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John Sayles

Cinema Gotham - New York
Film Scribblings

The Return of The Brother From Another Planet
The John Sayles Interview

By Gil Jawetz

"A Very New York Story":  Joe Morton in The Brother From Another Planet
"A very New York story"
Joe Morton in The Brother From Another Planet
June 6, 2002 | At a seminar hosted by the Tribeca Film Festival, filmmaker Martin Scorsese lamented the lack of films set in Harlem. While it may be true that the storied neighborhood hasn't been used as a setting much since the 70's (a decade which spawned classic films like Cotton Comes to Harlem and Shaft), there has been one important exception: John Sayles' The Brother From Another Planet (1984). As a story, it's an original. As a cinematic experience, it's uniquely lyrical. And as a statement of a time and place it is thoroughly specific. With the film nearing its twentieth anniversary The Brother From Another Planet deserves another look. Luckily it's getting just that as newly restored prints will be shown at theaters across the country as part of a huge John Sayles retrospective, with the director speaking before Brother in at least one venue. (See below for more info.) Eventually the restored version of the film will be released on DVD (along with the other early Sayles film in the retrospective: Return of the Secaucus Seven, Lianna, and Matewan), a much needed event given the scarcity and low quality of the old VHS releases and the semi-bootleg DVD out now.

Brother is the story of a mute alien (Joe Morton) who crash lands his space ship just off Ellis Island. He finds his way up to Harlem (he seems to be drawn there unconsciously) where he is confronted by an interesting dynamic: he looks like he should fit in but he's obviously very much out of his element. The film takes surprising turns as the brother learns more and more about this new world, while the parallels between his own experience and those of his new neighbors racism, class struggles, crime, drugs become crystal clear through his fresh eyes. The bold, colorful cinematography by a young Ernest Dickerson and the powerful, subtle performance by Joe Morton (as well as the rest of the uniformly excellent cast) help the film create a mood and atmosphere beyond both its budget and the mechanics of its excellent story. As a science fiction film, The Brother From Another Planet couldn't be more firmly grounded in reality.

Even among independent filmmakers, Sayles has been able to maintain a level of independence that no one else whose films are so regularly distributed can match. Income from screenwriting has allowed him to at least partially self-finance all of his movies. As Sayles told Cinema Gotham, "The way that we present things is 'Here's the movie. It's not going to change much from screenplay to final film. We want final cut, casting control and business control. Are you interested?' We usually get a very nice quick no, but sometimes people say yes." Granted, it helps if you can wait a decade to make your film, as Sayles has done several times.

Still, The Brother From Another Planet came together in a matter of months, while Sayles regrouped after initial investments in Matewan fell through. Most helpful in realizing this goal was the MacArthur grant — the so-called "genius" grant — that Sayles received in 1982. The award of $33,000 a year — tax-free — for five years was what enabled him to make as seemingly noncommercial a film this one.

Recently Cinema Gotham had a chance to talk with John Sayles about the film, New York, and the way they worked together to create a fascinating, unique piece of storytelling.


John Sayles on the set of Brother
John Sayles on the set of Brother
Cinema Gotham: Your films really move around a lot, more than most filmmakers. But they use the locations as part of the character and essence of the films.

John Sayles: Well, I've been to all fifty states, spent at least one night in each. I hitchhiked around the country when I was younger and I think where you live affects who you are and how you see the world and vice versa, so I do think that each place has its own character. It's as things get more homogenized and that shopping mall culture spreads further and further that they're a little less different than they used to be. There's that thing that sometimes a place has a real ambience [as well as] an imaginary one, so with a place like Harlem, it's like Hollywood. You go to a place like Hollywood and Vine and there's not much there but there's an idea in people's heads of what Hollywood might be. For me in The Brother From Another Planet, Harlem was like that too and that's one of the things that was interesting for me to get into the film. People, and even some of the black people in the crew, had never been to Harlem, and they had been warned against it from their parents or whatever, you know. There's that imaginary Harlem that's iconic and there's that everyday, people-go-to-work-people-go-to-school Harlem and the tension between the two of those is some of what the movie was about.

CG: That actually brings up something I was going to mention. You start the film with a series of New York icons: Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center. And then the first thing you see in Harlem is the Cotton Club and 125th street. His introduction is, he sees the postcard images and then the more time he spends there the deeper he gets.

JS: Also, [I did it] for the audience. He doesn't know what these things mean yet but for the audience its "Oh, he's coming in through Ellis Island," like so many other immigrants and there's the Statue of Liberty and all these kind of iconic things that we think of as coming to America. He has no idea what they are, so you know there's always that thing of whose eyes are you seeing the world through. There are two tracks of what the audience's preconceptions are and what they already know, and what I eventually want to do is get them to see the world through his eyes. So very shortly after he comes to shore, even though we know what these things are, he doesn't. So we see the world through his eyes. And seeing things like, he sees the crucifix in a window and he thinks "Wow, this is a tough planet. Step out of line and they nail you to a board."

CG: And immediately after that he sees the crucifixion-style patting down of the black guy by the cops.

JS: Yeah, and what's this green paper [that] you hand to the guy and he gives you food. I'm always interested in the idea that the audience is already gonna have what they think they know about the place but also you want to shock them into seeing it with new eyes. You know, that was the whole Andy Warhol thing of "I'm going to paint a soup can. We haven't really looked at this object. It's an interesting looking object that's red and white and it's a certain shape and we see too many of them to even know what we're looking at anymore."

"Everyday Harlem"
"Everyday Harlem"
CG: But I think the brother senses the magnitude of what he's looking at. I mean, he hears the voices of all the past immigrants at Ellis Island. On some level he understands that it's a place of importance.

JS: Yeah, and the Statue of Liberty is pretty impressive. You know, if you landed on another planet and there was a statue that big you'd be worried, "Oh my God, I hope the people aren't that big!"

CG: That's true. That would have been a whole different movie. The brother is an interesting guy since he looks like he fits in in Harlem but he doesn't feel like he fits in. Was any of that alienation in your own?

JS: You know, not really. Really more of what it was about to me was the immigrant experience, and the immigrant experience especially in America. What happens to the brother is a very New York story. It's a story of assimilation. And me coming to New York, it was a big city. I'd lived in Boston and Atlanta before and [New York] was a much bigger city, but for me this was kind of a place that wasn't where I was going to come and there was no safety net underneath me the way that if you're an immigrant and you get on a boat or you sneak into the country without a green card it's sink or swim. It's a very different experience. So New York was a cool place to hang around and visit but you could always kind of bounce back somewhere else if you're an American citizen. If you're an immigrant of some sort and economically or politically your bridges have been burnt... You know [the brother] is a runaway and he can't really go back. It's a very, very different thing. I'm always kind of amazed at how quickly people make some kind of life there; Chinese guys, Korean people, Hispanic people. You know, you see people from Africa. There's a bunch of Peruvians who take a bus every year and sell woven blankets on 14th street and then they take the bus back to Peru. I'm just always amazed at that, thinking "could I go to Hungary not speaking a word of Hungarian and survive on the streets?" And somehow these people do.

Joe Morton and Dee Dee Bridgewater
Joe Morton and Dee Dee Bridgewater
CG: Those are two New York experiences: immigrants and Americans, and then there are the people in the film that he meets that came up in New York. It's their town and they never get that sense of coming in to town and looking at the immenseness of it all because they're already inside it.

JS: Yeah, they're just lost in the flood. The Puerto Rican guy that works in the video arcade, you know, the guys in the bar who never go below 125th street. They have their neighborhoods. That may be a little less common now, you know, post-Giuliani, post-Planet Hollywood, post-Donald Trump, but it's still there. You still see those people. And you still see the people like the two white guys who take the wrong subway and they think they're going to a seminar at Columbia [University] and they end up above 125th street who are kind of the bewildered tourists. Of course the subways are better now.

CG: Something you do during the film that you've done many times in your other films as well, is really utilize all the specific details of your setting. When he gets to Harlem he's immediately hit with hip hop and graffiti...

JS: And eventually drugs. This was pre-crack that we made it but they [drugs] were up there.

CG: How do you feel coming in to a place that has these kind of cues, these details?

JS: Well, when I hitchhiked around I'd land in a city back in the days when there were phone booths and phone books in the phone booths — not in New York because they always stole the phone books — but in other cities they were still there. You could kind of look in the phone book and figure out who lived where just by, you know, you took a cross section of where the Baptist churches were and the Black Panther mosque and you knew where the black neighborhood was. You could even look at the names of the streets and probably figure out when you got into "terraces" and "places" and stuff like that where the rich white people lived . I'm always very interested in those indicators. Often what I'd do when I'd hitchhike is I'd get on one street, like in San Francisco, and walk the length of that street and it might be eight miles and it might take me a day, just to see the differences. You can certainly do that in Manhattan and Brooklyn and a bunch of places in New York and you can go through a half dozen neighborhoods.

The crew of The Brother From Another Planet
The crew of The Brother From Another Planet
CG: I've done that in a bunch in cities like Atlanta where you just see incredible changes.

JS: And then you come back five years later, like in San Francisco. When I first went there, Haight Ashbury was still kind of very funky but it was still kind of burned out hippies and stuff like that. I came back five years later and it was all these gay people who had beautifully refurbished those places. And now it has a totally different character. The buildings are the same but they look different on the outside and totally different people were living there. Some of my movies are about why that happens and how the people that actually live in those houses don't know that it's happening when it's happening.

CG: How do you think the film looks now? New York looks very different and Harlem looks very different. Some call it a renaissance, some call it gentrification.

JS: The thing that I like about it is that although there are some drugs in there it's not a drug movie because that was a small part about what was going on in Harlem when I was there. I mean, you could certainly find syringes in the playgrounds and stuff like that but it wasn't the dominant factor. The dominant factor was that people were trying to get by and they had jobs and the kids went to school in the morning. The part that I like about [Brother] and I think is still current is that you see people in all these different echelons. You see street people who are sleeping outdoors, you see some fairly well-to-do people and then you see a lot of people in the middle who are just trying to get by. I think that it would have seemed the most anachronistic during the crack plague. There was about a five or six year period when crack was like the Spanish influenza of 1920. It just killed a lot of people in a very short period of time. It's still around but the vestiges of it are a lot smaller than they used to be so I think that actually what's happened is that Harlem has kind of normalized since then.

CG: You financed Brother yourself. How does it feel to make films without anybody looking over your shoulder giving you unwanted input?

JS: I don't have that much more [outside] input now. The experience was nice because it was a four week film. The next movie I'm going to shoot will also be about four weeks and about a million dollars, which is probably about what three- or four-hundred thousand was when we made Brother and you get a certain amount of energy from that. On that one we were working with a lot of crew people who were very new. A lot of people were working about one notch up from whatever level they had worked before and really that also gave us a lot of great energy. Ernest Dickerson, that was the first 35 mm movie that he shot and for a lot of the other people it was their first time as a first instead of a second. And also Harlem gave us a lot of energy. We didn't depopulate it and then repopulate it with our extras. We basically would have one or two of our extras to mix in with all the people who were just there on 125th street doing their stuff. And they had things to do so we weren't that interesting to them.

CG: I'm guessing your control over the film didn't extend to distribution. The back of the video box describes the film as "non-stop action" and "hard hitting comedy," which are both pretty ridiculous descriptions.

JS: Yeah, we don't have any control over that. We kind of sell it to somebody and just say, "You can't cut it." That's about all you get to do.

All of John Sayles' films tackle tough, real subjects, and every one deserves to be seen. The retrospective runs through the middle of August all around the country. Check out the official site for specific show dates and times near you. For those in the New York area, Sayles will speak at the 7:15pm show on Thursday, June 13 at the Jacob Burns Film Center (914-747-5555). Sayles will also speak at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center on Thursday, June 20 at 8:15 p.m. Make sure you don't miss it and watch this space for updates on the DVD release.

John Sayles Retrospective (Info and Showdates)

Some of the theaters taking part in the retrospective (see above link for complete list):
Jacob Burns Film Center (Pleasantville, NY)

Brooklyn Academy of Music (Brooklyn, NY)
Coolidge Corner (Los Angeles, CA)

Starz Film Center (Denver, CO)
Cinestudio (Hartford, CT)
Magnolia Theater (Dallas, TX)
Varsity Theater (Seattle, WA)

Gene Siskel Film Center (Chicago, IL)

Click here to submit a film event or to contact CINEMA GOTHAM

- Gil Jawetz

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