The Director's Chair Interviews

John Sayles
by Eliot Asinof
DGA Magazine

Click here for John Sayles films, books, and soundtracks


I  first met John Sayles on the ballfield at the Indianapolis Stadium during the filming of Eight Men Out, a giant of a man dressed in tank top and shorts, in defiance of a chilly morning in late October. He had cast me in the picture because he felt that the author of the book should be part of the production. A gesture to show respect, if you please. This was definitely not pro forma. (When Columbia Pictures produced Breakout, also based on a book Iíd written, I was totally excluded. I never saw a screenplay, was never invited to a screening. I even had to pay to see it at a neighborhood theatre.) To John, however, the author of the book was special. Everything began with the author. In all his interviews with media, from The TODAY Show to some local call-in radio, he would never speak of the filming without reference to me and my book. It was, perhaps, what one might expect from a filmmaker who was also a distinguished author.

I had, in fact, first heard of him a dozen years before, having read his novel Pride of the Bimbos and his acclaimed short story The Anarchists' Convention. Then there was Union Dues, his novel nominated for the National Book Awards.

* * * * *

John, how do we get all the way from Union Dues to this issue of the DGA Magazine?

You might say that it began at Catholic Mass when I was a boy. I'd hear the story of Jesus over and over. I got to know every detail. It was much like seeing a film on tape, playing it back and forth, scene by scene, over and over. I came to understand the techniques used by story tellers. When I started writing short stories in fourth or fifth grade, I knew how to use those techniques. They gave a story interesting nuances. I could write from differing points of view.

Was that your first awareness that you might become a writer?

No. Not really. I never thought of writing as a thing to do, like becoming a ballplayer or a fireman. I didn't see writers on TV or in the movies. It wasn't until I got out of college that I met anyone who wrote for a living. I simply wrote because I wanted to tell stories. There was no grand design. One thing seemed to lead to another. After college (Williams, class of '72) I worked as an orderly at a hospital in Boston. Then at a meatpacking factory. I moved around a lot but kept writing stories. I thought, well, maybe I could seel them to a magazine. I made a list from the index of an O'Henry Short Story Collection, put a chart on my wall and sent these stories out, checked them off as the rejections came in. I'd paper the walls with rejection slips, keeping eight or nine stories in circulation. Weeks, even months would pass. I had no idea what those magazines were publishing. I'd even sent a macho story to a lesbian-feminist magazine. I'd get some strange rejection comments.

What was your breakthrough story?

I wrote a 50 page story about a barnstorming softball team, a bunch of macho guys in drag at a time of feminism in the new South. An editor at Atlantic Monthly Press saw the possibilities if I could develop the plot for a novel. I'd been working at the meat packing factory for $4.40 an hour but suddenly got laid off, and my income fell from $176 a week to $32 unemployment compensation. Just barely enough to keep a writer alive. So I plunged in, uninterrupted writing for six weeks or so. I always wrote fast. I don't know any other way to write. It comes easily -- or not at all. They published Pride of the Bimbos, gave me a $2,500 advance. Immediately there was new interest in my other short stories, the same ones they'd rejected, of course. It was like crawling out of the wilderness. Writing could become a useful part of my life. But there was no way I could live on that $2,500.

How were you living in those days?

I'd been acting in a summer stock company in New Hampshire, making $80 a week. I knew Gordon Clapp from college where we'd directed plays. My first acting was in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, playing Candy. In my junior year, I directed Bruce Jay Friedman's Steambath, short plays by Tennessee Williams. I met a cameraman who wanted to produce movies, and he had me write a screenplay based on a story I'd written. I knew absolutely nothing about movie-writing so he gave me a screenplay to see the way a page looked, the action and the dialogue. Nothing came of the project but I became interested in screenwriting. I took scenes from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and dramatized them. I had read Eight Men Out and saw it as an important event in American history, so I wrote the screenplay and sent it to Los Angeles as an illustration of my work. I couldn't get the picture made, not then, but I did get a job screenwriting for Roger Corman, a genre picture, Piranha. Compared with the $2,500 I made for Bimbos, and the $10,000 for Union Dues, screenwriting money was amazing.

There's an old joke about a New York novelist who comes to Hollywood, makes big bucks adapting his novel for the screen but always intends to return home to write his next serious work. Years later, repeatedly seduced by ever-increasing paychecks, he's still there, bemoaning his fate beside a swimming pool at his Beverly Hills mansion: "Someday, I'm going to write a novel exposing this town!"

I took the money and ran, as they say, back to New Hampshire, thinking about making a movie of my own. I'd saved about $40,000. What could I do with that kind of money? I knew a lot of talented stage actors, all around thirty years old. I couldn't afford expensive camera-moving equipment for action shots, but I could substitute cutting for action. Robert Altman had done that in Nashville. So I wrote a story about young people, an ensemble film about a reunion of old friends who'd been arrested in New Jersey during the protest movements of the '60s. Plot and subplot. I got hold of a camera crew from Boston whose experience was limited to making commercials. No one had been in a movie before. We set up at a ski lodge that summer, $1 a day for a bed, all locations within a few miles Ė a neighborhood bar, exterior locations like an old basketball court. Somehow, everything seemed to go smoothly during the five weeks of shooting. It wasn't until we got to Los Angeles for post-production work that all our mistakes became evident. Years would pass, 1978, 79, 80, and the $40,000 became $60,000. But when The Return of the Secaucus Seven was finally released, it grossed a couple of million.

In a way, that movie was a ground breaker in independent filmmaking.

Well, the timing was certainly good. There were a lot of small art theatres around the country showing foreign films. Along with independent films like Northern Lights, Heartland and a few others, Secaucus Seven could find a home. There was a substantial new audience that hungered for something new, something different from what Hollywood studios were offering, something more serious.

And you had a whole new status as a result.

No one asked me to direct, though. Just screenwriting work in genre pictures, sci fi, horror stuff. For myself, I wrote Lianna about a housewife who discovers she's a lesbian. I was told to get Jane Fonda if I wanted to get the picture made. It was easier to get to the moon. Studios wouldn't touch it. So we raised our own money again, small $2,500 investment packages, plus a lot of what I had saved. We shot it for $300,000, got it released, and everyone got their money back.

So you were no longer a flash-in-the-pan. Weren't studios interested in your work? Weren't you now commercially viable?

I'd written another screenplay, a semi-serious romance about young people. Yes, Paramount was interested, but first they wanted to cast an Australian actor they had under contract. I'd written the hero as an Italian from New Jersey, so the battles began. When I finally made the picture with Vincent Spano, shot it in Newark and Hoboken, Paramount hated it. It tested badly. Demographics showed that the dominant audience in those days were males between 24 and 34, but in my movie, the hero was not nearly as smart as the heroine. Predictably, then, young males wouldn't like it. They removed me from the editing room, wanting to turn it into a high school comedy. But the new version tested even worse than mine, so they gave it back to me. When it was released, Baby, It's You got mixed reaction, and Paramount practically dumped it. It failed, of course.

You write the screenplays for all your films. When youíre writing, how do you see your stories, knowing that youíre going to direct them? Are they a series of edited sequences?

I donít suppose itís really possible to separate my writing from my directing. When I write, I canít help but sense what it will look like, how it will sound, how it will work toward the story I want to direct. And since Iím going to edit it later, that too comes into my head. I am confident of being in control.

Does your vision of the film change on the set? Do you ever rewrite or improvise material with the actors during the shooting?

I rarely improvise with actors. I donít rehearse them. I donít think I change more than a few lines during the shooting. Only when an actor doesnít feel comfortable with certain phrases Iíd written. Of course, there are times when unpredictable things happen. With a child actor, for example, I prepare to cover for his mistakes, shoot a number of takes over his shoulder, say. In Men With Guns, the boy (Dan Rivera) progressed so well, after a few days I didnít have to.

How do you select your cinematographer? How do you work out the look of the film with him?

We talk about the theme of the movie. The mood, the feel Iím after. Will the cinematographer be at home with a soft look? Does he like to work with a wide lens, say? In Matewan, the philosophy called for a harsh grey coal-dusted mood. I was looking for drabness. No red, for example. Women would wear no red. Even the music in the film, country music, yes, but without banjos. The sound of banjos are happy sounds. Not for Matewan. In Passion Fish, the early scenes required a claustrophobic look as the heroine was drinking herself to death. I wanted the room to grow darker, curtains closing; the camera had to capture that mood.

What part of making a movie pleases you most?

Editing. I really enjoy editing. The movie has been shot, all that work is finished. When youíre editing, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. You correct your mistakes. You select the best of what youíve done, create the right rhythm to make the action flow.

The reviews, how do you respond to what critics think of your work?

I don't get involved. I might read the opening line, then the conclusions, get the positives or negatives that relate to what impact they might have on the box office. I don't really care what they say. There are three types of reviews: book criticism, art commentary, movie reviews. Book criticism is writing about writing and it has a special valid sensibility. Art criticism tends to be way out, formless, esoteric, like people writing about wine, say, with all the accompanying jargon. Movie reviews are generally so vague, they're useless as critiques. What one might write as criticism, another might write as praise. A lot of film critics are just out of college with limited perspectives and less experience. But they think they have to be highly critical to make a name for themselves. They tend to identify movies as either part of their culture or out of sync with it.

What pictures did you like most when you were young?

My first were the westerns with John Wayne. I thought of them as John Wayne movies. Only later did they turn out to be John Ford movies. But then, most audiences don't consider the director. They want to know who is in it, whatís it's about. Most people don't go to a movie because, say, Martin Scorsese directed it. With John Ford, I liked his story-telling. The action came out of characters. Then, when I got old enough, I began to realize that foreign movies dealt with people with real problems relating to the world around them. They were not just melodramas about who kills whom. The Hollywood pictures I'd seen were a bunch of Rock Hudson-Doris Day romances, Dean Martin, Elvis pictures. They had nothing to do with anyone I'd ever come across. With Kurosawa, say, or Roberto Rossellini, even though the cultures were different, the characters were involved in a way that meant something to me. These were the movies that brought on the best American works of Scorsese and Francis Coppola.

After that unfortunate experience with Paramount, what did you do?

I was derailed, all right. Eight Men Out kept making the rounds, but without success. I had to go back to independent production, Brother From A Small Planet then Matewan. Matewan was well-received but lost money. There were too many independent films floating around, all fighting for a limited number of spots.

Youíve recently rejoined the DGA. Why?

The independent low budget director seldom works for a salary. He gets his money, if at all, at the other end of production and distribution. Independent films are usually high-risk productions. You donít know if they are going to see the light of day, unlike studio productions which almost always do, where the director is a salaried employee. The DGA protected the studio director. Recently, adjustments are being made to help the independent, new rules and regulations are including him under the DGA umbrella. In New York, where most of the independent films are made, the DGAís Terry Casaletta has been a major force to effect these adjustments. This is in keeping with the huge increase in independent filmmaking.

What are your thoughts about current independent filmmaking?

Itís an extremely difficult process. There are an increasing number of films being made, only a small percentage of which get released. The doorway is a narrow one, and though it keeps expanding with more outlets, greater interest and bigger audiences, the rush to get through that doorway is a growing one. Serious independent films rival the studio productions, most of which are now high-budget, high-tech super action genre films designed for blockbuster multi-million dollar distribution, primarily made for young audiences. Thereís also a growing adult audience that responds well to more serious themes. Those big budgets give star actors a lot of money, but the movies are so bad and the parts so insulting, the actor often sees his career being reduced to superficial action junk. Some of them have become more responsive to serious low-budget films to get more satisfying parts. It has even become chic for actors to do this.

You got Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney in Eight Men Out.

It was a studio film with a $6,000,000 budget. The significant difference was that the studio was Orion, a group of director-friendly executives, five men who had left Gulf and Western to make decent pictures. There was no editorial intrusion. I was to shoot the script as written and bring it in on schedule and under budget. It was a fine experience for me.

And definitely for me as well. It was like a playground, actors playing ball and loving it. I suited up and took batting practice with them, first time in almost forty years. What's more, I got paid for acting, the same per diem and salary as Charlie Sheen!

When you try to get such name actors to work for scale, frequently their agents set up blocks. Oh, theyíll tell you how much they admire your work, but the actor declined, the part wasnít right for him they tell you. But later weíd learn that the agent never let the actor see the script, he didnít want his actors working for scale, whatever the actor might think.

After Eight Men Out, you went back to independent filmmaking.

The sad thing was that Orion folded shortly after. I was derailed again.

Which is why we're here today, John. Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, Men With Guns, this is what you represent.

There's a lot to be said for independent filmmaking. It's where a single mind determines what the story should be. The story itself is the thing, not the commercial aspects of it. Sure, movie making is a business. It must eventually appear on the screen so that people can pay to see it. It's a product made for money. But for me, it starts with the story I want to tell. It must be commercially viable, yes, but if I have to use the wrong actor because he's a star, then it's no longer that story. If I have to shoot it on a studio location that compromises the look I want, it's no longer that story. If I have to change a line here, another line there, it's no longer that story. This is what defines the eternal clash of interests. The studio contract reads: "Paramount Pictures, hereinafter known as The AuthorÖ" So you're doomed by contract. It's a question of who has the power over what finally appears on the screen. The answer to that is in the hands of who controls the money. If I were to make an independent film that grossed $100,000,000 say, a studio might give me financing for my own story, casting, final cut. But that's not about to happen, so I have to rely on small budgets banked mostly by my screenwriting jobs and various independent investors. I don't want to be a director for hire. I don't want to make someone else's story. I enjoy making my own movies. I want to keep telling those stories until I run out of them.

It's been a continuing adventure, hasn't it? Youíve made eleven films covering an astonishing range of characters and problems, from a fable in old Ireland to the grim hinterland of modern Mexico. However dispersed these movies, however varied the look of them, the thread that weaves through them all is the struggle to deal with realities without catering to sleaze, without sentimentalizing relationships, without reverting to gratuitous violence. You find humor and irony in these conflicts. You have made all these pictures without a single car smashing into another. You have broken all the rules. As I see it, you're a writer, John, and when you direct, that's what makes the difference.

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