When John Sayles went looking for financing for his 1984 film The Brother from Another Planet, the following conversation probably did not take place.
But it should have.
Secretary: Mr. Z———, there’s a man here to see you about making a movie. His name’s –
Studio Mogul: What kinda movie?
Secretary: I, uh, think he said something about, uh, science fiction.
Mogul: Young punk? Boy wonder? Look anything like Spielberg?
Secretary: Sort of, I guess, except, well…um…he’s got this kind of weird…uh….grin.
Mogul: They’re all weird. The Weirdo Generation, they oughta call ‘em. All those Sixties-Sergeant-Pepper-Up-Your-Nose punks. They should’ve stayed on the communes where they belonged. I could’ve been doing remakes of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington instead of bankrolling chandeliers from outer space and seven-foot fur balls….Ah, what the hell, send him in. The last weirdo I laughed at made more money than the U.S. Treasury….
Mogul: You’re in luck, kid. Sci-fi’s in this year. How much do you want? Ten million? Twenty? Hell, we gave this one guy forty million for giant worms and guys in welding suits.
John Sayles: $200,000?
Mogul: Who you planning on casting? High school students? Harrison Ford doesn’t even read scripts for that kind of money.
Sayles: Joe Morton.
Sayles: Say, he’s a fine actor. And I’ve lined up some good local talent. Nice little role for myself, too.
Mogul: So who needs DeNiro, right? Where you plan on shooting this space epic—New Jersey?
Mogul: Say what?
Sayles: Harlem. In bars. Alleyways. Cheap apartments. Video arcades.
Mogul: Let me guess. Giant bloodthirsty white alien vampires disguise themselves as Pac Man games and terrorize the ghetto, right?
Sayles: No giant aliens.
Mogul: Thousands of tiny bloodsucking alien vampires?
Sayles: One black guy, mainly. With three toes. Couple of white guys dressed in black. Couple of old black men on barstools. You get the idea.
Mogul: The alien’s black?
Sayles: Yeah, sort of Rastafarian-looking. Walks funny.
Mogul: Rasta-what-ian? While you’re going all out, why don’t you make him a deaf & mute, dress funny, and fix Pac Man machines for a living?
Sayles: He’s not deaf.
Mogul: But he’s mute, dresses funny, and fixes Pac Man machines for a living?
Mogul: And the white guys dressed in black? They also fix Pac Man machines for a living?
Sayles: No, they’re Slavers.
Sayles: And they walk funny, order beer on the rocks, and make nasty feral cat sounds when they’re not imitating Jack Webb.
Mogul: You’re not really here, are you? I’m really home in bed and you’re just a nightmare caused by something I ate. Please say “yes”.
Sayles: ‘Fraid not. But you’ll be happy to hear that the special effects shouldn’t be a problem.
Mogul: Let me guess. They’re all gonna put on space suits and do card tricks.
Sayles: No space suits. And just the kid does card tricks.
Mogul: What kid?
Sayles: This fifteen-year-old white kid in the subway train the alien catches.
Mogul: Now I know you’re something I ate. But just in case you’re real, I’m warning you I may have to kill you before this conversation is over.
Sayles: Are you interested in the plot?
Mogul: Does a bowling ball have hair?
Sayles: Because the alien doesn’t speak, everybody he meets feels obliged to fill in the silence with what’s most on their minds. They get to like him because he gives them a chance to talk to themselves. They even try to protect him from the men in black.
Mogul: Damn, we could have another Star Wars here. Enough there for three, maybe four sequels. TV series. Paperbacks. Merchandise. Don’t miss a trick do you? Let me guess: no sex, no gory violence, some comedy, lots of dialogue? Exploit the masses to the hilt, eh? Probably even want to toss in some good photography and a catchy sound track?
Sayles: Yeah. And the eyeball.
Sayles: The one that spies on the pusher. The one the alien pulls out of his eye socket and sticks in the planter….
Mogul: [incoherent response, possible apoplectic seizure]
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“The paradigm of the independent American filmmaker, specializing in moving, intelligent ensemble films about small people dealing with large problems. Originally (and still) a novelist and short story writer, he quixotically broke into films writing genre scripts, at firs for Roger Corman; typically, they stood out for their humor and cockeyed viewpoints.” Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia
“As befits a connoisseur of extended groups and variegated perspectives, John Sayles is himself a mass of men—not just a director of essentially independent films rooted in good talk, character study, and social reflection, but the writer of take-the-money-and-run screenplays; an odd, droll actor; a writer of fiction; A MacArthur Foundation fellow; and an altogether earnest, likeable, hard-working example to other independents.” –David Thompson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
You just gotta love artists who manage to go their own unpredictable ways, seemingly oblivious to the dictates of the so-called marketplace, yet ultimately astonishingly successful in making their visions realities. My personal list of such artists would include Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, the Coen brothers, and John Sayles. In the latter case, we have a man who moves gracefully between novels like Union Dues, scripts for Piranha and The Clan of the Cave Bears, juicy little acting roles in films like Something Wild, and award-winning films like The Return of the Secaucus Seven and Eight Men Out. He started out as a writer, paying his way by working as a day laborer, a nursing home attendant, and a meat packer in a sausage factory.
The Brother from Another Planet was the first John Sayles film I reviewed, but by no means the last. Over the years I’ve also sung the praises of Matewan, Eight Men Out, and The Secret of Roan Innish (1994). I knew I’d have no second thoughts going back to Brother after all these years.
This film proves that it’s possible to make a fine science fiction film with a lot of heart instead of a pile of money. Total budget: $350,000. It’s the kind of thought-provoking parallel storytelling that many of the best Star Trek episodes (through the many incarnations of the series), Twilight Zone episodes, and Night Gallery episodes pulled off time and again—hitting themes such as racism, terrorism, revolution, sexual identity, religious faith, and ethical dilemmas that conventional television dramas avoided like the plague. There were times where I was sure that the corporate TV sponsors were clueless as to the potent allegories & parables flashing across their screens.
The Brother from Another Planet is about an alien stranded in Harlem, but it’s also about slavery and the Underground Railway. It’s a plea for humanity disguised as a dark comedy with voluble old curmudgeons in bars, harried single moms, hustlers, cute kids, really lost white guys, and reptilian villains (the original “men in black”). I’ll chalk it up to serendipity that Joe Morton’s performance as the alien brother turned up on several of the critics’ lists for The Best Black Performances of All Time on the BFI website I’m featuring with this updated review.
I think the only thing that’s changed for me is that with this last viewing the melancholy struck me as strongly as did the humour. There’s a happy ending, of sorts. But there are some unhappy ones as well, and some that held promises unfulfilled. I can’t help comparing the final shots of The Brother from Another Planet with those of Runaway Train. They’re both about ambiguous states of freedom.
In the end, though, I’m still smiling. I can’t do anything else when a filmmaker is so confident that our shared humanity can win out over our self-interest.
Don’t overlook the fine soundtrack by Martin Brody and long-time Sayles musical collaborator Mason Daring.