An Interview with John Sayles

I had the pleasure of sitting down with John Sayles, who some call the godfather of bootstrap cinema, in an old Irish pub located in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan.

Over the course of our afternoon together, we discussed Sayles’s vast creative career, starting with his current project, Honeydripper, and going all the way back to his days writing for Roger Corman, the so-called “king of the B’s.” Acknowledged as the heir of John Cassavetes, Sayles was instrumental in the emergence of a new independent-film movement with the release of Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980). Since then, he has released fifteen more feature films, all of which he wrote, directed, and edited.

To fund his films, Sayles also works in Hollywood, writing screenplays such as Apollo 13 by Ron Howard, Mimic from Guillermo del Toro, and the recent Spiderwick Chronicles based on the beloved children’s books.

Sayles’s films, sometimes referred to as “lunch-pail populism,” are unified by their focus on social consciousness and hopefulness.

His works, which explore a wide range of topics, such as class in Casa de los Babys, labor in Matewan and Eight Men Out, gender in Lianna, generation in Return of the Secaucus Seven and City of Hope, race in The Brother from Another Planet, culture in Men with Guns and Lone Star, and politics in Silver City, illustrate how those affected by various social issues are often excluded from American society’s emphasis on individualism.

John Sayles’s style of filmmaking is based on his other art form: writing. He is the acclaimed author of multiple novels and short stories, including Union Dues, Los Gusanos, and Dillinger in Hollywood, which, like his cinematic works, bring to light forgotten or distorted historical accounts.

He has also directed for the theater and has acted in films, such as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. Sayles has remained loyal to his independent and unique approach to filmmaking, and he has kept a determined stance on the outskirts of American culture. In his own words, he has stated, “I’ve always felt like I was on the margins. Once upon a time that’s what independent used to mean.”

— Antonino D’Ambrosio

It can be said that D’Ambrosio has an interesting viewpoint; he believes that, for the most part, people are motivated to make the right decisions.

He feels that it is not so much a matter of making the right or wrong decision, but rather a matter of understanding the consequences of the choices we make. He concludes that by understanding the connection between our actions and their results, we can make better decisions.


During IFC’s retrospective of your work in 2002, you stated that your primary focus was creating films about people and that you were not particularly fascinated by cinematic art.

JS: In my opinion, the primary purpose of the story is to convey the people and all the art and craft I have access to helps to do that. My first focus is not on the aesthetics of the shot, but rather on the people and their situation. This is the driving force behind everything I do; only after that have I got the opportunity to explore the other aspects of the story – the cinematic and dramatic elements which help to make it both intellectually and emotionally stimulating.

BLVR: The unassuming attitude you take in your work as a writer and director is truly highlighted.

As a youngster, I watched far more television programs and films than I read books. I didn’t have any connections to people who had created a film or written a book, so the idea of making those types of works was beyond my comprehension, and I have never forgotten that feeling.

BLVR: Despite having done acting and directing for the stage during your time in college, you had no inclination to move on to filmmaking.

After completing college, I had only ever taken one film course which was merely an appreciation class. At that time, there were only a handful of film schools and I hadn’t enrolled in any of them. Although I had done some acting in theater and even directed a few plays, I still had to take up part-time jobs in hospitals, factories and similar places. All that time, I was consistently writing stories.

What was the catalyst that inspired you to begin writing?

JS: When my GPA needed to be increased, I took a writing course. I wrote a lot, and I wrote quickly, so even though the volume of my work was significant, they had no choice but to give me an A. One semester, I submitted 10 pounds of fiction. After creating all of this writing, I started submitting stories to various places, as the only cost was the paper, since I had a typewriter and some carbon paper. At the time, the concept of making movies wasn’t even in my mind.

BLVR: Penning appears to be the base for all of your operations as a movie director.

JS: When writing a book, every thought has to be processed in the mind. With a movie, it passes through the gut too prior to the head. Therefore, my actor background has been beneficial in understanding what would help the actors that work with me. Actors tend to communicate with each other, so my theatrical experience gives them trust in me faster than a director who may not be as familiar with the craft. A director’s job is not to educate the actor, but to direct their ability.

In 1975, you were presented with the O’Henry award for “I-80 Nebraska, M. 490-M.205”, a tale that had been published in The Atlantic Monthly. At the same time, you were juggling two lives, between working in a hospital and in factories, along with participating in theater work.

My friend Jeff Nelson was in charge of a summer stock company, and we were acquainted with a lot of talented actors. During that time I released some books, and my literary agent, John Sterling, informed me that a Hollywood agency was interested in my work. I requested the contact information from John and gave the agency a call. They inquired about a sample of my scriptwriting.

BLVR: Had you composed any screenplays during this period?

An image of John Sayles is presented, taken from a 2009 interview, depicting him in a seated position.

JS: I was experimenting with around twenty pages based on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which he had intended to never be turned into a movie. After reading Eliot Asinoff’s Eight Men Out, I thought it would make a great movie, so I wrote a screenplay of it, despite not having the rights to it. Fortunately, it turned out that the head of the agency had been Asinoff’s agent 25 years prior.

BLVR inquired as to the answer given.

JS stated that I had done a good job, but warned me that it was unlikely I was going to complete the project. He then encouraged me to go to Hollywood and craft ‘creature features’ for Roger Corman in order to make some money.

BLVR: You invested the funds you acquired from the Corman films in the production of your debut movie, Return of the Secaucus 7, which tells the story of a reunion between 1960s political activists. The film was released nationally and was honored with the LA Film Critics Award for Best Screenplay.

JS: Jeff Nelson told me we should create a movie. We had no idea of the cost, which ended up being $40,000. We thought it would be enjoyable. So, we made it with a staff that had only done commercials in Boston. The actors had only been in theatre, so they had no knowledge of movie acting. We made our way through it over the course of five weeks, and figured out how to do it. Editing was a challenge because I knew how to cut, but I didn’t know how to use the machines. Somehow, we got distribution without any effort.

BLVR: Return of Secaucus 7 was widely praised, and consequently you were hailed as the pioneer of a fresh American Independent cinema movement.

JS noted that they were a part of the ‘independent filmmaking’ movement, which coincided with the emergence of home video. This enabled their movie, Secaucus 7, to be released in 1980. Through this process, JS learned to finance their own films, living within their means and avoiding any expensive habits. In turn, this allowed them to put more money into their own films.

BLVR: People often associate you with John Cassavetes as a leader in independent filmmaking.

I have not had the chance to meet Cassavetes, but I have encountered several people who worked alongside him. His films always impressed me, since they were constructed and revised similarly to Mike Leigh’s movies. An excellent, humane quality of Cassavetes’ films is that he is like a poet of the non-articulate. In his films, the characters are attempting to express something simple, such as “I love you,” but they are not successful in verbalizing their feelings. A great example of this is his film A Woman Under the Influence.

BLVR: It appears that you aren’t entirely at ease with being known as the godfather of American independent cinema.

JS: It is critical to keep in mind that there were filmmakers before Cassavetes and myself. I was familiar with Melvin van Peebles and Robert Young, who were producing films before it was categorized as a movement. They were producing individual films that were intriguing. On occasion, I was able to witness titles such as Frank Perry’s David and Lisa or Delbert Mann’s Mart y, which were both independent movies.

BLVR: In 1975, you penned Pride of the Bimbos and two years later Union Dues was nominated by the National Critics’ Circle and the National Book awards. Then, in 1980, Secaucus 7 was an incredible success. How did this affect you?

JS shared that working on Secaucus 7 spoiled him because he was able to assert control over the process. For that reason, he did not have any desire to go back to working for a studio, where he would be just another employee. He also noted that as a screenwriter he is often in the position of being an employee, and sometimes he requests to have his name taken off the project, which is usually done readily. In the past decade, he has asked to have his name removed from a project more than it has been left on.

There are whispers that you were the creator of the concept that later became the blockbuster film E.T. directed by Steven Spielberg.

JS: I wrote a script titled Watch the Skies which ended with a scene involving an alien being left on earth. This ended up becoming the starting point for E.T. Despite the similarities, I don’t believe it inspired the movie. Spielberg’s company asked if I wanted credit for it, but I declined since I didn’t have any part in the final script. I thought it was a great script and could make for a great Disney movie with a tight budget. It’s clear why I’m not a studio executive.


BLVR: One of the greatest challenges is getting the money to make your own movies, something you’ve done for the majority of your films. How do you manage the precarious balance between maintaining fidelity to your creative vision and obtaining funding for your movie?

JS was only one day away from filming Matewan when the financiers called them and denied the bank loan. In a moment of desperation, JS proposed an idea for Brother from Another Planet to Maggie Renzi and the other producer. Despite JS’s dislike of shooting in the snow, they both agreed to the plan and within six weeks they were already shooting the movie.

BLVR: This exemplifies why you have been a significant example for numerous filmmakers on how to make movies in accordance with their own preferences.

JS: Being able to adjust and having more options to work with is an important part of the process. Having multiple ideas to work with increases the likelihood of one sticking. It is also important to be honest with oneself. If the available resources are not enough to create a quality product, then it is time to reevaluate or rewrite the project and make it good while keeping the costs low.

BLVR: Following Brother, you took a three year hiatus from filmmaking and instead appeared in The Glass Menagerie alongside Joann Woodward. Additionally, you directed music videos for Bruce Springsteen’s songs such as “Born in the USA,” “I’m on Fire” and “Glory Days.”

JS: I began by taking action, and music always plays a crucial role in my projects. Almost instinctively, when I hear a tune I imagine the visuals that could accompany it. This was especially easy when it came to Bruce’s work. His songs are like mini movies, and I utilized this in Baby It’s You. City of Hope, however, was the only movie I did not have to do research for, as it was based largely on Bruce’s Jersey period songs.

Music is a large facet of Honedydripper, a narrative that is set in the 1950s and depicts the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll and the electric guitar. How significant is music in your work?

JS: Movies have the capacity to be both an emotional and intellectual experience. You can’t get the same feeling when you are listening to a CD and reading a book as you do when you watch a film. Music has an amazing effect on a movie- it creates a rhythm that is the backbone of the story. I prefer to use music in moderation, which can cause some viewers to come away from my films feeling confused. It is important to use music to emphasize the story, even if it means losing some audience members.

Let’s investigate some of the inspirations that have impacted you.

JS’s inspirations have been a combination of what he has seen, both positives and negatives. He was greatly influenced by westerns, Italian Neo-Realists, John Sturges, Kurosawa, and David Lean. Even though their films are different than his own, there is a common humanity in them that draws him in. Additionally, the works of Nelson Algren, such as The Man with the Golden Arm, have encouraged JS to pursue his own passions, believing he too has the opportunity to share his work.

BLVR: Secaucus 7 has had a lasting impact on filmmakers, with Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) taking a notable cue from your work.

JS: People often inquire about the inspirations behind my style. Larry Kasdan and I have both noted Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates as a major influence on our work. I think this is due to the energy and enthusiasm he employed during play and the flair he carried with him. Additionally, I must mention Bruce Lee as a huge influence. This could be attributed to my athletic background and the level of physicality I was accustomed to during my formative years.

It might come as a shock to many to learn that Bruce Lee is an inspirational figure to me.

In JS’s opinion, the key to success is focus and emotional expression. He uses the scene from Enter the Dragon as an example. Lee is teaching a young student and when the kid tries to hit him, Lee blocks the punch and explains that it is not physical strength that matters but emotional content. The student tries again, but Lee slaps his hand away and then slaps him in the face. His point is that it is not anger but emotional content that should be conveyed. Then, without moving, the student is filled with chi and almost manages to hit Lee. JS’s conclusion is that for a scene in a movie to appear authentic and honest, the actors must successfully express their emotions, regardless of how well they say their lines.

BLVR: Honeydripper is an impressive demonstration of your skill in illustrating the links between people in 1950’s Alabama and their environment, in relation to politics and culture.

JS: For the films I make myself, I always try to advance the plot without relying on shorthand. A lot of movies nowadays are like rock music videos, taking the story and condensing it. Atonement is a prime example – it’s very well done but it’s a condensed version of the novel. It has the high points, the emotional parts and grandiose scenes, but none of the side characters are there. The stars are always attractive people and the extra details of life are edited out because they’d slow down the story.

Has anyone else requested that you compose in this particular fashion?

JS: Unquestionably, though it is far from my favorite pastime. I become intrigued with the musings of the background character next to Henry VII. After leaving the set, does he fear he will meet his end if they go to war? He’s akin to a “button man” in the mafia, an individual who can easily be sacrificed or slain if a conflict begins.

The part of the tale not involving the main characters is just as essential as the main characters themselves in BLVR.

JS stated that they bring their additional protagonists to the forefront and add more complexity. By doing this, they make them more realistic, which alters the entire story.

BLVR: In all of your films, such as Silver City and Sunshine State, there have been multiple speaking parts, with the preacher in Honeydripper being an especially noteworthy example of this.

JS: Albert is a talented performer. In Apocalypse Now he is the man who steers the boat and is fatally wounded with a spear. His role in Malcolm X is also noteworthy, as he is the person who converts Malcolm to Islam while in prison. My objective when directing actors is to make it appear as if the camera is shadowing them off-screen, as if there is more to the character’s story than what is being shown. Usually I don’t give them many directions, yet they must inhabit the character in such a way.

It’s evident that this method would not be suitable for a lot of motion picture producers in the Hollywood industry.

JS: When you make a movie, you are essentially creating your own world. It’s important to establish the rules of this world right away, so that the audience understands what kind of tone to expect. For example, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark begins with a scene of comic violence, whereas his other film, Schindler’s List, has no comedic elements. This indicates that the tone of the two films is vastly different, and that the audience should expect a serious, somber atmosphere in the latter.


BLVR: Despite the potential risk of alienating viewers, you have been steadfast in your commitment to presenting the truth in your films, such as the murder of student activists in Men with Guns, generational strife in City of Hope, and political rot in Silver City.

JS: My movie Men with Guns was inspired by the first Gulf War. I heard about a survey where people were asked if they were getting the full story of what was going in the war and most of them said no. When asked if this was a good or bad thing, 65% of respondents said it was a good thing. This made me realize that a lot of people don’t want to know the truth, which I labeled as “willful ignorance” when I made Men with Guns. Later, I learned that this phenomenon is known as cognitive dissonance.

It is clear from your films that there is a strong presence of historical context that is integral to your method of making movies.

JS: This is an intriguing concept in American culture. It is often thought that there is no history or roots to one’s identity, that we were born yesterday and made ourselves. But I don’t believe that. In reality, we are all products of our pasts. This misinformed notion is quite frequent in American films and has the potential to be damaging.

Is there a deficiency in American movies?

JS: American films often leave out the historical details because they are intended to take viewers away from their own lives. But personally, it’s like strolling through a neighbourhood. For example, when covering the Republican National Convention in Detroit in 1980 for a magazine, the party had their delegates stay in a hotel in Canada, and the buses had cardboard covers on the windows to hide from the less desirable areas. Essentially, this means the people from Kansas and other parts of the country never even witnessed these places. This might be suitable for some films, but it’s one of the causes of Americans not knowing anything about their own past. I want my work to be seen by a lot of people, but I won’t lie to do it.

BLVR: Your work has included a variety of characters that have touched upon complex social issues related to race and class ( Passion Fish, Casa de los Babys ), as well as shown a tender look at family units ( Secret of Ronan Inish ). Now, in Hondeydripper, you are exploring the intricate relationship between African-Americans and Caucasians in the segregated American South in the 1950s.

JS: I’m reminded of a phrase I’ve heard numerous times: In the south, one should not become too proud and in the north, one needs to stay distant. In the south, it becomes very personal. It could be degrading, it might be aggressive, and it can be horrible, but it’s personal. The white lawman in the movie is familiar with your grandparent. You and the other race may have the same family name, but it’s not discussed, yet both of you understand the connections. That’s how far you can trace back. In those small settlements, it is truly personal and there is no way to hide anything from each other.

BLVR: Your work ethic brings to mind a quote from Marlon Brando about his acting – that it was more about honing his craft than being an artist. You don’t take yourself too seriously as an artist, instead you are focused on being a devoted craftsman.

JS: It’s essential to be practical. It’s a craft used in service of something. It’s like the Vietnam War adage: “We have to destroy the village to save it.” When conversing with other filmmakers, some claim they had to ruin their film to make it or politicians had to lessen the bill so much that it became inadequate to get it passed . As a result, there are times when one should simply say, “No way. I’m not going to compromise, demolish anything or whatever. It’s not worth producing if that’s what it takes to complete the film.”

I find it quite fascinating that despite the degree of control you have over the whole process, you choose not to rehearse.

JS: In lieu of rehearsals, we either do blocking rehearsals or communicate via phone if any of the actors have questions. Every actor is given a biography for their character and asked to arrive on set with their lines already memorized and an understanding of who their character is. What I enjoy most is the surprise that comes with their very first encounter with the other character. Oftentimes, the scene that you see in the movie is the second take.

BLVR: Staying dedicated to one’s craft and continuing to create and develop, be it through scripts, short stories, and so on, seems to be an essential trait for you as a filmmaker.

JS stated that his philosophy or credo consists of three main ideas. Primarily, he believes discipline and self-awareness are essential when it comes to achieving one’s goals. Secondly, it is important to remain focused on the objectives for a particular scene or day of shooting. Lastly, it is necessary to remain steadfast in one’s vision, even if someone is offering money to make changes. He believes that one should enter these situations with an open mind and listen, but they must also know their boundaries and never cross them.

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