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John Sayles’ Limbo was selected for Competition at Cannes 1999, where the abrupt ending shocked the audience into a few boos. (It also opened the Sydney Film Festival in 1999 and divided the audience.) But Sayles is unmoved; he was consciously taking risks and asking audiences to take risks, too. He took some time out in Cannes to explain his intent to ANDREW L. URBAN.

Sayles, a tall man who somehow looks as though he belongs on the land, is receiving journalists in a suite at the Martinez Hotel on the waterfront at Cannes. His American leisure gear looks as out of place as do the journalists in their shabby work clothes. This is not the glamour end of the festival, but it is where the film directors – to whom Cannes pays homage – get to speak about their films to the ears of the world: us.

"...asking the audience to take a risk"

Sayles finds it easy to talk about his film, and points out that he began as a novelist, not a filmmaker. He thinks differently. And he takes risks. When Limbo screened for the Cannes festival, Sayles was rewarded for his risktaking with a few boos for its surprisingly abrupt ending – which is impossible to talk about in detail without giving it away.

Admitting he took a risk, Sayles also confesses he is ‘asking the audience to take a risk. "The two risks I am asking the audience to take which are unusual: one is the structure of the film, which starts out in one direction and with no warning, change it. The only other film I can think of that did that is Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, which starts out like a screwball comedy and ends up as a thriller with people chasing each other with knives - with no warning."

But it’s the second one that will be the subject of heated debate – the ending. "What do I have to say about risk? I don’t say ‘it’ll be fine, folks, as long as you’re good, or you’re attractive or you’re the hero…but I’m also not saying that if you take a chance you're going to be punished automatically. What I am saying is that if you don't take chances, you remain in limbo."

"it’s a drama…if it were a melodrama, the ending would be different"

So, it’s almost a dare, and certainly an invitation: go see Limbo. As he points out, "it’s a drama…if it were a melodrama, the ending would be different. And in drama there is some sense of people trying to escape their destinies, to change themselves… and a sense of you don’t know what’s going to happen next." There is a line in Limbo that underlines how seriously Sayles took this notion: "what you get on a roller coaster is not risk, but the illusion of risk. You have a seatbelt on," says a businessman.

One other pointer to Sayles’ approach to this film is his view of nature, which plays a significant role in Limbo, both as a majestic, awesome backdrop and as the unfeeling, unsentimental and unforgiving character that impinges on the lives of the central human characters in various ways. The trauma that Joe suffered many years earlier, for example, is inflicted by the cruel sea. The drama that engulfs him and Donna and Donna’s daughter, is nature-made….

Alaska is still a frontier; you can go there and be something new. Start again. "I’ve met people who were steel workers and became bush pilots. Philosophy professors who are now fishermen. That struck a chord with me, and it also struck me how close civilisation and nature are to each other.

"You get perspective on your size in the relative order of things."

"The capital where we shot the film, Juneau, you could have a MacDonalds downtown by the State legislature, and take a 15 minute walk and be attacked by a bear. Or fall down a crevice in a glacier, or roll out of your kayak into freezing cold water and disappear forever. It’s a place where people are very small and nature is very big. You get perspective on your size in the relative order of things."

It was this sense of the great neutrality of nature coupled with a story told to him by a barman in Alaska that triggered Limbo. The story concerns a great fishing day that went so well the boat of one of the fishermen sank under the weight of all the fish. Sayles saw this as a sort of Greek myth… "you do so well you’re punished…" He began to wonder what happens to people who survive taking a risk, despite being punished. How do they carry on?

"I see two types of people: one, who just never risk anything again. They’ll never be vulnerable again nor take responsibility for anyone again. They just stay ‘there’. Like Joe, David’s character, they’re treading water…not drowning but not going anywhere. He’s in limbo. But other people just dust themselves off and try again…maybe it’s a woman who’s had two terrible marriages and yet they throw themselves at it again."

"We’re very romantic about nature but nature isn’t romantic about us"

What if these two types meet each other, in this environment. "The combination of that story with this place that allows you a second chance," is what Limbo explores. And it begins as one movie, "that seems to be about civilisation, and community…but one thing happens and there you are, and you don’t have civilisation any more. You’re stuck with nature, which doesn’t care about you. We’re very romantic about nature but nature isn’t romantic about us. It couldn’t care less whether we live or die. So for me, the place and the story have to mesh."

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John Sayles is the special guest of the inaugural Noosa Film festival, September 2 - 8, 1999. His film, Limbo, opens around Australia on September 9.


A small Alaskan town, once rich on gold mining, now surviving on fishing, is the sort of place people run from and run to, depending on their circumstances. On the edge of Alaska’s great stretches of nature, it is where Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn), a fisherman traumatised by an accident at sea years before, now lives quietly. Alone.

Into Joe’s land-locked life comes singer Donna de Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and her disaffected daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). When Joe’s fast-talking half-brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko) returns to town and asks Joe for a favour, the lives of the three characters are forever altered.





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