A period piece set in the rural South, Honeydripper stars Danny Glover as a piano player who goes through drastic measures to save his blues club, and marks Sayles’ 16th feature film.
“I wrote this and thought it will be a great part for somebody, and the minute I finished it and read it over I said ‘Danny Glover.’ He said yes a full year before we got to make the movie,” claims Sayles, who also serves as editor.
With Glover onboard, finding the remaining cast members was relatively easy for Sayles and his producing partner Maggie Renzi.
“When we were offering parts to the other actors we would say Danny Glover is the lead and that helped getting really good actors to say yes to something they get paid scale,” adds Sayles.
Actors like Sean Patrick Thomas and Lisa Gay Hamilton immediately jumped at the opportunity to join the cast, which also stars former “America’s Next Top Model” contestant Yaya DaCosta.
“You hear Danny Glover is attached and you hear John and you say yes because you’re going to learn something from both of those people,” says Thomas.
“I didn’t have to read the script,” quips Hamilton, who plays Glover’s onscreen wife. “I just heard John say ‘Danny Glover.’ It’s the dream of any legitimate actor who wants to really work at their craft that this is the kind of work you want to be a part of.”
Along with Renzi, Sayles scoured several locations to recreate the deep South of the ’50s before settling on the southern town of Greenville, Ala. because of its decommissioned army base and historical buildings.
“We needed fields of high cotton, an army base and a town center that could look 1950 convincingly and found that in Butler County, along with a warm reception from the local people,” he says.
With a limited budget, five weeks to shoot and no safety net of a distribution deal, filming Honeydripper was extremely challenging for Sayles and many cast members, whose southern experiences were far from charming.
“It’s a very oppressed community to begin with,” says Hamilton. “There’s not much going on. The gap between rich and poor is very huge. You think when you get a movie you would be staying at the Four Seasons Hotel and a car will pick you up, and of course this being John’s out of pocket money we were in a place similar to a Motel 6.”
For Glover, who has filmed numerous periodic pieces such as The Color Purple and Beloved, it was another opportunity to revisit his roots.
“I am fortunate because I am a part of all that experience,” he says. “I am the first generation of my family born outside of the South. I was born in 1946 so that meant that I am a child of that period.”
With vivid characters and direction that tell the story through mood, Honeydripper drips with retro detail as it immerses audiences into its world of the Jim Crow South. To enhance its authenticity, Sayles admits to holding a seminar on how to pick cotton.
“Whereas everybody over 50 both black and white had picked it, nobody under had because it’s all mechanized now, and so we did a seminar for all our actors and extras. People who were good at it got in the foreground, and people who were having a real hard time we put in the background,” he says.
Despite the challenges of filmmaking, Sayles, who invests both humanity and realism in his works, claims it’s a challenge that he enjoys, for the art of independent filmmaking has many rewards, including traveling to various worldwide locations.
“The great thing is that we never raised money and ended up financing it ourselves with money I made as a screenwriter,” he says. “I feel like I am a storyteller, and when we make our own movies, I’m an independent storyteller.”
Honeydripper is currently in select theaters.