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Q&A: John Sayles

SS: You’ve self-financed your films and now you’re self-distributing this one.

JS: You’ve noticed in the last five years that independent movies live or die in their first weekend. They can’t survive that way. Big studio films can because they advertise enough. If they have a great one week, they’ve made their money back. If they have a great second week, then they’re going to have a fortune, because they’re in so many theaters. For independent movies, if you’ve only played two weeks or one week, you can’t build that critical mass, that word of mouth.

We’ve had films that played 30 weeks in one theater. Most of our films, it took them three or four weeks before people started to talk about it. Also, our films played to people who are over 30. Those people don’t go the first weekend; they’re not teenaged kids, who know everything coming out and they see it twice the first weekend. A lot of our friends said, “I wanted to see your movie but it was gone.” It was clear to us that some new way of getting these movies out has to come around and some of it is you have to work harder and do a little more legwork. Some of it is you have to use some of these things that they’re not using well enough. You have to use the Web better.

SS: You made your reputation as a novelist and writer of short fiction. Was there a moment when your influences shifted from literary to the visual and cinematic?

JS: It was actually the other way around. I grew up watching a lot more [television] and seeing a lot more movies than I read books. When it came time to be able to do something out in the world and tell stories, I didn’t know anybody in the movie industry. There wasn’t an independent film movement. The film course I took in high school was a guy who said, “There’s a movie on TV tonight, watch it and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.” There were maybe four film schools. There were maybe four film festivals in the United States. There wasn’t that idea that anybody could make a film. I started as a fiction writer. That is what was available to me. You could do it for no money.

With Secaucus 7, my first film, I wrote the script based on the budget that we had. I had $40,000 in one place at one time, and I thought, “What can I do well with that?” One of my main models there was Nashville. If I have a lot of plots going on, I have a reason to cut. I’m not going to be able to move the camera. The camera won’t move much, but there will be cutting from one place to another, and that will give you the illusion of movement. We did one tracking shot in the whole movie. It was the first shot, and I realized we’ll never get the movie finished with this crew and this equipment. The only other movement is hand-held, during the volleyball and the basketball game. There’s a lot of cutting because there are a lot of subplots. Even the cutaways were written down.

SS: How did Roger Corman find out about your work?

JS: Francis Dole was his assistant and story editor, and she did everything that Roger didn’t do. She’d be reading Amazing Stories and have Atlantic Monthly magazine inside of that when Roger would come by. He was thinking that she was reading something that he could make into a movie and she was really reading literature. She had read some of my short stories in the Atlantic. When I went out to Hollywood and tried to write screenplays, my agent called and said I have this new writer. She said, “Oh, the short story writer.” He later hired Max Apple and Rita Mae Brown. He had nothing against you having some degree of success in another world. In fact he was thrilled to have somebody with experience and pay them scale.

I got my second novel [Union Dues] because I was acting in a summer stock theater, and I got an agent over the phone because he played poker with a friend of mine. He sold the book, and when he sold the novel, he said, “This is automatically being represented as a project in Hollywood because we have a connection with an agency there.”

I contacted the Hollywood agent and he wanted to see some samples of my screenwriting. I sent him something I wrote in about two weeks based on Eight Men Out, by Eliot Asinof. I knew I didn’t own the rights, but I thought this is a story I love and it shows I can adapt something. It turned out the head of the agency was Eliot Asinof’s literary agent 25 years earlier when he wrote that book. He said, “You did a great job, kid, but nobody will ever make this movie. But if you come out here, maybe we could do something for you.” That’s basically how I got out to Hollywood. The first job I got was Piranha.

SS: You are part of a very impressive list of directors that got their start from Corman — Scorsese, Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper.

JS: And Peter Bogdanovich. When we were doing it, they weren’t being reviewed and they were in profit before they started being shot. What people always said was Roger has no problem with you making a good movie. He doesn’t care one way or the other as long as it doesn’t go over budget. There were no committees, just Roger and Francis, and they both had very good story sense. What you got as a writer was very specific. There aren’t that many places where you can write movies and not have pressure on you. Those [genre] movies now cost $100 million to make and there’s so much pressure on them because they’re now A-movies.

Since I’ve been working for the larger studios, it almost seems as if the more I get paid, the less likely the movie will get made, because big studios develop so much compared to how much they actually make. Basically, of the movies I’ve written in the last 12 years I’ve gotten very few credits, either because they haven’t been made or because I’ve said I’m not going to argue for arbitration [screen credit].

SS: I understand you’re writing a new novel.

JS: It covers a period from 1898 to 1903. Originally I wrote it as a screenplay and it became very clear that I was very unlikely to raise the money to make it as a movie. It started as an epic about the [American occupation of the Philippines]. Now that it’s a novel it’s becoming even more of an epic, and I can put in all kinds of things.



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