John Sayles, the writer-director who’s the undisputed dean of American independent filmmakers (he’s been at it for more than two decades), has already made elaborate ensemble dramas about the trauma of change in a northeastern city (in 1991’s “City of Hope”) and a Texas border town (in 1996’s “Lone Star”); now he continues the project with “Sunshine State,” which shifts the locale to the southeast. He discussed the new picture in a Dallas interview in which he was joined by his long-time producer Maggie Renzi.
The project began by accident, when Sayles traveled to Florida to search for locations for a screen adaptation of one of his stories. But he returned disappointed at the failure to find the kind of place he remembered from years past. “He was mad,” Renzi recalled. “He said “It’s all gone.’ And then he started [thinking that] maybe the story was that it’s about to be all gone.”
Sayles explained, “I’ve been going down to Florida probably since I was four or five years old. My father’s parents lived in Hollywood, Florida, which is just north of Miami. And my last novel was about the Miami area–I’d seen that sort of change from before, during and after the Cuban revolution, which had a big effect on Miami. And I’d been all throughout the state, adapted a couple books that were set there, and it’s always interested me that it was one of the few states that was populated largely because of advertising. It was a very big state with a small population until about 1900, and considered uninhabitable–at least the lower two-thirds of it. And developers went down and built hotels, and after they brought people down on the trains, they said well, there’s all this swampland that we could do something with. They created this iconic idea of the sunshine state…it was all fueled by advertising. That’s very American to me, and I think very much up-to-date. So much of our world is a media world.”
From this historical background Sayles constructed a contemporary tale about an island traditionally separated into two communities, one of whites and the other of African-Americans–and both confronted by encroaching development. The story is personalized by centering on two women and their families–Marly Temple (Edie Falco), who feels stifled running the motel and restaurant built by her now-retired father (Ralph Waite) while her mother (Jane Alexander) heads the local theatre group; and Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett), who returns after a long absence to visit her estranged mother (Mary Alice), accompanied by her new husband (James McDaniel). Involved with these characters are others: a town leader (Gordon Clapp) in league with developers; his wife (Mary Steenburgen), a Chamber of Commerce stalwart; a local black leader (Bill Cobbs) protesting the development; an out-of-town architect (Timothy Hutton) who enters an incipient romance with Marly; a young relative (Alexander Lewis) adopted by Desiree’s mother; an erstwhile black football star (Tom Wright) who’s acting as a frontman for developers seeking to buy up African-American property. And a Greek chorus of golfers led by Alan King periodically appears to comment on the historical circumstances against which the plot is set–the transformation of the state.
“Often in our movies, because there are a lot of characters and a lot of parallel plots going on, and a lot of parallel communities that don’t really know that they have something to do with the ones next door, I like the audience to be able to see a bigger picture than any of the characters,” Sayles said about the structure of the picture. “And so you have these family stories that may have quite a bit to do with history, but the families themselves may not have that big analysis. But the history sometimes comes up and gets us, catches up even when we try to ignore it, or, in the case of a community like Paradise Island [the fictional site of the film], sanitize it to the point that it’s saleable.” He spoke further about the film’s treatment of its large cast of characters: “One of the things about our movies is that they’re not heroic in the Hollywood sense. So many Hollywood movies are about either extraordinary people–they can shoot spider-webs out of their wrists, for example–or so-called normal people, even if they’re played by beautiful Hollywood stars, in extraordinary circumstances. Whereas the movies that I’m doing are about people just trying to make tough choices in what are ordinary circumstances, usually–but they’re just as tough. Very often I’m putting characters into situations where there isn’t a good choice, and you have to say, ‘Well, what’s the one that’s going to hurt the least?'”
In order to transfer the script he’d fashioned to the screen, of course, Sayles needed to find a convincing location, and he discovered one in Amelia Island, which like the fictional Paradise Island had housed white and black enclaves. “I was surprised that it still existed, because many of those kind of places just kind of disappeared within a couple of years when the segregation laws fell,” he said. But he added that as a result of outside development, “the cohesiveness of the community is gone.” Renzi noted, “And it’s also threatened from within, like it is in our movie. It’s a place now, but it’s not really a community anymore. It’s up for grabs, like a lot of Florida.” Sayles continued: “Now tourism is the big industry, and with that comes this incredible development, incredible amounts of money to be made. But they can look around at other parts of Florida and see places that are just–I think–blighted [by development].”
“Sunshine State” also required a large cast of accomplished actors, and Sayles and Renzi expressed enthusiasm over the ensemble they’d been able to assemble. Sayles explained: “One of the great things about working with good actors is, I don’t rehearse. We do a little walk-through, and I usually say, ‘Okay, no acting–this is where you’re likely to go, let’s see where you’re likely to go, maybe say your lines, maybe don’t.’ And when they start going, I get to just sit back for a couple takes and just see what they’re going to do with it. And often it’s something I never would have thought of. Good actors bring so much to a part–it’s one of the real joys of getting them under one roof.”
“Sunshine State” is a Sony Pictures Classics release.