All aboard 

Silver City Express comes to Colorado Springs

click to enlarge Chris Cooper as grammatically challenged gubernatorial - candidate Dickie Pilager in Silver City.
  • Chris Cooper as grammatically challenged gubernatorial candidate Dickie Pilager in Silver City.

In the new John Sayles film, Silver City, Colorado is holding a gubernatorial election, and a bumbling senator's son, Dickie Pilager, is the dominant candidate. Dickie represents corporate interests; advocates privatization of government lands and programs; and wants a government that stands for "traditional family values" and "respects the sanctity of human life." Sometimes, when he's giving speeches he gets a little tongue tied.

Sound familiar?

In his 15th feature film, Sayles has turned a sly eye toward politics -- how electoral politics works, the role of corporate interests and lobbyists, the maneuvering of public opinion, and the general destructiveness of a system that focuses more on power and less on the issues that affect regular people.

The film is staged as a detective noir with an environmental mystery at its core, and like many Sayles films, is made up of numerous swirling subplots and populated by an extended ensemble cast, this time including Chris Cooper, Danny Huston, Kris Kristofferson, Daryl Hannah, Richard Dreyfuss, Billy Zane, Maria Bello, Tim Roth, Thora Birch and many others.

Set in Colorado, Silver City was shot over six weeks last year in Denver, Leadville and Idaho Springs and is set for a Sept. 17 national release.

On Thursday, Sept. 9, Silver City will be screened at an exclusive premiere at Kimball's Twin Peak Theater as part of the Silver City Express, a three-day bus caravan from Santa Fe to Denver to promote the film and to raise funds and awareness for progressive causes that promote a healthier democracy. Sayles, his life and producing partner Maggie Renzi, actors Cooper and Kristofferson, cartoonist Dan Perkins (aka Tom Tomorrow) and singer Steve Earle will all be part of the Express event, which is sponsored by the Independent.

Sayles started out writing short stories and novels, and at the age of 27 was nominated for the National Book Critics' Circle and National Book Awards for his novel Union Dues. He turned to filmmaking with the 1980 cult favorite Return of the Secaucus Seven, in which both he and Renzi acted. The film was shot for $40,000 and won the L.A. Film Critics Award for Best Screenplay, helping to launch the American independent film movement.

Sayles financed some of his own projects with money made penning screenplays for horror flick maven Roger Corman, including scripts for Piranha, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Howling and Alligator.

In his career, 54-year-old Sayles has acted in an acclaimed stage production of The Glass Menagerie with Joanne Woodward and Karen Allen; directed "Glory Days," "Born in the USA," and "I'm on Fire" videos for Bruce Springsteen; wrote award-winning movies for television; wrote over 50 screenplays; and acted in numerous films, including several of his own, Jonathan Demme's Something Wild and Spike Lee's Malcolm X. In the early 1980s, he received the John D. MacArthur Award (frequently called the MacArthur "Genius" Award), and he has also been honored with the Eugene V. Debs Award, the John Steinbeck Award and the John Cassavettes Award, as well as a 1998 Writers Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award.

He has twice been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his films Passion Fish and Lone Star. In addition to writing and directing, he is one of the few directors who edit their own work.

Renzi has produced, co-produced or worked as unit manager on nearly all of Sayles' movies and has acted in many of them. She is perhaps best known to moviegoers as Kate in Return of the Secaucus Seven, host of the famed weekend reunion that was precursor to The Big Chill and the entire reunion genre.

In 2000, Renzi co-produced Karyn Kusama's independent film Girlfight, the Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance.

The Independent spoke to Sayles and Renzi from their home in upstate New York about Silver City, filming in Colorado, and the current state of electoral politics.

Indy: Is it a coincidence that the film is being released at the height of the presidential election campaign or did you plan it that way?

Sayles: We kind of aimed at it. We've done political movies before about political and social situations, but this is the first time I've done something about electoral politics during an election. We were working on Sunshine State right after the last presidential election and so many people were telling us the real story wasn't the chads, but the number of African-Americans who were not allowed to vote. People were being denied the right to vote -- on purpose. This was no accident. It was a well-planned campaign to keep black people from voting. We wondered, Why isn't the national media making a stink of this?

click to enlarge Director, screenwriter, editor John Sayles has made 15 - feature films, written more than 50 scripts and has twice - been nominated for the Academy Award.
  • Director, screenwriter, editor John Sayles has made 15 feature films, written more than 50 scripts and has twice been nominated for the Academy Award.

Renzi: Last June, we knew the film we wanted to make, and we knew we wanted it to come out prior to the election.

Indy: And how did you proceed? How did you get it financed?

Renzi: We put the studios in an unusual position because we needed an immediate answer from them. I determined that we'd need $6 million to make the film and we brought it in at $5.5 million. I'd like to think now that had they known what a splendid cast we'd have, that they would have been willing to take a risk. Sometimes funding comes from private sources, and in this case, the main sources were John and me. We opened all our accounts.

Last year, we were a seriously risk-averse country. That's not so true after Michael Moore's success with Fahrenheit 9/11.

Sayles: $5.5 million is high for an independent film, and incredibly low for an ambitious Hollywood film with multiple story lines and characters and location shooting. We're as good as you can get at making an ambitious movie with the least amount of money. The cast works for union scale; everybody gets paid the same.

Indy: Did you have Chris Cooper in mind for the character of Dickie Pilager?

Sayles: As a matter of fact, I didn't. We were originally thinking of him playing Kris Kristofferson's character, [corporate mogul and cowboy] Wes Benteen. As we kept thinking about it, we realized that playing Dickie wasn't just somebody doing an impression; it needed to be somebody absolutely earnest [about politics], just really bad at it.

Renzi: Chris Cooper is one of our best friends. I was telling his wife about the character and the script and she said, "Is John going to show it to Chris?" She said, "You've gotta know, Chris does this Bush thing just to drive me crazy." We knew he had this in his bag of tricks. But he said he couldn't do it if it was just a parlor trick. His character is not exactly George Bush and it's much more than an impersonation.

Indy: It seems as if Danny O'Brien will be a real breakthrough role for Danny Huston, an actor most people don't know.

Sayles: Danny has mostly been trying to direct. He's one of [director] John Huston's sons; he comes from that legacy and started as a director. Recently he was in 21 Grams; he gets killed six or seven times in that.

There's a kind of art to his character. At first he seems kind of bumbling; he's not a very good investigator because he doesn't care about it much, then he gets his sense of moral outrage back in the end, as well as Maria Bello who's not a bad consolation prize [laughs].

He's got this nice 1940s, '50s feeling to him, like Fred MacMurray in some of his better roles.

Indy: In the movie, one of the characters says of Dickie, "There's not a corrupt bone in Dickie Pilager's body; he's just user friendly." Is this how you perceive George Bush, that he's an OK guy surrounded by cynical people who make the decisions?

Sayles: Let's just say that [Dickie] is very much based on George Bush when he was running for governor of Texas the first time.

I think he has his own ideas, and I think they're close enough to the ideas of the people around him.

The question for us all is: Do we expect our presidents, our politicians, to be the ones who come up with the big ideas? Certainly Ronald Reagan didn't. He was a great trained spokesman, starting with his work for General Electric. When the real policy-makers put their heads together and said, "Who are we going to elect?" someone said, "How about this Reagan guy?"

click to enlarge Richard Dreyfuss, Billy Zane and Chris Cooper as - campaign manager, lobbyist and candidate in Silver - City.
  • Richard Dreyfuss, Billy Zane and Chris Cooper as campaign manager, lobbyist and candidate in Silver City.

It's the same thing with George Bush. He was kind of adopted by the right-wing people who made policy for his father. They were looking for someone with a name; he had the Bush name and that alone was already worth 10 points. They threw enormous amounts of money at him when he was running against Ann Richards for governor of Texas. His policies were clear then: Pull back on EPA rules, be corporate friendly, and so on.

That's a lot of what I tried to put into Silver City. The special interest groups, most big corporations -- that's whose bidding these politicians are going to do. The question is: Do we accept this idea?

Indy: Much of the film explored the idea of the manipulation of language by special interests, for example the lobbyist character played by Billy Zane calling a position paper the Environmental Heritage Initiative when it's really a Developers' Bill of Rights.

Sayles: That cynicism comes through in the character of Chuck Raven, Dickie's campaign manager, played by Richard Dreyfuss. He's keeping his candidate on the script. We don't really want to say what we're doing; in fact, we'll say one thing when we're doing the exact opposite.

I think it's important to talk about this. For example, I feel like our soldiers are being sent over to Iraq to be low-paid security [forces] for Halliburton, not to do the bidding of the voters.

This raises another important question for us all -- to some extent Americans expect to be lied to, even kind of want to be lied to. What got me writing Men With Guns was that during the first Gulf War there was a poll asking if Americans believed they were getting the whole story. Ninety percent said no. Sixty percent of those said that was OK with them; they just wanted a clean victory and didn't necessarily care if they got the whole story.

To me, that's incredible, to want to be lied to. Then you feel good about yourself and your country until the day you realize the local schools stink, or you've been laid off, or your state is bankrupt, or you can't afford health care.

Indy: Wes Benteen stands for privatization of public lands, a hot-button issue in Colorado. At one point he says to Dickie, "This land was meant for its citizens ... not some damn pencil pusher in Washington. Son, we got resources here you wouldn't believe. Untapped resources. And you and your dad are point men in the fight to liberate these resources for the American people." How did you determine that this was a central issue?

Sayles: We drove out from New York state to scout locations and I met with the Denver Press Club to ask about key issues in Colorado. A journalist directed me to CU historian Patricia Limerick, who talked to me at length about the vast amount of public lands in Colorado. We had come across that in Alaska shooting Limbo.

That has generally been true of the West to a certain extent, although the feds would say you can use it for a very minimal fee, to ranchers for grazing, for instance. Now, the Bush administration and the EPA are trying to turn the clock back and open these lands to private enterprise.

I think the public trust is being betrayed, that these corporations are using the land for things it wasn't meant to be used for, and they're doing it for very little money.

Indy: The film is quite critical of mainstream media and talks a bit about the role of the independent media, something not seen in movies before.

Sayles: We wake up and things have been done, by insiders, and we didn't see it happening. We ask, "How come we didn't find about those things before? Why didn't the news media inform us?"

Sometimes they're just so close to the problem that they don't want to step on the toes of their sources. I don't think the independent media can cover the whole state; they usually go after something very local. I know a lot of people who work on alternative newspapers, who work really, really hard on their local stuff and get a lot of flack for it. They really, really dig and occasionally a story of theirs will have national implications.

If they didn't exist, well, what I see coming out of, say, Gannett papers and others like that is they run the local sports stories, they run easy surface entertainment, they run some AP stuff nationally, but there's not a lot of reporting going on. They don't do a lot of digging. They don't feel that's their job.

Indy: Central to the story is the complicated role of illegal immigrants in various aspects of the labor market. Can you talk about that a bit?

click to enlarge Danny Huston is investigator Danny OBrien and Luis - Saguar is Vince Esparza in John Sayles Silver City.
  • Danny Huston is investigator Danny OBrien and Luis Saguar is Vince Esparza in John Sayles Silver City.

Sayles: To me it's the biggest hypocrisy in the United States today, that we spend a lot of money chasing and killing people in the desert, on the border, but it's understood that if they can get past that line, they'll get a job. It's understood that those industries that hire them exist the way they do partly because of the availability of cheap labor. These guys are sleeping six, 10 to a bedroom. Sometimes they do a job and get stiffed. They have no protection. If they get sick or hurt, too bad. If they have a foreman with a heart, they might get sent home.

Meanwhile, regular wageworkers are getting denied pensions. The minimum wage is way too low. I adapted Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickeled and Dimed and tried to make it into a Showtime movie, and I discovered a formula exists that shows what is an adequate minimum wage. What we have currently is simply not adequate.

Indy: What do you want people to walk away with after seeing Silver City?

Sayles: I would hope that people would leave the theater thinking about other elections, elections I know nothing about, as well as the presidential election. I hope people will think about their participation in politics in general.

Renzi: Some of the conservative press are ready to pair Silver City with other films they haven't seen [laughs]. There's this attitude -- do you think it's appropriate to have a film that criticizes the administration this close to an election? That's just part of their great effort to marginalize everyone who doesn't agree with them. My question is: Why should anyone be expected to listen to Ann Coulter?

I want people to know that the day this film opens in your community, it's election day for us.

-- kathryn@csindy.com

The films of John Sayles
The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980)
A group of college friends reunite for a weekend. Made on a $40,000 budget; won the L.A. Film Critics Award for Best Screenplay

Lianna (1983)
A lonely housewife takes a lesbian lover.

Baby It's You (1983)
Sayles' first studio release by Paramount Pictures, starring Rosanna Arquette, Vincent Spano, Robert Downey Jr. and Matthew Modine in a tale of young love across ethnic and socioeconomic lines.

The Brother From Another Planet (1984)
Joe Morton stars as a black extraterrestrial whose spaceship crashes in the Hudson River, leaving him to wander the streets of Harlem and learn what it is to be an African-American.

click to enlarge Silver City movie poster
  • Silver City movie poster

Matewan (1987)
Sayles' treatment of the violent 1920 West Virginia coalminers' strike. Chris Cooper and Mary McDonnell star and this is Sayles' first collaboration with cinematographer Haskell Wexler who won an Academy Award for photography. Sayles' journals from the shoot were turned into a textbook on the making of Matewan, Thinking in Pictures (Houghton Mifflin, 1987)

Eight Men Out (1988)
The story of the 1919 Black Sox baseball scandal, based on Eliot Asinof's novel, starring John Cusack and David Strathairn.

City of Hope (1991)
Urban epic set in Sayles' hometown of Hoboken, N.J., starring, Chris Cooper, Joe Morton, David Strathairn and Angela Bassett

Passion Fish (1992)
Sayles' most intimate film stars Alfre Woodard as Chantall, an out-of-luck nurse sent to Louisiana to care for crippled soap opera star May Alice, played by Mary McDonnell. Woodard was an Independent Spirit Award nominee for her role and McDonnell received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Sayles received his first Academy nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

The Secret of Roan Inish (1993)
Based on the children's book The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, filmed on the northwest coast of Donegal, Ireland, the film tells the legend of the half-human, half-seal selkie.

Lone Star (1996)
A murder mystery centering on race, history and memory on the Mexico-Texas border, starring Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, Chris Cooper and Kris Kristofferson. Sayles was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Men With Guns (1998)
Filmed in Mexico and set in a fictional Latin American country, the dialogue is principally in Spanish but also in several indigenous languages, with English subtitles. Latin American actor Federico Luppi stars, Golden Globe Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.

Limbo (1999)
Set and filmed in Alaska, David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Vanessa Martinez star in this tale of three lost souls trying to come together in the Alaskan wilderness.

click to enlarge Dan Perkins, a.k.a. Tom Tomorrow
  • Dan Perkins, a.k.a. Tom Tomorrow

Sunshine State (2002)
Edie Falco, Angela Bassett, Timothy Hutton, Ralph Waite and Mary Steenburgen star in this multi-plotted tale of real estate deals and gentrification in a tired Florida coastal town. Recipient of the National Board of Review Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking and NAACP Image Award for Best Actress for Bassett.

Casa de los Babys (2003)
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden, Daryl Hannah, Mary Steeburgen and Lili Taylor as American women waiting to adopt babies in Latin America. Also stars Rita Moreno as the hotel owner.

Silver City (2004)
To be released Sept. 17.
Tom Tomorrow takes his show on the road

Cartoonist Dan Perkins, pen name Tom Tomorrow, whose strip "This Modern World" runs in the Independent each week, will joint the Silver City Express in Colorado Springs, partly to promote progressive efforts, partly because his work has been overtly critical of the Bush administration over the past few years, and partly because he met actor Chris Cooper at the Democratic National Convention and liked him.

"My part is to run cartoons before the movie," said Perkins. "I'm flattered they thought of me. I met Chris Cooper at the Democratic National Convention, and it turns out he's a big 'This Modern World' fan."

Perkins screened Silver City and agreed to be a part of the project.

"It's sort of nice to see a political film that's also a film in its own right," he said. "It's a detective story -- overtly political in parts, but this is something that you could watch in 50 years and still enjoy the film."

Perkins' art is about as political as it gets and he takes issue with criticism of artists who become involved in political causes.

"Some people think that good art is never political. I think that good art has to be inherently political but has to transcend specific politics," he said. "I tend to prefer art that is the artist's commentary on the society rather than art that is just the artist's commentary on himself."

Perkins says it's a relief to see a film like Silver City and other work that criticizes the administration and the electoral system.

"The political climate of this country post-9/11 was really hard on liberals and left-leaning types, and for a while, it seemed that people were not speaking up," he said. "For, I would say, at least the first couple of years after the attacks, there was this real strange mood in the country where conservative and neoconservatives thought these terrorist attacks proved them right somehow, and that anyone who wasn't behind the president was really a traitor.

"I got an endless stream of really terrible e-mail -- and believe me, I'm not saying it's the worst price anyone has had to pay for speaking their mind -- but it's really exhausting when you have people telling you in the vilest terms what they'd like to do to you and your family."

Asked for a specific example, Perkins said one letter writer wrote: "People like you are eventually going to be put up against the wall and shot by a firing squad."

But things are getting better and the discussion is broadening, he says, with the presidential election and the inevitable realization by right-wing hardliners that the Bush administration wasn't wrapping things up in Iraq as neatly as it pretended.

"That jingoistic craziness reached a crescendo on what I call 'Pulling Down the Statue Day,'" said Perkins. "People wrote me and said, 'Ha, ha, you certainly were wrong.'

"I made the mistake of doing an interview with the New York Times and they asked, 'How are you leftists doing with the fabulous victory in Iraq?' And I said, 'It's only beginning over there. This is nowhere near over.' I was utterly, completely, 100 percent right.

"The way in which events have played out, the lack of WMDs, etcetera, has taken a lot of wind out of their sails, but that wind is always out there."

-- Kathryn Eastburn


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