By Danny Peary
Go for Sisters fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Beginning today you can see John Sayles’ quirky little jewel in Manhattan, before it plays in select theaters nationwide. Since 1980, Sayles has written and directed some extraordinary independent films—Return of the Secaucus Seven, Passion Fish, The Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, Lone Star, Eight Men Out, and Amigo are among his eighteen familiar titles—offbeat, thought-provoking, splendidly-acted works that have been full of wit, action, and adventure while seriously dealing with politics, labor issues, racism, poverty, exploitation, and women’s issues. He has been a role model for other independent filmmakers and has a grateful following among savvy moviegoers. Foremost Sayles is a storyteller and this story is a doozy. Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) is a strict, cynical parole officer whose newest case is ex-con and recovering addict Fontayne (Yolanda Ross), who was her best friend until they split up over a guy twenty years before. When her son Rodney, who has been smuggling Chinese out of Mexico, is held for ransom by a Chinese gang, Bernice enlists Fontayne to help and hires the almost-blind, hardly-working private eye, Freddy Suárez (Edward James Olmos) who was thrown off the police force for not turning in his corrupt partner. This unlikely trio travels to Mexico to find the missing son, deal with an assortment of characters—some strange and some dangerous–and have some wild escapades. Will they find Rodney alive? Will Bernice and Fontayne resume the friendship they’ve both missed? And will Freddy–“The Terminator”—come through one more time? Having seen the movie I had no need to ask any of those questions when I did this interview with Sayles and Ross earlier this week.
Danny Peary: John talk about the title of the movie, Go for Sisters.
John Sayles (left): It’s a good example of a title that I never thought of. That happened before when I made “The Louisiana Project.” There was a title contest among the cast and crew, and two other people besides me said Passion Fish might be a good one. My only problem with this title is that if I call up the chain theater near my place in Hoboken, they might think I made a film about gophers.
DP: I thought Go for Sisters might be the title of a song from years ago.
JS: It’s a phrase from when I was kid, when guys went for brothers and girls went for sisters–like how Romy and Michelle go for sisters. I never came up with a better title and I think it’s a good title for this movie.
DP: The title implies that is about, foremost, not the search for the missing boy but the relationship of the two women, Bernice and Fontayne, and their sisterly love for each other.
JS: Go For Sisters is really for me is about redemption and figuring out who you are. For probably 12 to 18 years, when Bernice and Fontayne were young, if you described one of them the other had to be in the conversation because they were that close. But then there was a twenty-year gap when they didn’t see each other. Is that relationship possible now? And is it desirable? And so the journey they take answers those questions. I like when where there’s a physical journey and also a psychological journey. The journey is between the two of them personally as well as it is to find the woman’s son.
DP: Yolanda, in that twenty-year-period, how often did Fontayne think of Bernice and was she resentful the whole time or was she hoping to be friends with her again?
Yolanda Ross (above right): I think if you go through as much stuff as Fontayne has been going through, you try to hold on to a part of yourself from before and it’s like a little nugget you don’t want to get messed up–because people and situations change when a lot of time goes by. Fontayne was in prison and inmates sometimes don’t want to let that outside world into what they’re into right now. I think there’s a lot of emotions mixed into it. I don’t feel Fontayne had negative thoughts of Bernice. I think she always treasured Bernice and their friendship. I think that a lot of times that’s how you see friendships from way back. I know I do. There are people who I felt immensely close to and suddenly there was nothing between us for decades. And then you see these people–as I did when having my own films play at film festivals–and it just clicked and it was as if nothing had changed.
JS: Fontayne has a scene where she talks about that person she once was. She’s not just protecting the idea of who her friend was–and Bernice might still be her friend–but also the person Fontayne liked being. As far as having been in prison and all this stuff, that’s somebody different, from the past. She wants to keep those things separate. Whether Fontayne can get back to being that person she liked being before she went to prison is another question.
DP: Well, I am sure that Bernice was a better person at that stage of her life, too, when she and Fontayne were friends. The movie is about characters not only searching for redemption but also their identities—it’s about people finding themselves again and having a second chance. I think Bernice finds her herself again through Fontayne.
JS: I think she finds her best self. She has had a lot of hard stuff weighing on her from being a single mom, having her husband die young, having had a lot of disappointments. And then working in that system as a parole officer–to do it, you build up a lot of crust. That not the best Bernice and she just now starts to sense that “Maybe I’ve turned into somebody I don’t like that much.”
DP: Remember the movie Hardcore in which the upstanding George C. Scott gets help from prostitute Season Hubley to find his daughter in the porno world. We think he may take her in as his second daughter but at the end he pushes her aside. During Go for Sisters, I think everyone is hoping that Bernice will want to stay friends with Fontayne at the end.
JS: That’s the indication. As Bernice says, “I don’t have that many friends.” It’s illegal for them to be friends because she’s a parole officer and Fontayne is her client. But also Bernice doesn’t want the complication of having power over her. A couple of times she snaps the whip and tells Fontayne, “Oh, you’re coming to Mexico with me to help me find my son.” She’s her parole officer and there’s that implication that “if you don’t, maybe I will write you up.” It’s not a good thing in a personal relationship for one person to have that kind of power over the other.
DP: We want them to be together and be friends and equals. However, we remember that in your last film, Amigo, you didn’t give anybody what they wanted. So this time, watching a John Sayles movie, some of us are asking, “Is he going to give us what we want at the end?”
JS: Well, not what we want, but what the characters want.
DP: Yolanda, when reading the script for the first time, were you hoping that these two women would get together at the end?
YR (laughing): At first, I was hoping that Fontayne and Bernice stayed around throughout the script. LisaGay and I talked about how when we got the script, the first thing we said was “Where am I in it?” Because the way the business is, you might get just a scene or two in the movie.
JS: I had already worked with LisaGay before, and I met Yolanda auditioning for the part that LisaGay played in Honeydripper. At the audition I wrote next to Yolonda’s name–”a really good actor, work with her someday.” Then this happened. It’s really pretty rare that I know who the actor is going to be when I’m writing. I try not to write with actors in mind because even if I know them, they may not be able to afford to work for me, or might not be available. In this case, I was putting together two different ideas–one about a detective and one about the two women coming together, and it made sense as one film. And I said, “Oh, jeez, that actress Yolonda Ross would be great for this!
DP: Yolanda, you probably heard from other directors you auditioned for that they’d cast you in a future film. And nothing happened. So were you surprised to hear from John?
YR: We met at the audition for Honeydripper, but we hadn’t kept in touch. Then three years later I get the script for Go for Sisters. I’d heard of John keeping his word, so I was thinking he had me in mind for a scene or two. But the whole movie? I was floored. LisaGay and I both kept turning the pages and seeing our names. We were saying, “Wait! Am I in it all the way to the end?” That was fascinating.
JS: I just gave them the script and told them each, “I want you to play this character.”
YR: He wanted us both to play substantial characters. It was like, “Ok, I’m going to sit down and read it now.” When I was reading the script, I just wanted to go on a journey. I didn’t know where it was going to go. I can’t say I hoped that Fontayne and Bernice would become friends at the end but I hoped for the best for them. Because when you see what they go through, how they help each other, and what they overcome, you want it to work out.
JS: Fontayne has a line near the end, “I didn’t think there was a hope in hell that this kid was alive. I just wanted to be there for my friend when she got the bad news.” You have to go back through Yolanda’s performance to realize that what Fontayne says is the truth. As you watch Yolanda, sometimes when Fontayne is in the background, you realize that Fontayne is thinking Bernice’s son is dead. She is just there keeping the hope alive, but not in a cruel way. She’s gonna be there if Bernice hears bad news because she doesn’t want her friend to be alone if she finds out her son is dead. I was very impressed with Yolanda because that’s a tough thing to play.
YR: That’s a tough line to say. I read that, and even when doing it, I was like “Wow!”
JS: LisaGay also had something hard to do. There are scenes that aren’t about her son and she said, “How do I play something that’s almost comic and have Bernice appear to be having a good time, when her son has been kidnapped and they’re cutting off pieces of his body?” I’d say that we see wives of men who are trapped down in a mine and they don’t know if the miners are dead are alive, yet worrying is not the only thing these women are capable of doing. Still that’s really hard to play.
DP: I told you when Honeydripper was released that it reminded me of a short story. Although it’s not directed or acted in this way, I think Go for Sisters could be told as a yarn or tall tale: It’s about these two black chicks who get together with a nearly blind and aging ex-cop and go down to Mexico to find one woman’s kidnapped son whose fingers are being sent home–and they meet a whole bunch of weird or dangerous people; one shoots a dirty cop in the leg, they get shot at, the ex-cop–who is nicknamed “The Terminato”–gets abducted. It sounds like a whopper.
JS: There’s a way to write that with a third person who has just heard this story or witnessed some of it. I’ve actually done some short stories like that.
DP: So have you ever thought of it like a yarn?
JS: Yeah, yeah. The thing is, stories generally present themselves in my head in the form that they’re going to be in, but every once in a while they mutate from something else. For example Casa de los Babys was a short story before it was a movie.
DP: I read that you went to sixty-five locations, so is Go for Sisters your first road movie?
JS: It’s certainly the movie with the most fucking car shots. At times it was 117 degrees and we had to turn off the air conditioning because of the sound.
YR: And you put more people in that car…
JS: The sound person and me. Some of my other movies have almost the same form. In Lone Star, for instance, there’s a whole detective thing, and the hero has to kind of take a journey–but he’s not literally in the car all of the time, going from one place to another. I think that besides Yolonda, LisaGay, and Eddie, there was only one actor who worked more than one day. Vanessa Martinez, who played Chula, Fontayne’s “friend” from prison, wanted to work only a couple of days. So that’s very indicative of a road movie, where the lead characters briefly encounter people along the way.
DP: You don’t show Rodney at the beginning of the movie and you never really show the villains. Big choices!
JS: The Chinese are mysterious and they remain so. That woman you meet in the market is based on a Chinese woman who a couple years ago was arrested here. She had one of those little shops on Canal Street, lived very modestly, dressed very modestly, and, it turned out, was the snakehead of and international multi-million-dollar smuggling ring of Chinese. She’s definitely the snakehead of the organization. As Hector Elizondo’s character, a bartender, says, she’s cursed as a devil and venerated as a goddess by various people.
DP: So I’m wrong in saying that we don’t see the villain.
JS: She’s not really the villain. We don’t ever see her in action.
DP: You had Chinese in the Philippines in Amigo and now in Mexicali in this film. Are there Chinese there?
JS: In Mexicali, until about the 1930s, there were more Chinese than Mexicans. They were brought in because they’d work for less money than even the Mexicans. Today, in “La Chinesca,” which is what they call the Chinatown in Mexicali, there is an air of mystery. A couple years ago, there was an earthquake and people thought the Chinese smuggling had ended because the tunnels were gone. All the sudden, there were hundreds of Chinese in the streets. Where did these people come from? They’d been living in holes, waiting to cross the border, and the earthquake drew them out.
DP: There’s a scene with Fontayne and Bernice that has a terrific exchange in which Bernice says people are defined by the choices they make–which seems to make sense–but then Fontayne says that often people don’t have a lot of choices—which makes sense, too. Yolanda, did that bit of dialogue have particular meaning for you?
YR: That scene stayed with me. I played another character who was in jail [in her 2001 movie debut, The Stranger Inside], and I think choices are different for everybody. Having fewer choices makes it easier to function daily.
DP: Yes, but I think the implication is that some people, like Fontayne, don’t have a lot of good choices.
JS: I think what Fontayne is saying is that Bernice is talking about a world that has nothing to do with her world. What job is Fontayne going to get? When we meet her she’s working in a diner. She loses that job by going to Mexico. The new job, that Bernice gets her, is even worse. She’s crushing cans!
DP: Fontayne violates parole if she hangs out with ex-cons, but in her world half of the people have spent time in jail. That’s her world and she has no choice but to have contact with them.
YR: That’s her world in the beginning. She talks to Bernice about her life and a lot of people’s lives–and whether it’s coming out of jail, or having an addiction and going back into the life that led you to prison–it’s just very real. Sometimes people don’t realize that when a person comes out of prison and relapses, that they often don’t have choices. It’s the socio-economic reality of things. It’s not like you go through all this cleanup and you when you get out you go to this very nice place. You go back to your old life.
JS: You ever see the movie Straight Time? The great thing in that is that Dustin Hoffman gets out of prison and works in a factory for minimum wage and he’s got this parole officer on his ass. But when he goes to this bar where all the cons hang out, they treat him like a man. And you realize, there’s no chance of him staying in the factory and being treated like a peon, but he’s gotta do something illegal to retain his status. It’s not just about the money.
DP: John, talk a little about Edward James Olmos’s detective, Freddy Suárez, nicknamed “The Terminator.” In your Director’s Statement in the film’s production notes, you say he “is in desperate need of personal redemption.” He was thrown off the police force for turning a blind eye to his partner’s corrupt acts, but since your film extols loyalty, wouldn’t he feel he didn’t do anything so wrong that he needs redemption?
JS: He has been marked “lousy” by his tribe. The cops are a tribe, like a gang or whatever, and for whatever reason, he has been kicked out and can’t do police work anymore. More tellingly, he’s a guy who’s losing his power. He can’t see. It’s like If you’re a great baseball player and all of a sudden you can’t see the ball anymore and you’re no longer great. And he’s still young enough to do it. Freddy wouldn’t have had to retire yet. He feels he should be out there doing that thing that he does. And so his redemption isn’t about getting back on the police force. It is him getting to sit in the driver’s seat and again be the Terminator. He probably doesn’t think Bernice’s kid’s alive either, but he’s going to get resolution for this woman who hired him. That’s what Bernice paid for. At first he thinks Bernice and Fontayne are flakes and there’s nothing to their mission, so “I’ll charge them something even though I don’t even have a detective’s license and may not be able to do anything for them.” But once he gets into it, he wants to go to the end. He throws himself out there like bait, and wanders around Tijuana with no power. There’s this moment when he again becomes the Terminator.
DP: You can see he must have been a great policeman.
JS: He was great at his job. Just as some of the guys who got caught in the Serpico scandal in New York were dirty as hell, but were known for being the best cops.
DP: Also in your Statement, you say how you loved putting great actors like Yolanda, LisaGay, and Edward James Olmos together and watching them. Did you prefer writing scenes with two of them or with all three?
JS: For me, scenes with two characters and three characters are very, very different. One of the things that I was very conscious of is that half an hour into the film, Freddy comes in and the whole dynamic changes. Until then, we have two-character scenes with Fontayne and Bernice, but when the dynamic changes, each of them can watch the other one with Freddy. You can see them watching each other. Scenes with two and three characters are both important in this movie. I don’t have a preference when writing them, but they definitely have a different dynamic and rhythm.
YR: I like playing whatever’s well-written. It doesn’t matter to me if a scene is one character, two characters or three characters. I completely agree with what John said. I like something happening in front of me, but still being a part of it and watching and listening and taking it in. The other characters may be talking but your character is reacting to them. When watching a movie I’m in, I always find it interesting to see how I react to things as the character, because she is part of the scene.
JS: Yolanda often plays supporting characters. She had a little run in Treme and stuff like that. Often a scene is not about her character, but she finds an agenda for her even if she wasn’t given one. Some of it is being a good observer. There’s a famous story of a young British actor who was in a play with Ralph Richardson and one of those Dames. She had a big soliloquy, and Ralph Richardson went over to this new actor and asked what he was going to do during her speech. The young actor replied, “Well I thought I’d just be quiet and listen.” And Ralph said, “No, that’s what I’m doing.” So this kid had to find a way to make himself less present. When you’re in with a bunch of people, you’ve got to do your business but not get in the way of the main thing, and Yolonda had to do that a lot in this movie because really the heat is between the woman whose son is missing and the detective who says he’s going to go find him. It was great to see her performance when I was doing the editing, because I didn’t always notice what she was doing when I was directing because sometimes the picture on the monitor is pretty far away.
YR: That’s what I think is really fun. You’re a character in the scene and you react to what others are doing, and hopefully what you do gets noticed. I enjoy that.
JS: There are scenes when Yolonda is way in the back. She didn’t have that much riding on the scenes. And what I mean about watching good actors is seeing them do what’s appropriate for their characters. Almost hiding on-screen sometimes, and all of a sudden, taking center stage and having it be about them.
DP: Yolanda, as the fledgling director of your first short, Breaking Night–which is playing at festivals now–what impressed you about John as a director.
YR: John lets actors do their work. LisaGay and I definitely had to work through things, and he allowed us to do that. We took little moments between shots or whenever to get our heads in the right place, and get who we are to each other in the scene and work it out. That’s was what we needed and what John wanted.
JS: On the tight schedules that I have for my movies, I don’t usually do actor rehearsals. I do blocking rehearsals and that’s it. I don’t teach actors how to act, I direct their talents. I want to see what they are going to do. What I expect is that they’re going to help out each other. The only thing I could do for Yolanda and LisaGay was make sure that the first scene, when they’re reunited, was the first scene that we shot. The rest of the shoot was all over the place. We only had four weeks, and the first week we didn’t have Eddie, so they had to do scenes from the end of the movie during the first week.
YR: You’re there to make this film, and you want to make it the best that you can. So you’re putting in your time and your work into it so that when you guys see it, it doesn’t look like it was made in four weeks. It looks like we had a billion hours to do it. All the talent is there on the screen, and all the hard work is there.
DP: John, could Yolanda and LisaGay have switched parts?
JS: Yeah, they could have and it would be interesting on stage. But when I make a movie I’m not working with people who are household names. My first impression was kind of, “Oh, LisaGay is a really organized person.” Having worked with her before, I can say she seems like someone who could work in a bureaucracy. She’s comes across as being buttoned down, so she could handle all that stuff. But if we were doing repertory, it would be fun to have them switch parts sometimes.
YR: When somebody else asked us that, LisaGay and I both paused. We thought, “Well, we’re actors, so we could switch.” But this made so much sense. Going over the script, it was like I knew all Fontayne’s words. I knew the language of Fontayne–it made sense.
DP: In the film Fontayne asks Bernice why she liked her. Why does Yolonda like Bernice?
YR: Fontayne likes Bernice because, I feel, she knows the heart of Bernice. And Bernice sees her, you know what I mean? She sees not what others see, she sees this good person.
JS: She knows what she’s worth.