Guilford Filmmaker Reflects on 45-Year Career, Changing Movie Landscape

Filmmaker John Sayles was at Symphony Space on June 12, 2007, to screen his film "City of Hope" in the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre. (Ric Kallaher)

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John Sayles has been a fixture of the independent film culture for 45 years, having directed 18 films and writing even more. 

He was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay for the films “Lone Star” and “Passion Fish,” both of which he also directed. 

But Hollywood life has never been a major part of Sayles’ life – he only spent a few years living on the West Coast, choosing to settle primarily in the Northeast.

“I lived in Santa Barbara for two and a half years,” Sayles said. “We had a house in Hoboken [New Jersey] for 30 years and we had a house in Dutchess County [New York] for quite awhile.”

In recent years, the writer-director has found a new home. He and his longtime partner, Maggie Renzi, moved to Guilford nine years ago.

“We liked the area and discovered that Connecticut had a seashore that we didn’t really know before,” he said. “We never really spent any time on Long Island either. We knew the East River, which is a very different thing.”

A native of Schenectady, New York, Sayles started out as an author, publishing his first book, “Pride of the Bimbos,” in 1975.

“I was 24 when I wrote it,” he said. “I was 25 when it came out. That preceded film writing work by several years.”

Writing a novel versus a screenplay, Sayles said, are two different working environments.

“Fiction writing you do alone,” he said. “Screenwriting for other people, you’re an employee. Even just the difference between writing a screenplay you hope to write yourself and raising the money to make it independently is a very different thing than somebody giving you a book to adapt, or a movie to make or an idea to develop into a screenplay. You may be the only writer on the thing, but that’s fairly unusual.”

The opportunity for Sayles to write a screenplay came after finishing his second novel, “Union Dues,” in 1977.

While working as an actor in a summer stock theater in New Hampshire, Sayles said, his literary agent informed him that a California film agency was considering a film adaptation of “Union Dues.”

His second book never made it to the big screen, but it opened a line of communication between Sayles and Everett Ziegler, the head of the agency. Sayles would later submit an adaptation of Eliot Asinof’s “Eight Men Out,” a nonfiction book about the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal.

It took 11 years to release “Eight Men Out” – surviving players kept suing people who tried making a movie about the scandal – in 1988.  

During that time, Sayles was invited to California, where he set up in Santa Barbara. A couple of years earlier, Steven Spielberg had made a splash in Hollywood with the success of his blockbuster film “Jaws,” and studios were hunting for the next big killer fish movie. Within two months of moving west, Sayles said he was hired to write a film for Roger Corman called “Piranha,” at the industry minimum of $10,000.

“Roger Corman in those days, if he paid you screenwriters minimum … to write or rewrite a movie, he was going to make it,” Sayles said. It only cost $800,000 and we had Joe Dante who directed it.”

“Roger used to test market titles,” he said, and “Piranha” was one of the highest scoring test marketed titles. “He knew if he could keep the budget down, he wasn’t risking any money making a piranha movie, and it turned out to be his biggest hit up to that time. It’s tacky in a good way and it’s funny when it’s supposed to be funny. And Joe did a good job, especially considering the money and time he had to shoot it.”

Most screenplays never get made, he said, and sometimes screenwriters are hired to fix problems in previous drafts. Sayles said he has written over 100 screenplays in his career, most of which he has never received credit.

“You end up not even asking for credit because you haven’t changed it that much,” he said. “I worked on a movie version of ‘The Mummy.’ There were 13 writers on it, including George Romero twice, eight years apart. The only time I asked for credit where I didn’t get it was ‘Apollo 13,’ where I was the last writer on it. My mandate was to bring the science back into it.”

Even with the many uncredited accomplishments, Sayles said his batting average is better than most.

“I’ve been doing it so long, it’s accrued over 100,” he said. 

Making films has become more difficult, as series and franchises become the focus in Hollywood.

“You may work a month on that pitch, and then they say, ‘What happens in season 3?’” he said. “Even though you’re not showing them anything you’ve written down on paper yet, you really have to do a lot of research in many cases and think through the story. If nobody wants to make it, you don’t get paid.”

The success of streaming services during the COVID-19 pandemic has also put a major dent in studio films. 

“The hardest thing to get made is a standalone feature film, even if it has big actors in it,” he said. “Even Steven Spielberg movies are having a hard time. A few movies still sneak through. There’s no Roger Ebert anymore. There’s not one or two places with make-or-break reviews. It’s really hard to get something off the ground now. COVID got people out of the habit of going to the movies.”

It has been about five years since Sayles was last credited for writing a screenplay and 10 years since he’s directed a film, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been working. 

In 2020, he published his fifth novel, “Yellow Earth,” and in February his sixth book, “Jamie MacGillivray: The Renegade’s Journey,” was released to positive reviews.

The novel follows the titular Jamie, a Scottish lord who, after the Battle of Culloden in 1745, is sent to the American colonies as a slave by the English. Jamie escapes the plantation and befriends the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware tribe.

“Since he’s a linguist, he already speaks Scotch, Gaelic, English, French, a little bit of Latin,” Sayles said. “He learns a bit of Lenni Lenape, and when it comes time for the French and Indian War, and it becomes a choice of the French or the English, he’s their translator and advisor. He becomes a war hero in the clan.”

The inspiration for the story came about 20 years ago, when actor Robert Carlyle suggested the idea of a Highland Scotsman moving to the New World as a possible film project.

“We could never raise the money to make the movie, but I couldn’t just let it sit there,” he said. “I’m fascinated with how we got to where we are as a culture and a nation. Jamie MacGillivray starts in Scotland, goes to London. It ends up in Martinique, and then the American South and what is now Pennsylvania while we were still colonies. Who’s going to be the dominant force in this culture is still up in the air. … I think it’s a great adventure.”

Sayles hasn’t hung up his movie-making hat yet, but having an independent film open in a theater has become much harder.

“I have two or three things I’ve written that I’ve been trying to make,” he said. “We’ve never been able to raise the money. There are 10 times more movies than there used to be and there are only 52 weeks in a year. The chances of you running in any one of those theaters even if they still existed for more than a couple weeks is slim. It’s really hard to make your money back. Getting investors for independent film is very hard.”