By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News
Want more top stories? Sign up here for daily or weekly newsletters with our top news.
The idea came to Sayles, 64, after he toured Fort Worden while he and his partner, Maggie Renzi, 63, were the special guests at the 2014 Port Townsend Film Festival and fundraising was in progress to make the film.
The film, “To Save the Man,” tells the story of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which operated from 1879 to 1918 in Carlisle, Pa., to “rehabilitate” black and Native American youths so they could assimilate into white society.
Renzi, who is the movie's producer, said the story of the school and its founder, Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, is a historical story with a contemporary theme.
“He was against racism and felt that by working with Indians and blacks, they could be the equal of whites and would have the opportunity to become great citizens,” Renzi said of Pratt.
“The only problem was their culture,” she said.
Renzi said the full title of the film came from Pratt: “To save the man, you need to kill the Indian.”
“The other proposed solution was actual genocide or just let them die out, as there were only 250,000 Indians then,” Renzi said.
“He was liberal for the time, but in another way, it was absolutely appalling.”
While Sayles has never had huge commercial success, his movies have resonated with audiences who aren't attracted to mainstream fare.
He has written, directed and edited 18 films, including “Return of the Secaucus 7” (1979), “Lianna” (1983), “The Brother from Another Planet” (1984), “Passion Fish” (1992), “The Secret of Roan Inish” (1994) and “Lone Star” (1996).
Renzi said name actors would be cast to portray Pratt and some of the adult roles but that the real stars of the movie will be the 13 Native American youths who will portray the students who came from all over the nation to attend the school.
To accomplish this, the filmmakers will conduct a nationwide search for the young actors, who Renzi said would be ages 14 to 22.
Last September, Sayles and Renzi visited Fort Worden at the invitation of Dave Robison, who is the executive director of the Lifelong Learning Center Public Development Authority as well as a film festival board member.
Visiting the fort and touring its historical buildings sparked the development of the idea that had been percolating in Sayles' head for some time: to make a movie about the incident that connects to modern issues.
“What I loved was having John and Maggie here and having them accidentally discover Fort Worden,” said film festival Executive Director Janette Force.
“It happened to be the ideal site for a film they've been dreaming about for a long, long time.”
“The site of the school in Pennsylvania is now a war college, and is not someplace we could film,” Renzi said.
“The buildings at Fort Worden were a replica of the original buildings and are the perfect location for the story.”
Sayles was inspired by the location and wrote the entire script in about three months.
“This happened once before: We visited a plantation in Louisiana, and John wrote 'Passion Fish' right afterwards,” Renzi said.
“So you need to invite us somewhere and send us a ticket if you want us to make a movie.”
“With a low-budget film, if you find the right location, it takes care of a big part of the expense because you don't need to build anything,” Renzi said.
The “low budget” for the movie is about $8.5 million, with its completion contingent on the ability to raise that amount.
The fundraising effort is in progress.
Renzi is optimistic about meeting that goal.
“The cool thing is that the people who we are approaching to finance the film are less interested in the bottom line and more interested in having this film exist,” she said.
“The story raises questions about kids who are struggling with their obligation to and knowledge of their traditions and how that fits in with their assimilation into another society.”
While the movie is set 125 years in the past, its message applies to Vietnamese or Ecuadoran youths who have come to America and faced similar conflicts, she said.
While the film may have a limited theatrical release, Renzi hopes it will become part of high school and university curriculums.
In this respect, it will follow what Renzi calls “the Sayles legacy,” joining “Lone Star,” which focused on border issues, and “Lianna,” which concentrated on gender issues.
“These movies can be useful tools to get students to talk about what the issues are,” she said.
If it goes forward, the crew would arrive at Fort Worden next May for two months of preparation, with filming taking place in July and August 2016.
Release is slated for 2016, at which time Sayles and Renzi will shop it around to film festivals.
While most of the cast and crew will come from out of state, there will be some local hires, with residents given the opportunity to work as film extras, Renzi said.
As for the economic impact, she said, “millions of dollars will be left behind.”
Renzi said that something clicked in Port Townsend during the film festival visit that was reinforced during a scouting venture in this month.
She credited Robison and Force with moving things forward.
“Sometimes, getting a movie done is like pushing a boulder uphill,” Renzi said.
“Starting with our relationships with Janette and Dave, we keep meeting people who say 'Yes' all the time, and 'How can we help you?'
“You have a lot of smart people up there.”
Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or firstname.lastname@example.org.