Family & Companions
After making his start as an actor and published author, John Sayles first entered filmmaking as a prolific screenwriter for low-budget producer Roger Corman, writing the scripts for "Piranha" (1978), "The Lady in Red" (1979) and "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980). But when he decided to direct his own work, Sayles chose to explore social and political themes through richly drawn characters set against the backdrop of a unique time and place. His first, "The Return of the Secaucus Seven" (1980), was made for a scant $60,000, which established Sayles as a rugged, self-reliant director willing to avoid the studio system in order to make films that stood apart. Though he did use studio money to direct "Baby It's You" (1982) and the lush "Eight Men Out" (1988), Sayles was a beacon of hope and inspiration for aspiring filmmakers, and perhaps even the father of the independent movement of the early 1990s. By the time being an independent filmmaker was the hip new thing, Sayles already had an exemplary body of work that demonstrated the artistic freedom he sought to achieve by making a living as a script doctor-for-hire and using the money to finance his personal projects, which culminated in the exquisite crime thriller "Lone Star" (1996), which further established Sayles as a vibrant independent filmmaker.
Born on Sept. 28, 1950 in the ethnic working-class town of Schenectady, NY, Sayles was raised by educators; his father, Donald, was a math and science teacher who eventually moved into school administration, and his mother, Mary, taught elementary school. Growing up, he moved around the Schenectady area with his family, which led to attending six or seven different schools as a youth. When he was in the ninth grade, Sayles entered an electrical engineering program that allowed him to enter Mount Pleasant High School a year early, where the athletic teen played baseball, track, basketball and football. Though not the best student - he actually disliked going to school - Sayles was an avid reader throughout his life, thanks to his parents bringing home boxes of random books. He did, however, choose to continue his education after high school, becoming a psychology major at Williams College in Massachusetts during the height of the Vietnam era of the late 1960s. Despite the political turmoil around him - black students even took over the college's administration building - Sayles largely stayed apart from such activities, which he thought to be a waste of time. Still, the influence of the times was not lost upon the future director.
Sayles made his first foray into the arts as an actor during his junior year at Williams, when he was asked by fellow student and future "NYPD Blue" star Gordon Clapp to read for the part of Slim in a production of "Of Mice and Men." Though he wound up playing Candy instead, Sayles came away having enjoyed his experience in the theater. In his senior year, he directed his first play, "Steambath," by Bruce J. Freidman. But by the time he graduated, Sayles had little opportunity in the way of a job. He did work as a hospital orderly for a spell, but found the work depressing. While working in a nursing home in upstate New York, Sayles began to query major magazines like Harpers and The Atlantic to see if they would publish his short stories, which he wrote when not sticking IVs into senior citizens. Rejected time after time, he took off for a year, landing in Florida and Georgia where he dug ditches, built swimming pools and even sold his blood while continuing to write. Coming back north in 1974, Sayles found his way to Boston, MA and became a union meatpacker, which allowed him a steadier income.
After sending a 50-page short story called "Men" to The Atlantic, he was encouraged by an Atlantic Press editor to turn the pages into a full length novel. The result was his first published book, Pride of the Bimbos (1975), which earned him his first paycheck as a writer. Though not enough to quit his day job - he worked as a carpenter's assistant to cover the rent - he continued plying his craft while still performing summer stock theatre for minimum pay. Sayles soon followed with his second novel, Union Dues (1977), which brought the reader into the late 1960s through the eyes of a 17-year-old runaway who drifts into a commune of young revolutionaries. Finding himself interested in writing for film, Sayles adapted Eliot Asinof's novel Eight Men Out and used the script as a sample to find work with schlock producer Roger Corman's New World Pictures, where he penned the ultra-low-budget horror flick, "Piranha" (1978), directed by Joe Dante. Returning to literature, he published the short story anthology, The Anarchist's Convention (1979), which received critical acclaim for its honest characterizations and authentic use of dialect, though financial success continued to allude him. Sayles continued working for Corman, writing the script for Lewis Teague's "The Lady in Red" (1979), a gangster picture about the main squeeze (Pamela Sue Martin) of notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Robert Conrad). Teaming up with Teague again, he penned "Alligator" (1980), a witty horror comedy about a giant man-eating reptile that terrorizes the sewers of Chicago. Full of sly jokes and sharp satire, "Alligator" was a rare low budget horror flick that actually earned its share of critical praise, as well as a cult following.
After penning "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980) - a blatant sci-fi take on "The Seven Samurai" (1954) - for Corman, Sayles made his entry into television with the script for "A Perfect Match" (CBS, 1980), a drama about a successful fashion designer frantically searching for a bone marrow donor after learning she has a mysterious illness. Meanwhile, Sayles took $60,000 that he earned from screenwriting and directed his first feature, "Return of the Secaucus Seven" (1980), a witty and poignant look at a reunion of 1960s activists on the verge of adulthood. Praised as a more authentic and charming portrait of the same territory explored in the more commercially successful drama, "The Big Chill" (1983), the film used few sets, unknown actors, sparse camera movement and little action. Despite these facts, it did win the Best Screenplay award from the Los Angeles Film Critics, while Sayles turned in a winning performance and David Strathairn - a familiar face from Sayles' summer stock days - made his feature debut.
Joining forces with Teague once again, Sayles wrote the script for another sly horror send-up, "The Howling" (1981), again directed by Joe Dante. Turning back to the theater, he wrote and directed two one-act plays, "New Hope for the Dead" (1981) and "Turnbuckle" (1981), which were showcased at the Boat Basin Theatre in New York City. For his sophomore feature effort, he directed "Lianna" (1982), a daring, but subtle examination of the changes a married woman (Linda Griffiths) undergoes following her discovery that she is a lesbian. Alternately praised for its sensitivity and derided as exploitative, the low-budget film contained another good role for the director, who played a film professor, and helped him obtain Paramount's backing for his next project, "Baby, It's You" (1983). The story of a doomed high-school romance between a college-bound Jewish girl (Rosanna Arquette) and a working class Italian youth (Vincent Spano), the film suffered from the studio's over-involvement and later abandonment of the project. The uncharacteristically frothy departure for Sayles was his least successful feature creatively. Meanwhile, he was forced to drop out of the Directors Guild, since he was unable to afford to remain in the union as an independent director.
Sayles' departure from the Guild turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In 1983, he earned a genius grant from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation, which provided him with a tax-free yearly stipend of $30,000 over a five-year period. The money greatly facilitated the making of his next feature, "The Brother from Another Planet," an unlikely story of a mute, black alien (Joe Morton) adrift in Harlem trying to assimilate into society while being pursued by two white alien Men in Black (Sayles and Strathairn). A deft commentary on racial injustice wrapped inside a quirky sci-fi comedy, "Brother from Another Planet" was a welcome return to independent form after his rough outing with the studios on "Baby It's You." Staying close to his working class roots, Sayles directed three music videos for Bruce Springsteen for songs off his monumental album, Born in the U.S.A.. Following the iconic video for the title track, Sayles directed the videos for "Glory Days" (1985) and "I'm On Fire" (1985). After writing and acting in the Vietnam vet drama "Unnatural Causes" (NBC, 1986), he had a small role in Jonathan Demme's dark comedy "Something Wild" (1986) while he wrote the script for "The Clan of the Cave Bear" (1986), a rather simple-minded look at Cro-Magnon women, starring Daryl Hannah.
Turning back to his own films, Sayles finished screenplays for two pet projects: "Matewan" (1987) and "Eight Men Out" (1988), both of which had languished due to being perceived as commercially unviable. The first, "Matewan," explored the personal and political dimensions of union making and breaking in the West Virginia coal mines of the 1920s. A complex study of individual integrity and community solidarity, Sayles demonstrated his knack for regional dialogue, while also heightening both time and place with the help of Appalachian locations, Haskell Wexler's cinematography, and Mason Daring's lively bluegrass soundtrack. Next was the ambitious "Eight Men Out," a detailed account of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, when eight players on the Chicago White Sox accepted mob money to throw that year's World Series. A lush film filled with period details that were somehow afforded on a shoestring budget, "Eight Men Out" was a vibrant ensemble piece that managed to shed light on the controversy, as seen through the eyes of all eight ball players (including John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, D.B. Sweeney and Strathairn), each having complex reasons for agreeing or refusing to throw the World Series. Aided by cinematographer Robert Richardson, Sayles relied even more on visuals, using impressionistic lighting and scrupulous production design to help capture this period of American history.
Making another brief foray into television in 1989, Sayles wrote the pilot and became creative consultant on the highly-acclaimed, but short-lived drama, "Shannon's Deal" (NBC, 1990-91), which was about a once-powerful Philadelphia lawyer (Jamey Sheridan) forced to pay off gambling debts by taking on small cases. He continued to forge his distinctive path in the 1990s with his own projects, which were largely financed by his writing-for-hire work on Hollywood features. Sayles directed his next feature, "City of Hope" (1991), a somber study of life in a mid-sized contemporary American town that weaved together several storylines to create a bleakly complex picture of corruption and decay. After playing the fictional baseball player Roy "Lefty" Cobbs on "Mathnet: The Case of the Unnatural" (PBS, 1992), he directed one his most affecting dramas, "Passion Fish" (1992), which focused on the life-changing relationship between a paralyzed former daytime soap star (Mary McDonnell) and her live-in nurse (Alfre Woodard). While critical praise was given to McDonnell and Woodard for their central performances, Sayles earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
While continuing to write genre films that were charitably called schlock - including the Dolph Lundgren vehicle "Men of War" (1994) - Sayles managed to churn out an impressive body of work. He next helmed the children's fantasy, "The Secret of Roan Inish" (1994), which reunited him with cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Made on location in the western islands of Ireland, the film was adapted from Rosalie Frye's novella The Secret of Ron More Skerry, which centered around a girl living with her grandparents in a mystical fishing town. Sayles - whose films had consistently scored with the critics, but under performed at the box office - registered his biggest commercial breakthrough with the gritty "Lone Star" (1996), earning a second Oscar nomination for his original screenplay. Mainstream audiences responded enthusiastically to the richly textured, thoroughly engrossing drama that featured a strong ensemble cast including Kris Kristofferson, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Frances McDormand, Sayles regular Joe Morton and rising star Matthew McConaughey. Its story followed a Texas sheriff (Cooper) trying to unravel the life and death of his father (McConaughey) who had been sheriff of the Texas border town 15 years earlier. For several scenes, Sayles moved his camera from a long shot in the past to a close-up in the present, allowing both eras to exist simultaneously in the same tracking shot, a device that proved eloquent in his hands.
Unfortunately, his next film "Men with Guns" (1998), was less commercially successful, thanks to a lack of name actors and all-Spanish dialogue dooming it to the fate of so much of his previous work. Sayles followed up with the haunting and ambiguous "Limbo" (1999), set in an Alaskan community where everyone keeps their secrets closely guarded. Initially, the film seemed on par with Sayles' past work, which consisted of a large ensemble headed by David Strathairn as a former athlete-turned-handyman and Mary Elizabeth Mostrantonio as an unlucky-in-love lounge singer. But the writer-director turned the expected love story radically on its head, confounding convention and venturing into continually surprising territory, thematically reflective of the dangerous nature of the Alaskan wilderness. Sayles next delivered another thoughtful, finely etched multi-character story with "Sunshine State" (2002), set on a Floridian resort island caught up in a development conflict and populated with characters seeking to reconcile their pasts, presents and possible futures. Sayles assembled an exceptional cast - which included Edie Falco, Angela Bassett, Timothy Hutton, Mary Steenburgen, Gordon Clapp, Mary Alice, Ralph Waite and Alan King - and again bucked traditional narrative and thematic conventions to deliver an engrossing and realistic social portrait.
Lower key and less plot driven was Sayles' next effort, "Casa de los babys" (2003), which followed six white American women (Marcia Gay Harden, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daryl Hannah, Susan Lynch, Mary Steenburgen and Lili Taylor) trapped in bureaucratic limbo, as they wait in a South American hotel to adopt Latino infants. Although a bit more fragmented than his usual efforts, "Casa de los baby" nevertheless featured the expected whip-smart distinctive dialogue and all-too-truthful observation on personal politics. The filmmaker next turned his attention to the controversial "Silver City" (2004), a political satire-cum-mystery set against a Coloradan backdrop. The film featured Chris Cooper as "Dickie" Pilager, a doltish, English-impaired second generational gubernatorial candidate with a more-than-passing resemblance to George W. Bush. When Pilager accidentally fishes a corpse out of a river while filming a television spot, it sets in motion a labyrinthine investigation by a world-weary private investigator (Danny Huston) which reveals a deep abyss of corruption. With a cast that also featured Richard Dreyfuss, Maria Bello, Kris Kristofferson, Daryl Hannah, Billy Zane, Miguel Ferrer, Michael Murphy and Mary Kay Place, Sayles delivered one of his most pointed and important films, released at the time of a hotly contested U.S. presidential election.
After earning a writing credit on Ron Howard's epic historical drama, "The Alamo" (2005) - most of his Hollywood writing work was of the uncredited variety - Sayles directed "Honeydripper" (2007), a well-crafted, but sometimes flawed look at a 1950s juke joint in the rural south. Once again displaying his knack for period detail and local dialect, Sayles also reveled in the time's music, indulging himself in down-home southern blues. But the film as a whole failed to register with some critics, who cited some scenes as being stereotypical of blacks. Still, Sayles delivered another confident feature that only confirmed his status as filmmaking's leading independent director. Following shared screenplay credit on the children's fantasy "The Spiderwick Chronicles" (2008), Sayles was tapped by Steven Spielberg to rewrite the script for "Jurassic Park IV."
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Publication of first novel, <i>Pride of the Bimbos</i>
Directed (also wrote, edited and acted) first film, "Return of the Secaucus Seven" (released in 1980)
First screenwriting assignment, Joe Dante's "Piranha" (for Roger Corman), also played small unbilled role
TV debut as screenwriter on "A Perfect Match" (CBS)
Wrote and directed lesbian coming-of-age tale, "Lianna"
Worked within studio system (at Paramount) to ease the financial burden of making "Baby, It's You"
Played one of the Men in Black (with frequent Sayles repertory actor David Strathairn) sent to hunt down "The Brother from Another Planet" (Joe Morton), also wrote and directed
TV acting debut, in "Unnatural Causes"; also scripted
First collaboration with cinematographer Haskell Wexler, "Matewan"
Wrote and directed "Eight Men Out" about baseball's "Black Sox" scandal; also played sportswriter Ring Lardner; first collaboration with director of photography Robert Richardson
Created TV series "Shannon's Deal"; also scripted episodes and wrote lyrics; prominent jazz musicians Wynton Marsalis (who wrote the theme), Dave Grusin, Chick Corea and Lee Ritenour contributed to the score
Reteamed with Richardson and received almost universally good reviews for "City of Hope"
Received first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, "Passion Fish"
Reteamed with Wexler for "The Secret of Roan Inish"; Sayles' first foreign location
Earned second Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for big commercial breakthrough, "Lone Star"
Wrote and directed "Men With Guns", a pet project of his put temporarily on hold prior to filming "Lone Star"
Third collaboration with Wexler, "Limbo"; also seventh role for David Strathairn
Served as executive producer on the Sundance prize winner "Girlfight"; directed by Karyn Kusama
Wrote and directed "Sunshine State"
Helmed the feature "Casa de los babys" about six American women who travel to South America to adopt babies
Co-directed with John Lee Hancock "The Alamo" starring Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton
Wrote (also directed) the political satire "Silver City"; co-starred Chris Cooper, Daryl Hannah and Richard Dreyfuss
Helmed (also wrote) the musical drama, "Honeydripper"