“I’m interested in the stuff I do being seen as widely as possible but I’m not interested enough to lie.” John Sayles
Before Kevin Smith maxed out his credit cards, before there was an Independent Film Channel or a Sundance festival, and long before independent film became a “marketing niche” there was John Sayles, making it happen with a combination of talent, shrewdness, and determination.
And he’s kept on making it happen for over two decades, coming to personify the movement that he jump-started in 1979 with his $40,000 feature The Return of the Secaucus 7. He has become the definitive independent, the Godfather of Bootstrap Cinema.
John Sayles was the original do-it-yourselfer. Even though his budgets have increased over the years — from $40,000 for Secaucus 7 to $4.5 million for Limbo (1999) — his basic MO hasn’t really changed. His methodical, buccaneering approach to film has become something of a legend in the Hollywood system.
From the beginning he has made his living and partly financed his own productions by working as a screenwriter for hire on commercial projects. In the early days, the films he polished or rewrote were mostly low-budget shockers like Piranha and Alligator. In recent years, he has worked as an uncredited “relief pitcher” on such high-profile releases as Mimic and Apollo 13. (Sayles gets the save if not the win.)
Sayles first three homemade movies — Secaucus 7(1982), Lianna (1982), and The Brother From Another Planet (1985) — were recently restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and were reissued together by IFC Films in 2002.
Thanks to this state-of-the-art UCLA restoration, fans who have followed Sayles’ work from the beginning can rediscover these landmark movies with the glow of their youthful idealism fresher than ever. Moviegoers who know Sayles only from his acclaimed recent releases — complex multi-character dramas like City of Hope (1991), the Oscar-nominated Lone Star (1996), and the Oscar nominated Passion Fish (1992) — may be startled and impressed by the intimate physical scale and the shoestring grit of his first three productions.
The man who made Lone Star and Limbo is clearly one of this country’s finest living filmmakers. And in The Return of the Secaucus 7, Lianna, and The Brother From Another Planet, we are offered a rare opportunity to watch this filmmaker learning on the job.
Many of the qualities that have earned Sayles a devoted following over the years are already strongly evident in these early works: his crisp, accurate ear for dialog; his hard-nosed political awareness; his acute sense of the interwoven complexity of those issues in life that really matter.
John Sayles would be the first to admit that he did not have a “natural talent” for the film medium. Although he grew up watching and enjoying movies — and even dreamed about a film career before turning to playwriting and fiction as more practical alternatives — he certainly wasn’t a typical “movie brat”. He didn’t fall in love with the sensuous and expressive possibilities of the medium and then start looking around for material, almost any material, to which his passion could be applied.
“I’m not interested in the art of film,” he has said, on more than one occasion. While no one who has been floored by the power and the visual eloquence of Sayles’ movies could possibly take that statement at face value, it does indicate a firm sense of priorities: a determination to see film style as functional, as a vehicle for telling important stories, as a means to an end and not as an end in itself. He knew from the start what kind of stories he wanted to tell.
Sayles’ points of departure are always concrete, closely-observed characters faced with agonizing moral choices that can’t be neatly resolved. A defining stylistic feature in his fluid multi-character dramas has been depicting complex events from several points of view. He views even his “negative” characters with profound sympathy. With his abiding interest in working people, the dynamics of communities, and the divisive forces of race and class that can pull them apart, his characteristic themes can be identified with a progressive political agenda. Sayles himself has defined his overriding themes more broadly, as a sense that “people are connected, whether they realize it or not.”
Sayles’ firm conviction that content comes first may help account for the fact that he persisted in the face of technical and budgetary limitations that would have defeated many other budding cineastes. “[A movie] may not look the way we’d like it to look,” he once told writer David Baron, “or sound the way we’d like it to sound or get seen by as many people as we’d like to have see it but at least it will say the stuff we want it to say.”
–From the Sayles IFC Retrospective, 2002