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10 Years of grassroots casting for John Sayles.



See the Fall issue where John Sayles talks about his latest film, Honeydripper.


It‘s twilight in Zongolica, Veracruz, and I‘m standing on a table in the mercado trying to mediate a heated quarrel between the meat vendors (who happen to be large men carrying machetes) and the other street vendors — the ones who sell herbs, plastic baby Jesuses, kids‘ underpants and tropical fruit of every variety. Everyone is shouting.

Tomorrow is one of our biggest scenes: an action sequence in an open-air market full of people. I have about 100 extras coming from all over this remote part of Mexico to be in the scene. People with no phones who work in sugarcane fields who heard my brother (and assistant) David make casting calls on the local evangelical radio station. Tomorrow we‘ll rise before dawn to meet them.

But that is tomorrow. Today the dispute is over the amount to be paid to each vendor to be an extra. The meat vendors want more than everyone else. The hierarchy of power here is slowly making itself clear to me. The meat vendors have some kind of cabal-like control over the mercado. The reality of this situation and the current open forum of discussion instigated by us have brought out some long-held resentments amongst the other vendors. They‘re pissed.

About a month before we came to this isolated mountaintop town to film, the townspeople had lynched someone they accused of rape. So I‘m really feeling the need to keep everyone calm.

Suddenly from around the corner comes another mob of people being led by a round man in a maroon guayabera and a gold ring — obviously the mayor. The mayor tries to listen but the shouting increases. I‘m still standing on the table but they seem to have all about forgotten me. “Al centro!” someone shouts and everyone starts marching toward the city hall. My brother and I look at each other. We‘re both exhausted. All we can think about is our 4:00 a.m. call the next day. But we join the mass of people knowing we must respect their decision-making process. Besides, we‘re pretty much the ones who started the whole thing.

What follows is an interminable city hall meeting where what seems like every citizen of Zongolica stands up and vents some grievance, related or unrelated, to the issue at hand. Each person stands up, introduces themselves and then basically tells their life history, sometimes circling back to the topic of the meat vendors, for or against them, but sometimes not. Sometimes it‘s just a very long story about Senora Ramirez and how her goats have been crossing into other people‘s gardens for years. The mayor listens to everyone. Finally it is decided. The meat vendors will earn more tomorrow because their stalls are wooden and must be rented for the scene and everyone else is just on a blanket vending their wares. We agree to this because obviously the depth of the town history is deeper than our momentary influence. It‘s finally over. Old resentments are reaffirmed, grudges are upheld. The mayor bangs his gavel. Everyone goes home.

I hardly sleep. Then, at 4:00 a.m. my brother and I wait in the dark dirt road for the extras and locals with bit parts to show up. It‘s drizzling and we‘re in rain gear holding Styrofoam cups of coffee. Then out of the mist from the mountains they appear. All of them. Right on time. It‘s incredible. Some have walked for more than an hour from villages, high in the mountains, most with no shoes on, to come and make this scene with us. We scoop up kids, pass out coffee and head off to spend the day together. Another day in the life of a John Sayles movie.

I met John Sayles and Maggie Renzi (his longtime partner and producer) through a little film festival I programmed 15 years ago. The event introduced us, but what kept us together as friends and collaborators over the years was a genuine interest in and compassion for the world around us. Sayles really does think everyone‘s story is interesting.

At that festival, we screened 16mm prints of The Brother From Another Planet and City of Hope at different housing projects in San Antonio, Texas, on projectors we borrowed from the library. I wanted everyone to have access to these films — to take them away from art house cinemas and show them to “the people.” My goals were lofty and Sayles was patient. He answered questions, led discussions and used his free time away from the festival to look about San Antonio and get ideas for a story he wanted to tell called Lone Star. And years later, when they came back to Texas to make that movie, I went to work with them.

John Sayles‘s films are as much about a place as about its people. He and Renzi make films not as a business but out of curiosity for the world and the insatiable desire to tell stories. Their compassion for those around them and for those reflected in their stories extends to their hiring practices and the spirit of collaboration in their filmmaking. Not that Sayles‘s films are collaborations. They are 100 percent his stories and vision. But Sayles and Renzi love their friends.

And what better way to make a movie than to surround yourself with people you care about and to make something together that you all feel has worth in the world. It is a method that is underrated in our country and, these days, seems almost nonexistent.



It‘s day three of one of our biggest extra scenes in Juneau, Alaska. It‘s a wedding scene and the extras and small speaking parts are made up of a who‘s who from the community. It‘s been drizzling and we‘ve all been stuck in a tent together, 60 or so of us, with most of the extras in their nicest clothes — heels and tuxes. The first 10-hour day everyone laughed and talked and enjoyed an interruption in their workweek. The second 10-hour day, most people read. Now on the third day, they‘re getting antsy — actually, mutinous. These are outdoors people — people who hike and bike and fish and boat constantly. This is the town where, upon my arrival, a guy interested in being an extra asked me out on a “date.” He says, “We‘ll take a helicopter to the top of mount so-and-so, jump out with our skis on and ski down to where potential avalanches originate to assess the situation.” Do I want to come?

“Are you crazy?” I ask him. “I‘m a brown person from South Texas. Skiing is not in our DNA. Nor do I think jumping out of a helicopter for my first time ever on skis sounds like the safest way to learn.”

Needless to say, outdoorsy people trapped in a big tent in the rain in fancy clothes are not a pretty sight. They are becoming downright bonkers. So at lunch, I ask Sayles if he would come and talk to them — pep them up a bit. Right after we ate he comes and sits with them for a while. He tells everyone the story of the film, he talks about their roles and he tells some anecdotes about other films of his with other big groups of extras. He gets everyone laughing. Then he leaves, and there is a palpable calm. The extras are able to make it through the rest of the shooting. They felt acknowledged.

Sayles hired me to do grassroots casting for his films for speaking parts and extras. Grassroots casting has all the elements of community organizing. I entered each community with some knowledge of its history, local politics and culture. I gathered as many contacts as I could before I left, and then I would just hit the pavement — meeting people, talking, listening, following leads and telling the story of the movie over and over again. Afterwards, I always felt like I could run for mayor.

Since I was in the first wave of crew to enter the town where we would film, it was always foremost in my mind that our interaction with the townspeople would set the tone for the arrival of the whole crew. A film production working within a community can either create a harmonious, mutually beneficial relationship or the town can, in the end, feel taken advantage of with a literal wake of environmental damage left to deal with

I used my office as a place where people from the community could come and ask questions, tell me their stories or tell me about someone I should meet, a local character or an old-timer. In turn, I encouraged people to audition for speaking parts. I explained each part to them and how it wove into the tapestry of the story. When I would tell people the plot of the film, they were fascinated that a filmmaker was trying to tell a story about them, about their history or about what was happening to their community.

After shaking the bushes around town, I would start bringing people in to audition or taping them on the spot wherever they worked. I tried to make the auditions fun and relaxed. I explained scenes. I contextualized lines. I paired people up to read together. I let people take their lines home to practice. I found surprising performances in bartenders, teachers, local politicians and union organizers. I auditioned people in hotel rooms, backyards, schools and on the side of a mountain. I made up skits with hundreds of school children and then filmed each performance.

In many cases, I tried to cast the real person who was depicted in the script. For example, in Alaska I found an Athabascan woman who really worked gutting fish on a “slime line” to play just that, a woman on a slime line. She had a pretty big part and no acting experience. But she was open and natural and ready for a challenge. Instead of bringing in an actor, teaching them to act naturally while gutting a fish and delivering lines, I just worked harder with the untrained actors — practicing lines, letting them know what to expect, guiding them through the process.

It helped that Sayles values every character and part no matter how small. He watches all the auditions I tape. He writes character biographies for every part in order to help the actor understand their roles. Each character is in the script for a reason. In this way, the person chosen to play the part, no matter how small, feel their own importance within the larger narrative.

In rural Mexico, most people we worked with had not ever seen a movie much less been in one. So my brother and I would gather people together with our little video camera and act out their scenes ahead of time — just to get them ready for what it might be like when the big camera came. We gave names to extras‘ parts to help them understand their role and give them an identity within the story. In one scene, a village is set on fire by the military. We practiced the scene over and over again. Afterward, a small boy who had practiced running and screaming all day proudly told everyone, “My name is The Burned Kid!”

As in grassroots organizing, knowing something of local politics is essential for grassroots casting. In Mexico, we needed to cast more than 50 speaking parts in six different indigenous languages. Each rural area we entered had a different political and religious allegiance — for or against the Zapatistas, evangelical or Catholic. Towns only miles apart could be in solidarity or bitter enemies. We had to earn the trust of each village before we even started to audition.

We found an indigenous theater collective in southern Mexico whose reserved acting style worked well as the doomed leaders of the fictitious community. But because of the true political turmoil of their region, they had to be sure that they believed in the content of the film, that it did not belittle the struggle of their people, before they would participate.

I‘ve guided many untrained people through the process of being in a film from start to finish, as an extra or a speaking part. But there are few things as fun as telling someone they got the part — like the naturally wisecracking ice-cream vendor who got cast as a pushy tour guide in Casa de los babys.



I‘m running down the street with a breast pump in my hand. The extra dressed as a waitress has started lactating and we don‘t want to stain her shirt. Shyly, she hands me the key to her house and explains in a whisper what is happening to her. I cast her because her serene face was almost Arabic-looking, like some of the people of Lebanese descent in this border region. So I‘m running as fast as I can in flip-flops (which I probably decided to wear because summer in Eagle Pass, Texas, is brutal, not because they‘re good for sprinting) with a walkie-talkie slapping against my leg, a massive notebook (all my contacts and schedules) under one arm and that breast pump under the other. A guy on a Harley pulls up in front of me. He‘s the archetypal biker, which is why I cast him in a bar scene a few days earlier. He asks if I need a ride. Grateful, I hop on and beg him not to go too fast. We pull up to the location, a local restaurant, and the ubiquitous crowd is forming outside. Since Eagle Pass has a depressed economy, the jobs I offer to extras are some of the best gigs in town. Each shoot day a small crowd assembles to see if I‘m going to need extra help. We have our own traveling day laborer site. So we roar up on the Harley and the crowd starts laughing and cheering. Look! The casting person on a motorcycle, riding with one of the town‘s scariest looking guys! He smiles and waves, enjoying a moment of minicelebrity. I hop off, pass the breast pump along and the shooting continues.

Eagle Pass is an amazing history lesson disguised as a sleepy, dusty border town. From the outside it looks like another small town whose center was abandoned after the local Wal-Mart opened. A town one thinks is almost 100 percent Mexicano. But what I find surprises me. There are Kickapoo whose children migrate with the crops. There is a settlement across the border of freed and escaped slaves. They‘ve been there for generations now. There‘s also a settlement of Japanese from Okinawa who came after World War II. All these people have blended together. The local cemetery is testament to their lives crossing, as names blend and combine to form new generations of people.

Local casting gives life and authenticity to a film. Creating a relationship with the community in which you are filming adds a level of richness to a story. When many people feel as if they are collaborating on something that is important to them, the product is filled with a palpable spirit. The community respects the film and in turn, the crew learns from the people of the town or country where the movie is made. Everyone walks away a little wiser, a little more full.

In my 10 years of grassroots casting for Sayles I have had many intense, bizarre and touching relationships with the people of each community in which we have filmed. I have been serenaded in my office and stalked (three times). I have been asked for my hand in marriage — once by a man with five other wives. I have been given many gifts — a freshly killed salmon (slapped onto my desk, twitching), original artwork and homemade jam. I have taken care of many children and had someone name a child after me. I‘ve been on cable-access call-in shows and I‘ve spoken at city council meetings, bingo parlors, classrooms and tribal meetings. I‘ve encouraged and cajoled people. I‘ve held the most fragile ego and drawn out the shiest person. For everyone, I‘ve wanted their experiences (first and probably last) with a film to be a good one. For them to feel proud of what they did and of how they tried. I wanted them to feel part of the story being told about their people or their town. I hope to have always done right by them.

John Sayles‘s films speak to people. Political activists love how Matewan contextualizes history. Gays and lesbians felt their story was finally and honestly told in Lianna. For many African Americans, seeing The Brother From Another Planet was a seminal moment. For me it was City of Hope. Sayles sank a hook in me and shook me awake. I thought, this film is about power and how it works. Sayles‘s films mark our path as we move through the process of being human. They capture single moments, periods in history and geographic transformations. They take a small relationship and show us how it is connected to the larger narrative of life. In this sense, he shows us again and again, how we are, all of us, no matter how small, part of the same story.


I‘m in a minibus full of children from San Juan Babilonia. We are driving them to a nearby location to film a scene where they mourn the deaths of their town leaders who were killed by the army. The kids are excited to be winding through the mountains in this bus, and have their faces pressed against the window. They are dressed in traditional clothing and speak to each other in Chol, the language of their people. At moments, in the music of their unintelligible words, I hear my brother‘s name. They are talking about my brother David. They love him. They hang on him and follow him around their village. I turn in my seat. “Sing a song for me,” I say in Spanish. “Sing a song for me in your language.” They giggle and talk to each other. Then they start to sing. I have never heard anything so beautiful as their small voices, the singsong pattern of their words lifting us up over the green jungle as we rise out of the clouds and toward the mountains of Chiapas. They sing the song over and over again until we arrive.


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