BEGINNING WITH RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS 7 (1980) THE FILMS OF JOHN SAYLES HAVE BEEN INTEGRAL TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF INDEPENDENT FILM (INDEPENDENT FILM SHOULD BE CAPITALIZED) IN THE UNITED STATES. HIS FILMS DEPICT A WORLD VERY DIFFERENT FROM THE VERSION OFFERED BY HOLLYWOOD. A SCREENWRITER “FOR HIRE” FOR HOLLYWOOD, SAYLES IS ALSO A WRITER OF FICTION AND AN OCCASIONAL ACTOR. TO DATE HE HAS DIRECTED 17 FEATURE FILMS.
Sayles’ career as a storyteller BEGAN WITH HIS FICTION. HIS FIRST NOVEL WAS Pride of the Bimbos (1975), FOLLOWED BY Union Dues (1978, nominated for National Book Award and National Critics’ Circle Award)). Los Gusanos (1990) CAME NEXT AND THEN short story collections The Anarchists’ Convention (1979) and Dillinger in Hollywood (2004). THE epic historical novel A Moment in the Sun IS HIS MOST RECENT NOVEL, PUBLISHED IN 2011 BY MCSWEENY’S.
Fiction brought him to the attention of legendary director/producer Roger Corman, 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.
Screenwriting is still Sayles’ primary profession, and credited or not, he has been able to work in a myriad of genres- Western (The Quick and the Dead), techno-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, Ron Howard, Sam Raimi, Joe Dante, Rob Reiner, and James Cameron among others, and get a view of their storytelling 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. Cult classic 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.
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 rebuild their lives, won Sayles his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
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.
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, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Morton, Angela Bassett, Mary McDonnell, Gordon Clapp, Mary Steenbergen, Vanessa Martinez, Bill Cobbs, Susan Lynch- the list goes on.
One of Sayles’ short stories became the mico-budgeted Casa de los Babies (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.
Honeydripper (2007), about the origins of rock and roll in the deep South, was shot in Georgiana, Alabama, where country legend Hank Williams grew up. Danny Glover, Charles Dutton, Stacey Keach, R&B legend Mabel John, singer-songwriter Keb Mo and Austin guitar sensation Gary Clark Jr. combined their talents for a feel-good movie with a memorable soundtrack, winning an NAACP Image Award for best independent film. His latest film, Amigo (2011) deals with a suppressed aspect of our history, the Philippine-American War, and was nominated for the Filipino equivalent of the Oscar in several categories.
Sayles continues his work for hire on features and television series, as well as writing original scripts. He will be shooting his 18th feature, currently titled Go for Sisters, this summer.