It might not be New York City, but we do all right. You can even get your legs waxed.
– Louise in Passion Fish
In John Sayles’ Passion Fish television soap star May-Alice Culhane returns from New York to her home in the Louisiana bayous to recuperate after a traffic accident. In terms of Sayles’ oeuvre, this is a resonant scenario. Often described as the father of American independent filmmaking, the director has a feeling for American regional realities that is rare in American cinema. Far from the glossy, scripted and homogenised scenarios of the mainstream media, May-Alice, like so many of Sayles’ protagonists, fetches up in a textured and authentic place that is alive with the genuine diversity of the modern United States.
The son of schoolteachers, Sayles was educated at Williams College, Massachusetts, majoring in psychology and graduating in 1972. Whilst it would be simplistic to call his work educational, the veracity and seriousness of his films invariably leaves the spectator with a wider, more comprehensive outlook. Before filmmaking, he worked in a range of environments as meat packer, construction worker, nursing home orderly, factory worker and stage actor at the Eastern Slope Playhouse in New Hampshire until 1975. This working knowledge of real people has probably given Sayles’ work a behavioural density uncommon in American films. Commentator Andrew Light wrote:
Before turning to fiction, then later screenwriting and filmmaking, Sayles worked in factories and hospitals in the rust belt. He was not a film school graduate, and he was steeped neither in the techniques of the trade nor in the theoretical commentary on it. Sayles was instead someone with keen political instincts, and, as he put it, a native talent for ‘thinking in pictures’.
Sympathy for people is combined with knowledge of the actor’s life. Aside from writing, directing and editing his films, Sayles can be spotted in minor roles in his own Lianna, Matewan and City of Hope. He plays the FBI wire tapper in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and the motorcycle cop in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986). He was nominated for the National Book and National Book Critics’ Circle Awards for his novel Union Dues. What some critics have described as a novelistic quality in his films has worked for and against Sayles. Whilst his extended portraits of regional communities are densely woven, there is talk of subplots remaining undeveloped, potentials lying dormant. Philip Kemp in Sight and Sound, for instance, picked up on teenager Noelle’s burgeoning infatuation with her mother’s lover in Limbo. On the other hand, Sayles’ feeling for politics and history, whilst assisting the complex portrayal of American experience – Passion Fish mires you in Dixie’s former caste system – has made historical dramas like Matewan and Eight Men Out seem didactic to some. But Sayles’ credentials are impeccable, enabling a journeyman’s progress through industry protocol.
Sayles likes to say that he was catapulted from total obscurity to relative obscurity, a quip borne out by a trajectory that has taken him from the genre grindhouse to niche arthouse respectability. In 1977 he began writing screenplays for exploitation legend Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. These included the late night favourite Piranha (1978) and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), of which Sayles reported: “All Corman did was come to me and say, ‘We want to write a science-fiction picture that’s ‘The Seven Samurai in Space’.” Allegedly, Sayles’ key task on Piranha was to contrive situations whereby the protagonists would have to get in the water! Screenwriting fees enabled him to set up his first feature.
The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979) was made for a mere $60,000 and is now most commonly cited as the quirky model for Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 The Big Chill. Portraying the evolving dynamics of a group of ’60s radicals meeting up for a New Hampshire weekend as they contemplate 30, Sayles’ debut explored the legacy of the ’60s as the New Right gained ascendancy and America entered the Reagan era. A hit at the London Film Festival, the film encouraged an assessment of the director’s fiction and film work, and gave notice of a cinema with time for naturalistic performance and authentic space years before the indie directors’ apparent invention of ‘quirky’ American representations. “I knew I wouldn’t have enough time for camera movement or a whole lot of action…I had a whole bunch of people and made it like Nashville where you can always cut away to another little sub-plot, and it seems to be moving even though the shots are static.” Deriving its naturalism from Sayles’ fiction, the film’s logistical constraints actually worked for the filmmaker.
The aesthetic pragmatism and broad human canvas became a trademark of the method. Sayles never allows the camera to become a character. A flourish he does allow is the sequence of dissolves, offering impression upon impression, like a series of May-Alice’s photographs of the bayou to the accompaniment of Sayles regular Mason Daring’s sublime music. Picking up on The Return of the Secaucus Seven’s theme of self-discovery, Lianna (1982) focussed with pain and humour on a thirtyish married woman’s realisation that she loves her psychology tutor, also a woman. As Sayles has observed: “it’s a story where there should be a wall behind people; I wanted that enclosed feeling. So it did not hurt us so much that we shot it in 16mm…or that we couldn’t really go outside very often or shoot in depth because I wanted that closed-in feeling.” Lianna anticipated, and exposed, less sincere high profile ‘coming out’ narratives such as Personal Best (1982), Desert Hearts and The Color Purple (both 1985).
Sayles’ emergence out of genre cinema has prompted critics to make comparisons between his work and that of mainstream contemporaries, or to evoke legendary generic templates. Whilst it is tempting to refer to Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) when discussing Sayles’ frontier morality tale Lone Star, for example, it invariably provokes the suspicion that Sayles’ work is being sold short. As the director himself has said: “When people leave the theatre I want them to be talking about human beings, about their own lives and the lives of other people they know or could know. Rather than thinking ‘Oh, that was like Citizen Kane‘, or ‘That was like Raiders of the Lost Ark.’”
Appearing as the industry ‘Brat Pack’ cycle brought fresh impetus to the teen movie, Baby It’s You (1983) more emphatically tapped into historical and cultural preoccupations that Sayles was making his own. Set in the ’60s, that halcyon era of political action and cultural definition evoked in Sayles’ first film, this story of an ambitious Jewish high school student’s affair with a dapper Italian-American petty criminal renders assimilationist concerns through the tender prism of a love story. Many of Sayles’ films spring from what happens when people meet, when difference encounters difference. As Terrence Rafferty wrote in Sight and Sound, Baby It‘s You “is structured as an extended single moment of convergence – of two radically different styles, different classes, different sets of expectations about the world. It has the intimacy and closure of a turn on the dance floor with an attractive, unlikely stranger.” America is often described as a melting pot, and Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano’s very specific ethnic beauty bring vital charisma to roles that resonate with the American streets, bars and college cliques beyond the frame. Compare the singular presence of Spano’s ‘Sheik’ with the Walmart cashier looks of Jill’s WASP admirer Steve (Matthew Modine, then being groomed for mainstream stardom). The tension between the American Dream and the unlikely particulars of actual American lives is a recurring theme. Whilst Sheik, like many Italian boys, aspires to be Sinatra but finds himself miming for the blue rinse set, Jill is on the way to finding herself as herself, a mission thrust upon Sayles women from Lianna to Marly in Sunshine State. Passing on nostalgia, Sayles’ soundtrack is a dynamic mix of ’60s jukebox poetry and recent Bruce Springsteen, reminding us that the setting of Trenton and Asbury Park, New Jersey was Springsteen’s own stamping ground, and that Sayles’ oeuvre includes videos for Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Not entirely successful in its attempt to meld the solutions of exploitation cinema with a political statement, nevertheless The Brother from Another Planet (1984) remains a strange and haunting curio. On the surface a barroom anecdote about a black extra-terrestrial landing in Harlem, making good in a video arcade and smashing a drug ring, Sayles uses this allegorical premise to make astute observations about the African-American condition in the urban northeast. This propensity for mining the reality of non-Anglo lives through the collisions of everyday difference is unique among white American directors.
In 1920 friction between miners and company strike breakers resulted in bloodshed in the West Virginia town of Matewan. Shot in dirty sombre light by Haskell Wexler, who chronicled the violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in that year’s radical cinema classic Medium Cool, Matewan (1987) is perhaps the Sayles film most amenable to a generic reading, yet also arguably the angriest. From the moment Chris Cooper’s union rep arrives to conciliate between miners and company, the scene is set for the classic confrontation we associate with the western. Yet the criticism that Sayles’ stand off between union and company is too black and white is confounded by close examination of the film. Relating a fireside tale from the annals of vintage labour history, Matewan nevertheless introduces complexities that seem more contemporary. Aside from the overarching Marxist narrative of timeless struggle, for Sayles the “Mingo County War” was a dispute into which played the sectional interests of black, Anglo and Italian workers. Notice how the strike camp is depicted at one point in the mingling of Appalachian, African-American and Italian recreational music. At first argumentative, an Italian and an Anglo mother in neighbouring tents eventually bond over the welfare of their children. For commentator Andrew Light, “the object of this romance is multiculturalism, or perhaps even identity politics itself, rather than class politics.”
Eight Men Out (1988) also mined a telling event in the American past. In 1919 the World Series, the biggest event in pro-baseball, was thrown by the machinations of big business and the syndicate. Eight Men Out chronicles the infamous “Black Sox” affair, seeing the event’s implications for America’s view of itself. As Sayles told Rolling Stone at the time: “It’s about America growing up. The scandal was one of the straws that broke the back of Americans’ perception of America and brought us into the modern age. People began realizing that everybody – including our blue-eyed boys playing pure, white games – was out for a buck and that it was time to get more realistic.” If Geoff Andrew in Time Out criticised the film for its schematic confrontation between right and wrong, alongside Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s hectoring 1987 critique of contemporary moral decay, also starring Charlie Sheen, Eight Men Out remains a modest nicely scripted account.
City of Hope (1991) is regarded as one of the most successful of Sayles’ attempts to bring sociopolitical density to a screen entertainment. This account of the political and ethical landscape of a New Jersey city in the wake of rampant property development picks over the tribal allegiances of whites, African-Americans, police and the unions as each struggle for “juice”, or municipal influence. When an aging apartment block is threatened with “development”, a series of confrontations take place on multiple social levels over three days. Critic Walter Chaw described City of Hope as “a closed circle of aspiration and compromise, simple hopes impossibly complicated by the stark realities of life in a kind of wartime” (1). Featuring performances from Sayles regulars David Strathairn – he and Sayles had known each other since Williams College – Chris Cooper, Angela Bassett, Vincent Spano, and the director’s partner Maggie Renzi, co-produced by Renzi, scored by Daring, City of Hope remains quintessential Sayles. In Time Out, Geoff Andrew wrote of a “genuinely epic, politically astute, profoundly humanist and dramatically gripping study of the conflicts, compromises and power plays that define life in any community on the verge of economic breakdown.”
But it was Passion Fish (1992) that broadened Sayles’ fanbase in the ’90s. Redolent with the weave of Cajun, African-American and post-bellum white money, here was a piquant and funny accommodation of the manners and mores of the traditional woman’s picture to the emotional and social realities of being a white middle class paraplegic in modern Louisiana. Traditionally, American films trade in dynamic individual ambition and socially sanctioned acclaim. Passion Fish trades in the everyday despair that people with sharply delimited expectations face each moment of their lives. Painfully, May-Alice’s existence begins to pick up when she quits the bottle and ventures out by herself to get a little upper body strength. The scene in which school friend Precious Robichaux chides southern blacks for getting “the Attitude” in front of May-Alice’s African-American nurse Chantelle, bares the distressing pull of history in American social interaction. Shot by Roger Deakins around Jefferson and Vermillion counties and brimming with the thick tropical sunlight and wet fecund horizons of Louisiana, Passion Fish was for Philip Kemp in Sight and Sound “all treacle-dark waters where owls flit and trees drift pale fingers.” Sayles mocks the absurdity of mainstream media in the “I didn’t ask for the anal probe” scene as a soap star sits under a tree and tells of her debut, in which aliens abduct characters and give them physicals. Doused in a sonorous score inspired by Cajun idioms, and featuring superb turns from Mary McDonnell as May-Alice, Alfre Woodard as Chantelle and David Strathairn as the “swamp racial” Rennie, Passion Fish remains one of the finest American films of recent years.
In more than one way, The Secret of Roan Inish (1993) was a departure for Sayles. Set and shot amid the lonely turf homesteads and crashing shoreline of Ireland’s Atlantic coast, it is based on a children’s story. Charting a family’s return to its ancestral island, the film steers a stealthy course between allegory and whimsical mythologising. Eclipsed in its late distribution by the relatively commercial Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish recalls what Time Out described as that “talented exoticist” Robert Flaherty’s 1934 documentary Man of Aran, a poetic evocation of maritime peasant folk off the Irish coast. Acted by locals with authentic conviction, the dialogue ringing idiomatic and magical, and full of respect for the power and majesty of nature, Sayles’ film elaborated the artistry of cultural identity amid the vicissitudes of an industrial age. Such films as The Secret of Roan Inish suggest that it is to Sayles that the classical documentary’s poetic legacy has been passed in the modern era.
Shifting focus to the Texas-Mexico border country, Lone Star (1996) also has a feeling for the points at which societies and their histories interface and mingle. Ranging across the social fabric of its community, a sheriff’s investigation of a past murder becomes less the expected thriller, more a complex human drama as Sam Deeds (and Sayles), leave no gulch unexplored, no gully undisturbed in the excavation of Deeds’ father’s legend. For Kim Magowan in Film Quarterly the film’s discussion of borders of all kinds is unique for making a compelling case for challenging the taboo of miscegenation, and even incest. For her, “racial hybridity becomes a new norm for American identity. Because miscegenation is so ubiquitous, it is difficult to police.” Bitterly disputed over two centuries, Texas is a cauldron in which Anglo, Native-American, African-American and Hispanic townsfolk debate the conflicting patrimony of these dry and dusty grasslands. Again, Sayles’ camera style is distinctive, marking transitions between past and present with a simple movement from one part of the frame to another. As his human patchwork evolves, Sayles throws an uncompromising spotlight on a region which, more than any other in American history, has thrived on a deceptively singular legend. For many critics, Lone Star was a seminal film in Sayles’ oeuvre, while his screenplay was nominated for an Oscar.
Sayles’ next film – Men with Guns (1997) – bravely opted for all-Spanish dialogue, Latino actors and setting in a film revolving around a doctor who comes to realise his responsibility to a wider world. Again, critics complained about Sayles’ apparent inability to conceive the film as drama rather than message. But the shift south of the border was an interesting development. In common with Ken Loach, another director with radical sympathies, Sayles’ interest in Latino realities locates the dispute between capital and community, industry and culture in one of the last environments on earth where this confrontation is still at its most raw and relevant. The preoccupation with the regional and personal consequences of the transnational flow of money and labour is a favourite theme of Sayles. As he has said: “I’ve lived in a lot of places in the United States…sooner or later you’re going to live in a neighbourhood where people don’t necessarily speak English, which I think is one of the things that makes the United States an interesting place to live.”
We are inundated with pre-digested models of American experience. But when you go to America, its sights, sounds and smells make you realise that it is a foreign country, after all. Pitting Americans themselves up against unexpected environments, Sayles manages to recreate something approaching an exotic quality in his own country. Set in Alaska, the haunting Limbo (1999) made for a dark turn to the usual canvassing of regional flavours. The fête or outdoor function becomes something of a microcosm of the bubbling soups of ethnic and class tensions in Sayles. Here, an open day for citizens and business interests in Port Henry – stetsons, grizzled frontier types, a ‘chantoosie’ on the band stand – confirms Alaska’s husky public image. As he did in City of Hope, Sayles shoots one conversation before smoothly pulling back to eavesdrop on another. But there is a less inviting Great Outdoors. When a business deal goes awry a typically untidy modern ‘family’ of divorcee, boyfriend and conflicted daughter become stranded in a misty freezing nowhere. The emotional consequences of contemporary dislocation have been nicely analogised in the opening credits in which fish swim to avoid each other. Daughter Noelle is later seen assiduously avoiding contact in a school corridor. (Compare her solipsism with the warm bustle in which Jill and her girlfriends negotiate the crowded school corridor in Baby It’s You). As always in Sayles, Limbo’s performances are outstanding. Reprising the quiet craftsmanship of Rennie in Passion Fish, David Strathairn’s Joe Gastineau believably sparks with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s flighty torch singer Donna D’Angelo. Integral to her rehearsal of romantic disappointment, Mastrantonio’s renditions of “(Lookin’ for) the Heart of Saturday Night” and “Better Off Without You” are heartbreaking.
Whilst City of Hope charted the sectional consequences of ’80s economic rapacity, Sunshine State (2002) sees the arrival of the property developers as more a force of nature visiting economic and personal turmoil upon a Florida resort. If he deliberately left Limbo’s scenario unresolved, Sunshine State is a deliberately baggy tribute to the ups and downs of life in Delrona Beach. As John Wrathall commented in his Sight and Sound review, the newer film is just as unresolved yet its structure rebels against the teachings of industry screenwriting manuals that counsel rigorous trajectories and definitive closure. Recalling ’90s fringe experiments in polyphony such as Short Cuts and Magnolia, a potpourri of ‘voices’ from Edie Falco to Angela Bassett, Ralph Waite to Jane Alexander prompt Sunshine State into the same discursive tradition. As Bush fils announces the aim of conquering fresh frontiers in space, the commercialisation of the Florida coastline becomes all the more resonant.
An interesting feature of the London Film Festival in 2003 was Casa de Los Babys (2003). Based on Sayles’ own short story, the film takes six American women to a Latin American country in search of babies to adopt. Unable to surmount their longing and their impatience with the bureaucracy and economic contingency south of the border, the tension between American individualism and overarching socioeconomic conditions is vividly explored. Again, a strong cast, consisting of Lili Taylor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daryl Hannah and Mary Steenburgen, reminds us that Sayles is one of American cinema’s most gifted directors of actresses.
The director’s fifteenth film – Silver City – was being shot in Denver, Colorado at the end of 2003. At the time, Sayles told the Rocky Mountain News: “I like the cities we’re shooting in to be a character in the movie. With corporatisation of America, it’s getting harder and harder to find places in the country that have a unique personality, and that’s why we’re here.” Of the director’s work overall, Thessa Mooij wrote in Kamera magazine: “(they) could be seen as the celluloid equivalent of the WPA Guide Books, a ’30s New Deal project that commissioned depression-struck writers and photographers to document their home regions.” It is very rare for an American filmmaker’s work in the commercial sector to prompt comparison with a public service initiative like the Works Progress Administration. But it is easy to see how the variegated work of John Sayles can inspire such an allusion. His small but distinctive oeuvre sets an example, not simply to that oft-cited cliché the ‘maverick’ strain in American indiedom, but to an industry grown complacent on technology, genre gimmickry and opening weekends.
Films directed by Sayles:
The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979) also screenwriter and editor
Lianna (1982) also screenwriter and editor
Baby It’s You (1983) also screenwriter
The Brother from Another Planet (1984) also screenwriter and editor
Matewan (1987) also screenwriter
Eight Men Out (1988) also screenwriter
City of Hope (1991) also screenwriter and editor
Passion Fish (1992) also screenwriter and editor
The Secret of Roan Inish (1993) also screenwriter and editor
Lone Star (1996) also screenwriter and editor
Men with Guns (1997) also known as Hombres armadas; also screenwriter and editor
Limbo (1999) also screenwriter and editor
Sunshine State (2002) also screenwriter and editor
Casa de los Babys (2003) also screenwriter and editor
Silver City (2004)
Go For Sisters (2013)
Piranha (Joe Dante, 1978) script
The Lady in Red (Lewis Teague, 1979) script
Perfect Match (Mel Damski, 1980) television; script
Battle Beyond the Stars (Jimmy Teru Murakami, 1980) script
The Howling (Lewis Teague, 1980) script
Alligator (Lewis Teague, 1980) script
The Challenge (John Frankenheimer, 1982) co-screenwriter with Richard Maxwell
Enormous Changes at the Last Moment (Mirra Bank, Ellen Hovde & Muffie Meyer, 1983) television; co-screenwriter Susan Rice
Unnatural Causes: The Agent Orange Story (Lamont Johnson, 1986) television; script
Wild Thing (Max Reid, 1987) script
Breaking In (Bill Forsyth, 1989) script
The Spiderwick Chronicles (Mark Waters, 2008) script
Diane Carson (ed.), John Sayles: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Andrew Light, Reel Arguments: Film, Philosophy and Social Criticism, Westview Press, 2003.
Gerry Molyneaux, John Sayles, St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Jack Ryan, John Sayles, Filmmaker: A Critical Study of the Independent Writer-Director, McFarland, 1998.
John Sayles, Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan, Da Capo, 1987.
Gavin Smith, (ed.), Sayles on Sayles, Faber and Faber, 1998.
In addition, there are valuable interviews and articles to be found in issues of Cineaste, CineAction! American Cinematographer, Creative Screenwriting, Filmmaker, Index on Censorship, Kamera, American Film and Film Quarterly from 1981 onwards.
Unofficial website with up-to-date news and a vast research annex of articles, reviews and links.
John Sayles – Independent
Contains bio, QuickTime interviews, stills and production info on his films
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here.
The Onion A.V. Club
Interview with Sayles for Men With Guns.
The Return of John Sayles; From Secaucus to the Sunshine State
Interview with Sayles and Renzi for Sunshine State.
Another interview with Sayles and Renzi for Sunshine State.
Movie Maker Magazine
Interview for Sunshine State
The Magic of Realism
Interview for The Secret of Roan Inish
John Sayles Archives
Owned by the Chaplin Library of Williams College in Massachusetts, this archive documents the continuing film, dramatic, and literary careers of Sayles.
The John Sayles Stock Company Homepage
Profiles of actors that have appeared in at least two Sayles films.
Click here to search for John Sayles DVDs, videos and books at
- Walter Chaw, Film Freak Central, http://filmfreakcentral.net/screenreviews/filmsofjohnsayles.htm