|John Sayles on the set of Amigo. Photo by Mary Cybulski.|
By Ed Rampell
Writer-director John Sayles went to Hollywood Saturday night, but that’s not to say the über-indie filmmaker -- creator of independent features such as Return of the Secaucus Seven, The Brother From Another Planet and Lone Star -- has “gone Hollywood.” Sayles held court at the historic Roosevelt Hotel then crossed the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame (where, not surprisingly, there’s no star for the maverick moviemaker) to present the U.S. premiere of his new film Amigo at what may be La-La-Land’s grandest movie palace, the ornate, capacious Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
A near epic entirely shot on location in the Philippines with a largely Filipino crew and a mixed cast of Filipino and American actors, Amigo tells the story of a village caught in the crossfire between Filipino nationalists and U.S. soldiers occupying those Western Pacific islands -- an outgrowth of 1898’s Spanish-American War. Instead of liberating the Philippines from colonialism, the latter day Yanqui conquistadors replaced Spain as the colonial ruler. Having already endured a third of a millennium of foreign occupation and rule, General Aguinaldo and his fellow revolutionaries did not take kindly to Washington’s meddling in their internal affairs, and Filipino guerrillas took up arms to resist the U.S. invaders.
The Philippine-American War was arguably the U.S. Empire’s longest war, lasting from 1899 all the way to 1913. (One could actually argue that although the Philippines attained formal independence in 1946, the U.S. occupation lasted until 1991, when the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo with post-Ferdinand Marcos nationalism combined to drive the Yanquis out of their Subic Bay Naval Station and Clark Air bases.) Leave it to the leftwing Sayles -- whose company is called Anarchists’ Convention Films -- to shine a light on this little known armed conflict -- something that the helmer says he loves to do. And by turning to this violent episode of the past, Sayles also scores some salient points about Washington’s two ongoing, seemingly endless occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, which threaten to replace the Philippine-American imperial imbroglio as the U.S.’s longest lasting wars.
As Chris Cooper’s hard-bitten colonel says, “There’s a lot of history you don’t know about.”
Cooper, a veteran Sayles-man, leads the American troupe as Col. Hardacre, a hard ass Civil War vet and officer in charge of the U.S. troops, who clashes with Garrett Dillahunt’s Lt. Compton, as he attempts to win the hearts and minds of the villagers he oversees. In an effort at what would be called “hamlet pacification” during another Yankee war of aggression, Vietnam , Compton introduces display democracy to the village he occupies. But when Hardacre returns there after a skirmish he water boards the hamlet’s re-elected headman, Rafael Dacanay (Joel Torre).
Rafael walks a taut tightrope as the village chief who must placate foreign invaders garrisoned in his village of Nipa huts and somehow co-exist with the guerrillas holed up in the jungle, and with whom he somewhat sympathizes. Rafael also contends with divided family loyalties. It’s a tough balancing act, as both the indigenous and the invading forces reportedly committed atrocities during the war.
Sayles often directs low key, laconically paced, character driven indies, such as the 1983 coming out drama Lianna, made long before porn’s Sappho chic trend or Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom or MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow replaced Ellen as America’s favorite lesbian. Lone Star, which paired Cooper and Elizabeth Pena, is a racially charged murder mystery, but also a sensitive drama about brother-sister incest. Amigo, however, is most similar to Sayles’ action-packed Matewan, which was inspired by an actual episode of explosive class war pitting militant miners against owners and their henchmen. Amigo has the most gunplay and revolutionary politics of any Sayles film since Matewan, which also co-starred Cooper.
Sayles shot Amigo on location at Bohol, a scenic island located in the Visayas archipelago. During the Q&A after the Nov. 6 premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Sayles spoke highly of the Filipino film industry and of the Philippines as a location, which often doubles for Vietnam as in Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Most of Amigo’s crewmembers were Filipinos, including its cinematographer, Lee Briones-Meily, and production designer Rodell Cruz. An exception were soundmen Sayles imported because, he said, “sync sound” and Dolby technology, are not widely used in the Philippines. Sayles added that while the Filipino crew was paid on par with or slightly more than what they’d get for working on a local production, they worked shorter, more regular hours on Amigo.
Sayles’ longtime producer Maggie Renzi told the audience that U.S. distributors should pick up Amigo because there are so many Filipinos in the U.S. About one fifth of all people of Asian ancestry in the U.S. are Filipino. This is probably due to the colonial history of the Philippines and U.S. After people of Chinese origin, Filipinos are the second biggest Asian-American groups.
Prior to the screening, at the Roosevelt Hotel’s lobby Sayles enthusiastically expounded upon Amigo’s use of RED digital cameras to two-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who previously worked as Sayles’ director of photography on Silver City and Matewan and attended the Hollywood premiere of Amigo.
At the Roosevelt the tall, graying Sayles also discussed the vicissitudes of the economics of filmmaking and publishing, considering the latter to be in an even worse state than the former. Amigo grew out of Sayles’ soon-to-be-published sprawling novel called A Moment in the Sun about the era at the end of the 19th century, which marked a key turning point for the United States. Having utterly routed the Mexicans in the Southwest and the American Natives from coast to coast, Washington looked overseas to fulfill its “Manifest Destiny,” as Westward Expansion inevitably led to the Pacific. As the U.S. land grab grabbed Hawaii, Guam, Philippines and beyond, America arguably went from being a republic to becoming an empire.
Sayles, who is an accomplished author of fiction, as well as a screenwriter, lamented that he’d finally found a publisher for A Moment in the Sun, but was only being paid “a $3,000 advance. I spent more than $5,000 on research,” he laughed. Meanwhile, as of Nov. 6, Amigo has not picked up a distribution deal anywhere in the world, except for the Philippines.
At 59-years-old, Sayles may no longer be Hollywood’s enfant terrible, but he remains terribly committed to making independent minded, thought provoking films (and books) his way and on his terms, outside of the Hollywood studio system. To paraphrase the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, there’s no gray hair in this cineaste’s soul.