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Sayles is no sell-out

Independent film director would rather ensure creative freedom than sign with big Hollywood studio.

June 16, 2008 11:13
Sayles is no sell-out

John Sayles 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Unlike other directors who often appear in their own films out of vanity or novelty, like the late Alfred Hitchcock or Martin Scorsese, John Sayles does it to keep his budget down. In his 16 films spanning 29 years, the 58-year-old writer/director has learned to cut many corners without sacrificing quality, a trait that has earned him the title of the definitive American "independent" filmmaker. "If we don't have to fly one more actor on location in first class, it saves us money," Sayles said, while sitting in the lobby of the Mount Zion Hotel earlier this month. He and his wife/producer Maggie Renzi were about to attend the Jerusalem debut of their latest film, Honeydripper - now playing. "I don't necessarily try to create a role for myself. Usually it's this dual thing: if I know how to play this character, and the character doesn't change. The hardest thing for a movie actor is when you don't shoot in sequence. So if your character changes, you need to keep track - 'oh this is scene 27, where am I now in my change?'" "That's why even in the big parts I've played, like Ring Lardner [in 1998's Eight Men Out], he was outside the emotional story, he's an observer, so he's the same guy every time you see him. Or Carl, the nasty kind of guy in City of Hope [1991], he doesn't really change." Another consideration, seemingly banal, is the character's height. The tiny role that the 6'4" Sayles takes in Honeydripper is that of a delivery man playing opposite the film's star, Danny Glover. "Danny is 6'3'', and there's a moment there where we're standing next to each other, and I wanted just that little bit of intimidation - not just because he's black and the other character is white, but because the guy's also bigger than he is," said Sayles. Intimidation plays a big role in Honeydripper, an evocative period piece set in 1950 rural Alabama that fuses moving drama, wry humor and the always socially-conscious sensitivities of Sayles's and Renzi's work with a celebration of the music that came later to be known as rock & roll. A few days before the Jerusalem Cinematheque screening, Sayles and Renzi were guests at the 12th Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival, where Honeydripper received its Israel premier at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque before an enthusiastic, packed house of film students from Tel Aviv University and movie aficionados. Following the well-received screening, Sayles and Renzi explained to the eager crowd why they decided to buck the Hollywood system, in order to make their own movies their own way. "One thing that I think about a lot when writing a movie is where people live - or in the case of Honeydripper - when we live. It's a huge part of who we are, and certainly how we see the world is affected enormously by the culture of where we are. That time and place has such a huge effect on who those people are, what their dreams are, on what their fears are," he said. "So, whenever I make a movie I feel like, since we're not making Hollywood movies, why follow their rules? Why set them in these places that could be anywhere - or could be nowhere - because that would only happen in Hollywood. Why not use something from that real place to characterize the people?" THAT REFRESHINGLY straightforward manner of filmmaking has suited Sayles well ever since he took $40,000 in revenue from a fledgling career as an author in the mid-'70s to finance his first film - 1979's The Return of the Secaucus 7. Since then, he has made his living and partly financed his own productions by working as a screenwriter for hire on commercial projects, ranging from low-budget shockers like Piranha and Alligator to uncredited final draft work on Apollo 13 and cowriter of The Spiderwick Chronicles. That money has helped Sayles and Renzi produce, direct, write and edit such acclaimed films as 1983's Baby It's You, 1984's quirky Brother From Another Planet, 1992's Passion Fish and 1996's Lone Star, the last two which earned him Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay. While the budgets for their films have risen over the decades - to a still-modest-for-Hollywood $5 million for Honeydripper - Sayles and Renzi told The Jerusalem Post they still preferred scrapping to raise the funding for their projects over trading in their artistic freedom for Hollywood's whims. "Sure, I would go work with a major studio tomorrow, if they gave me total freedom. But that kind of scenario doesn't exist," said Sayles. "Once when I was writing a script for them, a head of Warner Brothers said to me,'why don't you direct something for us?' And I said, would you be willing to give me casting control and final cut control? And she said that if they did that for me, then others would start asking for it too. "But I can see their point. After all, I've never made me or anyone else $100 million on a film. If I had done that, then you have more clout to justify your demands." "Hollywood movies are pretty awful," added Renzi, who has also acted in a number of the films she's produced for Sayles. "It's less and less something to aspire to. I used to think, well maybe there'd be some way that we could make this happen, but with the direction Hollywood's going in, we're farther apart than we ever were." THAT SCHISM with the Hollywood star-making machinery was evident from Sayles's first film, Secaucus 7, a charming, shaggy dog story about former college hippie friends getting together for a weekend years later and struggling with the erosion of their once-lofty ideals. It may sound like a strikingly familiar premise to the enormously more successful 1983 Lawrence Kasdan film, The Big Chill, but Sayles isn't holding any grudges. "When I saw The Big Chill, I felt like, 'okay, somebody else jumped on that genre,' a very small genre. And it's called The Big Chill for a reason - the people are kind of parallel to the people in our movie - they're all upwardly mobile, whereas, especially the men in Secaucus 7 are downwardly mobile. And the people in Secaucus 7 are trying to hold on to their ideals, while in The Big Chill there's this realization that they've either lost their ideals, or maybe never had them in the first place. It's really a very different movie in a lot of ways," he said. "Quite honestly, the only effect it's had on us is that in some of the art movie houses, they book the two movies together. I've run into Larry Kasdan three or four times and we've never talked about it." "You never asked him about it? Someone should," interjected Renzi, prompting a shrug from Sayles and one more anecdote. "There's this strange thing - when we released City of Hope [1991], and [Kasdan] put out Grand Canyon in the same year - both about race relations - one paper wrote 'were these people separated at birth?' And we've both been quoted as saying the biggest influence on our film style was the great baseball player Roberto Clemente. Now that's eerie." SAYLES'S CREATIVE and life partner for more than 25 years, Renzi has produced, co-produced, or worked as a unit manager on nearly all of his movies. They were both students at the liberal Williams College in the early 1970s, but they didn't meet until they were introduced by mutual friends in 1973. The couple live in upstate New York, next door to their friend, actor David Staitham, who frequently appears in their films. They've never had children, and both claim their working relationship dovetails seamlessly into their personal life. "Working together is better than being separated," said Renzi. "People who meet on a movie fall in love and get married and they never work on the same movie again. Then the divorce comes through. So the thing that we do, which we love to do, we do together. And the people we meet and the places we go, we get to do together." According to the couple, the traditional adversarial positions of director and producer have been replaced by a sense of teamwork in the Sayles-Renzi model. "Directing and producing are very different and they should be complementary jobs. And I know that Maggie's on my side," said Sayles. "I think I'm an unusual producer, because I know that my job is to help complete John's vision, to try to make that thing happen," said Renzi. "And he's conscious of the needs of production - not just the budget. He cares about the work, the props and wardrobe. Some directors just don't care about them, and that's where the conflict between director and producer crops up." Indeed, Sayles and Renzi sometimes behave like a two-headed benevolent monster - totally in synch and finishing each other's sentences. They expressed puzzlement over the cancellation by French director Jean-Luc Goddard of his appearance at the student film festival at the behest of a Palestinian group asking him to boycott Israel. "He could have come and not done any interviews, just not talked to anybody," said Renzi. "We never shot a movie in South Africa or let our movies be shown in South Africa until apartheid ended. Just don't say you're going to come and then cancel. Just say no at the beginning, and that's the end of it," added Sayles. NEITHER SAYLES nor Renzi was aware of any anti-Israel sentiment in the movie world, and they said that the troubles in our part of the world aren't really on the radar in Hollywood. "There are a lot of Jews in the film business in the US, so there are more people that know about Israel. Whenever people know about something, they're aware that it's more complex than it seems," he said. "I think lots of people don't really spend very much time thinking about Israel," added Renzi. "This might be hard for Israelis to handle. It's kind of like New Yorkers. New Yorkers can't believe that everyone's not dying to go to New York. "I don't think most people wake up in the morning and think, how can I mess with Israel, or how can I go to Israel? On the other hand, any traveler I know knows that it's important to go to Israel. Look what's here," she said, waving her hand over a view of Jerusalem's Old City and Kidron Valley from the Mount Zion's picture window. While their whirlwind weeklong visit to Israel provided them with many highlights of both modern and historical Israel, Sayles laughed off a question about whether a film based in the Holy Land might be on his agenda in the future. "I usually need to immerse myself in a subject or live in a place for five years before I'm able to understand anything about it well enough to make a movie," he said. "Like with Limbo [1999], we went back and forth to Alaska for years before we knew that we would make that film." One thing both Sayles and Renzi do know, however, is that film transcends language and cultural barriers. Going back to the Tel Aviv screening of Honeydripper, Renzi realized that like a thunder bolt. "I was just thinking," she told the audience, "as I was watching the end of film here, with Hebrew subtitles on the bottom of the screen for an audience in Israel, that I'm just amazed that film goes all the way around the world." Of course, when the films are as good as the films of John Sayles and Maggie Renzi, it's not that difficult.

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