The uncompromised vision of legendary independent John Sayles
At Sundance, they were handing out buttons. A stern, commanding face, red and white stripes shooting out from behind him, rimmed with stars and film reels and a Betsy-Ross-blue banner that read "John Sayles: Independent." Only the guy those buttons were promoting -- John Sayles, independent filmmaker for the past 20 years and the subject of a SXSW retrospective -- he doesn't much like them: "The buttons and things like that are not in my control. It's kind of embarrassing."
It's an ill fit for a man who has made a career out of making sure he's in control. Sayles has steadfastly refused the kind of security, resources, and financial largesse the major studios have to offer, because that would mean relinquishing control. (1983's Baby, It's You, Sayles' one studio project, proved that very point; in the end, neither the studio nor Sayles ended up with the film they wanted.) So Sayles started independent and mostly stayed that way. His first film, 1980's Return of the Secaucus 7, was made on a bare-bones budget and in a landscape near barren of anyone working outside of the studio system. "People didn't just go and make a feature. It was a very a rare thing to do."
Rare indeed, but Secaucus 7 -- about a group of old friends and political activists reuniting for a weekend -- struck a chord, and secured Sayles and his team (including producer and longtime partner Maggie Renzi) enough capital and good buzz to keep making movies. Sayles' films have never exploded on the scene like a sex, lies, & videotape or Pulp Fiction. Instead, they have steadily built his reputation as an influential writer and director of powerful and wide-ranging material, from a devastating West Virginia miners strike (Matewan) and the White Sox World Series scandal (Eight Men Out) to the tense border politics of Texas (Lone Star, which earned Sayles his second Academy Award nomination for writing). The films are politically and socially conscious, and way before it was hip to be conscious. Lianna, Sayles' second feature, about a wife and mother who leaves her family for another woman, was an anomaly when in came out in 1983.
"There were no movies about gay women. Period. And the year Lianna came out there was one other one, Personal Best, that had something to do with gay women. But queer cinema didn't exist."
The same goes for The Brother From Another Planet, a wonderfully weird and charming film about an alien, played by Joe Morton, who flees to Earth to escape the slave-like conditions of his home planet and ends up in Harlem. Ernest Dickerson, Brother's director of photography, went on to lens most of Spike Lee's films and is now a director himself. But The Brother From Another Planet was made at a time when there were few films focusing on the black experience.
"There were a few movies directed by black directors around, but there wasn't really the movement that there is now, where it's not unusual to have a dozen movies out a year directed by -- and now some very veteran -- black filmmakers."
The times have changed, but the work still resonates: "What I like is that they don't only exist in their time, even if they're going to have a different relation to an audience than they had when they first came out."
Groundbreaking work. A consistent, uncompromised vision. An unshakeable reputation as a maverick and mentor to succeeding generations. It isn't nearly as stodgy as it sounds. The "Independent" has fun, too, although you might not know it from that stern face on the button staring you down. "I think that basically, if it isn't fun to make movies, you're doing something wrong," he laughs. "I had a lot of other jobs before I got to make movies. Some of them I was good at, some of them I wasn't, but I wouldn't call any of them fun. Fun was what you did at lunchtime or after work."
Lianna screens Friday, March 8, 5:45pm, at the Austin Convention Center. Return of the Secaucus 7 screens Saturday, March 9, 9:30pm, at the Convention Center. The Brother From Another Planet screens Sunday, March 10, 4:30pm, at the Paramount Theatre and Tuesday, March 12, 7:15pm, at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex. Matewan screens Monday, March 11, 8:45pm, at the Arbor Theatre. John Sayles will be in attendance at the screenings. "Conversation With John Sayles" takes place on Tuesday, March 12, 3:30-5pm.