It might seem that John Sayles has gradually expanded his cinematic cosmos, beginning with 1980’s semiautobiographical The Return of the Secaucus Seven, continuing with other films about fellow baby boomers in the northeastern United States (Lianna, Baby It’s You), and then broadening his field of vision to include historical films (Matewan, Eight Men Out) and ensemble-cast dramas set in climes far from his Hoboken, N.J., home base, such as the new Sunshine State. But he says that’s not how his filmography happened.
“We haven’t necessarily made the movies in the order that they were written,” explains the writer-director, who’s stopped at a Georgetown hotel on a tour to promote his new film. 1987’s Matewan, Sayles says, “was written at pretty much the same time as Return of the Secaucus Seven. The first script I wrote was Eight Men Out [which wasn’t released until 1988]. It took 11 years to make it. It’s kinda been, ‘What can we do on the money we can raise?’”
“We could barely afford car fare for the first couple of films, so we shot them close to home,” adds Maggie Renzi, Sayles’ longtime partner and producer, who has also acted in several of his films. The casually dressed couple look like two of the Secaucus Seven 20 years later: Renzi is wearing a gray sweat shirt and a pink ruffled skirt; Sayles’ gray chest hair spills from a rumpled green shirt that’s stuffed into stained tan cargo pants.
“I’ve been to all 50 states and spent at least one night there,” says Sayles. “Now I’ve gotten to go to other countries. Very often, the place suggests a story. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I’ve done the Northeast: Now I’m going to go elsewhere.’ It’s a little more organic than that. I just go places and then pay attention to what’s going on there, and sometimes something suggests itself.”
Sayles’ previous film, 1999’s Limbo, resulted from a January 1987 trip to the Hawaii International Film Festival. “There were a lot of Alaskans there,” he recalls. “There’s so little light [in Alaska] in the winter that anyone who can afford it will go straight down to Hawaii, the way that Northeasterners go to Florida. And they invited us to come up to Alaska to teach a seminar. They couldn’t really pay us, but they said they’d take us fishing and introduce us to everyone. I was struck by who the people are that live there. They’re there for a reason. They didn’t just end up there. So many of them came there on an adventure and stayed.”
The writer mulled over his Alaska experience for a decade before producing a script, and he’s been considering the Sunshine State even longer. “I’ve been going down to Florida since I was 4 years old,” he reports. “My mother’s parents lived in Hollywood, which is near Miami. So it’s a place that I’ve thought about a lot.”
Some of his scripts, he notes, actually begin without a sense of place. When writing 1992’s Passion Fish, he says, “I had an idea about those two characters and was trying to think of a place that was kind of seductive, that might kind of draw [the central character] out of her little shell and out of her home. And then we traveled to southwest Louisiana, just hanging around with some Australian friends, going [out] and listening to rock ‘n’ roll. And we kind of woke up in the house that ended up being in the movie.”
Sayles doesn’t think about the size of the cast when he’s writing. That comes later, when he and Renzi are approaching distributors or funding projects with Sayles’ own money—which in the past has come from his novels and short stories, his scripts for such less-than-subtle Hollywood movies as Piranha and The Clan of the Cave Bear, and a 1983 MacArthur “genius” grant. Still, even his smaller films have been getting bigger, as he uses their narratives to examine entire communities.
“With Passion Fish, as the producer, I thought, Oh goody, we’re going to make a movie with just two people in it, basically,” remembers Renzi. “But there are 45 speaking parts in that movie! John doesn’t seem to be able to resist the impulse to take the personal into the community. Or, in that case, have the community come into the house.”
Thus Sunshine State, which was shot almost entirely on Florida’s Amelia Island, includes numerous overlapping stories, perhaps a dozen major characters, and themes that include rapacious real estate development, submerged African-American history, and the destruction of both nature and tradition. “The staple of the mainstream film industry is the heroic adventure movie,” Sayles says. “Although I’ve written those movies for other people, I’m generally interested in something more complex. Where the decisions are harder, where there are an awful lot of shades of gray between the black and white.”
Like 1996’s Lone Star, Sunshine State makes history an essential part of the saga but views the past through the lens of a contemporary story. That’s not, the filmmakers insist, because they’ve abandoned period movies in deference to the ahistorical audience that buys most cinema tickets today.
“If we get really lucky, I’m raising $25 million for a movie that starts in 1745,” Renzi says.
“And we have another movie set in 1898 that we haven’t been able to raise the money for,” Sayles adds. “I like period movies. It’s just cheaper to make a contemporary movie. When we try to make period movies, it’s a steeper climb.”
History is not the only one of Sayles’ concerns that makes some film financiers nervous. There’s also his long-standing interest in African-American characters. “Quite honestly,” he says, “one of the reasons we couldn’t raise money for this other project of ours was because half the characters are black.”
“And the others are Asian,” Renzi interjects.
“The reigning wisdom is that you can’t make any money in Germany, France, and Japan if most of the characters are black,” Sayles continues. “Those audiences just are not buying. So [the markets] that represent sometimes 60 percent of the budget of a big Hollywood movie are just gone.”
The other aspect of his films that makes them hard to finance, Sayles believes, is their complexity. “That’s a bigger issue than any kind of political or racial content,” he says. “One thing that movies do very well is simplify things. In the last 20 years, movies have been getting more simplistic. I think the audience has been trained more and more to think, If I go into a movie theater, there’re going to be good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are gonna win. If you think of the movies of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and that still come over from Europe, there’s a lot more ambiguity. I’m a screenwriter for Hollywood movies as well. Very often, I’m coming into a situation where they say, ‘We want a clearer demarcation between the good guy and the bad guy.’ And I can do that—it’s just not my interest as a director.”
Sayles started out writing “creature features” and sci-fi flicks for low-budget director Roger Corman. “Writers get typecast, just as actors and directors do,” he notes. “So I was just getting horror and monster movies. And then when Secaucus Seven came out, I started getting offered hippie movies and college-grad movies. And then I came out with a baseball movie, and I got a lot of sports movies. So now the good thing is that I still get offered things about creatures, so I worked on Guillermo del Toro’s movie about a giant cockroach. I did a movie about a detective for Tom Hanks’ company, and I did a Western with Sam Raimi. So I have this nice position where I get thought of for a lot of different genres.”
Sayles does reject all offers to script films about serial killers, hit men, or vampires, though. “For me, there’s a difference between a movie where creatures kill people and where people kill people,” he says, but admits that “that’s a lot of work to turn down. Sometimes it’s all three—serial-killing hit men who turn into vampires.”
Sayles’ latest writing-for-hire was on a script about the Alamo for Ron Howard. He’s no longer working on the film, however, and doesn’t know if it will ever be made. “I’ll probably read it in Variety, like I usually do,” he jokes.
While waiting to hear if the Alamo movie proceeds, Sayles fans can rediscover four of his early works that have been restored with the support of the Independent Film Channel. The Return of Secaucus Seven, Lianna, Matewan, and The Brother From Another Planet are currently on a tour of Landmark Cinemas, although local screening dates have not yet been announced.
For Renzi, the most important thing about the restorations is that the films “won’t be stored in our basement. Or at a lab that loses a reel, which happened to Brother From Another Planet. For me, it’s like, ‘Do you know where your children are?’ Four of them are safe.” —Mark Jenkins