John Sayles


The John Sayles credo:
Be disciplined and always honest.
Know what it is you’re trying to accomplish.
Do it until you get it right.

I met John Sayles, the man sometimes referred to as the godfather of bootstrap cinema, in an old Irish pub in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. Over the course of an afternoon, we pored over Sayles’s entire creative life, beginning with his current film, Honeydripper, and going all the way back to his stint as a screenwriter for the “king of the B’s” Roger Corman. Considered the cinematic heir of John Cassavetes, Sayles played a pivotal role in launching a new independent-film movement with his first film, Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980). Since then, he has released fifteen more feature films, all of which he wrote, directed, and edited. In the interim, Sayles earns money to finance his films by working on Hollywood screenplays, such as Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic, and the recent Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the popular children’s fantasy books.

Characterized by what some describe as a lunch-pail populism, Sayles’s films vary in subject but are unified by their deep-rooted social consciousness and hopefulness. Sayles’s expansive social panoramas and thoughtfully rendered characters illustrate how various social issues—class (Casa de los Babys), labor (Matewan, Eight Men Out), gender (Lianna), generation (Return of the Secaucus Seven, City of Hope), race (The Brother from Another Planet), culture (Men with Guns, Lone Star), and politics (Silver City)—produce people who are marginalized by an American culture that worships the notion of the individual.

Sayles’s empathetic technique finds its roots in another craft he practices: writing. He is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of novels and short stories, including Union Dues, Los Gusanos, and Dillinger in Hollywood, which, like his films, serve as counternarratives to distorted and forgotten historical events. Throughout his career, he has also directed theater and has acted, appearing in such films as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. With all of his endeavors, Sayles remains committed to a distinctive DIY approach, and, like his characters, he maintains a resolute place on the fringes of American culture. “Oh, I’ve always felt like I was on the margins,” he’s said. “Once upon a time that’s what independent used to mean.”

—Antonino D’Ambrosio


THE BELIEVER: The historical context that resonates throughout your work is another defining element of your filmmaking.

JOHN SAYLES: This is an interesting American deal. Americans like to think that we were born yesterday, that we’re all self-made, that we don’t come from anywhere, we have no past. The thinking is that I’m an American, maybe even an Italian American, but forget all that shit. The way I feel is that actually none of us get to start from scratch. Everything that we are and that we have came from somewhere. There are all these suppositions that are misleading and often harmful and often find their way into American filmmaking.

BLVR: Is this a failing in American cinema?

JS: The historical details get cut out of American movies. Some of this is because movies are meant to take us out of our lives. To me it’s like walking through a neighborhood. I’ve got to get from here to here. There may be some funky stuff in that neighborhood, and some people want to avoid that, but I don’t.

In 1980, I covered the Republican National Convention in Detroit for a magazine. The Republicans put most of their delegates across the river in a hotel in Canada. They put cardboard over the windows of the buses so when they went through the funky Detroit neighborhoods they wouldn’t see them on the way to the Joe Louis Arena. These delegates from Kansas and other parts of the country didn’t even see these neighborhoods, so, in effect, they could never admit that they exist. They never saw them. This is what you’re asked to do for most American films, and it may be appropriate for certain movies, but it’s one of the reasons that Americans don’t know anything about their own history. I’m interested in the stuff I do being seen as widely as possible, but I’m not interested enough to lie.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Antonino D’Ambrosio’s upcoming book is called A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears with original art by Shepard Fairey. His most recent film is No Free Lunch, starring Lewis Black.

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