John Sayles returns to Proctors for premiere of new movie ‘Honeydripper’

Schenectady native John Sayles will be at Proctors on Friday night for the upstate premiere of his n
John Sayles motions during the making of the film "Honeydripper."
John Sayles motions during the making of the film "Honeydripper."

You’d think John Sayles’ resumé as a filmmaker would give him plenty of clout when it comes to finding financial backers to invest in his next movie project.

Sayles, however, a Schenectady native who directed such highly acclaimed films as “Eight Men Out,” “Lone Star” and “Matewan,” says that finding people to spend money making a movie isn’t a whole lot easier than it was back in 1981 when he made his first feature film, “Return of the Secaucus Seven.”

“If you’re not making a teen comedy or a giant comic book-related extravaganza, than you’re going to have a hard time raising money,” said Sayles, who will be at Proctors on Friday night for the upstate premiere of his new movie “Honeydripper,” starring Danny Glover.

“Everything in the middle is pretty tough. We took a full year trying to raise money for ‘Honeydripper,’ but we ended up financing it ourselves with the money we made on our other movies and my work as a screenwriter.”

Sayles worked on the screenplay for “Honeydripper” throughout much of 2003 and 2004, and last November wrapped up about five months of filming on location in Alabama.

Set in the 1950s, the movie tells the story of a nightclub owner named Tyrone, played by Glover, who’s looking for some entertainment that might infuse some new life into his business. What he discovers is a talented young man musician named Sonny, played by Gary Clarke Jr., and as a result, the story suggests, rock ’n’ roll is born.

First collaboration

“Honeydripper” marks the first collaboration between Sayles and Glover, one of Hollywood’s top black actors for more than three decades.

“I don’t try to write a movie with somebody in mind, but when it was all finished it was obvious Danny was the perfect guy for that role,” said Sayles. “So, we asked him and he said yes. It didn’t help us raise any money to do the movie, which was surprising, but I think it helped us get the rest of the cast together. We called their agents and asked them if they wanted to do our movie with Danny Glover and everyone said yes.”

Joining Glover and Clarke in the cast are Charles S. Dutton, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Stacy Keach, Mary Steenburgen, Yaya DaCosta and Sean Patrick Thomas. Also making appearances in the film are musicians Keb Mo and Dr. Mable John.

“We were very lucky to find somebody like Gary Clarke Jr.,” said Sayles. “The character really has to play a great electric guitar from that era, and how many kids around are there these days that can do that? I was expecting that we’d have to put on a nationwide search, but a friend of mine in Houston told me they had a kid down there that’s been knocking people dead. I went down to see him and he was great. He was still kind of young when I first saw him, but it takes time to get a movie off the ground, and it all worked out very well. We were very, very lucky to find him.”

Sayles also felt great about adding Keach to the cast.

“We offered him the part, and he couldn’t do it at first,” said Sayles. “But after we had to move our schedule back a couple of weeks, he was done doing ‘King Lear’ in Chicago. So we called him again. Sure enough, he did his last performance, cut his hair and went from playing Lear to playing a red-neck sheriff. I was really happy to get him.”

Sayles did hear some critics suggest that a film about blacks in the Deep South in the 1950s should have been made by a black director. Sayles says that is ridiculous.

“A little bit of that is coming up now, but only from a few white critics,” he said. “We just got two nominations for Image Awards, which is the black version of the Oscars, and what about [‘Brokeback Mountain’ director] Ang Lee? Here’s a Chinese guy making a movie about gay cowboys. You pay attention to human beings, you can make movies. Being that close to the subject matter is not that big a deal.”

Distributing film

Called “The Godfather” of independent filmmakers, Sayles and his long-time partner, Maggie Renzi, have taken on the task of distributing “Honeydripper.”

“Things are changing in the movie business, especially in the distribution end,” said Sayles. “The studios are getting very nervous because the theatrical part of it, where people actually buy a ticket and sit down in a theater and watch their movie, is becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of how they get their money back”

That’s one of the reasons, according to Sayles, why the Writers Guild of America, of which he’s a member, is on strike.

“The writers are just saying that we don’t care if you make less or more money with DVDs — we just want the same two and a half percent,” said Sayles. “It’s a very small residual.”

Sayles is hopeful the strike will end soon, but he isn’t spending his time idly. He’s right in the middle of writing a novel about the Philippine-American War from 1899 to 1902.

“Right after the Spanish-American War, we decided to keep the Philippines, which the Filipinos, who had been fighting against the Spanish, objected to,” said Sayles. “It was our first Vietnam. The writing is going fine, but there’s a lot of research and it’s going to be a long book. I have about 500 pages done already.”

Sayles says the prospect of ever making his novel into a film are pretty slim.

“I already have a few historical epics that I would do, if someone wanted to give us $30 million to make it,” he said. “So, as of right now, I don’t have another movie planned. Even George Clooney had a hard time making ‘Good Night, and Good Luck,’ and he was in the movie. Getting money these days is a tricky thing. Corporations by definition are risk-averse. They want to see what’s made money in the past six months, and then go out and make more of them.”

Back home

Proceeds from the premiere of “Honeydripper” at Proctors will benefit the YMCA’s Black & Latino Achievement Program. Sayles, for whom the theater program at Schenectady High School is named after, said he enjoys the opportunity to get back to upstate New York and visit his parents and his brother Doug.

“My brother’s been involved quite a bit in trying to revitalize downtown Schenectady. So we thought it’d be a good idea to have it at Proctors,” said Sayles. “Proctors is the best place I could think of to have a premiere, and the Black and Latino program is a nice way to add another layer to the event.”

The cost of the movie, which starts at 8 p.m., is $10, but the performance will be preceded by two events, a question-and-answer session at 7:30 p.m. on the mainstage, and an Arts and Blues Night reception from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the GE Theatre at Proctors. Entertainment will be provided by the George Boone Blues Band. Ticket prices are $55 per person. For further information, contact the Capital District YMCA.

‘Honeydripper’

WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday on Mainstage. Question-and-answer session at 7:30 p.m. on Mainstage. Reception at 6:30 p.m. in GE Theatre

HOW MUCH: $10 for movie, $55 for reception

MORE INFO: 346-6204 or www.proctors.org

Categories: Life and Arts

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