Director John Sayles is known for taking chances on his characters. They combine the unusual and ordinary, yet are always anchored in a well-defined time and place.
In his latest film, "Limbo," which opens today (see movie review, page 15), Mr. Sayles takes the tradition a step further - he takes a chance on his audience as well. The film leaves its ending up to the viewer's imagination, a choice that has roiled some critics and delighted others.
The actor-director-novelist explains this ending is crucial to the film's fundamental theme of risk. Specifically, the movie shows people who do and don't take risks and what those decisions mean to their lives.
"This movie is about people who've taken risks and suffered losses," Sayles says, referring to a community in Alaska he brings to life on the screen. Sayles says the remote northern state is a perfect spot to explore the notion of risk-taking because "people go [there] to reinvent themselves."
The film focuses on the salmon-fishing community surrounding the state capital, Juneau, caught in the cross hairs of big tourism developers who see profit in its beautiful countryside.
In keeping with themes Sayles has mined throughout his creative life, the director explores the social consciousness of various players in the drama while he reveals the vulnerabilities of people trapped by lives they feel powerless to change.
These concerns are vintage Sayles. Communities and their stories are what has attracted the filmmaker ever since his debut with "Return of the Secaucus Seven" in 1980. His other films include "The Brother from Another Planet," 1984; "Matewan," 1987; "Eight Men Out," 1988; "Passion Fish," 1992; "Secret of Roan Inish," 1994; "Lone Star," 1996; and "Men With Guns," 1998.
"The oral tradition is different than the media tradition," he says, referring to modern society in which mass media create what he calls generic stories for entertainment. In an oral society, the narratives people share with one another "are like creation myths. They place people, tell them who they are, and where they came from."
In "Limbo," Sayles uses the story of a community being displaced by outside interests to show the transfer of storytelling power from those who create the myths to those who sell them.
At the outset, the people seem to be defining themselves by telling the stories of their community and its past. But then, Sayles says, the stories start to sound like "tall tales" because they are becoming consumer products, no longer rooted in a living community's daily routine.
In the last portion of the film, when the three central characters are cut off from everything they've known, and are forced to rely on each other to survive, "the film explores how people use stories to connect to what's important," Sayles says. This is what he calls the "strategies of storytelling," a critical part of any community.
Although he has written novels and short stories, Sayles calls movies his most personal medium, "his primary storytelling forum."
He says that unlike many directors who've come from within Hollywood, he knew nothing about the movie business when he started writing.
"I knew nobody in the industry," he says, laughing. But he decided to take the risk, a trait that has stayed with him. His first movie cost less than $50,000. "Limbo," his most expensive yet, had an $8 million budget, still quite modest by Hollywood standards.
Sayles, who is a recipient of numerous awards, including The MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, says that risk-taking has been fundamental to his growth as a creative artist.
"What I want to say about risk is that if you're in limbo, the way to get out is to risk something. Be willing to say I don't know how it's going to turn out. But that's better than the limbo of no change at all."