Interview with John Sayles: The Indie Film Legend Tells Us What it Means to be an Independent Filmmaker

By Valerie Kalfrin · May 24, 2017

Story is a guiding principle for writer-director John Sayles.

For nearly forty years, he’s made films outside the studio system such as Eight Men Out, Honeydripper, and Lone Star, creating emotional pyrotechnics through characters, relationships, and nuance. Yet to him, independent filmmaking is more about a state of mind—and storytelling—than financing.

“My definition has always been that the filmmaker makes the film that they want to make because they think it makes a good story, not because demographics tell us that people in Omaha hate it when the dog dies,” he said in a phone interview this month. “The Coen brothers’ films are mostly independent [to me]. Scorsese is independent of spirit and conception.”

The Mammoth Lakes Film Festival will honor sales this weekend with a Sierra Spirit Award

The Mammoth Lakes Film Festival in California will honor Sayles on Saturday, May 27, with the Sierra Spirit Award, recognizing maverick, visionary filmmakers. The festival is hosting a screening of Sayles’s 1983 coming-of-age film Baby It’s You, along with a Q&A with Sayles. Vincent Spano (Alive, TV’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), who co-starred with Rosanna Arquette, will present the award.

Ironically, Baby It’s You is the only studio film that Sayles has helmed since his directorial debut, 1979’s Return of the Secaucus Seven. Sayles notably clashed with Paramount Pictures to preserve the bittersweet arc of the 1960s romance between ambitious, upper-class Jill (Arquette) and Sheik (Spano), an aspiring crooner. Eventually, Sayles’s cut prevailed.

“It was a tough experience in some ways, but I always felt really good about the film that came out of it,” he said. “It had that kind of spirit of making an independent film.”

Spano and Arquette (Pulp Fiction, TV’s Ray Donovan) were still early in their careers. The film also marked the debuts of Matthew Modine (Full Metal Jacket, TV’s Stranger Things) and Robert Downey Jr. (Marvel’s Iron Man), and was an early American film for German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who later worked with director Martin Scorsese on GoodfellasGangs of New York, and The Departed.  

A native of Schenectady, New York, Sayles got his start in movies working with trailblazing cult filmmaker Roger Corman. Before Baby It’s You, he wrote popcorn horror flicks such as 1978’s Piranha, 1980’s Alligator, and 1981’s The Howling. 

In his own films, he’s liked to focus on clashing classes and values, as well as characters in untenable situations, such as a mute alien who resembles a black man in Harlem (1984’s The Brother from Another Planet), West Virginia coal miners fighting to unionize in the 1920s (1987’s Matewan), urban apartment residents in the way of a commercial development (1991’s City of Hope), or a Filipino leader caught between American troops and local guerillas (2010’s Amigo).

“I’m often interested in stories where there’s not clear good guys and bad guys,” he said. With Amigo, a fictional story set in 1900 during the Philippine-American War, his main character wrestled with “how much can I cooperate without being a collaborator—and how much can I resist without getting the people I love killed?”

Sayles, 66, twice has earned Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay (1992’s Passion Fish and 1996’s Lone Star), and his 1999 dramatic thriller Limbo was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. 

His favorites among his filmography are those where the experiences behind the scenes add to the onscreen story, such as working with local West Virginians for Matewan or basking on the Florida beaches during 2002’s Sunshine State. “It was a great vacation every minute we weren’t on set.”

Sayles, who is also a novelist, has worked as a screenwriter for hire to fund his own projects. He co-wrote La Ruta de los Caídos, a Western drama scheduled for 2018 about varied travelers who are forced to cross the Sonoran Desert together during the racial tensions of the 1930s. 

He’s also written Django Lives!, currently in development. The film places Franco Nero’s soldier-turned-drifter, who had faced down Confederate racists and Mexican revolutionaries in the 1966 classic Western Django, in the filmmaking world of 1915 as a consultant about the Wild West.

“What interested me was that they planned to revive this series with Franco as old as he is now,” Sayles said.

Although streaming services have broadened access to independent film, Sayles has mixed feelings about them. “Very little money” comes back to the filmmakers through those distribution outlets, he said. But “the ability for a movie not to die and disappear forever is great.” 

Overall, Sayles says he doesn’t think about how his stories will hold up over time (“You don’t know if the context is going to change from the time the movie came out”), only how they’ll affect audiences as they watch them.

“I do want people to leave the theater thinking about the people in their lives, and the movies they’ve seen,” he said.