John Sayles calls himself a screenwriter for hire. That's what he does for a living. Between assignments, though, he has become America's most celebrated independent filmmaker.
In the 20 years since his auspicious debut, "Return of the Secaucus Seven," Sayles has written and directed 11 films, including "Matewan," "City of Hope" and "Eight Men Out." His screenplays for "Passion Fish" and "Lone Star" both garnered Academy Award nominations.
His latest film, "Hombres Armados (Men With Guns)," is in Spanish and takes place in a fictional Latin American country. Sayles learned the language while researching his 1991 novel "Los Gusanos," and he wrote the first draft of "Men With Guns" in Spanish. The $2.5-million film, which opens Friday, was shot in Mexico, including in the politically charged state of Chiapas.
The story follows Dr. Fuentes (Argentine actor Federico Luppi) as he tracks down the medical students he trained to work in remote mountain villages. Far from the familiar capital city, the doctor comes face to face with the many victims of a civil war he formerly had been able to ignore.
Sayles' movies are often politically minded and always low-budget. Since he gets non-studio financing--including $1 million of his own money for "Men With Guns"--he has complete control over every aspect of production. He estimates that he has made all 11 of his films for about $30 million.
Sayles, 47, continues to work as an actor, script doctor and screenwriter for hire. Currently, he's working with James Cameron on adapting a novel called "Brother Termite." Sayles and Maggie Renzi--his companion of 20-plus years and producer of most of his films--split their time between Hoboken, N.J., and upstate New York.
Question: Why was it crucial to make this film in Spanish?
Answer: There was never any question in my mind that it was not going to be in English. The story really has so much to do with a guy [Dr. Fuentes] who wanders outside the capital city and realizes that, "Wait a minute, people don't even speak my language, and I'm still in my own country."
Also there's a point to be made that language is not culture. So even though the doctor doesn't speak the language of the American tourists, he actually has more in common with them than he does with these other people he keeps running into who are indigenous, who don't have a Western point of view.
Q: There are actually five languages spoken in the film. How did you work on the set?
A: The thing is, if you're the director and you know what you want to say, there's a limited vocabulary. So I worked in Spanish with everybody on the set, except the director of photography, who's Polish. He had an interpreter to work with his crew, but they were speaking lighting, which is its own language.
There's two or three Mayan languages--Tzotzil and Maya--and there's Kuna, which is spoken on an island off the coast of Panama. The deserter's character is speaking Nahuatl, which is the Aztec language. And then there's the English that the tourists are speaking.
Within the movie, I just wanted those moments where the doctor was frustrated because he didn't know what they were saying and they didn't speak his dominant cultural language.
The guys in the village who sacrifice themselves, their first language was Tzotzil, and their second language was Spanish. So I worked with them in Spanish and they would translate the dialogue into Tzotzil. So I would talk to them and say "Guys, I'm trusting you, if you mess up with the lines, tell me."
Q: Many of your films are talkative--but the language in "Men With Guns" is very sparse. Is that a result of writing in a foreign language?
A: It's written in subtitles. . . . My main problem with subtitled movies--and this is a movie that will be subtitled in every country in the world--is that you feel like you're missing things. The rule, basically, is you can have 36 characters including spaces per line, two lines per screen. If you're not going to start losing a lot of the dialogue--which frustrates the audience--that predicates a certain kind of rhythm. The rhythm of this particular film . . . is sort of like a Catholic catechism. "What is faith?" "Faith is this. . . ."
Q: You filmed in Chiapas and the story seems inspired by the Guatemalan civil war. Why did you set the movie in a fictional country?
A: The original story of the doctor I got from a novelist, Francisco Goldman, who's part Guatemalan and whose uncle was a doctor in Guatemala City--of course, not as ignorant or innocent as the guy in the film. But he didn't think the government would go as far as they did and they ended up killing a lot of his students, almost all of them.
But many of the incidents in the film are taken from places not even in Latin America. Some of them are taken from Bosnia, some are based on incidents in the former Soviet Union, some of them based on things that happened in Vietnam.