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Director John Sayles on His War Movie Amigo, American Imperialism, and Struggling to Fund Films

Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 14:  Actor John Sayles from Filmmakers For AMC Series "Committed" poses for a portrait during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival in Guess Portrait Studio at Hyatt Regency Hotel on September 14, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Jeff Vespa/WireImage)
Director John Sayles. Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage

In John Sayles’s latest movie, Amigo, the 61-year-old filmmaker of Matewan, Lone Star, and Honeydripper turns his lens on a largely neglected period in U.S. history: the Philippine-American War. Set at the start of the twentieth century, the film features his go-to actor Chris Cooper and Garret Dillahunt as U.S. military officers, and Filipino star Joel Torre as a local leader who must cooperate with the American occupiers while not being seen as a collaborator by the nation’s underground rebels. Vulture talked to Sayles about why he chose to spotlight this slice of history and the odds he’ll make a romantic comedy next.

Why tell the story of the Philippine-American War?
One reason is that the history of the war isn’t well known. I think it was willfully buried. This war represents a major switch in America’s psychology, in terms of how we saw ourselves. In freeing Cuba from Spanish rule, we saw ourselves as champions of liberty. But in the case of the Philippines, in a war in which one million Filipinos died, we went in to take over that territory. We wanted to be players, like the British, like the French, and carve up the rest of world. We made a stab at imperialism, and I don’t think we liked what we saw in the mirror.

It’s unsettling, the parallels to current wars that emerge in the movie.
It’s not why I made the movie. But those parallels are unavoidable. You could set a movie like this in Nazi-occupied France or Northern Ireland, and there would be parallels there, too, because ultimately you’re in a situation where one country is technologically superior, and invading and occupying another country. And right now, the United States is in the business of invading, rather than being invaded.

For a brief moment, I thought the film might have a Hollywood ending. But then I remembered it was a John Sayles film.
[Laughs.] Any movie has to earn its ending. And I think what it comes down to is what have we prepared the audience for, what’s the world that we’re in? Is a happy ending a cop out or a possibility? In a fantasy movie like Harry Potter, could you have an ending where Harry sacrifices himself to save the world? I don’t know. For the tone of that movie, I think that would be too much.

Looking back on your body of work, you seem to gravitate toward pretty serious subject matter. Don’t you ever just want to make a light romantic comedy?
There are romantic comedies that I like to see. But making a movie takes about two years out of your life. I used to say one year. Now, between raising the funds, then filming, editing, and finding a distributor, it’s really become two years. And making a romantic comedy is not something I want to spend two years on.

How did you fund Amigo?
With the money we had left over after making Honeydripper, Silver City, the money I’ve made as a screenwriter, the residuals I still get from other movies. And it was only possible to make a movie as ambitious as this in the Philippines, with an all-Filipino crew, where everything is about a third as expensive as it is in the U.S., and half as expensive as it is in Mexico, where I’ve made several films. Really, it was the only place possible to make a period war movie like this for a million and a half dollars. It’s just hard to find other people’s money to make movies these days.

Harder than it’s been in the past?
As a result of technological advances, you can make a movie pretty cheaply now. The moviemaking process has become more democratic. More people have the wherewithal to make a movie. But to get it onto a big screen, that’s harder than it’s been since the eighties. One of the things that happened in the independent movie world is, I’d say, up until about 2005, there were distributors who would front you money, anywhere from 2 to 5 million dollars. That doesn’t happen anymore. And if it does, it’s pretty damn rare. We’re financing the distribution of this film ourselves. So it’s not just do-it-yourself filmmaking, it’s do-it-yourself distribution. So I think for me, as a filmmaker, it’s harder. And that could be just because of my age or the kinds of movies I make.

You mentioned Harry Potter. Do you get a chance to see many films?
Unfortunately, one of the things about financing my own films is that I’m working all the time. I prefer to see movies in theaters and not go to screenings. Once in a while, there’s something very good, like Winter’s Bone. That was a real good example of a movie that didn’t have to cost too much, but was well made. I saw [the final] Harry Potter, but I hadn’t seen all the other ones. But I knew what it was about, and I love everyone in it. It’s like going to a convention of good character actors. And because we went to a matinee up in the boondocks, it only cost four dollars.

Director John Sayles on His War Movie Amigo, American Imperialism, and Struggling to Fund Films