By Mark Zhuravsky | The Playlist August 15, 2011 at 10:58AM
Talks Demise Of The HBO Satchmo Miniseries, 'Girls Like Us,' And More
John Sayles is a busy man, a prolific screenwriter and icon of the American independent film movement. Having made his name directing films such “Eight Men Out,” “Matewan,” “The Return of the Secaucus Seven,” "Lone Star," "Sunshine State," and a variety of small but frequently warmly received films, Sayles also made his mark as an occasional Hollywood scribe, most recently co-writing "The Spiderwick Chronicles". With his latest, "Amigo" (our reviewer at TIFF '10 called it "a complex and organically built work that coaxes meaning out of the situations it builds rather than putting the politics first and constructing a story around it"), a look at the Philippine–American War of early 1900s, opening this week, we had an opportunity to talk with the writer/director and had a chance to ask him about the wide variety of projects he has on his slate and here's what he had to tell us.
"Girls Like Us"
Back in January, it was reported that Sayles was set to pen a script based on Sheila Weller’s “Girls Like Us,” a book about the careers of musical artists Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell and Carole King. It seemed right up his alley ("Honeydripper", anyone?) and now, six months later, Sayles is deep into writing process. "Yeah, I’m still working on that. I’m having a meeting, I think in a week or two, I’m going to go up to LA. That’s been a lot of fun, if just to listen to the music from all three women, go back and replay the albums, and then learn some new stuff about them. I’m a fan of their music, and I was around when they were getting famous and kind of make some connections." When asked about having any kind of deadline he said, "I’m just the writer, the director will be Katie Jacobs, who’s one of the producer/directors on the TV series 'House.' So, you know, who knows when they’ll make it, if they’ll make it or whatever, but certainly, right now, we’re fortunate to be adapting the book into movie."
Louis Armstrong Biopic Miniseries
Way back in 2008, word cropped up of a HBO miniseries penned by Sayles and starring Charles S. Dutton surfaced. Unfortunately, unlike Forest Whitaker's still-in-development Satchmo biopic, it never came to fruition. Sayles said, "That ended up not getting picked up, that was with Charles Dutton, the actor, who was going to direct it and play Louis Armstrong as an older guy, and obviously, cast younger actors for earlier parts of his life. I would’ve loved to do that and once again, it was a lot of fun working on it, I only got as far as writing an extended miniseries treatment. But I got to listen to all his music again, which was just a blast. And, just learning more about him -- one of the biographers said about Louis Armstrong, 'I’ve never written a biography before where I liked the central guy I was writing about more at the end of it than I did when I began it.' I learned more, and I wish I’d known him ever more than when I started the project, and that’s kind of the way I felt about it."
The Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Trial
One of the most famous cases of espionage involved the husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted for supposedly passing on nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. The trial, in particular the decision to execute the couple, has been a source of much musing and it's exciting to hear that Sayles might be bringing the events to the silver screen with his personal touch. "Let’s see, I’ve written a screenplay based on the Rosenberg case, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed for espionage in the 50s. Going to direct that myself, just get money and I’m ready [laughs]." Hopefully that financing won't prove problematic, since this real-life case has obvious contemporary parallels, and would be rich material for the politically savvy Sayles.
Another hot-button story has crossed Sayles' desk as he revealed he's tackling the story of Alexander "Sasha" Litvinenko, a former FSB agent and dissident, who was poisoned with polonium, which led to his untimely death and a British investigation into whether Russian agents might be responsible. Litvinenko entertained and voiced a variety of conspiracy theories relating to the Russian government, so he could well have been a prime target. The full details of the investigation have yet to be revealed. Sayles had this to say about the project, "I’m writing for other people about Sasha Litvinenko, who was the Russian former KGB guy who was poisoned in London a few years ago with polonium." While this is one story he's unlikely to direct, the fact that it is being made and his attachment to it definitely raises our expectations for the project.
The Tasmania Penal Colony
While his outlandish (and awesome) script for "Jurassic Park IV" made the rounds a while back, Sayles has been a writer-for-hire for some time, while making time to write and direct his own pictures -- so it's no surprise he's got several scripts in the works and this one certainly sounds promising. "[The script is] set in Tasmania, in the early 1800s, during the penal colony days, when they were transporting criminals from Ireland and Britain down to Tasmania, and they had this very strange hybrid culture where almost half the people were convicts, working around, doing your dishes, doing your laundry, and some of them ended up becoming bushrangers." Bushrangers were convicts who successfully utilized the Australian climate to hide from authorities and frequently engaged in armed robbery. So in layman's terms, a possible western from John Sayles, set in the unforgiving outback. "The Proposition", watch your back. Lovely.
"Christ in Concrete"
Perhaps most curious out of the projects he's working is this adaptation of celebrated writer Pietro Di Donato's most famous novel. "I would like to direct a book, a movie based on this book, 'Christ In Concrete,' one of the great American novels about the immigrant experience, in this case Italian. They’re bricklayers, and its actually set in Hoboken, Pietro Di Donato lived in Hoboken when he wrote it. It was made into a movie in Britain called 'Give Us This Day' or something like that, made in this very, it’s very well directed visually, but they made a decision to go into this very poetic English, which kind of makes it neither here nor there, as far as believing the characters," he said, adding with a laugh, "And there are no Italians in it."
Look for the full interview with Mr. Sayles later this week, along with our review of his newest film, "Amigo."