John Sayles

Active - 1978 - 2021  |   Born - Sep 28, 1950 in Schenectady, New York, United States  |   Genres - Drama, Comedy Drama

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Biography by Rebecca Flint Marx

One of America's preeminent and best-respected independent filmmakers, John Sayles has established a reputation for refusing to abandon his values in favor of becoming a studio filmmaker. As a result, his films tend to be rich, nuanced explorations of personal and political relationships, a style that reflects Sayles' beginnings as a novelist; he once admitted, "My main interest is making films about people...I'm not interested in cinematic art."

Sayles' interest in storytelling began at an early age: before the age of nine, he was an avid novel reader. A native of Schenectady, NY, where he was born on September 28, 1950, he went on to study at Williams College. In addition to pursuing a degree in psychology, Sayles also appeared in school plays and summer stock. It was through such activities that he met many of the people who would be his future collaborators, including actor David Strathairn and Maggie Renzi, who would serve as his producer and offscreen companion.

Following his graduation from Williams, Sayles decided to embark on a career as a fiction writer. Supporting himself with jobs as an orderly, a day laborer, and a meat packer, he began to write, submitting stories to magazines and eventually publishing two novels. Both Pride of the Bimbos (1975) and Union Dues (1977) met with positive critical notices but little financial success. Sayles' 1979 short story anthology, The Anarchist's Convention, met a similar fate. Meanwhile, Sayles found additional employment, joining Roger Corman's stable of B-movie writers in the mid-'70s. Under Corman's auspices, he wrote Piranha (1978), The Lady in Red (1979), and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). Armed with this rudimentary filmmaking experience, Sayles directed his first film, Return of the Secaucus 7, in four weeks in 1978. Shot for a reported 40,000 dollars, it was a poignant look at a reunion of 1960s activists on the cusp of adulthood. Featuring future Sayles regulars like Strathairn, Renzi, and Gordon Clapp, the film garnered critical praise, winning awards for Best Screenplay from both Los Angeles and New York film critic groups when it was released in 1980, and predating by several years Lawrence Kasdan's similar but more commercially successful The Big Chill.

In 1983, Sayles made Lianna and Baby, It's You. The former was an examination of the changes facing a married woman who realizes that she's a lesbian, while the latter was the first and last film the director made under the control of a studio. Sayles' negative experiences while making the film caused him to vow that he would never again trade the rights to a final cut for funding; fortunately, he didn't have to. The same year that Baby, It's You was released, the director was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, which provided him with at least 32,000 dollars per year, tax-free, for five years. One of the results was The Brother From Another Planet (1984), the story of a mute, black alien (Joe Morton) who wanders the streets of Harlem. A look at a variety of issues, including racial prejudice and drug addiction, the film won further acclaim for its director, who also wrote, edited, scored, and acted in it. Matewan (1987) and Eight Men Out (1988) followed, providing complex studies of union politics in a 1920s West Virginia coal-mining town and the 1919 Black Sox scandal in baseball, respectively. Both films provided unconventional looks at pivotal aspects of American history, further marking Sayles as a director who traveled down his own road.

After beginning the 1990s with a similar exploration of (contemporary) American society in City of Hope (1991), Sayles earned further praise and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for Passion Fish (1992), a film that examined the often-fractious relationship between a paralyzed former soap opera star (Mary McDonnell) and her live-in nurse (Alfre Woodard). Sayles then changed pace with The Secret of Roan Inish in 1994. A mystical story about a small girl living in Ireland, the film was aimed at both children and adults. A return to grittier subjects followed in 1996 with Lone Star, which examined the personal and public politics at work in a small Texas border town through the lens of a murder investigation. The film, which featured superb performances by such actors as Chris Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, and Kris Kristofferson, earned Sayles another Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. It also provided him with one of his biggest (relative) commercial successes, unlike the subsequent Men With Guns (1997), which returned Sayles to arthouse territory. That film's political allegory, taking place in an unnamed Latin American country and spoken entirely in Spanish, delivered a powerful message; unfortunately, that message reached relatively few people. In 1999, Sayles again stepped behind the camera, this time to make Limbo. Starring Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Lone Star's Vanessa Martinez, the film was the unsettling, open-ended story of three people trapped between an unappealing past and a potentially deadly future. A complex character study in the tradition of the director/screenwriter's best films, it premiered that year at the Cannes Festival.

The following years found the critically hailed director busier than ever; if his pace had been lagging in the eyes of some, his output in 2002 and 2003 would find Sayles remaining in top form as both a writer and director. Ever original in his writing and acutely retaining his ability to craft well-defined, three-dimensional characters, Sayles' 2002 drama, Sunshine State, dealt with the effect of real-estate development on a small Florida community in a delicate, humorous, and non-damning manner that earned the effort near-universal acclaim. The performances turned in by stars Angela Bassett and Edie Falco proved both memorable and endearing. It wasn't long before Sayles was back behind the camera, and the result was an equally compelling study of six women who travel to South America in hopes of becoming adoptive mothers. Graced with a talented cast that included Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daryl Hannah, and Marcia Gay Harden, the intimate independent film pleased longtime fans of the director and perhaps even won over a few new converts.

In 2004, Sayles wrote and directed the political satire Silver City, starring Chris Cooper as an aspiring, not-so-bright politician (shades of George W. Bush) and sporting an impressing ensemble cast that included Richard Dreyfuss, Tim Roth, Kris Kristofferson, Thora Birch, and Daryl Hannah, and Maria Bello. Sayles also co-wrote the screenplay for the dinosaur horror sequel Jurassic Park IV (2005).

On top of writing and directing, Sayles has edited most of his films, acted in his own movies and many others, and served as executive producer for Santitos (1999) and Girlfight (2000). In addition to his feature-film work, Sayles has made many contributions to other media. He has done extensive television work, such as creating the 1989 TV series Shannon's Deal, and has helmed several of Bruce Springsteen's best music videos, including "Born in the USA." Sayles has also continued to write, penning the plays New Hope for the Dead and Turnbuckle.

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  • Drafted in 1968, but never served due to missing vertebrae.
  • College classmate of actor David Strathairn.
  • Is the author of three O. Henry Prize Stories, including 1975's "I-80 Nebraska M.490-M.205." The annual collection honors the 20 best short stories published each year in American and Canadian magazines.
  • His novel Union Dues was a finalist for the 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
  • Was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in February 1983. Sayles' areas of focus were photography, filmmaking, and television.
  • Directed a trio of music videos for songs from Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. album.
  • Longtime personal and professional partner of producer Maggie Renzi.