In the course of a long and varied career, John Sayles has been a prolific author and filmmaker. His novels include Union Dues and Los Gusanos. He has written screenplays for Roger Corman and Steven Spielberg, and he wrote and directed 17 films under his own independent production company, including Matewan, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, Lone Star and the The Secret of Roan Inish.

John Sayles

John Sayles

His latest film, Amigo, is a historical drama and fictionalized account of events that take place when a U.S. Army unit occupies a village during the Philippine-American War. The film stars Garret Dillahunt, Chris Cooper and D.J. Qualls.

Sayles spoke with Noozhawk during a recent visit to Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara to promote A Moment in the Sun, his new historical novel and the basis for the story behind Amigo.

Sayles, like many Americans, knew nothing about the Philippine-American War when he started his research.

“I’d never heard of the Philippine-American War,” Sayles said. “Asking some of my Filipino-American friends about this, they said, ‘Well, I know that it existed, but it was not taught in our schools in the Philippines.’

“How do you disappear a war? Why is it not taught in America? Hey, we won the war. Why aren’t we proud and celebrating this thing? And that got me intrigued about it, and then I saw that there were a lot of things going on with the psyche of America right around 1900.”

The title of the novel comes from a quote by W.E.B. DuBois: “After the Civil War, the Negro spent a moment in the sun, but then was dragged back into slavery.” Sayles saw a parallel in the Filipino fight for independence.

“That was the end of Reconstruction,” he said. “We had been imperialists before, taking over Indian nations and Mexican lands, but we’d never gotten on a boat and taken over somebody else’s country and said, ‘You people will thank us for this.’

“This happened in a very short time, where we went from the anti-imperialist people who protect the little guy and broke away from those decadent Europeans to being the people who say it’s time we played with the big guys. We need an empire, too. It happened in a matter of months, and that’s what the big arc of the book is all about.”

Sayles often writes stories that feature a large cast of characters, and this has become his signature style of storytelling. Although Amigo deals with a small microcosm of the events of the period, A Moment in the Sun is a sweeping historical epic that follows as many as 45 major characters in the United States, Cuba and the Philippines.

“Not one of them has any analysis of the big picture,” Sayles said. “There are big things happening in this era. It’s like there’s a flood, and you’re treading water and looking for something to hang onto. When people ask you about the flood, you say there was this coffin and I grabbed onto it or this 2-by-4, and I grabbed onto that or whatever. That’s your flood.

“But if you talk to 45 people who were in the flood, you start to see the flood from a distance. You start to put those things together and say, ‘Oh, it did this and then it did this, and then it took a right turn, and then it started knocking houses down, and then the bridges held, and then the bridges fell apart.’ You get to see the overview that so few characters do.

“In my movie, part of the point is they can’t communicate with each other. In Amigo, we have Tagalog (the official language of the Philippines). We have English. The one guy who can translate between them is a Spanish priest who has his own agenda.

“What the audience gets to see is that he’s not translating what the guy said. He’s lying. … How screwed are you if your translator has his own agenda? And then there’s some poor Cantonese guys who are just out of the conversation altogether except with each other.They have no idea what’s going on and they pay for it.  But the audience gets to see all of these little pockets, and they get to connect the dots in a way that the characters don’t.”

Sayles financed the making of Amigo with his own money on location in the Philippines, where the production costs were about one-third what they would have been in the United States.

“Mostly it’s based on the same research that I did for this book,” he said, “but I realized … that if I can tell a micro-history and set it on a village level, the construction costs will be there, but we’re making it out of what they made it out of back then. We’re making it out of rattan and palm thatch and bamboo. All of that grows out of the ground here. You take a bolo (knife) and you cut it, and you tie it together, and you got a hut. You do that 20 times, you got a village. That’s what our set was.

“95 percent of the movie was shot on a set that we made on the edge of a rice field. We bought the rice crop out, and that was very good for the farmers because they got rid of the middle man. We bought it for what it would have been sold on the market. We didn’t even use all of the rice, so they got half of the crop back to sell again. So they were happy we were there, and a lot of them became extras in the movie.”

Amigo will be released in the United States on Aug. 20.

“It’s going to be at the New York Asian Film Festival before it opens here (in Southern California),” Sayles said, “and if you want to go to Manila, it’s going to open the Fourth of July.

“Mostly we’re heading for cities that have a large Filipino-American population first. It’s a company called Variance, and we’re basically paying them to distribute it. They’ve done these kind of very narrow-cast distributions before, where they start with all of the Indians, or the Japanese or the Koreans in the States, and then they let it go out to the art theaters if that’s appropriate. That’s what we can afford.

“We may make eight prints or something like that, which is kind of how we started. Our first couple of movies did that. It’s like a road show. You move from territory to territory with those eight prints.”

— Mark Dispenza is a story analyst and freelance writer who blogs about American independent and foreign film on Indie Film Guru. Follow him on Twitter: @mdispenza.