John Sayles: A Career Retrospective

Movies Features John Sayles
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For many, John Sayles is the quintessential American independent filmmaker. His 1979 debut Return of the Secaucus Seven immediately established him as a new kind of filmmaker, and along with contemporaries Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, and David Lynch, helped bridge the gap from indie pioneers like Robert Altman and John Cassavetes to the early-’90s birth of the modern American indie-film movement, ignited by Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater.

His subsequent career has been littered with highlights as well. His 1984 film The Brother From Another Planet, about a black alien stranded in Harlem, was far ahead of its time in examination of racial and immigration issues. 1987’s Matewan is possibly the greatest American narrative film ever made about the labor movement. And 1988’s Eight Men Out may be the greatest baseball movie ever made. He received Academy Award nominations for the screenplays of 1992’s Passion Fish and of 1996’s Lone Star, perhaps his masterpiece to date. He’s an exceedingly humane, socially aware, fiercely independent filmmaker (he finances his films largely through writing for other directors, including a stint with Roger Corman, a piece that was later adapted into the script for Steven Spielberg’s E.T., and writing or doctoring scripts from The Howling to Apollo 13 to The Spiderwick Chronicles).

John Sayles’ new film, out this week, is entitled Go For Sisters, and stars Lisa Gay Hamilton, Yolonda Ross, and Edward James Olmos. We recently sat down with the director and many of the actors he’s worked with for a look back at his career.

I think one of the lucky things about working there when we were, a lot of us directors and writers and even actors to a certain extent, is that there was a pressure to come in on time and under budget, but there wasn’t that incredible economic pressure. These were movies that probably were not going to be reviewed, and they were probably in profit before you even started shooting. So if you stayed to the budget, Roger knew he was going to at least make some profit. A few did a lot better than that—Piranha did, and Battle Beyond the Stars did. But the way that B-movie business worked, and Roger’s genius worked, was that he had presold the movies, and without a review knew that they were going to play for two weeks in certain theaters, and that was going to turn a profit. So for a starting-out filmmaker, it’s not that you can experiment that much, because you don’t really have a budget. But you get to work and just make the movie, not worrying that if it’s not a platinum success, you’ll never work again. So there is a kind of on-the-job training aspect to it that’s just great. And the class before us was people like Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme, people like that. And they benefited. They got to make a feature film, and learn what works and what doesn’t. Ron Howard’s first movie was for Roger, and he made a couple of mistakes in coverage that he never made again.

And that ability to fail? There aren’t that many places you get to do that anymore. There’s just so much economic pressure on movies when they come out. I was not a film-festival discovery that made one short that got discovered and then was making a studio film. Sometimes I just despair for those poor people. Just think of the pressure that’s on them.

One of the advantages we had was that we weren’t thinking that it was going to get a theatrical release. We shot it, not even in Super-16, but just in 16mm, and closer to the TV aspect ratio. We thought it might get on TBS or something. But it was both a calling card and, as I said, sort of an on-the-job training, to see what it would be like to make a movie. To work with good actors who I knew, some of whom weren’t professionals and didn’t continue, but a bunch of whom went on to have real acting careers. And really to figure out how to invent the wheel. I hadn’t been to film school. None of the crew had ever worked on a feature before; they had been shooting commercials in the Boston area. And the actors hadn’t been in a movie before. Nowadays kids make movies after having been to film school, and there’s just so much information around and so much equipment. We were surprised we were even allowed to rent the equipment, because equipment houses were much more suspicious in those days. I think it helped that we were renting out of Boston, and not out of New York. We got away with it.

Well, what was interesting was that, much like Return of the Secaucus Seven, John and [his partner/producer] Maggie [Renzi] both have always had a collective mentality. David Strathairn and his wife were living out in Marstown, New Jersey, in a great big eight bedroom house on a golf course, and it was really too big for them. So everybody, all the friends, took a share in the house, a bedroom in the house. On the weekends, we’d pile out to New Jersey and sit around and talk and make deals and read the newspaper and garden and take hikes and that’s how when we all became really good friends. John—he told me he had this idea for a film. He just said it was this brother who fell to earth and he started giving me a rough—at a party, he gave me a rough overview of what the film was about. He was not that familiar at the time with a lot of African American actors in New York and so he invited myself and another actor, Steve James, out to his house in Hoboken and said, “You know, I’ll tell you what. I’d like to introduce that segment of the theatrical population—I just don’t know very many and let’s have dinner and after dinner I’ll tell you this story and then you can figure out who you think might be right for the role.”

So, Steve and I took the bus out there. We went to his house in Hoboken. We sat down, we had dinner. And after dinner, John related the entire project Brother From Another Planet film it must have taken an hour and a half. And at the time, I didn’t realize it, that John hadn’t even written it. Hadn’t even typed it yet. The movie that John described is the exact same film that you see. John hadn’t even printed up the script ’til it was time to cast.

So I knew that he was extremely, extremely bright. But I had no idea the level of retention, the mass amounts of information that John could hold in his mind. You know? At a moments notice or at any time he’ll give you incredibly insightful details, accounting the life of Louis Armstrong, The Alamo or his film Brother From Another Planet.

What I love about John is that he’s extremely generous with his intellect. He’s not someone who’s extremely bright and dispenses his intellect for his pleasure. If there’s any thing that you ever want to talk about and think John knows a little bit about, you can ask him something and he will go into every bit detail possibly that he can remember which is usually encyclopedic. So, he’s just a very, very interesting person. His generosity is fused with a very strong point of view, which makes John a very compelling guy to just sit around and talk to for a while.

I think what appealed to me about the project is—I expected that there would be a strong point of view. What really makes actors jump through hoops to work with John is that he writes characters that are three-dimensional. If you perform those characters correctly, and John is willing to discuss any background. He has for a while—I don’t know if he does it now—but he used to send you emails of character descriptions, of who the person was. What their background was or what they’ve been through. He has a very in-detail blueprint for characters. Background and condition, mental and physical, from the moment that you witness them in their lifetime in that movie.

And he creates a work environment that allows you to access his words in a way that really, you can feel the geography of the character while you’re working. And there’s nothing that’s more fun for an actor than to be able to flesh out—to really live inside a fully realized human being. John’s job is to put it on the page. Our job is to translate it that to a living action. When those two things come together—and it comes together quite often in his films—it’s why you want to work with him.

People talk about our movies being political, but I feel they’re just politically conscious, as opposed to being politically unconscious. As a screenwriter for hire, very often my job is to get rid of all those nasty little things that make our lives what they are, and this country what it is, in order to serve a straight genre story—because those things get in the way. Whereas when we make one of our own movies, I say, “This is what’s in the world, so it’s going to be in our script.” Whether it’s the ethnic or racial makeup, the social makeup, the age makeup of that world, how does it change things? How does it change things if it’s set in New Hampshire or if it’s set in Cajun country in Louisiana? So many mainstream Hollywood movies are shot in Toronto as a stand-in for something else. It’s almost better for them to be nowhere specific. But we always have to be conscious of these things. I’m also always conscious of genre even when I’m not making a genre movie, because even when you wander towards genre, like Matewan wanders toward the Western, that brings up certain expectations and experience in the audience. And if you’re not going to satisfy those expectations, you’re gonna have to deal with it.

The Brother From Another Planet is a good example. The idea came from a bunch of strange dreams I had, but one of the things I wanted it to be for people was a trip to Harlem, an imaginary or symbolic Harlem as well as the real place. And some of what I wanted the movie to be about was waste of potential. And if you think about any country with a racial or ethnic problem, there’s such a waste. Probably the most famous example of it in this country was Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in baseball. But think of the educators and scientists and engineers and all the people we didn’t have working for us in the country because of racism. Or sexism, or whatever. So I just realized, here’s a guy who has these incredible, otherworldly talents, and he has to hide them.

So that was an allegory, but then let’s put him in Harlem too. If he changed the way he dressed only slightly, he’d be completely accepted as a Harlemite by everybody around him. But he understands less about this world than the two white guys that wander up to Harlem by mistake because they take the wrong subway. He knows less about it than someone from France does, and least when he’s first here. And then he assimilates. And growing up in a city where lots of people were immigrants, and certainly no one in my own family got here much earlier than about 1900, assimilation is a really interesting thing. You’re always giving something up at the same time you’re getting something new. And you have to ask yourself, “Am I giving up more than I’m getting?”

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