Feature: Welcome to 'Sunshine State'

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Nov. 27, 2002 at 10:33 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Nov. 26 (UPI) -- If you think of politics when you think of Florida, be advised that veteran filmmaker John Sayles' most recent feature -- "Sunshine State" -- has a decidedly political component, but nothing to do with the controversial 2002 presidential election.

Rather, like so much of Sayles' work, it focuses on local politics -- including the most local of all, the personal politics of family and community. That sounds pretty dry, but Sayles -- as he did with such movies as "Lone Star" and "Eight Men Out" -- has once again demonstrated a deft touch for creating a universe of interesting characters and using their challenges to make some serious points about the world we live in.

It's a far cry from the big-budget special-effects extravaganzas that typically attract paying customer by the tens of millions.

Still, though they know they are more likely to be seen in art houses than in multiplexes, some pretty terrific actors are attracted to work with Sayles -- simply for the opportunity to play strong characters in uncommonly literate screenplays.

"Even the ones who work fairly often, a lot of what they get offered, they read the script and there's not much to the character," said Sayles. "There's also a lot of people who are acting to blue screens these days."

For the uninitiated, blue screen is a technique widely used in special effects shots in which actors perform in front of a blue screen -- sometimes with an inanimate object standing in for other characters in the scene. Backgrounds and other characters are added later, digitally.

The closest thing to a blue screen in "Sunshine Sate" is the blue Florida sky that comprises much of the backdrop for a story that predominantly focuses on two young women trying to reconcile profound changes in their hometowns with their failure to realize their personal aspirations.

The cast includes Jane Alexander ("Kramer vs. Kramer"), Angela Bassett ("What's Love Got to Do with It"), Gordon Clapp ("NYPD Blue"), Edie Falco ("The Sopranos"), Timothy Hutton ("Ordinary People"), James McDaniel ("NYPD Blue") and Mary Steenburgen ("Back to the Future"). It also features veterans Alan King, Clifton James, Bill Cobbs and Ralph Waite, best known as the father on "The Waltons."

Sayles loves watching accomplished actors bring his screenplays to life.

"A lot of the joy is to get really good actors and see what they're going to come up with," he said. "It's interesting to take an actor and use them in a way that they haven't been used before."

Sayles' casting of Falco as a South Florida native is a good example of that.

"Most people would cast her as someone from Jersey," he said.

Sayles not only writes and directs his own movies -- he also edits them. He is at present editing his 14th project, "Casa de Los Babys", featuring an all-star ensemble -- Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gay Harden, Steenburgen, Rita Moreno, Lili Taylor and newcomer Maggie Gyllenhaal -- in the story of six American women who travel to South America to adopt babies and wind up forced by law to live there.

After relying on older, conventional technology of cutting and splicing celluloid, Sayles is finally editing a film digitally.

Sayles, no computer wiz, said he had to learn to use the Windows operating system so he could pick up the new skill. Once he got it, he was glad he did.

"It's fun," he said. "It's like a video game."

Some film editors have observed that they were able to edit faster when they switched to digital. But Sayles said he was already working fast, even when he was doing it the old-fashioned way, because of his triple duty as writer, director and editor.

"I have the advantage that I know the footage very well," he said, "so I edit faster than an editor who is working for somebody else."

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