star was one such title. Despite an Oscar nomination for Sayles’s screenplay, and being his most popular film on Letterboxd, it had only been released on DVD until The Criterion Collection came along with their stunning new 4K Blu-ray release this month. We can only hope that more of Sayles’s work receives this deserved treatment soon.

Movies can disappear, and sometimes they disappear because the distributors disappear and they sell their library to another distributor and then they disappear. You have to spend half a year, and then you call up MGM and say, ‘You own our movie.’ They say, ‘No, we don’t,’ and you go, ‘Well, check. Actually, you do own our movie. It’s just sitting there in a vault.’

—⁠John Sayles

John Sayles with Matthew McConaughey on set. — Credit… The Criterion Collection
John Sayles with Matthew McConaughey on set. Credit… The Criterion Collection

There’s this great interview on the Lone Star Criterion disc between you and director Gregory Nava. In it, you talk about a trip you took to the Alamo when you were shooting your cameo in Piranha. It feels like that trip built a throughline straight to Lone Star’s final momentous line of Pilar saying, “Forget the Alamo”. Did that trip instantly fuse that concept into your head of wanting to make a film about how we should, indeed, forget the Alamo?
John Sayles: Yeah, it made me think about the legend and the idea of ‘Why do we have legends?’ Some of it is to tell ourselves and the world, “This is who we are. This is how we got there, and this is something to celebrate that we did that defines us.” I started thinking about how legends can eventually become destructive when they’re so far from the truth and when they leave the reality of the present out. The first thing in those days, when you walked into the Alamo, that you saw was a not-especially-good oil painting. It was an oil painting, [but] not of somebody’s imagination of the day of the attack. It was an oil painting of the three stars of the John Wayne version of The Alamo—so it’s Laurence Harvey and Richard Widmark and John Wayne.

I said, “Oh, okay. Here’s the legend. Here’s Hollywood right in the place.” The Daughters of the [Republic of Texas] put that there, and there was this demonstration by some Chicano people outside who were saying, “Why don’t you tell the whole story?” I started looking into the story a little bit more, and I knew some of the history, but I was just feeling like, ‘Oh, wow.’ The important part of the legend is that one of the main freedoms the Texans were fighting for was the right to have slaves because Mexico had outlawed slavery. That’s always left out.

It’s not just Texas. I mean, the stuff that I was taught growing up in New York state about our history was pretty bogus as well. As we know today, that scene [in Lone Star] where the teachers and parents are arguing about how history is going to be taught, well, that’s still going on. That scene could have been shot yesterday. In some states, the state has decided, “Well, we’re not going to leave it up to the teachers and the parents. We’re going to say how you have to teach history, and you better leave a lot of the truth out.”

That scene certainly had me thinking about the discourse these days around critical race theory, and how heated that has become in the last few years especially. Lone Star does a great job of interrogating how this country and its education system has been formed under these white supremacist and white patriarchal hierarchies. How much legacy is determined by who is allowed to tell the story to the next generation.
Like a lot of my movies and novels, Lone Star deals with a lot of different camps who have their reason to feel like, “Well, this is our group and that’s those other groups.” Then it talks about how they affect each other and what their picture of that other group is. What I was interested in is how nobody starts from scratch. Even the history that you have comes from the group that you were born into. You may choose to or not choose to look into that history and question it, so it’s a lens. Critical race theory is a very specific lens to look at history. It’s not the only way to look at history. You could do it from a feminist perspective, or a class perspective. So, if you’re a Marxist, it’s “Oh, forget all that ethnic stuff. It’s really all about class.”

What I’m interested in, and I do this even more in my novels, is people’s points of view and seeing, okay, here’s their belief system. Here’s the lens that they see the world through. We, the audience, however, are getting to see it through all these lenses. To do that, we have to accept some complexity, and we have to accept that culture and history are battlefields, but we’re not in this fight. We’re watching it, but maybe by watching it from a little bit of distance, we can learn something about how other people see it and really have a better idea of what probably really did go on.

The nice thing that I had going, and one of the reasons that I set the movie up the way that I did, is that families are a good metaphor for that and vice versa. The official story of your family may be, “Well, Dad has a drink now and then,” when really it is, “Dad’s an alcoholic, and he’s made our lives miserable.” Maybe when you have your own kids, and Dad comes and he ruins another family gathering, you say, “We’re going to have an intervention.” Well, the intervention was either not possible or you didn’t have the nerve to suggest it when you were thirteen years old. That lie is one that, well, to just survive, we have to accept this thing as normal.

One of the things you try to do when you’re talking about history is have it play out through the lives of people. Not have somebody say, “And then in 1947, this party did that,” which is why it’s so hard to learn history at school. I got to go to college, and I never took a history class. My interest in it has come from other places and also just, “Well, I’m not going to go to one source for it because even if they’re good, they’re going to have a certain lens. I’m going to have to go to a bunch of them if I’m going to really understand what went on there.”

Sam and Pilar (Elizabeth Peña) rekindle their old passion.
Sam and Pilar (Elizabeth Peña) rekindle their old passion.

You’re often described as being a political filmmaker, and I find that a curious label because although your films are inherently political, you’re never sermonizing. Something that’s so frustrating in this country right now is how hard people work to try to separate politics from people. What’s effective about your work is that you understand how politics are inherently about people. It affects everything because it’s all tied into who we are and how we relate to one another.
I think one thing that helped me even before I started making movies, when I was just writing fiction, was that I had been an actor. When you’re an actor and you’re trying to say, “Well, here’s the text, but who is this person who’s saying these lines in this situation?”, you start thinking about, ‘Are they educated? Are they religious? Are they from a certain group? Are they Orthodox Jewish or are they reformed or are they in the, “well, we’re Jewish, but we don’t really do any of that stuff”?’

All those things are history and politics. So when I come to make characters, I want to know that stuff. It’s like Otis says to his grandson, “Yes, by DNA, you are part Indian, but you can claim it or not. People look at you and they say, ‘African American.’ They’re not going to say, ‘Hey, you look like an Indian to me,’ because you don’t to most people. But if you want to claim that, look into it.”

Most people, we’ve got all kinds of crazy shit going on in this country now, but it is not in our heads 24/7 unless we are working in politics. That was true of Nazi Germany, and that was true of the Civil Rights Movement. It was one of the main things that was going on; you might be on the front lines, or it might be on the evening news in the background because you were not even watching the evening news, somebody else was. What you do is always affected by politics, whether you know it or want to admit it or not, and sometimes it’s really affected by it.

Exactly, it’s affecting everything, whether you’re subconsciously soaking that in or consciously thinking about that in the moment.
Yeah. An interesting movie that made me think about that was Shampoo, because it seems like it’s this drama about LA people and their affairs and hairdressers and stuff like that. But constantly through the movie, there’s all this stuff about Nixon and what’s going on in the country that these people are basically paying almost no attention to. I thought that was interesting. They’re not ignoring politics. They’re just saying, “Here’s what most people do—is not pay attention.”

Son Chris Cooper meets father Kris Kristofferson behind the scenes. — Credit… The Criterion Collection
Son Chris Cooper meets father Kris Kristofferson behind the scenes. Credit… The Criterion Collection

We realized, okay, this is a guy who really prepares. We really got a performance there, but he’s also directable. That ability to carry a subtext and feel it without showing it all the time was a lot of what we were looking for. Plus he’s got that iconic American, almost Gary Cooper thing.

—⁠John Sayles on Chris Cooper

We’ve got to talk about the flashbacks in Lone Star, which are ingeniously constructed. Doing them completely in-camera, with no cut or dissolve. It’s startling to me that we haven’t seen a million movies emulate that flashback approach because it so firmly places you into the memory not just of these people but of this place.
When we started getting a little bit of a budget for our movies, I could do more with the camera and tell more of the story with the camera. One of the main things a cut does is say the stuff on this side of the cut is one thing, and the stuff on the other side of the cut is something else. It’s like a border. What I wanted was a movie where people are carrying this stuff that happened in their earlier lives with them. There’s not a point where they say, “Oh, no. I’m a new person. I don’t have to think about that anymore.” It’s part of who they are, so I didn’t want a cut within them or even a dissolve, which is a way to erase the line a little bit.

I also wanted the people, when they were telling the story, to have this combination because they’re telling it to Sam Deeds. So, I want to say, “Well, we’re going to start as the person says it, and it’s going to just drift off.” We’re seeing it the way they are telling it. By the end of it, we’re seeing it the way that Sam Deeds now has it in his head. Often, when we come out of it, we don’t come back to the person who’s telling the story, we come back to him. He might even be in a different place when we come back to him, so he’s carrying that story with him.

What I said to Chris Cooper while we were doing it was, “Look. This is like a detective thing, but you’ve got a lot of skin in the game here because you’re not just saying what happened on the night of January 24th, 1957. You’re also saying, ‘What kind of human being was my father?’ and that’s what you’re trying to get at. That’s probably why you came back and took this job that you’re not sure you’re really too happy with. You wouldn’t have taken it in another town.” He’s not like, “I’m going to be a professional lawman the rest of my life.”

It was interesting. A guy who played the young Hollis, the deputy, when he was a young guy, he had been an undercover cop. His job was to go to bars and have a bunch of drinks and listen in this bar where there was a lot of bad stuff going on, and to see if he could find out who was fencing stolen material and stuff like that, and he quit. He said, “First of all, I was becoming an alcoholic because I had to spend all my time in bars, and you can’t just nurse one beer.” He said, “I started liking the guys I was hanging out with more than the guys back at the station, so I’m on the wrong end of this thing.”

Chris Cooper in Matewan (1987), his debut film performance.
Chris Cooper in Matewan (1987), his debut film performance.

You’ve worked with Chris Cooper many times, even casting him in his first film role in Matewan. Watching that movie, I was astonished that it was his debut performance. Like yourself in a way, he’s this American independent legend, and yet somehow still underrated because he’s not a showboating kind of actor. What was it that stood out to you about him from the jump with that film and has kept you working with him so often throughout your career?
When we cast for Matewan, we thought we had almost two million dollars to make it. Chris was the first actor who came in, which was a disadvantage. He had been in the NYU student film of our friend Nancy Savoca, and she recommended we see this guy. We were all like, “That was quiet and intense, and boy, he was pretty good.” Then we saw a lot of other actors and we didn’t know, and then the money fell through. Then we made another movie in-between and did some rock videos and stuff like that.

So when we came back to it, once again, he was the first actor who came in, which is a disadvantage. [Laughs] At the end of the day, even though there were some very well-known actors who came in and were pretty good, [I said,] “I think it’s that guy.” We thought, ‘Well, he never smiles.’ Then I looked at the script and I said, “There’s not much smiling in Matewan for that character. I don’t think he has to.” [Laughs] Then we just realized, okay, this is a guy who really prepares. We really got a performance there, but he’s also directable. That ability to carry a subtext and feel it without showing it all the time was a lot of what we were looking for. Plus he’s got that iconic American, almost Gary Cooper thing.

Then later on I learned, “Oh, he rode a horse when he was a kid, and his dad had some cattle, so he’s comfortable doing that.” One of the things is I think he’s an actor directors want to work with. He’s not necessarily one who will get your movie financed, because there are so few of those, and he’s picky. He doesn’t do that many things. At one point, he said, “I’m not playing any more FBI guys,” because they’re usually not that interesting. He did play one who was giving away secrets to the Russians. He said, “Well, how can I top that as an FBI guy?” [Laughs]

It’s been ten years since your last feature, Go for Sisters. Is that all just trouble getting something financed in this market these days?
I haven’t gotten to make a movie with other people’s money—OPM—for twenty years. So it’s just like, “Okay, well, how much money do I have? Do I have anything that I could possibly make for that little money?” [Go for Sisters] was self-financed, and I think we self-financed Amigo in the Philippines. I think we self-financed Honeydripper. Unless you get an awful lot of writing work or the movie makes a lot of money, you’re not going to be able to finance another movie.

The hardest thing to get made for anybody right now is a standalone feature, especially if it’s not a pure genre thing. If it’s just a drama, it’s really hard. I know a bunch of people who are just having an awful time. They could go and direct TV series episodes if they wanted to, but as far as a standalone feature, it has really gotten to be, “Well, who’s going to be in it?”, which is why we see the same people in movie after movie after movie. Like, “Oh, geez. Do they all hang out in the same place?”

A lot of your films are either completely unavailable or just on some old DVD, and they deserve the type of boutique-label remastered treatment that Lone Star has gotten. Are there any in particular you’d love to see be brought back into the public eye with this sort of spotlight?
Movies can disappear, and sometimes they disappear because the distributors disappear and they sell their library to another distributor and then they disappear. You have to spend half a year, and then you call up MGM and say, “You own our movie.” They say, “No, we don’t,” and you go, “Well, check. Actually, you do own our movie. It’s just sitting there in a vault.” If you’re lucky, it’s in the vault and they didn’t throw it away. I think City of Hope is the one that didn’t get seen. It got the best reviews from what I’ve been told of any of our movies, but they all had the word grim in the first sentence. “Okay, let’s go see something grim, honey. What’s out there that’s grim?” [Laughs]

Honeydripper didn’t get seen enough. A bunch of them. There is a copyright law that we are hoping to take advantage of, probably soon. I think we do now own Matewan. In the case like me, where I’m the writer and director, especially when we made it with our own money, but even when we didn’t, there’s a clear case that after so many years you can just say, “We want the rights back.”

Now, you have to live for a long time. [Laughs] It’s like 27 years or something like that, but some of those are coming due. So, I hope that either we can get the people who actually own them—if it’s MGM or some of the others who have big libraries—to exploit them, to put them out there again and spend the $15,000 or whatever it’s going to be to remaster them, or they just say, “Oh, yeah, it’s your movie. Do what you want with it.” Then we’ll try to raise the money to get it out in another form. The nice thing is that it is there. I mean, when people used to make movies, they weren’t even showing on TV yet.

It was really this short-lived phenomenon. If you didn’t see it, unless it was Gone with the Wind and they bring it out every other year, it’s just gone. Then when you saw them on TV, they were edited for TV, and there were commercials in them and stuff like that. So we’re doing better than people used to be doing as far as being able to find movies, but still, there’s a lot of them that just get lost under the furniture.


Lone Star’ is now available on 4K Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

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