John Sayles - Director

Nationality: American. Born: John Thomas Sayles in Schenectady, New York, 28 September 1950. Education: Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, B.S. in psychology, 1972. Career: First novel published, 1975; writer for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, from 1977; first film as director, The Return of the Secaucus Seven , 1980; directed own plays New Hope for the Dead and Turnbuckle , Off-Off-Broadway, 1981; writer and director for TV, from 1980; director of videos for Bruce Springsteen, including "Born in the U.S.A." and "I'm on Fire." Agent: Robinson, Weintraub, Gross and Associates, Inc., 8428 Melrose Place, Suite C., Los Angeles, CA 90069, U.S.A.

Films as Director and Scriptwriter:


The Return of the Secaucus Seven (+ ed, role as Howie)


Lianna (+ ed, role as Jerry)


Baby, It's You


The Brother from Another Planet (+ ed, role as bounty hunter)


Matewan (+ role as preacher)


Eight Men Out (+ role as Ring Lardner)


City of Hope (+ ed, song, role as Carl)


Passion Fish (+ ed)


The Secret of Roan Inish (+ ed)


Lone Star (+ pr) (+ ed)


Men with Guns ( Hombres armadas ) (+ ed)


Limbo (+ ed)

Other Films:


Piranha (Dante) (sc)


The Lady in Red ( Kiss Me and Die ; Guns, Sin, and Bathtub Gin ) (Teague) (sc)


Battle beyond the Stars (Murakami) (sc); The Howling (Dante) (co-sc); Alligator (Teague) (sc)


The Challenge (Frankenheimer) (co-sc)


Hard Choices (King) (role as Don)


The Clan of the Cave Bear (Chapman) (sc); Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Bank, Hovde) (sc)


Wild Thing (Reid) (sc); Something Wild (Demme) (role as motorcycle cop)


Breaking In (Forsyth) (sc)


Straight Talk (Kellman) (role as Guy Girardi); Malcolm X (Lee) (role as FBI man); Matinee (Dante) (role as phoney moral crusader)


A Safe Place (Lang) (sc); My Life's in Turnaround (Schaeffer, Ward) (role as film producer)


Men of War (sc); Bedlam (Maclean) (sc)


Apollo 13 (Howard) (sc)


Gridlock'd (role)


By SAYLES: books—

The Pride of the Bimbos , New York, 1975.

Union Dues , New York, 1977.

The Anarchists' Convention , New York, 1979.

Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie "Matewan, " New York, 1987.

Los Gusanos , New York, 1991.

Sayles on Sayles , with Gavin Smith, New York, 1998.

Men with Guns and Lone Star , New York, 1998.

John Sayles: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series) , Diane Carson, editor, Jackson, 1999.

By SAYLES: articles—

"Ways of Looking at the World," an interview with Hunter Cordaiy, in Metro (Melbourne), Summer 1978/79.

Interview with T. Crawley, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), December 1982.

Interview with D. Popkin, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 13, no. 1, 1983.

Interview with Paul Kerr, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), January 1984.

John Sayles (right) with Chris Cooper
John Sayles (right) with Chris Cooper

Interview with Richard Laermer, in Films in Review (New York), February 1985.

"Dialogue on Film: John Sayles," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1986.

Interview with Pat Aufderheide, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 15, no. 4, 1987.

"Color Bars," in American Film (Los Angeles), vol. 13, no. 6, April 1988.

"Sayles on TV," an interview with Patrick Goldstein, in Interview (New York), March 1990.

"Low-budget Operator Who Has a Wealth of Creativity to Draw On," an interview with David Robinson, in The Times (London), 29 August 1991.

"Screening the Disenfranchised," an interview with Alan Hunter, in Impact (London), October 1991.

"Where the Hope Is," an interview with Gary Crowdus and Leonard Quart, in Cineaste (New York), December 1991.

"S'il y a un espoir, il est dans la fusion," an interview with Michael Henry, in Positif (Paris), November 1992.

"John Sayles's Committed Cinema," an interview with Harlan Jacobson, in Interview (New York), April 1993.

"Sayles Talk," an interview with Trevor Johnston, in Sight and Sound (London), September 1993.

Interview in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), February 1995.

"'I Don't Want to Blow Anything by People,"' an interview with Gavin Smith, in Film Comment (New York), May-June 1996.

Interview with Brooke Comer, in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), June 1996.

"Sayles-manship," an interview with Max Alexander, in Variety (New York), 17 June 1996.

"Rapping with John Sayles," an interview with P. Nechak, in Filmmaker: The Magazine of Independent Film (Los Angeles), July/August 1996.

"Classified Sayles," an interview with Geoff Andrew, in Time Out (London), 2 October 1996.

"Interview with John Sayles: Apollo 13 : Rewriting History," in Creative Screenwriting (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1996.

"John Sayles Walking Alone," an interview with Leslie Felperin, in Sight and Sound (London), September 1996.

"Borders and Boundaries: Lone Star ," an interview with Dennis West and Joan M. West, in Cineaste (New York), December 1996.

Zoom (ZĂĽrich), April 1997.

On SAYLES: books—

Ryan, Jack, John Sayles, Filmmaker: A Critical Study of the Independent Writer-Director: With a Filmography and Bibliography, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2000.

Molyneaux, Gerry, John Sayles , Los Angeles, 2000.

On SAYLES: articles—

Levine, H., "Features for under a Million: John Sayles," in Millimeter (New York), February 1982.

Osborne, David, "John Sayles: from Hoboken to Hollywood—and Back," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1982.

Milligan, P., "Sayles Management," in Film Directions (London), Summer 1984.

Valen, M., "John Sayles," in Films and Filming (London), September 1984.

Vecsey, George, "John Sayles Mines the Coal Wars," in New York Times , 23 August 1987.

Fishbein, Leslie, "John Sayles' Matewan : Violence and Nostalgia," in Film and History (Newark, New Jersey), vol. 18, no. 3, 1988.

Isaacs, Neil D., "John Sayles and the Fictional Origin of Matewan ," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 16, no. 4, 1988.

Lardner, Ring, Jr., "Foul Ball," in American Film (Los Angeles), vol. 13, no. 9, 1988.

Newman, Kim, "Red Sayles in the Sunset," in City Limits (London), 13 April 1989.

Wilson, David, "Of Anarchists and Alligators" in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), June 1989.

Rose, Cynthia, "The Urbane Guerilla," in Independent (London), 24 August 1990.

Davis, Thulani, "Blue-Collar Auteur," in American Film (Los Angeles), June 1991.

Andrew, Geoff, "Sayles Talk," in Time Out (London), 23 October 1991.

Malcolm, Derek, "Why Sayles Refuses to Sell Out," in Guardian (London), 12 November 1991.

Thompson, Ben, "Sex, Lies, and Urban Renewal," in New Statesman & Society (London), 15 November 1991.

Grogan, Johnny, "True Saylesmanship," in Film Ireland (Dublin), April/May 1993.

Sarris, Andrew, "Baby It's You: An Honest Man Becomes a True Filmmaker," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1993.

Jackson, Kevin, "Making Movies against the Tide," in Independent (London), 19 June 1993.

Charity, Tom, "Sayles Pitch," in Time Out (London), 25 August 1993.

Gritten, David, "Hollywood? Not for Me, Thanks," in Daily Telegraph (London), 30 August 1993.

Francke, Lizzie, "Passion Player," in Guardian (London), 3 September 1993.

Thompson, Cliff, "The Brother from Another Race: Black Characters in the Films of John Sayles," in Cineaste (New York), December 1996.

Schnelle, Frank, "Schatten der Vergangenheit," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), March 1997.

Biskind, P., "The Sweet Hell of Success," in Premiere (Boulder), October 1997.

* * *

No other American director has so successfully straddled both Hollywood and independent filmmaking as John Sayles. While his fellow independents have tended to restrict themselves either in terms of audience (Jim Jarmusch, Henry Jaglom) or creative scope (Woody Allen), Sayles has continued to make highly individual, idiosyncratic films of increasingly ambitious range, aimed firmly at a mainstream audience, without compromising his integrity or his radical views.

Even before launching out as a director, Sayles had established his reputation both as a novelist and as a provider of witty, literate scripts for genre movies— Alligator , The Howling , The Lady in Red —into whose conventions he deftly introduced sharp touches of political allegory. His own films, though, have steered clear of generic formulae, remaining (in subject matter as in treatment) fresh and quirkily unpredictable. The first of them, The Return of the Secaucus Seven , observed the reunion of a bunch of ex-1960s radicals with an affection, and a relaxed humour, that Kasdan's glossier treatment in The Big Chill never quite matched. "There was a realism there," Roger Corman noted, "which more money might have obscured." The film picked up several awards and rapidly became a cult favourite.

Secaucus , for all its small-scale subject and slightly shaggy charm, established the priorities of all Sayles's work to date: in his own words, "the acting, and believing in the characters and caring about them." His films, situated (as Pat Aufderheide put it) "at the intersection of culture and politics," favour ensemble playing over star performances, communication over sensation, and the exploration of character and ideas over pictorial values or technical bravura. "I don't regard anything I do as art. That's a foreign world to me. I regard it as a conversation. Very often in a conversation, you tell a story to illustrate something you think or feel," Sayles has stated.

Even so, Sayles's work has developed steadily in terms of visual as well as dramatic complexity. His early films, such as Secaucus and Lianna , a sympathetic account of a married woman awakening to her lesbian nature, were criticised in some quarters for their static camerawork. Sayles, while readily conceding his lack of technical experience, pointed out that "Fluid camera work takes money. Unless it's an action movie, why cut away from good actors?" More recently, however, from Matewan onwards, he has adopted a more sophisticated and even elegant shooting style, though never at the expense of the story. The long, intricate tracking shots of City of Hope map out social connections and tensions as graphically as anything in Ophüls; while in Matewan scenes of nocturnal wood-smoky encampments in the Appalachian foothills, shot by Haskell Wexler in dark, grainy tones, recall elements of late Ford— Wagonmaster , say, or The Horse Soldiers. Not that Sayles (unlike his "movie brat" contemporaries) is interested in strewing his pictures with allusive film-buff references. "I want people to leave the theater thinking about their own lives, not about other movies," he noted. His work draws its resonance from his social concerns, from his sense of character as a product of historical and cultural influences, from his acute ear for dialogue and his insight into the political process. The mismatched young couple of Baby It's You are no less constrained by the pressures of their class and environment (small-town 1960s New Jersey) than the West Virginian miners of Matewan , the baseball professionals of Eight Men Out , or the hostile urban factions of City of Hope.

But Sayles is no rigid behaviourist. The two women in Passion Fish , both maimed by life and thrown together in prickly proximity, contrive to surmount their backgrounds and prejudices and reach a tentative friendship. Ethnic and social conditioning are powerful influences, but not absolutes. "Blood only means what you let it," says a character in Lone Star , and the children in The Secret of Roan Inish buck their family history through sheer determination.

In his work as a director, Sayles has steadily extended and deepened his personal vision, always ready to take risks and strike out in new directions. Lone Star , his most accomplished film to date, is also his most narratively complex, interweaving a dozen storylines and subplots. In recent years he's widened his geographical scope beyond the United States, taking in the west coast of Ireland for the mystical fable of Roan Inish , and Latin America for Men with Guns —which he shot in Spanish to get authentic performances from his Hispanic cast. Limbo , with its unexpected midway plot-switch and enigmatic ending, is his most dramatically audacious film yet.

It was also the first time in sixteen years that Sayles had made a studio picture, something he'd renounced after the horrendous experience of making Baby, It's You for Paramount. Limbo was financed by Sony, but Sayles still secured his regular terms—production control, casting control, and final cut. "The fact is," he explained, "I've got to the point where I don't need to make movies. . . . Why give up a year of your life for a film you are going to apologise for and you really don't feel is yours?" Sayles's films are, unmistakably, his. With his integrity established beyond question, and his status as doyen of American independents now secure, he can afford to shrug at studio backing. With or without it, his best work may yet be to come.

—Philip Kemp

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