John Sayles isn’t one of those filmmakers you think about a lot. But if you’re a fan of his, as soon as his name gets in your ears, his movies inhabit your mind and you can’t think of anything else.
Sayles’ career started in the incubator of Roger Corman’s production company. Corman, who at the current age of 93, has an astounding 415 credits as a producer - and started the careers of many famous Hollywood names such as Jack Nicholsan, Dennis Hopper, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcesse and James Cameron also counts Sayles as one of his mentees.
Lady In Red and Pirahna (1978 and 1979) were two films Sayles wrote for Corman before he did his own film, Return of the Secaucus 7 about a group of college friends on a reunion at a house in New Hampshire, and the drama that occurs as old wounds are opened and unresolved issues are aired. If that premise sound familiar, you might recognize it from The Big Chill which was made several years later in 1983. Secaucus 7 won several awards including a Writers Guild award for best comedy. It unfortunately was not a commercial success which marked a path that many Sayles films would walk.
Sayles work has always been distinguished by low tickets and high praise. He’s won Edgar Awards, WGA awards, NAACP Image awards, dozens of film festival awards, Spirit and Sundance awards, critics awards, nominations for Academy Awards and on and on even as box office rewards mostly eluded him.
His dramas are marked by intense and painful exchanges. Raw and emotionally bloody, they grab and hold you uncomfortably tight. His comedy is broad and absurd. His genre films, notables like Pirahna, Alligator, and The Howling never failed to scare or thrill.
The exception proving the rule, Sayles was a writer on Battle Beyond the Stars widely named as one of Corman’s worst films. How Battle failed is beyond me. It featured Sayles as writer and James Cameron and James Horner contributing - but that’s the joy of creativity. Even the sure things can sink under the weight of their own expectations.
Sayles has dabbled in television and appeared in many films as an actor.
He’s also worked as an uncredited script doctor on ET, Mimic, and Apollo 13.
My favorite Sayle’s film isn’t Lone Star, Clan of the Cave Bear, The Secret of Roan Inish, City of Hope, Eight Men Out, or even the genre stuff.
Matewan tells a desperate tale of a coal miner’s strike in 1920. The Battle of Matewan, the real event, was between the miner’s union and the mines. The movie was ugly, dirty, death-inducing drama that relented its pain.
It also featured several actors who become stars and who worked with Sayles on other films.
Chris Cooper (in his film debut), James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, Will Oldham, David Strathairn, Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp all had bravura roles in Matewan.
Sayles is a writer’s writer. He never fails you no matter how far he’s trying to reach. He may not achieve the goal but just the attempt leaves you breathless. Few writers can make you feel inadequate quite like Sayles.
Sayles has said he’s done with movies, despairing in today’s world of comic book, super budgeted films, and gross out comedies. Drama, of the type that Sayle’s does best doesn’t find much of an audience these days.
Except in television.
And it’s my firm hope that John Sayles will do something for HBO or Showtime because there he would be appreciated.
At just shy of 70, Sayles hopefully has more to give. More drama, more emotional turmoil, and laser insight into the human condition.
His IMDB page does list several episodes he wrote for the series The Alienist so there’s hope for the writer’s writer to once again dazzle and befuddle us.
Photo: Rodrigo Fernández [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]