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John Sayles (1950 - )

Lifespan: 1950 -

Related: American cinema - screenwriter - director

Films directed: Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980)

Films written: The Howling (1981) - Piranha (1978)


John Sayles (born September 28, 1950) is a fiercely independent American film director who frequently takes a small part in his own and other indie films.

Like Martin Scorsese and James Cameron, among others, Sayles got his start in film working with Roger Corman. Sayles went on to fund his first film, The Return of the Secaucus 7, with $40,000 he had in the bank from writing scripts for Corman; he set the film in a large house so that he did not have to travel to or get permits for different locations, set it over a three-day weekend to limit costume changes, and wrote it about people his age so that he could have his friends act in it.

In 1983, after Sayles's film Lianna, a sympathetic story in which a married woman becomes discontented with her marriage after falling in love with another woman, Sayles received a MacArthur Fellowship for $30,000 a year for a five-year term. Sayles used the money to fund The Brother from Another Planet, a film about a black four-toed slave who escapes from another planet and finds himself at home among the people of New York City, largely because he is incapable of speaking.

Sayles has funded most of his films by writing genre scripts such as The Howling and The Challenge. In deciding whether to take the job, Sayles reports that he concerns himself mostly with whether there is the germ of an idea for a movie that he would want to watch. Sayles gets the rest of his funding by working as a script doctor; he has done rewrites for Apollo 13 and Mimic, among others, and finds the job rewarding since he gets to help other writers tell their stories and also meet other directors and watch how they work. Some of his more well-known films include Lone Star, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Matewan. His films tend to be politically aware; social concerns are a theme running through most of his work.

In November 1997, the National Film Preservation Board of the United States announced that Return of the Secaucus 7 would be one of the 25 films selected that year for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, bringing the total at the time to 225. At the end of 2001, the total number of films preserved was only 325. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Sayles [Mar 2005]


Few directors are as consistently wonderful as John Sayles, but his path to art-house cinema was circuitous. He cut his filmmaking teeth in the Roger Corman stable of B-movie scriptwriters and filmed his first feature, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, for under $40,000, a hit-and-run, low-budget approach that he's never really abandoned.

More films

  1. The Brother From Another Planet (1984) - John Sayles [DVD, Amazon US]
    Having been stymied in the midst of trying to make Matewan, John Sayles wrote what he thought could be a cheap, quick little movie and it turned out to be this near classic, which blends fish-out-of-water comedy with trenchant and serious science fiction. Joe Morton plays an extraterrestrial whose spaceship crashes in New York Harbor. When he swims ashore, he finds that most of Harlem is filled with earthlings who look just like him. He can't speak, but he quickly learns to communicate; he also finds ways to understand these strange, quarrelsome creatures, who seem to talk forever without really saying much. Sayles is at his economic best, drawing a touchingly complex performance from the silent Morton and good acting from a strong supporting cast of mostly unknowns. --Marshall Fine for amazon.com

  2. Matewan (1987) - John Sayles [Amazon US]
    A little-known chapter of American labor history is brought vividly to life in this period drama from writer-director John Sayles. It's a fictional story about labor wars among West Virginia coal miners during the 1920's, but every detail is so right that the film has the unmistakable ring of truth. The tension begins when the Stone Mountain Coal Company of Matewan, West Virginia, announces a lower pay rate for miners, who respond by calling a strike under the leadership of a United Mine Workers representative (Chris Cooper). Proving strength in numbers, the miners are joined by black and Italian miners who initially resist the strike, and a fateful battle ensues when detectives hired by the coal company attempt to evict miners from company housing. Violence erupts in a sequence of astonishing, cathartic intensity, and Matewan achieves a rare degree of moral complexity combined with gut-wrenching tragedy. The film salutes a pacifist ideal while recognizing that personal and political convictions often must be defended with violence. To illustrate this point, Sayles enlisted master cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who creates the film's authentic visual texture--a triumph of artistry over limited resources. The result is a milestone of independent filmmaking, and Matewan remains one of Sayles's finest achievements. --Jeff Shannon

Movies (script)

  1. Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) - Jimmy T. Murakami [1 DVD, Amazon US]
    Twenty-first-century science fiction fans accustomed to special-effects orgies like The Matrix may snigger at the quaint, Flash Gordon-like spaceships in Battle Beyond the Stars. But executive producer Roger Corman's belated entry into the '70s sci-fi craze surpasses expectations with sharp performances and a witty script by John Sayles (his third for Corman, including 1978's Piranha). The story, lifted wholesale from Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), finds the dictator Sador (John Saxon) threatening the planet of Akira. Its pacifist inhabitants are no match for Sador's devastating weapon, the Stellar Converter, but young Shad (Richard Thomas) decides to fight back. Borrowing the ship of notorious mercenary Zed the Corsair, he recruits a band of mercenaries, each of whom has a personal reason to join the fight. Among them are a lizard-like humanoid (Morgan Woodward), an improbable space cowboy (George Peppard), a zaftig female warrior (Sybil Danning), and brooding killer-for-hire Gelt (Robert Vaughn, reprising his Magnificent Seven role). Battle's final showdown is somewhat anticlimatic, but the surprisingly stellar cast (which includes Sam Jaffe and Darlanne Fluegel) and the indie spunk of Sayles' script, with its light meditations on death and honor, will charm newcomers and repeat audiences alike. New Concorde's digitally remastered DVD features commentary by Sayles and Terminator 2 producer Gale Anne Hurd, Battle's assistant production manager. Oh, and those spaceships? Designed by Titanic director James Cameron. Still laughing? --Paul Gaita for amazon.com [...]

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