No voice in film has been more unremittingly committed to telling intimate, character-driven stories about people than that of John Sayles.
Way back, when I told a hipster friend that I was moving to Hoboken, he raised an eyebrow and said, “Well, they have good Italian delis. And I hear John Sayles lives there.” This was in the pre-Google days, and the idea that the iconic film director would choose to live in the mile-square city across the river sounded like an urban legend which lent Hoboken an air of pioneering bohemianism and artistic street cred. Even before independent film was considered a genre, Sayles’s movies such as Eight Men Out, Matewan, and The Brother from Another Planet garnered high praise from critics and raked in awards, if not blockbuster grosses. As the genre picked up steam, Sayles led the way with such films as City of Hope, Lone Star, Passion Fish, and Amigo.
Hardly reclusive and hard to miss at six-foot-four, Sayles isn’t about Hollywood-style self-promotion. Rather, he focuses on telling stories that interest him. We caught up with him as he was promoting his latest feature, Go for Sisters, which will premiere in New York and Los Angeles this November. The movie, shot in L.A. and Mexico, features two estranged childhood friends whose lives intersect again as recovering addict and parole officer.
Anyone with a browser knows that the original independent auteur has been living and working in the same Hoboken rowhouse that he and his partner, Maggie Renzi, bought in 1979, while working on their first movie, Return of the Secaucus Seven.
“We’ve been here since, god, I think we’ve owned this house for 35 years,” Sayles says. “Right around when we were making our first movie, we moved into Hoboken. The waterfront was a mess, but the rest of the city was nice. It was old Italian families and Puerto Rican neighborhoods and some people from India, a very livable kind of city.”
It was a fertile time for Sayles. His first novel, Pride of the Bimbos, about a dwarf who is a traveling baseball player dressed in drag, had been published in 1975 when he was only 25. “Yeah, I didn’t know at the time how lucky I was, but I’d been working in factories and hospitals and just kind of minimum-wage jobs and I got a union job as a meatpacker in a sausage factory in Boston. I had been sending short stories out to magazines and … the Atlantic Monthly also had a book publishing arm, and someone called me and said you should take this long short story and make it into a novel and we’ll at least read it.”
Sayles was laid off from the sausage factory and got $85 a week for 21 weeks on unemployment, his first and only grant for the arts. During that time, he wrote his first novel. Despite critical success, the book didn’t make him rich. “I once figured out, with the typing, I was still making minimum wage,” he says. “It was an advance of $2,500—that was about $1.10 an hour.”
His second book, Union Dues, followed in 1975. Sayles was acting in a theater company in New Hampshire and needed someone to sell the book. “A friend of mine played poker with this guy John Sterling, an author’s agent. Basically, he called me up and said, ‘Hey do you want an agent?’ And he said, ‘The deal is, my agency has a deal with a Hollywood agency so that, if I sell it, your book will automatically be a property that those people will try to sell as a movie.’ I said, ‘It won’t make a movie, it would make a terrible movie … but go ahead.’”
That connection started Sayles’s screenwriting career, notably for Roger Corman on such genre movies as Piranha and The Howling. “When people say, ‘How do I get into the movie business?’ I say, ‘I wrote two novels and a short-story collection and got them published,’ and their hearts kind of fall. It seems kind of daunting to do that. It’s so much harder to get something published today. This was 1975.”
The settings, characters, and themes of Sayles’s movies are wildly different—from colonialism in the Philippines and an ancient Irish folktale to coming-of-age and coming-out stories. “I think a lot of that just comes out of interest,” he says. “Different things interest me, and people say, ‘Oh, why don’t you make another baseball movie?’ and I say, ‘Well maybe in 10 years’ or something like that, but once you’ve made a baseball movie I feel like I’ve done that, for awhile anyway, and what else am I interested in, what haven’t I done? What haven’t I seen onscreen? I’ve always thought, ‘What do I see around me in the world, what story that I know is worth telling that I haven’t seen before?’”
Sayles has been praised for his “ability to slip deeply into each culture” he portrays and for his impeccable ear for dialog. Many thought that much of Secaucus Seven—which refers to the Chicago Seven and was shot in one weekend at a house in New Hampshire—was improvised, but it was meticulously scripted. The story of how Sayles made the movie as an audition piece, using $60,000 of his earnings from the genre scripts, is the stuff of cinematic legend. This may be Sayles’s best-known movie. The star-studded Hollywood film The Big Chill has long been rumored to be based on Secaucus Seven.
As a writer of novels, films, and plays, Sayles says, “I usually have a feeling of, this is the perfect medium to do something in, but sometimes it changes.” Most people think of Sayles as a director. But, he says, “I think ‘storyteller’ finally is the way I feel about it. In movies, the way I make a living to this day is as a screenwriter for hire. Often my movies are self-financed from the money I make as a screenwriter. When you’re writing a screenplay, you’re just writing the blueprint, but you’re not the guy who finishes the story. … It’s a very collaborative medium … and if you’re the writer/director/editor, which is what I am on my own features, you’re much more the author than you are if you’re just the screenwriter.”
Sayles’s work as a screenwriter for hire is sometimes credited (The Spiderwick Chronicles) and sometimes not (Apollo 13). An early Sayles script titledNight Skies was the basis for what eventually became Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial.
Sayles has about four unproduced screenplays and a few ideas for future projects. “It took me 11 years to get Eight Men Out made,” he says. “You start saying, ‘Oh, 11 to 15 years, I’m going to be really old if it takes that long.’ So I’m a little less ambitious with the things I write now, if they seem like they’re totally un-fundable. With this new one, Go for Sisters that’s going to come out in November, that’s very, very low budget, under a million. That was one where—it’s never really happened to me before—I wrote basically because I knew three actors I was dying to work with, Edward Olmos, Yolanda Ross, and LisaGay Hamilton, who was the only one I’d worked with before.”
Sayles’s director’s eye and instinct for storytelling make him a great observer of the changes in Hoboken over the years. He reflects, “Well, now we have two or three Starbucks and all of those condos going up. …. Most old Hoboken people just kind of shake their heads. I think a lot of them actually like the changes, truly. I think the only thing that has gotten worse about Hoboken has been the parking. It was always bad, but now it’s close to impossible. At one time, I think it was the most densely populated city in America because it’s only a mile square, and when buildings go up, and they used to be rowhouses—which were one family—and now they’re three apartments, and when each one of those have a car—there is just not enough room.”
But he also sees positive changes: “The nice thing is that the river has been reclaimed. I run on that river road, Frank Sinatra Drive they call it, sometimes, and it used to be Bethlehem Steel that was defunct and I think there was toxic waste there, and you know, basically ruins. Now they’ve really made it kind of park-like and people really use the river. The ferries weren’t working when I first came here; that’s been a great thing. At rush hour last night, we took the ferry in. In the summer it’s really beautiful.”—07030
John Shoots New Jersey
07030: Have you shot any of your films in New Jersey?
JS: We shot most of Baby It’s You in New Jersey; it was set in Trenton. Our office was actually in Hoboken, down on Observer Highway in an old meatpacking plant that’s been turned into offices and condos since then.
07030: You can’t get away from the meatpacking…
JS: Yeah, exactly! We shot out at Upsala College in East Orange. Ninety percent of that movie was shot in Jersey. And we shot over at Stevens College a little bit. It was a fraternity house and the floor was warped from beer. There were so many standing puddles of beer there that the floor had warped.
07030: Another one, shot in Fort Lee and Hoboken, is Lianna. Kate, the editor of 07030, told me that Lianna is one of her favorite movies of all time. She cannot get over how a straight man could intuit that moment when a woman looks in the mirror and acknowledges to herself, “I am a lesbian.” She says that just about everyone she knows has experienced that moment.
JS: You know, it’s interesting, I think I was able to do it because it’s about a woman having her first experience. And I felt that that’s as far as I can imagine, and at the time there wasn’t really queer cinema. There were very few gay women who were able to make movies about their own lives. And so I think directors who have come after me, who are gay women, have been able to go deeper into the community, like The L Word and stuff like that. I could basically kind of talk about couples I knew who were breaking up, so this is as much about that phenomenon of all of a sudden being 36 and back on the relationship market and trying to find a job. And how it would be that a woman wouldn’t get custody of her kids. What would cause that? And at the time, announcing that you were gay might make a judge say, “Well you’re an unfit mother so your husband gets the kids.”
07030: You shot the Springsteen video, “Glory Days,” partly at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, and you got permission from a reluctant Springsteen to use his songs in Baby It’s You.
JS: We shot two rock videos for Bruce Springsteen here. Born in the USA, we shot most of that in Jersey as well.—07030
Go for Sisters
Opens November 8
Village East Cinema
189 Second Ave. (12th Street)