By Stephen Saito
[Photos: Left, John Sayles on the set; below, Gary Clark Jr., Danny Glover in “Honeydripper,” Emerging Pictures, 2007]
Two notable introductions to American culture in 1950: in the South, the solid-body electric guitar found a following, and the North witnessed the birth of John Sayles. 57 years later, the two have bridged the geographical divide in “Honeydripper,” the writer/director’s slow burn of a juke joint tale about a crafty club owner (Danny Glover) who tries to revive his sagging business by wooing the legendary Guitar Sam and his Stratocaster to the tiny town of Harmony, AL. When the Delta blues musician doesn’t show, the club owner cajoles a young rock ‘n’ rolling drifter (Gary Clark Jr.) to take his place.
It’s material that comes naturally to Sayles after all, he electrified the independent film movement when he began directing in 1980 with “The Return of the Secaucus 7.” But “Honeydripper” sees the Hoboken native retuning his chords. For the first time since “Secaucus 7,” Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi are self-distributing their film, a move that has brought the duo plenty of attention in recent weeks, as well as a renewed energy that seems to have trickled down to “Honeydripper” itself. Even though Sayles may claim to have lost some of his ambition as a filmmaker when he recently spoke to IFC News, he has not lost his touch as a humanist storyteller.
You’ve said that you came up with the title “Honeydripper” when you were making “Sunshine State” in 2002. How long has the process been to make this film?
It’s kind of inspired by a short story that I wrote several years ago called “Keeping Time,” about a 40-year-old drummer in a 20-year-old band who into this janitor in his 80s who says, “you know, I used to be Guitar Sam,” and tells a few of the stories that are in the movie. So it’s something I’ve thought about a long time. Guitar Sam is based on Guitar Slim, who was the guy who had a big hit with “The Things I Used to Do,” and he was known for, among other things, missing his gigs. [laughs] So there are a bunch of guys who later became R & B icons, who at some point in their young lives were told, “Tonight, you are Guitar Slim,” because nobody knows what this guy looks like because it was before album covers and MTV. And he was also the guy who came up with the thing of the long extension cord and he used to go out from his club in New Orleans and go to the doorway of the other clubs and just play people back into his set. I’m fascinated with that period, just that moment in the world of music when I think the first time [the guitar players] heard that solid body electric guitar, [they] realized, wait a minute, something’s going to change really fast and we might get left behind if we don’t jump on it. And I’m always interested in those transitions.
How did you discover your lead, Gary Clark Jr.?
That was really nice serendipity because when I finished [the script], I said, oh my God, we’re going to have to find an African-American kid very young who plays this kind of guitar really well. There’s just not that many kids playing that guitar any more. And when our friend Louis Black, who’s one of the editors of the Austin Chronicle, heard we were making this movie and said, “Well, he might be a little too young, but there’s this kid named Gary Clark who I’ve been seeing since he was 14 years old and he’s just phenomenal.” So we went down to SXSW a couple years ago and saw Gary at the Continental Club, I think the night that he turned 21, and we read him the next day and it was, “Oh my God, I think he can act too.” We thought it was going to take a year and it was the first person we found. Then it was almost two years before we made the movie because we just couldn’t raise the money for it. But all I left Gary with was, “you’re going to be playing live and I know it’s not part of your act now, but you might want to practice playing while you’re climbing on chairs or tables.”
I also noticed this was your first onscreen role in a while. Did it come back quickly?
Yeah, I’ve been doing little cameos in other people’s movies. I actually just did a movie down in Louisiana that’s based on the James Lee Burke book “The Confederate Dead and the Mists of Time.” Bertrand Tavernier is directing that and I did a little cameo playing an idiot filmmaker, so I’ve done those things over the years, I just haven’t been in one of my own for a while. It’s not that difficult, but it’s like what Danny Glover’s character says at the beginning of the movie “Being able to do it is one thing. Whether anybody wants to come and look at you is another one.” [laughs] And quite honestly, a lot of the reason I cast myself in the part is Danny’s 6’3″ and I’m 6’4″ and it’s a very short scene and just the fact that we were going to stand next to each other for a couple seconds during the scene, I felt like, well, the guy’s just a liquor delivery man [who confronts Glover] and he’s white and it’s 1950, but it’ll actually help if I’m a little bigger than he is.
This film and “Sunshine State” seem to share the same prevailing issues of racial inequality, even though they take place in different eras. Were there similarities to you between the two communities?
They’re somewhat different, but I think the thing that’s the same is that they are parallel worlds that bump into each other every once in a while. “Sunshine State” is more modern and so the apartheid isn’t as heavy as it was, but culturally, the whole thing in “Sunshine State” was that our leads were Edie Falco and Angela Bassett and they’re on screen for 12 seconds together, but everybody they know have scenes together because those worlds do cross more than they used to. In the case of “Honeydripper,” the thing about the Deep South there’s this phrase that black people there used to say, which is “in the South, you can’t get too high and in the North, you can’t get too close.” And what that means is that yeah, there is a ceiling on how high they’re going to let you get in the South, but it’s intimate. People know each other. There’s black people and white people walking around who have the same last name and they know why, even though it’s never mentioned in polite society.
So much has been said about the self-distribution of the film, which also has a lot to do with appealing to particular demographics. Has putting the film out there yourself felt different?
Yeah, it actually has. We feel like we can live with the poster. The trailer’s pretty good. And all the things that we often say, “can you do this?” and they say, “oh yeah, we’ll try to do that” and they never quite get to do, we’re actually doing. So much of film distribution is knowing “OK, we know there’s an audience who is going to like the picture. How do we get it to that particular audience?” That’s the kind of specificity that we just haven’t gotten from our experience with a regular distributor.
What interests you now as a filmmaker and how has that changed?
I still get one idea at a time. [laughs] And I don’t have anything I’m working on now. I’m on strike, as a matter of fact, so I’m working on a novel that’s set in 1898 that I’ve been working on for a while, but “Eight Men Out” took 11 years from when I wrote the first draft until I got to make it. 11 years from now, I’ll be 68 years old, so although there are a lot of things that interest me, I’m trying to steer myself away from historical epics. I’ve got a couple of those on the shelf that I don’t think I’ll ever raise the money to make, which is too bad because they’re good. Now when I have ideas, if it’s something that’s just way too expensive, I say, “Well, don’t you have another idea?” And that’s changed. When I was younger, I was probably more ambitious.
“Honeydripper” opens in limited release on December 28th.