Each of John Sayles’ movies has a powerful sense of place, and the origin of “Limbo,” a tale about taking risks, was rooted in a trip he took more than a decade ago.
“I started thinking about writing something set in Alaska about eleven years ago, when I went up there and was really struck by the place,” the writer-director said during a recent Dallas interview. “Nature is very, very big and people very, very small there, so you can get lost very easily. Also, I was really struck by how many people had gone up there to totally change their life. There’s still that quality of a frontier about it.”
“Then, probably about seven or eight years ago,” he continued, “Steve Lang, who plays the bartender in the picture…[and] had been a fisherman in Alaska, told me the story of guys he had known who caught so many fish that their boat sank and a couple of them drowned. And just that kernel–like the Greek idea of hubris, of flying too close to the sun (you did so well that disaster befell you)–seemed like the great core of a story to me. I started thinking about risk, and how people react to it differently–how some people have failure after failure after failure and keep coming back for more, while other people get burned once or twice and that’s it. I started thinking about this Joseph Conrad character, this survivor of the [fishing disaster], who’s been almost literally treading water for 25 years, not drowning but not going anywhere either, and what if he met a woman who just came back for more every time she got knocked down. The combination might be greater than the sum of its parts…. Then I started thinking about making the triangle even more dynamic by making the girl [the woman’s daughter] a teenager–and what if she were interested in this guy herself?”
The theme of risk so central to the story he penned is a part of Sayles’s cinematic career, too: since 1978 he’s made twelve pictures, almost all independent projects that he’s struggled to finance himself, often by doing scripts (and rewrites) for others. (“Limbo” is only the second Sayles film backed by a major studio, in this case Sony Pictures).
“All of our movies take risks,” Sayles observed, referring to himself and his longtime collaborator, producer Maggie Renzi. “They’re not genre movies. They’re not heroic. One of the things you do when you make a non-genre movie is that you risk losing some of the audience. I’m used to doing that. And it’s not because I’m interested in staking out new ground and seeing what I can get away with with an audience; it’s that those are the stories that interest me. I’m interested in complex behavior, and most movies are–and I think rightly so–more like roller-coaster rides, and when you’re making a roller-coaster ride, sometimes it’s not appropriate for people to be complex; you want to simplify the people, take some of the edges off them. So risk is something I’m always aware of when I’m making a movie.”
The complexity of the “Limbo” script and characterizations might be daunting to some, but it’s certain that virtually all viewers will react with surprise to the film’s abrupt ending. When asked about it, Sayles shrugged. “I actually didn’t think it was that big a deal. If the rest of the movie had been an action-adventure, then it would have been lunatic or suicidal to end it that way. But there’s two hours and five minutes of movie before the ending which should be warning you–plus the title, which is a consumer warning–that this is not your usual ride.”
Then he added: “For me, this movie ends with these three characters becoming a family.” The future they have as a family, however, is not so clear.