John Sayles' new film, Sunshine State, is a postcard from the edge of progress, a mash note from a Yankee with sand between his toes who wonders where the kitsch went.
Long before Sayles and the words "maverick filmmaker" became synonymous, the native New Yorker was an occasional Florida visitor, pausing along the way to his grandparents' Hollywood home to see reptile shows or grab naps at mom-and-pop motels. Florida was still the end of the line for folks who washed out elsewhere, not a tourist destination.
Sunshine State, opening Aug. 2 in Tampa Bay area theaters, is Sayles' witty lament for a paradise lost, then rebuilt by developers into what one character describes as "nature on a leash." There is no mistaking the 51-year-old filmmaker's preference for gator farms over gated communities and Cracker wisdom over chamber of commerce hype.
Sayles' notion is that Florida is eroding in magnificent fashion, scarred by golf courses and corporate fun houses. The future's so bleak, yet we still wear shades.
"Florida has been tied up from the beginning with the very idea of leisure in America," Sayles said by telephone during a recent Jacksonville visit. "One of the things that always interested me is that it's a state that was populated largely because of advertising.
"Florida was very thinly populated for its size until people started saying: "Come on down and lie on the white sand under the palm trees that we're about to import from somewhere else and watch the oranges grow.'
"That concept, to me, is like the epitome of modern advertising, creating a need that we didn't know we had before. There's the real place, the real history; then there's this thing that has been sold since before radio and TV.
"I think the original guys really did have a vision. They especially looked at southern Florida, saw this uninhabitable wilderness and decided to do something with it. It's just that the scale that it's been done on by now has kind of overwhelmed the nature."
Sunshine State is as complex as those factors making Florida what it is today. Filmed last year around Amelia Island and American Beach on the northeast coast, the plot concerns two fictional communities confronted by progress.
White-bred Delrona Beach is converting to the new order of lush homes and chain stores. A prime piece of property is the Sea-Vue Motel operated by Marly Temple (Edie Falco). Developers are swarming the place to make a deal, including one (Timothy Hutton) Marly finds appealing.
A few miles away, the predominantly African-American community of Lincoln Beach is also targeted by land grabbers. But that means selling out history, because the beach was a popular refuge for blacks during the segregation era. Convincing Eunice Stokes (Mary Alice) to sell would set an example for the others, but her visiting daughter, Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett), gets in the way.
From those setups, Sunshine State spreads like a palmetto branch into supple subplots with sharp points at the end. Everyone in the 23-character ensemble cast has an agenda, from making a buck to making amends. Race, class distinctions, economics and all kinds of commercialization are addressed in a remarkably complete essay on Florida's colonization by conquistadors and bean counters.
"We get a lot of: "How did you know about all that?' " Sayles said of the response to Sunshine State where it was filmed. "But the truth is that you can't avoid in Florida a lot of the conflicts that are in the movie. It's just what's going on here. There's so much development, so much change happening, and a lot of people are concerned about it and have different ideas about where it should be going."
Sayles is an outsider, but the same diligent research that made Lone Star, Eight Men Out and Matewan so evocative in their diverse eras and cultures is displayed again. Authors such as John D. MacDonald and Carl Hiaasen are obvious influences, and the films of Victor Nunez (Ulee's Gold, Ruby in Paradise) _ "a lifer," in Sayles' words _ suggested the perspiration rhythms of Sunshine State.
"A lot of (the awareness) is living and listening," Sayles said. "I've spent a lot of time in other parts of the state, hitchhiked or drove around Florida in the old days in the small towns, not just the big beach communities. Lynyrd Skynyrd helps. One of the nice things about this movie is that I went back and listened to all of Lynyrd Skynyrd and was reminded of how much I like them. They had a lot of stuff _ sometimes not their most famous stuff _ that's about northern Florida especially."
That rock 'n' roll influence shows up in Marly's ex-husband, Steve (Richard Edson), guitarist for an Allman Brothers knockoff band called Skeeter Meter. ("They used to be big in Tampa," Marly assures us.) Now Steve works posing for tourists as a guard at a Spanish fort in St. Augustine, adding an absurd irony to his admonition to Marly that she "can't live in the past." Sayles regularly injects such regional eccentricities into Sunshine State, stopping short of making Florida look too wacky to believe, as other films have.
Good thing Sayles is also an outsider in the Hollywood system, raising money and making movies his way, or else the movie wouldn't feel as real.
"It would probably be weirder and the developers would have had to be much worse," Sayles imagined of Hollywood influence on Sunshine State. "It would have to be like Jaws, where the people who want the business ignore shark attacks or a toxic waste dump. Edie's character would've been a hero by exposing them. (Studio executives) basically would've wanted to "up the stakes,' which is what you usually hear in story conferences.
"I understand why. When a studio makes a movie, the distribution calls for releasing the film in 500 to 3,000 theaters on the same weekend. To protect that, they spend $12-million to $20-million in advertising. They have to worry about grabbing people into the theater, and it's not with anything subtle."
Perhaps only Floridians can truly appreciate Marly's former profession as a Weeki Wachee mermaid or the cheaply fabricated pride of Delrona Beach's Buccaneer Days celebration. Perhaps the divisive issues of Lincoln Beach won't resonate with anyone unfamiliar with American Beach's similar past. Sayles reminds us of where we've come from _ and where we're headed _ in every corner of Sunshine State.
"That's the other thing: What happens to your history and your feeling about it when you alter it so much to sell it?" Sayles said. "When you water it down or make it up and it becomes a commodity rather than something that tells you anything about your life or why you're there? I just keep thinking of Marly's line (describing her mermaid job): "The important thing is to keep that smile on your face, even if you're drowning.' "