John Sayles

Sayles has Learned Film success Without Selling Out by Vittorio Carli (a different version of this was originally published in The Star on June 24, 1999

“I was inspired by Rossellini's ability to combine simplicity in style with a spiritual quality.” --

John Sayles

The writer/director, John Sayles is considered by many critics to be one of the pioneers of American independent film. Since his first 1978 feature, “The Return of the Secaucus Seven,” he has directed 12 critically acclaimed features.

One of the common denominators of Sayle's work is that he likes to depict the struggles of ordinary people. Sayles tends to set each film in a different place, but he shows that people are essentially the same everywhere.

His works successfully bridge the gap between art films and mainstream cinema. Sayles does not work with big stars or budgets but he has a high degree of autonomy, and he always makes his films on his own terms.

I interviewed Sayles in 1999, when he was in town to promote his film, “Limbo.” “Limbo” is a well-acted melodrama with an excellent script. It benefits greatly from multidimensional performances by David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Vanessa Martinez, and Kris Kristofferson. Sayles has always been good with actors.

The film's most controversial element is a risky, completely unexpected ending which is sure to provoke arguments among viewers. Sayles has never been one to take the safe route.

Sayles has shown himself to be remarkably versatile – making everything from Southern melodramas to science fiction flicks to rock videos for Bruce Springsteen. Along the way, he is picked up many awards including a National Book Award for his novel “Union Dues.” In addition, he received Oscar nominations for the screenplays of “Passion Fish” and “Lone Star.”

Sayles was a psychology major, which explains why so many of his characters struggle with their own fears or psychological flaws. For instance, in his new film, “Limbo” a former fisherman struggles to overcome the traumatic memory of his friends' deaths.

While he was growing up, Sayles' taste in film was extremely eclectic. The English-language genre films of John Ford, John Sturges, Anthony Mann, John Ford, and Sir Carol Reed influenced him. In addition, he loved the works of international art film makers such as Akira Kurasawa, Francois Truffaut, Mario Monicelli, and Ingmar Bergman. He remembers seeing “Cries and Whispers” on a double bill with “Enter the Dragon,” and liking them both.

There is also a strong Italian neo-realist influence in his work. Before Sayles mad “Men with Guns,” he viewed many of Roberto Rosselinni's films. “I was inspired by Rossellinni's ability to combine simplicity in style with a spiritual quality, Sayles said. “The film also exhibits a Rossellinni-like sympathy for the poor and a strong distrust of government authority.”

Sayles started his career as a fiction writer and accidentally stumbled upon film. He wrote short stories for fun and mostly received rejection notices. After college, the publisher of Atlantic Monthly encouraged him to turn one of his scripts into a novel. He did and it got published. He had to get an agent to publish the second novel, and the agent had connections to a film agency in Los Angeles .

He spoke to the film agency about his desire to write for film, and they encouraged him to send them something. He sent them an adaptation of “Eight Men Out” and this immediately made a good impression because the head of the agency had been the agent of the book's author. The agency convinced him to move to Los Angeles .

The film of his treatment was not made until years later, but Sayles immediately got work doing low budget films for the B movie king – Roger Corman. He wrote the films, “Piranha” as well as “Battle Beyond the Stars”. Sayles looks back fondly on those years and he gives Corman a lot of credit for jump-starting his career. He said that Corman gave him a lot of freedom.

“As long as they had enough genre elements to make a good trailer,” he said, “Corman let his writers add comedy, parody, and social commentary.”

“I would write the screenplay before the director had been picked – so I would basically envision the script.”
After the director came on, they would collaborate on a second draft. They would often cut dialogue and condense scenes to save on locations.

“I wrote three movies and three movies got made,” Sayles said, “and that's very rare. Big studios tend to develop 20 or 30 projects for every one that gets made. There are a lot of people who have been in Hollywood for 15 years and they may have been paid for 20 or 30 scripts, but they have no credits because none of them had been into films yet.”

Despite his success with Corman, it was clear that it would take several years for Sayles to move up in the rants of directing. In Corman's company, the editors were usually the first to move up to directing.

Sayles had been working with his theatre group, Summer Stock, and he decided to do his own movie with many of the actors. He financed “The Return of the Secaucus Seven” with $40,000 he made with Corman.

“There weren't many film schools or film books at the time,” Sayles said, “so we were inventing the wheel.”

He used some good, little –known actors such as Gordon Clapp (he went on to become a regular on “NYPD Blue”) and David Strathairn, who has been in many of his films including, “Limbo.”

Sayles said he liked to use many of the same actors over and over because they know what he wants. Like Robert Altman, Sayles likes to work with many of the same actors again and again, and he has a kind of cinema repertory company.

He told this writer that in “Limbo” he wrote the story with the three leads in mind. Dave Strathairn got the lead because, like the character, he expresses himself in the way he moves. Vanessa Martinez was chosen because she is a teen who can play a complex character. He chose Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio because she can act well and she used to be a singer. He cast Kris Kristofferson because he is great at playing uneducated characters that are really clever. He said Kristofferson is a country singer but he is always had an outlaw image like Willie Nelson, so he likes to use him as a heavy.

In the case of “Secret of Roan Innish,” he went in blind, and found some good Irish actors once he was on the Emerald Isle.

Sayles has also direct rock videos including Bruce Springsteen's “Born in the U.S.A. ” He said that it was great to work with Springsteen, but he dislikes the music industry even more than Hollywood .

Sayles was nearly as fascinating as his films and his work will probably influence new Indy and mainstream filmmakers for some time to come.

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