The John Sayles film, Honeydripper, inspired me to seek him out for an interview in 2007. This Q & A captures a portrait of the filmmaker at the time Honeydripper showed in theaters. The film revolves around Alabama blues musicians. Honeydripper counts as one of my favorite Sayles films along with Sunshine State, Brother From Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, Lone Star as well as his role in the movie, In The Electric Mist. –JC
John Sayles’ films command respect. His latest film, Honeydripper, takes place in Alabama during the 1950s. Honeydripper counts as Sayles’ 16th film which contains a stellar cast and homage to southern blues music. Honeydripper includes a strong line-up featuring Danny Glover, Stacy Keach, Charles S. Dutton and musicians Dr. Mable John, Keb Mo, Gary Clark Jr. and Howlin’ Wolf’s saxophone player Eddie Shaw.
Sayles began his career working with the great Roger Corman. Later, Sayles earned the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship given to individuals with rare originality. Some of Sayles’ great films include The Brother From Another Planet, Passion Fish, Eight Men Out, Matewon, Silver City, Lone Star, Sunshine State, The Howling and a script called Night Skies that served as the provenance of Steven Spielberg’s film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. I respectfully suggest you explore his work.
Sayles serves on the board for the Austin Film Society. The National Film preservation Board of the United States decided Sayles’ film Return of Secaucus 7 would be one of the 25 films selected in 1997 for preservation in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
Spielberg commissioned Sayles to write the script for Jurassic Park 4. Sayles’ cinematic scope casts a wide penumbra on diverse subject matter. Sayles’ film Baby It’s You was the first film ever to feature the music of Bruce Springsteen. Sayles also filmed Springsteen’s videos “Born In the U.S.A”, “Glory Days” and “I’m On Fire”.
Sayles’ Honeydripper tells the story of a family dealing with domestic, cultural and musical changes. Danny Glover’s character, “Pine Top” Purvis, an old piano player tries to save his juke joint by recruiting a hotshot guitar legend for one last glorious night which will make or break the establishment’s future. Stacy Keach plays a cantankerous sheriff. The film’s house band includes Gary Clark on guitar, STAX legend Dr. Mable John (who served as a Ray Charles Raylette), Henderson Huggins on piano and Howlin’ Wolf’s saxophone player Eddie Shaw. Here’s an excerpt from our extensive interview…
JC: It must have been thrilling to have Mable John—one of Ray Charles’ Raylette’s–appear in Honeydripper.
JS: Oh yeah. It was one of the things that was the most fun in the movie. First of all, I got to steep myself in the music of that moment. Some of the point of the film is all these people were listening to each other. There’s gospel, there’s jump, there’s swing, there’s old fashioned steel guitar blues, there’s pop ballads, and there’s country western. I used a Hank Williams song—you know—in the movie “Move It On Over”, which if you listen carefully is “Rock Around the Clock”. It’s rockabilly before anyone was calling it rockabilly. Then to get these good musicians—Benny Shaw used to play with Howlin’ Wolf for many years.
Mable, of course, had her own career as a singer. She ran the Raylettes for Ray Charles. Gary—the guitar player—is a phenomenon. We got lucky. A fellow we know who runs the South By Southwest music festival, the minute he heard what we were doing he said, ‘He might be too young, but you’ve got to check this kid out. He was born and raised in Austin, playing this music since he was 14′. To get them all together on the stage is what you hear in the movie—except for Danny Glover, who’s faking the piano. Although he took lessons, his hands are in the right place…everything is live. A solo was different on every take. They were just listening to each other, jamming on a general theme we gave them.
How long did it take to film Honeydripper?
JS: We have a very ambitious movie on a relatively low budget. You plan a lot and then shoot very little. We only had five weeks to shoot. We only had Danny Glover for three and a half weeks because he had a movie before us and a movie after us, so the shooting was very intense. We were in Alabama a couple of months planning things and making sure the locations made sense—working out the schedule to get the actors in the same room at the same time. There’s a couple of shots where Danny is looking at Keb Mo and they weren’t there together, which is kind of appropriate because Keb Mo is a ghost. Danny didn’t have to work too hard.
He didn’t have to talk to anyone. We had a couple curve balls thrown at us. You wake up in the morning and the cotton field we were going to shoot had been picked overnight because they were afraid there was gonna be rain. The machines pick the cotton so fast, so we’d have to have an emergency scouting report and find some more cotton we could shoot in. The people in the towns were really nice. That revival tent scene—The New Beginning Ministry—those eight people singing are the best of their singers and all the people in the congregation sing as well, so that was tough picking eight people who get to sing the gospel. Albert Hall was the actor who plays the reverend—you might remember him from Apocalypse Now—he was the captain of the boat…
(Read the entire John Sayles interview in Insured Beyond The Grave)