John Sayles is not exactly the kind of director who repeats himself. One of the few
giants of independent American cinema, his latest film, Men with Guns, breaks new ground -
in Spanish. The story of a Latin American doctor who is faced with some disturbing
personal insights on a journey to remote Indian land, Men with Guns is also, surprisingly,
a story with roots in the director's very American childhood.
"who are these people and what's their story"
"The people who didn't speak English in my neighbourhood were mostly Italian, so
that was the language I grew up speaking. As I grew older, more and more of my neighbours
who didn't speak English were Spanish speaking. When I was a kid, I used to go down to
Miami every summer because my mother's parents lived there, and so I saw many Cubans
there. I started thinking, who are these people and what's their story. You know, many of
the incidents in Men with Guns did not take place in Latin America. They took place in
Bosnia, Africa and Vietnam. So this is not all Latin American stuff. But then I said,
"Where am I going to set this?" The culture that I was most familiar with was
Latin American culture in many different countries."
The film's main character is an idealistic doctor from an unnamed Latin American
country. Like many of the elements in the film, Dr. Fuentes was based on a real character.
"I had actually heard a story about the uncle of a friend of mine, who's still
living, who did a very similar thing of training kids who could not have gotten through
medical school to be barefoot doctors, and then go out and work with the indigenous
communities in Guatemala. This was during the 70s and 80s, and among his first crop of
students, maybe 18 of the 20 were murdered, mostly by the government. He kept working on
this program and it's been more successful, but he wasn't nearly as innocent or ignorant
as Fuentes was; he just didn't think the army would go as far as it did and so he sent his
kids out right when the army was getting a lot worse, and their policy became not just
kind of tracking down guerrillas, but wiping out entire Indian villages, so the guerrillas
wouldn't have anywhere to get new recruits."
"there's a little hint of magical realism, seeing time
and the world in different dimensions"
In the case of Men with Guns, the doctor himself is a kind of tourist on a journey of
cultural discovery, an important theme of this film. "What I wanted to do with that
is just a suggestion, to remind the audience that when you're looking at these cultures
when the doctor is going to these different villages, that culture isn't just language, clothes, food and music. It's a way of looking at the world. So there's a little hint of
magical realism, seeing time and the world in different dimensions. One of the things I
wanted to get at in the movie is wilful ignorance on the part of the doctor. He just
didn't want to know certain things, and so he sent his students out ill prepared for the
political world they were going into. And now he says, how could this have happened in my
own country. He just didn't ask any questions because it would have rocked his world. I
also wanted to remind the audience that there are the rural people here who see the world
in a totally different way than this doctor does. Their spirituality is connected to that
land, and they can't leave. If they leave that land, they lose their spirituality, and
they end up like the Indians you see at the beginning sitting on a sidewalk begging for
money, with no culture left. Fuentes could be comfortable in an aeroplane. You put them in
an aeroplane, and they're lost."
Born in 1950 in Schenectady, New York, Sayles received a B.A. in psychology from
Williams College in Massachusetts. Living in a number of different cities, he worked
various jobs while pursuing a career as a writer. His first published story, "I-80
Nebraska," won an O. Henry Award. He then wrote a novel, Pride of the Bimbos (1975),
followed by Union Dues (1977), which received a National Book Award nomination.
Interested in writing for films, Sayles got his start with Roger Corman's New World
In 1986, he made his widely acclaimed Matewan, the story of a 1920 miners' strike in
West Virginia. Eight Men Out, based on the book by Eliot Asinof which detailed the 1919
baseball World Series scandal, explored the controversy from numerous vantage points,
including those of the players, the gamblers and the journalists. It is one of only two
scripts (the other being Rosalie Fry's The Secret of Roan Inish) he has directed based on
material from another source.
Sayles' next film, City of Hope, wove together numerous characters in a story of
corruption in a fictional New Jersey town. He scaled down his dramatic canvas for his next
picture, the intimate Passion Fish, about a paralysed former TV soap star and her live-in
nurse. Starring Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard, the film earned McDonnell an Oscar
nomination for Best Actress and Sayles a nomination for Best Screenplay.
Sayles shifted direction again with the Irish folktale The Secret of Roan Inish, based
on a children's book by Rosalie Fry. The story of a young girl who discovers a link
between Celtic legends and her family's past, it became one of Sayles' most successful
In 1979, Sayles published a collection of his short stories, The Anarchists'
Convention, and in 1991 a third novel, Los Gusanos, about Cubans in Miami. He also
directed three Bruce Springsteen videos: Born in the U.S.A., I'm on Fire and Glory Days.
In 1983, Sayles received the John D. MacArthur Award, given each year to twenty
Americans in diverse fields for their innovative work.
"it's talking about the way people see the world."
Sayles continues to shift arenas, making independent films like Men with Guns for a
little under US$2 million, while also working as a script doctor for the studios
"which then affords me the luxury to go out and make the movies I want to make."
Sayles is currently working on a small studio film as a director. "It's a small
blockbuster! I'm doing a movie called Limbo. It's set in Alaska, and it's about a
fisherman who hasn't been to sea in 25 years because when he was younger, a couple of guys
drowned on one of his commercial fishing trips and he was partly responsible. Once again,
it's talking about the way people see the world. But the budget's going to be ridiculous,
about US$15 to 25 million. (It stars Kris Kristofferson and will be released in the US
Summer. ) I think all of my movies all together only cost about US$30 million."