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Since 1980, independent film legend John Sayles has made the films he wants to make.



An Independent Voice

Indie Film Veteran John Sayles Talks About His New Work and Independent Film’s Significance

by Jeremy Mathews

aving John Sayles speak at the Sundance Film Festival is a bit like having Stephen Hawking speak at a physics convention. Since the early ’80s, Sayles has been a truly independent filmmaker, making the personal films that he wants to make without conforming to anyone’s—from Indiewood or Hollywood—perception of what his films should be. With personal, well-written films about human and political conditions like “Limbo,” “Lone Star,” “Passion Fish” and “City of Hope,” Sayles is one of the most valuable voices in cinema.

Sayles spoke at the Filmmaker’s Lodge at the Sundance Film Festival on Wednesday about his work and philosophy and debuted clips from his upcoming film “Silver City,” which he is currently editing. On Thursday, he appeared in a panel about politics and cinema. Sayles spoke to me prior to the festival about his work and the state of independent film.

A Career of Independence

“Silver City,” which will be completed later this year, takes place against the backdrop of a gubernatorial campaign in Colorado. The description recalls many of Sayles’ films, which often have very distinct settings and deal with political and personal issues.

Sayles’s second film, “Lianna,” made in 1983, was one of the first films to deal with homosexuality. While it was an important film politically, it transcended its subject matter by looking honestly at the characters.

“There’s stuff that needs talking about and film and television are part of the conversation. [‘Silver City’] is a political satire, so it’s a little more overtly political than some of our other movies have been,” Sayles said.

“I tend to work from what’s going on in the world, not from the last movie that I saw. If I have a model, it’s conversations I’ve overheard, situations I’ve seen or heard about, things I’ve read,” he said. “I’m trying to connect phenomena with each other and make a story out of it.”

This approach results in political dialogues and character studies that don’t have the easy answers. His last film, “Casa de los Babys,” explored a South American country from which U.S. women adopt babies, and observed the emotional and philanthropic angles along with the issue of cultural imperialism. The stunning “City of Hope” (1991) is another ensemble work, looking at everyone in a troubled city, from politicians and landlords to mentally ill outcasts.

Sayles always pays a stunning amount of attention to where his story is located, painting rich portraits of places that film often overlooks in favor of places like Toronto that are cheap to shoot in. Other films have captured locales like Louisiana (“Passion Fish,” 1992), Juneau, Alaska (“Limbo,” 1999) and a Texas border town (“Lone Star,” 1996).

“As I’m thinking of the story, I always feel that the place where it happens—what you’re going to be looking at on the screen—is a character in the movie. It gives a certain spin to everything you see in the movie,” he said.

“A lot of the story in [‘Silver City’] reflects our ideas about the West,” Sayles said. “Some of the plot points are about the past of mining and raising cattle and things like that. There’s a kind of boomer attitude that you don’t have in New England. Plus, there’s just a look to it that sometimes fits the story.”

Sayles sees the world as very complex, and while he said he enjoys watching more morally simple films, he has always made films that deny the predictable for greater emotional truths. There’s a scene in “Passion Fish” in which a recently paralyzed soap opera actress sits in a wheelchair and watches a dance and flirts with a who she was once interested in but is married now, and you can just picture a Hollywood film having the man spin her around on the wheelchair or something silly, but Sayles finds meaning without manipulative sentimentality.

“I don’t see it terms of villains and heroes,” he said. “Archetypically good and bad characters are something that films do very well. A lot of the characters that I’m dealing with are people who are somewhere in between. They’re very flawed and have a lot of ambiguity…People are often not in a win-lose situation, but in a situation where they have to salvage as much as they can, but there’s no way they’re going to win and it’s not even clear what winning would be,” he said.

Sayles made “Matewan,” one of his many political films, in 1987 to examine the struggle and violence of a West Virginia coal-mining union that’s abused by its company in the 1920s.  
The State of Independent Film

Independent film has earned much more prestige since Sayles made his first film, 1980’s “The Return of the Secaucus Seven.” Now the Sundance Film Festival is one of the biggest in the world. “There’s not another festival like it in the United States,” he said.

“There’s a lot of interesting stuff getting made,” he said, “and I think the ‘a lot of’ is the important part of that. It’s gotten more and more democratic—the ability to make a film. It’s easier to learn about how to make a film. The equipment is more accessible. People get to practice on video at much younger ages than they used to.”
Sayles said that there are still limits, however, to what this liberation provides: “I don’t think there’s a huge increase in the number of people who really know that much about life and have that much to say yet. But certainly, most films are based on other films, so people can make some pretty good movie-movies at a young age. And there are a lot of people who are getting to tell something that, 10 years ago, they wouldn’t have got the shot at.”

The area that hasn’t changed is the Hollywood-dominated distribution system, Sayles said. “Even if it’s a good movie, there’s still a lot of competition. Studios are spending more and more on advertising.” Sayles thinks that the direct access-market of video-on-demand may help filmmakers get a bigger profit margin, but advertising and showcases like Sundance are what will get the word out.

“The most important thing about the Sundance Film Festival is that any kind of business needs some sort of focus—a place where everybody’s attention is turned,” Sayles said. “You’ve made your film, you’re trying to get it into the theater for people to see it. Anything that focuses attention on film, including your film if it’s included, is really good. If you’re looking for a distributor, they’re all there.”

Sayles thinks that it’s tough to have a good selection process when so many films are submitted, but that there’s usually a good mix of many films, even if the need to get in certain types of film might push good films of similar types out. “I’d hate to be on the selection committee,” he said. “I’m sure if you don’t get selected, you think it sucks, and if you do, you think, ‘Oh, aren’t they smart.’”

The showcase Sundance provides is important in a market that, Sayles said, is constantly changing and challenging even established filmmakers as himself to fund projects and make the film they want to make.

“Each time out it’s been different,” he said. “About a quarter or a third of the time we’ve made the movie, somehow with outside money or money I’ve made as a screenwriter or a combination of the two, then sold it to the distributor. We made a couple movies with money from home video, where we didn’t have a theatrical distributor but we had advance money from a video company that then went out with us and found a theatrical distributor. We’ve made a couple movies with studio money. We’ve made a couple movies financed by classics divisions.”

Sayles said that the independent movie business is very volatile and that all the distributors that put out his first seven films have gone out of business (“and not because we put them out of business!”). “Each time out you kind of have to reinvent the wheel. The independent movie business is just so volatile that you can’t go in thinking you know how you’re going to do it because the rules in a year-and-a-half have almost always totally changed,” he said.

“A couple times when I haven’t had final cut in the contract, we’ve had fights that weren’t any fun, mostly on ‘Baby It’s You,’ which ended up pretty much being the cut that I wanted…Pretty much from that point on I’ve gotten myself in situations where you make the deal and say, ‘Here’s the movie. It’s not going to change much from the script, here’s the cast we’re thinking of…you know we’re not going to go over budget. If you’re interested, you’re interested, and if you’re not, you’re not,’” Sayles said. He added that a quick “no” is better because a studio will string younger filmmakers along for months to see if they get a big star like Tom Cruise to be in the film and otherwise will eventually say no. Sayles shows the potential financiers the script, tells them he’ll come in on time and on budget and who the actors are or that no one famous will be in it. This way, he can seek financing elsewhere if the people aren’t interested in making the films that they want to make.

Whether more independent filmmakers take this approach to their films isn’t for Sayles to decide. “That’s kind of up to the filmmakers, and they’re going to pursue what they want to pursue.”

If they’re like Sayles, anyway, they will.

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