Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Sayles Assistant

By Nancy Schaefer

JUNE 14, 1999:  About two years ago, at the Toronto Film Festival, I was driving around in a van with two people I met through Louis Black, my friend and boss at South by Southwest. The two people were Michael Hollett, publisher and editor of NOW Magazine in Toronto, and Maggie Renzi, producer of 10 out of 12 John Sayles movies. We were supposedly going to find dim sum, but really what Maggie and I were doing was sitting in this van as Michael stopped at various errands he had to do around town.

It was September, a beautiful sunny day in Toronto, the kind of day that belies the horrendous winter soon to come. Talk between Maggie and I turned to our summers, and what we had done. She and John had been putting the final touches on Men With Guns (Hombres Armados) and had spent a relatively lazy summer at their house in upstate New York. I had been in the heat of an Austin summer, with nothing much to report besides sweat and heat. Talk turned to what they would be doing the next summer, in 1998, and she told me all about Limbo and Juneau, Alaska. I asked if I could come visit. She offered me a job.

Four months in Alaska! My mind reeled. I'm sure I was grinning from ear to ear in the back seat of that van. Four months learning from and hanging with John Sayles and Maggie Renzi. I'm sure I didn't even realize what that meant: all the dinners we would cook, the bottles of wine we would drink, the hikes we would take, the talks.

It turned out that I would be Maggie's assistant. There was another part to my job, too, besides being the producer's assistant: shipping coordinator. Because Juneau is not accessible by car or truck, only by sea and air, all of our equipment, trucks, supplies, would have to come to Juneau by boat. As John says: "If it's not a salmon, it got here on a boat."

For the shipping part of my job, I did a lot of research, and handed off most of what I learned to the transportation people when they arrived from Los Angeles.

I focused on being the assistant. As Maggie's assistant, many of my tasks were mundane. I delivered phone messages, responded to them if that was appropriate, organized the wrap party, birthday parties, etc. I organized the "limbo" music for the float that we entered in Juneau's Fourth of July parade. Simple things like that. Also, Maggie is the type of friend who, when someone -- especially a crew member -- mentions that they would love a CD, or a certain kind of food or drink that wasn't available in Juneau, would find it and give it to them as a present. Well, someone does the legwork of finding the CD in the Lower 48 and having it sent to Juneau. That person was me. I also got to do a lot of outreach into the community, and this, without a doubt, was my favorite part of being in Alaska.


Maggie Renzi and Nancy Schafer

Alaskans, at least the ones we knew, are amazing storytellers. There is a scene in the movie in which most of the main characters and many of the supporting cast are in the local bar. They are gathered in little groups by the pool table and the bar, and they are all telling stories. Alaskans don't tell stories about cars wrecks or who they saw at the grocery store. They tell big stories that always include near-death experiences -- stories about huge glaciers calving feet away from a boat in the middle of the night or bears looming over helpless victims and chasing them off. You all saw Titanic. No one survives having an iceberg abruptly become a pillow.

Briefly, the film is about an ex-fisherman named Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn), who had a horrible fishing accident at sea 25 years earlier in which his two friends drowned. He meets Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a talented but itinerant lounge singer, who is spending a year in Alaska with her daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). Our three characters' lives change with the arrival of Joe's brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko), a charter boat captain with a past.

My favorite time of day was my daily visit to the set. I spent the morning making phone calls, checking Maggie's e-mail, etc. Then I would gather my list of questions/issues and make the trek to the set, which was often 45 minutes away from the office. Maggie would invariably be in a private conversation with a member of the crew, and I would watch whatever we were shooting until she was ready to talk to me.


(l-r): Nancy Schafer, Haskell Wexler, Rita Taggert, Mary Devon, John Sayles, Craig (Phil's cousin), Maggie Renzi, Sandy McLeod, and Phil Schneider

I had never heard the expression "hurry up and wait" until I started working in film. If there were ever a more appropriate description of what happens on a film set, I don't know what it is. After watching one or two takes of filming, my next step would be to wander around, talking to friends on the crew. Maggie assembles a great crew of people, and they all become part of her extended family. Many of the crew are Sayles shoot veterans, having worked on most of his 12 films. Invariably crew members would ask me for a favor from the office, and this was definitely part of my job. Maggie loves her crew to be happy, so whatever little chores I could do for people was something I did. Cell phones didn't really work in Alaska because we were shooting in the wilderness, so my having access to a phone in the office was often a big help.

Sometime during all this wandering around the set I would find Maggie. We would go over our various lists of things that had to be done. And there were always a lot: Call our Sony contact, see if she can change her plans to come next week and instead come up at the end of the shoot; call our publicist, see what's happening with the visit from Premiere magazine (see the results in the new July issue); find out if the editor's house has been rented in upstate New York. Although this was what I normally did, I also received very strange requests from Maggie: Did you know it's Lizzie Martinez's birthday? (hysterical tone of voice, Lizzie is one of Maggie's favorite people in the world and she hadn't planned a birthday party for her). Can you go to the supermarket and buy 20 cooked chickens and 50 ears of corn? (I'm not kidding.) This was also part of my job.

We had a lot of parties, from the little dinner parties that we had by the dozens to the bigger parties to welcome the cast, the crew, the birthdays, etc. Dinner, when you are anywhere near Maggie and John, is always a group experience, and everyone is invited as long as they pitch in. Just last month when Limbo played the Cannes Film Festival, a lot of friends associated with the film stayed in a house together in the French countryside that belongs to the costume designer on the film. We had a great time, and I finally got to see the final cut of the film at a press screening there. A stipulation of Maggie's when we first discussed staying in this house was that everyone had to bring two recipes and cook. Since I'm not much of a cook, I didn't bring any ideas on food preparation, figuring that I could always make pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil if need be. And even though I hardly ever cook, I always help with the dishes.

The day the film screened we all drove back to the house from Cannes, a beautiful sunny day. John returned before us, and as it was already about eight o'clock he was busy in the kitchen making fish with a Veracruz sauce. I was feeling really benevolent toward him because his movie had just made me truly happy and had affirmed for me why I love this business of film. To have been a part of a project as impressive as Limbo and to call him and Maggie my friends is a true blessing. I smiled and thanked him for making Limbo. To show him how warmly I was feeling, I then offered to help cook.


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