John Sayles

Onstage Interview by Leonard Maltin
Photographs by Scott E. Roeben

John Sayles
On February 13, the Writers Guild Foundation presented John Sayles --who has 22 eclectic film writing credits (ranging from Roger Corman thrillers, to his Oscar-nominated "Passion Fish" and "Lone Star," to his current "Men With Guns") -- with its Career Achievement Award. Tributes were offered by such luminous Sayles colleagues as singer/actor Kris Kristofferson, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and producer Robert Wise. Film critic Leonard Maltin ("Entertainment Tonight") conducted a lively onstage interview with Sayles. Here is an excerpt:

Leonard Maltin Did you always have in mind to direct, or was writing a path to filmmaking to you?

John Sayles When I was really young I didn't know that there was such a thing as a screenwriter. I wrote stories. I figured somebody wrote a story who had a typewriter and I thought that movies were made by the cowboys and that they just said, "Okay, you fall off the horse this time." But once I discovered that there was such a thing as a screenwriter and a director and all that, it stayed in my head as a possibility. I certainly grew up seeing more movies and television than I read books, but when it came time to do the thing itself you don't have to hire a lot of people; you don't have to have locations or catering or any of those things to sit down and write a book, so that was the story-telling medium that was available to me. So I always felt like, okay, I'm going to try to tell stories whatever way I can and it would be cool to make a movie, and tell a story that way.

In that I got stuff published first before I got anything made as a movie, I think I got spoiled and that writing a short story and getting it published, or writing a novel and getting it published, you pretty much get to do the first, second and third draft yourself without a whole lot of interference. So when I came to making movies, that's the way I wanted to do it. I didn't kind of wanting to just do one part of the process and leave it at that.

Maltin Making 'The Return of the Secaucus Seven' - you set yourself a goal and gave yourself very specific parameters to follow. Could you give us the encapsulated version of that [experience]?

Sayles I was a writer/director and the fellow who ran the Summer Stock company that I acted in said, "You know all these good actors that we've worked with and you're starting to write for the movies now; why don't we write a movie and you direct it?" And I had $40,000 in the bank from writing for Roger Corman, and in Roger's payment terms that means I must have written about ten movies for him... (laughter) ... and I figured, "When is that ever going to happen again?". So I basically set out the opposite way movies are made; I set out with a budget first. I said, "What can I do well for $40,000?".

And well, acting is cheap; I knew all these actors who weren't in the Screen Actors Guild yet, and it happened that they were all just about thirty years old. I knew I wasn't going to be able to afford moving cameras and moving cranes and dollies and things like that, and I needed a way to get some movement into the film and I figured well, 'If I have a lot of sub-plots, I can always cut to another sub-plot, and that will give some movement to the film.' So I realized that it was going to be a movie about a bunch of people turning thirty who had a lot of sub-plots with each other. And we had done this Summer Stock theater up at a place in New Hampshire where life is cheap--we had housed people in this ski lodge every summer --and we figured, okay, it's about a bunch of people turning thirty in the summer in New Hampshire.

And it worked out fine. I made it about a three-day weekend so people wouldn't have to change their clothes a lot. We didn't have an art department; we didn't have a make-up department. We just said, "Okay, you're in the movie. Bring what you would bring for a three-day weekend and I hope you like the way you look in it because once you're on camera, that's your wardrobe." But it worked; it worked and we were very surprised.

Maltin The guys who made 'Clerks' did theirs for $27,000, but those are always the things that people point to, to say, "You don't have to spend a fortune. It's not about money." You're not exactly profligate, but what has changed in the process for you in making films that have a little bit more money behind them?

Sayles Well basically the first time you make a film you can abuse your friends, and then the second time you would have to pay them -- or get new friends. So we tried to pay people something. But also the first two movies I was really trying to tell the story just with labor-intensive acting, and then we started getting a little more ambitious and then we started telling more of the story with the look of the film: with the lighting, with the music, with the camera movements--changing the lens once in awhile.

In 'The Return of the Secaucus Seven' there was one scene where we had a bar for 24 hours and we held it for 26, and in the 26th hour the cinematographer, who couldn't stand up anymore, said, "How do we shoot this shot?" and all I could think of was "Put them against the wall and shoot them!" And the scene worked because everybody was supposed to be tired and drunk, and they were at least tired...

Maltin Can you identify the biggest lesson that has evolved for you, or that you've learned about being a filmmaker as opposed to simply being a writer who's putting his script on film?

Sayles For me the writing, when I'm going to direct it myself, is really just the first draft, and I don't change it very much; I only change it on average about two lines per movie.

But compared to writing a novel, where you can be God, I did the Bay of Pigs invasion in six pages once, and there were 50,000 guys with boots that I didn't have to pay, and all those extras; we didn't have to pay them. In a movie you have all these logistical problems; all these practical problems. But you're also going to have people come who can do things that you can't do, and you get to direct their talents. You get to say, "Here's my philosophical idea about what the costume should like," and the costume designer comes and gives you choices and sometimes they're all good, and I say, "What do you think?" and they pick the right thing. Or a composer comes or an actor comes and does it in a way you never would have thought of. The collaborative nature of movie making is one of the things that's the most fun. And as a writer-for-hire it's been one of the things that's been the most fun for me. Not that I've always loved the movie when they finally come out, or if they ever come out-because many of them don't come out-but I've gotten to work with really good story editors and stuff like that. Each time you come away, you know, you learn something. You get better at your craft.

Maltin Do you ever have an actor in mind when you're writing a part?

Sayles Oh sure. This movie, 'Men with Guns' I had Federico Luppi, who's the lead character, in mind. The last picture I wrote, that we're going to make up in Alaska this summer, 'Wind Blow', I had David Strathairn, who I'd worked with before, in mind for it. When I wrote 'Lone Star', I had Chris Cooper in mind, who I'd worked with before. I try not to have any really big stars in mind, because you usually don't get them, and so you write something for Tom Cruise, and only Elijah Cook, Jr. is available... (laughter)... and you're going to be disappointed.

Maltin You also have a knack for writing yourself pretty good parts. You've played interesting characters in all of your films.

John Sayles and Leonard Maltin
Sayles Yes, what I often find is it has to do with, is we need somebody who's in one scene to intimidate somebody who's over 5'10" and there I am on the set... The hardest thing about movie acting is that if you're playing a character who changes within the movie, you've got to do that, but you've got to do it out of sequence, because we never have gotten to shoot in sequence, and that's really, really tough. That's the hardest thing in movie acting: "Where am I now? If I'm going from A-Z, am I at L? Where am I?" So I've always played characters that don't change. (laughter) I'm usually the same jerk at the beginning as I am at the end.

Maltin And you still do acting occasionally for other people?

Sayles Yeah, the last thing I was in was Vondie Curtis Hall's movie 'Gridlock'd'; I was in 'Malcolm X.' I think I'm the only actor who ever worked with Tupac Shakur and Dolly Parton--not in the same picture!

Maltin What do you come away with from those experiences?

Sayles Well, I like to act. I work for scale. I don't have an acting agent...I'm in the book (laughter)... I learn a lot. I think as a writer what I learn is a lot of thinking about point of view. When you're an actor, you come into a room, the lines are set, but what does your character care about? What do you see in the room? You know, what are you sensitive about? What do you ignore? When I finish a script, I play all the parts. You know, if I was an actor and I had to play this part, is there a three-dimensional person there? I've worked with lots of actors, first as a fellow actor, and then remembered them when it was time to cast something.

Maltin Let's talk about your work for Roger Corman. How were you first introduced to Roger?

Sayles I had just gotten to L.A. and I had gotten an agent and Frances Dole, who was Roger's script supervisor and kind of aide-de-camp, was talking to my agent and saying, "Well, we need a rewrite on this movie called 'Piranha'. Roger loves to hire established novelists and pay them scale, (laughter) and he feels like they've got experience he didn't have to pay for."

And so I got the rewrite on 'Piranha', and working for Roger and with Frances was terrific, mostly in that it was a closely held company; it was just the two of them. There were not fifteen people in the story department and twenty-five producers and stuff. And Roger had produced 1,000 movies and directed a couple of hundred, and their comments were always very, very specific. They would be right to the page; right to the moment. They wouldn't be: "We have problems with the second act!" (laughter) To this day, I get rewrite offers where they say: "We feel this script needs work with character, dialogue, plot and tone," (laughter) and when you ask what's left, they say: "Well, the typing is very good." But with Roger, it would be: "On Page 67, we think this is a little quick to have another attack of Piranhas, so could you put it off until Page 69?"

Maltin I know people who graduated from that school, if that's what we should call it...

Sayles A reform school

Maltin ... who were terribly shaken by the fact that the rest of the movie world wasn't like that.

Sayles If you write a movie for Roger Corman, it's going to get made. You saw it almost the next day. (laughter) And it was out in the theaters in two weeks. This is not, "We're going to develop twenty-five and maybe one's going to get made," so the first three things I wrote got up on the screen and, good, bad or indifferent, I got to see them on their feet.

Maltin What a wonderful learning experience.

Sayles Oh, absolutely. Basically, if you could get a good trailer out of the script, Roger had no objection to you making a really good movie. (laughter) He liked it if you did. He liked the more cleverness and ingenuity you could bring to it... He just wasn't going to give you any more money.

Maltin Do you pace yourself in any way? Do you have a game plan? Do you say, "Well now I've just finished making a film; I've cut it. I think I'll work for some other people for a while," or is it more spontaneous than that?

Sayles No, it's much more haphazard. Many of the movies that we've made have not been in the order that I wrote them. The first screenplay I ever wrote was for 'Eight Men Out'. It took eleven years before that got on a screen. 'Matewan' was eight years before we got it on a screen. 'Men with Guns' we scouted in Belize and Mexico before I even conceived of 'Lone Star', but the week we were in Mexico scouting, the Zapatista Rebellion started and we decided, "Well, we can't get into Chiapas, which we think is a good location for part of this film. Maybe we're not ready to do this film right now. Maybe they're not ready for us to do this film right now."

So it is absolutely haphazard. I take more jobs when I need more money, if I'm investing in films. I take fewer when I don't. Or if something really good comes along, I usually find a way to do a good job on it in the time that I've got.

Maltin Do you work on more than one thing at a time?

Sayles Oh, absolutely. I remember being out here at the Sunset Marquis, and whoever knocked on the door, I would take that picture that I was writing, whether it was 'The Howling', or 'Alligator' or another one that I was writing, and I would put that in the typewriter, so when I had the meeting, they would say: "Oh, you're working on it right now?" (laughter) So often I'm writing one of my own movies. I wrote 'The Brother from Another Planet' in one week between drafts of 'The Clan of the Cave Bear'. Yeah, I'm often writing more than one thing, and they don't get confusing. They're such different worlds.

Maltin Does that include deciding to write a novel or short story again, as opposed to screenwriting...?

Sayles The fiction kind of suffers because in the movie business, if somebody's going to give you money to make a movie, you spend it as fast as you can before they change their mind. We had some good, healthy Writers Guild strikes and I got a lot of fiction writing during those. Labor peace kind of hurt my novel career, you know. It took me thirteen years to write 'Los Gusanos', whereas with screenplays, I can jump in and out of them a little quicker.

Maltin So is it still accurate to say that your Hollywood work helps support your personal work?

Sayles Oh, absolutely, and I think not just economically. I think I've learned a lot from it. So it helps make me a better filmmaker or better writer when I go back into the fray on my own stuff, but it's something that I would do, even if I didn't need to; even if I didn't need the money, because I enjoy it, and you're getting to work for the movies, which is a good deal. But I probably wouldn't have done as many as I did in one year, which I did when I was trying to raise money.

Maltin You've lately done some polish jobs as well on some things. What is your attitude toward that kind of work?

Sayles Well, basically, when you're a writer-for-hire, you have a different mandate each time. I've had jobs where they've come in and said, "We're shooting on Monday. It's Friday. We have one actor, and we agree with him, who feels like a very one-dimensional character. Don't change any of the locations; don't change any of the actions; just give this guy three dimensions. Give him a back story; improve his dialogue." Other times, it's, "Keep the title. Everything else goes." Those are fun, especially if they're going to shoot them in four weeks, because you know they're not going to mess with anything you do, so it can be very imaginative. Both 'Alligator' and 'The Howling' were that way; you know, "Keep the title," and 'Piranha' was that way. Other times it's a different mandate. So each time, you're trying to help them tell their story. And my guideline is just: are these people I would like to work with? And is there a movie, whatever the genre here, that I would like to go see? If I can see the germ of that there, I'll usually take the job. There are genres I don't care for, and I've never worked in those genres, and then sometimes there are people that I haven't liked and I haven't worked for those people. But if I feel like there's a movie that I would like to go see, I'll jump into it.