The Reeler


September 18, 2007

A Sayles Job

Filmmaker brings Honeydripper to IFP Week, goes it alone for first time in decades

John Sayles and Maggie Renzi introducing Honeydripper Monday night in New York (Photo: STV)

When it started a couple of years ago, Independent Film Week was actually an honest-to-goodness week of (mostly) public events tied to the IFP Market -- premieres, Q&A;'s, special screenings and the like. The event has downsized notably since then (its Web site hasn't been updated in more than a year), but the 2007 go-around started impressively enough Monday night with the New York premiere of John Sayles' new film Honeydripper.

"For us, premiering as part of Independent Film Week is a statement of sorts," said Ira Deutchman, former Fine Line kingpin and current boss at Emerging Pictures, which is working with Sayles and his longtime producer and partner Maggie Renzi to essentially self-distribute the film this fall. "A statement that we want the film to be seen in the context of the solidarity of those filmmakers around the world who are looking for solutions. We hope to prove that there's still room in the marketplace for films that don't look and sound like traditional Hollywood fare -- films that treat their audiences with the respect that they'll get the subtleties without having to cram them in their faces, or films that encourage audiences to relax and enjoy the world that they're placed in rather than being rushed through to the conclusion."

And relaxed they were, as Honeydripper flows with the dense consistency its name implies. A largely black, typically Saylesian ensemble cast bumps around Harmony, Ala., in 1950, a scorched, segregated map blip where destitute saloonkeeper "Pinetop" Purvis (Danny Glover) schemes against his local sheriff, loan sharks, liquor barons and even his own wife to keep his besieged nightclub in operation. Enter the young drifter Sonny (newcomer Gary Clark Jr.) with a guitar case and the clothes on his back; he's not Guitar Sam, the New Orleans legend whom Pinetop books to revive the sleepy joint, but he might do in a pinch.

Joined by Charles Dutton, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Yaya DeCosta, Stacy Keach, Sean Patrick Thomas and Devenia McFadden as the scene-stealing, oversexed seamstress Nadine, Glover does fine work with an unusually loose Sayles plot; for a film so infatuated with rhythm and blues, its lack of actual rhythm sends Honeydripper sprawling more than meandering. But Sayles' one-liners retain as much bite as ever, and cinematographer Bill Pope glimpses a dusty period South that shivers with soul.

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After the film, Sayles and Renzi recalled bringing their first project, the microbudget breakthrough Return of the Secaucus 7, to the original IFP Market in 1978. "They didn't show our movie there, but we went to the conference to find out if anybody knew anything about distributing," Sayles told The Reeler. "We had this movie on our hands and had made it completely out of the system, and the next thing was, 'Well, I guess we're going to have to sell this thing.' "

"Jeffrey Nelson, who's one of the producers, and I heard about this IFP thing," Renzi added. "We weren't registered or anything. People were talking about how (filmmakers) could do this thing outside the system, and Jeffrey and I kept saying -- he was more polite than I -- 'We already have! The film's already finished!' But IFP wasn't quite ready for us because it was that new." She turned to Sayles. "You went to Sundance, but it wasn't even Sundance."

"It was the Park City Film Festival," he said.

"So we were there just before everybody quite know what they were doing -- including us," Renzi said.

The pair continued to learn, relearn and evolve their business practice after Secaucus 7's release and through subsequent '80s efforts like City of Hope, Brother From Another Planet and Matewan. "Basically, every time we've made one, the business has changed so much within that year and a half to two years that it's no longer a model," Sayles said. "We've reinvented it; we've financed nearly every movie in a different way. Most of the distributors are out of business -- the people are still around, but the companies are gone. The whole models of distribution have changed because DVD showed up, and the Web showed up. Every time there was a change, we had to learn about it and incorporate that into the distribution."

Danny Glover in Honeydripper (Photo: Emerging Pictures)

"I also think we just wanted to make the movies, so we didn't pay excessive attention to what everybody else was doing," Renzi said. "We didn't as we started, and we didn't as we continued. We just were very narrowly focused each time on how we'd get THIS move done, and in a way it frees you from all the other knowledge."

I asked if Sayles and Renzi planned a return to their New Jersey roots for their next film, but the most they pledged was to maintain their office in Hoboken and to bring Honeydripper to the Teaneck International Film Festival in November. "Really what we're all about from now until February, when the film opens wide, is just about selling this one," Renzi said. "It'll be a little while before we can talk to you about what we're doing next. This thing we're doing now -- this self releasing -- is something we've never done before. We did it with Return of the Secaucus 7, but we had no idea and no expectations, exactly. Now we have very specific expectations. There's no reason this film shouldn't get Academy Award nominations; there's no reason it shouldn't play across the country. There's no time to think about what we're going to do next."

Interesting. Sayles' films Lone Star and Passion Fish garnered Academy notice in the '90s, but it's anybody's guess how Honeydripper's genuinely independent effort will hold its own against Hollywood's mini-major marketing behemoths. Having Deutchman in their corner makes all the difference on the exhibition side, while Renzi noted no fewer than four publicists, concentrated efforts in African American and urban markets nationwide and, of course, Honeydripper Marketing 101, the Clark Atlanta University class headed by Deutchman and Stomp the Yard producer Will Packer. "All this other expertise belongs to people who've done it for as long as we've done it," Renzi said. "It's not a dark secret how this thing happens."

I asked Sayles how much stock he, as an auteur legend with indie cred to spare, actually places in Oscar recognition. "It's a really nice compliment," he replied, "but it is part of getting people to see the movies -- same as the Golden Globes or any of those things. If it's there, you use it. If there's a blank billboard" -- here Sayles smiled and waved a fist through the air -- "you tag it."

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