John Sayles

1. — Harry— I don’t remember exactly when we met- it would have been through Marta Renzi. I know that I was born in 1950, that the White Sox threw the World Series of 1919, and that the Battle of Culloden was in 1745. Other than that I can’t carry too many dates in my head. It seems like a long time ago (meeting you and Cathy- Culloden seems like yesterday).

2. — My rap sheet, written for Honeydripper publicity, follows — WEBSITE BIO — “It makes no sense for film workers to seize the means of production unless they also seize the means of distribution and exibition (and get a good cut of the ancillaries.)” — John Sayles —- The work of John Sayles has been integral to the development of independent film in the United States. Beginning with his first feature, Return of the Secaucus 7 (released in 1980), his movies have helped define the ‘other’ that exists beyond Hollywood. Despite an unwillingness to tailor his subject matter and style to the dictates of the mainstream, he has managed to direct 15 feature films, and has just finished shooting a 16th, Honeydripper, which stars Danny Glover. “There seems to be a kind of mutual understanding between Hollywood and me- most of what they make I wouldn’t be interested in directing, and most of what I make they’d have no idea how to sell.” Sayles began his career as a storyteller as a writer of fiction, authoring the novels Pride of the Bimbos (1975), Union Dues (1978, nominated for National Book Award and National Critics’ Circle Award)) and Los Gusanos (1990) and short story collections The Anarchists’ Convention (1979) and Dillinger in Hollywood (2004) [link to Nation Books here]. It is from a story about music called Keeping Time, in the last collection, that the story for Honeydripper has its origin. “I’ve always been fascinated by musicians- some follow the music wherever it takes them or wherever the popular taste goes, others make a stand within a certain genre and let that define them.” Fiction brought him to the attention of Hollywood, specifically Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, for whom he wrote screenplays for such B classics as Piranha, Battle Beyond the Stars and The Lady In Red. Continuing to work with directors who had developed in the Corman school, he penned The Howling and Alligator, two works that helped establish a new, more self-aware horror film tradition. “One thing we talked about when I did the re-write on Howling was that these should be characters who have at least seen a horror movie in their lives.” Screenwriting is still Sayles’ primary profession, often supplying part or all the funding for his directing projects. Credited or not, he has been able to work in a myriad of genres- Western (The Quick and the Dead), historical thriller (Apollo 13), action (Men of War), monster flick (Mimic), romance, historical epic, animated features- crafting over sixty screenplays-for-hire over the years. The job has allowed him to work with directors such as John Frankenheimer, Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, Sidney Pollack, Billie August, Allison McClean, Ron Howard, Sam Raimi, Joe Dante, Rob Reiner, and James Cameron among others, and get a view of their storytelling process.. “As a screenwriter for hire you are helping the people who hired you tell their story. You hope that a movie you want to go and see results from the process.” Secaucus 7 was a surprise success, one of a number of films in the early 80’s that began to be described as part of ‘the independent film movement’. The Sundance Film Institute and its make-or-break Festival did not yet exist, but with each subsequent indie film Sayles and his collaborators found more company, and competition, at the theatrical box office. Standing out from the crowd is always a challenge for a filmmaker, and Sayles’ work was notable not only for its rapid increase in technical mastery (breaking the $100,000 budget barrier didn’t hurt) but for the eclectic, ever-changing array of subject matter. Lianna (1983) was a tight family drama about a wife and mother dealing with the realization that she is a lesbian, while Baby It’s You (1983), Sayles’ first studio backed (and virtually abandoned) film, dealt with the life crisis of a Jewish girl catapulted from working-class Trenton to Sarah Lawrence college in the wild mid-60’s. Brother From Another Planet (1985) followed a three-toed alien stranded in Harlem attempting to ‘assimilate’. During a lull in financing, he had the opportunity to direct three early rock videos for Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA, I’m on Fire and Glory Days. “We didn’t have to raise any money, the stories were already written, and I got to cut to Bruce Springsteen music- I can’t imagine a better job.” Finally able to raise just enough money to shoot Matewan (1987) an extremely ambitious low-budget pseudo-Western about a bitter, violent coal miners’ strike of 1920, Sayles continued to explore different territory each time out. Eight Men Out (1988), based on Eliot Asinof’s classic non-fiction account, explored the Black Sox Scandal of the 1919 World Series, while City of Hope (1990 ) is set in a decaying, eastern-urban city and features a complex web of politics and crime that foreshadows the HBO series The Wire. Passion Fish ( 1992) a sad, romantic trip to Cajun country in Louisiana for a story of two women who help each other rebuld their lives, won Sayles his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. ‘At the beginning ‘independent film’ could have also been called ‘alternative cinema”. They were stories, and ways of telling stories, that the mainstream industry wasn’t interested in. As ‘independent’ has come more and more to mean only a method of finanacing and distribution rather than any thematic alternative to Hollywood genre filmmaking, it has settled into being primarily the minor leagues for the mainstream. As such, it tends to be the ‘cinema of newcomers’, as Peter Biskind puts it, with very few filmmakers able to continue in that niche. Most either go up or out- become studio-financed directors or have longer and longer gaps between outings as independent voices.’ Sayles’ first feature shot outside the U.S was The Secret of Roan Inish (1994 ), based on a children’s book about a young girl descended from a selkie (seal-woman). Lone Star (1996), also garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, took place in a town on the Texas-Mexico border and dealt with race, memory and legend. Even further afield was Men With Guns (Hombres Armados, 1997), a political parable set in a fictional Latin American country (nominated as Best Foreign Language Film for the Golden Globes). With dialogue principally in Spanish, it remains one of the few instances where the long tradition of foreign directors coming to Hollywood and working in English has been reversed. ‘Sub-titled films account for less than 2% of moviegoing in the U.S. But there are stories where the way people say things, even the lack of communication between people who speak different languages, is an important part of the plot and characterization. The old tradition of everybody speaking English with different accents doesn’t always work. Movies are only universal on the most simplistic level.’ Limbo (1999), another studio-backed film, took Sayles to Alaska, ‘where Nature is big and people are small’ and provoked controversy everywhere it played with its 70’s-style open ending. The next picture, Sunshine State (2000), took place at the extreme opposite end of the country in a multi-character tale of roots and real estate on a Florida tourist island. As usual there were familiar faces from other of Sayles’ films as well as newcomers. Over the years he has been able to work with excellent actors on several different stories, actors like David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Tom Wright, Joe Morton, Angela Bassett, Mary McDonnell, Gordon Clapp, Mary Steenbergen, Vanessa Martinez, Bill Cobbs, Susan Lynch, Leo Burmester, Miriam Colon- the list goes on. “I try not to write with specific actors in mind- you never know if they’ll be available or interested. But once I finish I do go through the list of actors I’ve worked with, people whose talent I admire and process I understand, to see if there is anything they’d be right for. Especially if it’s something I haven’t seen them do before.” Another of Sayles’ short stories became the micro-budgeted Casa de los Babys (2003), shot in Acapulco with a knockout American/Mexican cast. Silver City, rushed into production for the election year of 2004, was much more specific in its politics than previous outings, and marked his fourth collaboration with noted cinematographer Haskell Wexler. “Beyond the skill, speed and experience Haskell brings to a movie, he also understands and has opinions on what the story is about- something not always welcome on a more commercial shoot. I often look for cinematographers who have a background in documentary, and Haskell has made a number of great ones.” Finding it increasingly difficult to finance and distribute movies within the ‘system’, Sayles and long time producer Maggie Renzi have continued to look for new models of getting their stories to the audience. The economics of the film business are ever-changing, and almost every one of their pictures has been funded and released in a different manner. “Secaucus Seven was a business model in its day, but things change rapidly. Half the companies that put out our movies no longer exist. People can download movies and watch them on their computers now, people can shoot on HiDef instead of film, Sundance gets thousands- thousands- of features submitted to it every year. The opportunity for most small films to build word of mouth by staying in a theater just isn’t there any more, even the studios are aiming at one big weekend rather than two. If we’re going to survive and get our movies to the people who we know are out there wanting to see them, we have to burn some new pathways.” Honeydripper, about the origins of rock and roll in the deep South, is the latest film project. Shooting mostly in Greenville and Georgiana (boyhood home of Hank Williams) Alabama, the cast includes Danny Glover, Charles Dutton, Stacey Keach, LisaGay Hamilton, Mary Steenbergen, Vondie Curtis Hall, Ruben Santiago Hudson, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kel Mitchell, Ya Ya da Costa, R&B legend Mabel John, singer-songwriter Keb Mo and Austin guitar sensation Gary Clark Jr. The movie is, once again, independently financed, being produced without the safety net of a distribution deal. Sayles is also working on a novel set during the Philippine-American War, presently titled Some Time in the Sun.

— May 2007