Watching a John Sayles movie or reading one of his novels feels like finding a hidden door into a closely-guarded world: rural Louisiana in “Passion Fish,” villages without names in “Men With Guns,” Harlem viewed through an alien’s eyes in “The Brother from Another Planet,” the wild world of traveling baseball in “Pride of the Bimbos.” Now, UM’s Department of Screen Arts and Cultures provides a backstage pass to the writer and director’s creative process as part of the John Sayles Symposium at Cinetopia 2014, June 4-8. Sayles took time to answer some questions from Current.
Current: One of the most amazing things about the archive is its breadth; it's a rare chance to see an artist from childhood onward. Who saved all the material over the years?
John Sayles: Most of the stuff just accumulated in boxes in various basements. Lots of projects go dormant, then reactivate (“Eight Men Out” was made eleven years after I wrote the script) so you try not to throw things out. We basically evicted the mice from the boxes and sent them to Michigan.
There’s a story about an egg carton in the collection which is actually about integration that you wrote when you were 13. Where did your social consciousness come from?
I was 13 in 1963, a very contentious year for the Civil Right Movement- social issues were all around me. I also responded strongly to the difference between the racial myths of the day and what I saw in people’s lives all around me.
Can you discuss the difference between creating a movie and writing a novel?
You write a novel alone, but have God-like powers (the sun, for instance, shines whenever you say it does). You make a movie with all kinds of time and budget and weather constrictions, but you get to do it with dozens of people who have skills that you don’t possess.
Who are your favorite novelists?
Nelson Algren, Louise Erdrich, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Chandler, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Elmore Leonard (westerns), Zadie Smith, Joseph Conrad- it’s a very long list.
You were making indies before they were a category. Who or what inspired you to make movies?
I grew up seeing much more TV and movies than I read books- movies were the principal story-telling medium I was exposed to. They combine theatrical, visual, intellectual and visceral elements.
How do you feel about the state of cinema today, given the fierce competition and a climate of panic over financing that ranges from mild to intense?
It’s never been easy to get something interesting made, but now movies have lots more competition for people’s time and attention. it’s no surprise that the corporate film bodies have circled the wagons and decided to make a fairly narrow range of stories.
How do you switch gears between the movies you direct and writing something like “Piranha”?
Stories have a tone- lunch at a diner is different from lunch at a four-star restaurant, but it’s still lunch. Plot, rhythm, character—you use all the same muscles when writing in generic or non-generic stories.
There's increasing pressure in the world to develop one's niche. You're about as non-niche as it gets. Any advice for filmmakers who just want to create and not get pigeonholed?
You just have to have the nerve to follow your interest. Sometimes it works commercially and sometimes it doesn’t.
Cinetopia International Film Festival, Michigan Theater, 603 E Liberty St, Ann Arbor, MI 48104,
(734) 668-8463 July 4-8. cinetopiafestival.org