Beginning with Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980) the films of John Sayles have been integral to the development of independent film in the United States, often depicting aspects of US and world culture years before mainstream cinema catches up with them. A screenwriter-for-hire for Hollywood, Sayles is also a novelist, short story writer and occasional actor. To date he has directed 18 films.
Sayles won an O. Henry Award for his first published story, leading to the publication of his first novel, Pride of the Bimbos (1975) followed by Union Dues (1978) which was nominated for both the National Book Award and National Critics Circle Award. His short story collection At the Anarchists Convention came next and then the Cuban/American saga Los Gusanos (1990) followed by another story collection, Dillinger in Hollywood (2004) and his epic novel of race and imperialism A Moment in the Sun (2011). Yellow Earth (2020), published by Haymarket Books, dealt with the effects of the shale oil boom-and-crash in North Dakota, while Jamie MacGillivray, another historical odyssey, will be published by Melville Books later this year..
Fiction brought Sayles to the attention of legendary Director/Producer Roger Corman, for whom he wrote screenplays for such classics as Piranha, Battle Beyond the Stars and The Lady in Red. Continuing to work with filmmakers who had developed in the Corman school, he penned The Howling and Alligator, two works that helped to establish a new, more self-aware horror film tradition.
Screenwriting is still Sayles' primary profession, and credited or not, he has been able to work in a myriad of genres - Western (The Quick and the Dead ), techno-thriller (Apollo 13 ), Action (Men of War ), Monster Flicks (Mimic ), Romance, Historical Epic, Animated features- crafting over seventy screenplays-for-hire over the years. This has allowed him to work with directors such as John Frankenheimer, Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, Sidney Pollack, Billie August, Ron Howard, Sam Raimi, Joe Dante, Rob Reiner, James Cameron and Doug Trumbull among others, and get a close-up view of their storytelling process.
Secaucus 7 was a surprise success, one of a number of films in the early '80s that began to be described as part of 'the independent film movement'. The Sundance Film Institute and its make-or-break Festival did not yet exist, but with each subsequent indie film Sayles and his collaborators found more company, and competition, at the theatrical box office. Standing out in the crowd is always a challenge for a filmmaker, and Sayles' work was notable not only for its rapid increase in technical mastery (breaking the $100,000 budget barrier didn't hurt) but for the eclectic, ever-changing array of subject matter. Lianna (1983) was a tight family drama about a wife and mother dealing with the realization that she is a lesbian, while Baby It's You (1983) Sayles' first studio backed (and virtually abandoned) film, dealt with the life crisis of a Jewish girl catapulted from working-class Trenton to Sarah Lawrence college in the wild mid '60s. Cult classic The Brother from Another Planet (1985) followed a three-toed alien stranded in Harlem attempting to 'assimilate'.
During a lull in financing, Sayles had the opportunity to direct three early rock videos for Bruce Springsteen; Born in the USA, I'm on Fire, and Glory Days.
Finally able to raise enough money to shoot Matewan (1987) an extremely ambitious low-budget pseudo-Western about the bitter, violent coal miner's strike of 1920, Sayles continued to explore different territory. Eight Men Out (1988), based on Elliot Asinof's classic non-fiction account, explored the Black Sox scandal of the 1919 World Series, while City of Hope (1990) is set in a decaying eastern-urban city and features a complex web of politics and crime that foreshadows the HBO series The Wire. Passion Fish (1992) takes a sad, romantic trip to Cajun country in Louisiana for a story of two women who help each other rebuild their lives, and won Sayles his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Sayles' first feature shot outside the U.S. was The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), based on a children's book about a young girl descended from a selkie (seal-woman). Lone Star (1996) also garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, took place in a town on the Texas-Mexico border and dealt with race, memory and legend. Even further afield was Men with Guns (Hombres Armados 1997), a political parable set in a fictional Latin American country, and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by the Golden Globes. With dialogue principally in Spanish and indigenous languages, it remains one of the few instances where the long tradition of foreign directors coming to Hollywood and working in English has been reversed.
Limbo (1999) another studio-backed film, took Sayles to Alaska, 'where nature is big and people are small' and provoked controversy everywhere it played with its '70s-style open ending. The next picture, Sunshine State (2000) took place at the extreme opposite end of the country in a multi-character tale of roots and real estate on a Florida tourist island. As usual, there were familiar faces from Sayles' films as well as newcomers. Over the years he has been able to work with excellent actors on several different stories. Actors like David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Morton, Angela Bassett, Mary McDonnell, Gordon Clapp, Mary Steenbergen, Vanessa Martinez, Bill Cobbs, Susan Lynch- the list goes on.
One of Sayles' short stories became the micro-budgeted Casa de los Babys (2003) shot in Acapulco with a knockout American/Mexican cast. Silver City, rushed into production for the election year of 2004, was much more specific in its politics than previous outings, and marked Sayles' fourth collaboration with noted cinematographer Haskell Wexler.
Honeydripper (2007), about the origins of rock and roll in the deep South, was shot in Georgiana, Alabama where country legend Hank Williams grew up. Danny Glover, Charles Dutton, Stacey Keach, R&B legend Mabel John, singer-songwriter Keb Mo and Austin guitar sensation Gary Clark Jr. combined their talents for this feel-good movie with a memorable soundtrack, winning an NAACP Image Award for Best Independent Film. Next came Amigo (2011) which deals with a suppressed aspect of our history, the Philippine-American War, and was nominated for the Filipino equivalent of the Oscar in several categories.
Sayles most recent film Go for Sisters (2013) follows a woman who enlists the help of an estranged friend (who is also her parole officer), along with a disgraced cop, to search for her son who goes missing on the Mexican border. Sayles continues to work for hire on features and television series, as well as writing original screenplays and trying to get the funding for their production.. His last screenplay to make it to the big screen, Sonora (2021), directed by Alejandro Springall, won the Ariel, Mexico’s equivalent to the Oscar, for Best Adapted Screenplay.