Authors: John Sayles

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American screenwriter, director, and short-story writer

Author Works

Screenplays:

Piranha, 1978

The Lady in Red, 1979

Battle Beyond the Stars, 1980

Alligator, 1980 (adaptation of a short story by Sayles and Frank Ray Perilli)

Return of the Secaucus Seven, 1980

The Howling, 1981 (with Terence H. Winkless; adaptation of Gary Brandner’s novel)

The Challenge, 1982 (with Richard Maxwell)

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, 1983 (with Susan Rice; adaptation of Grace Paley’s short stories)

Lianna, 1983

Baby, It’s You, 1983 (adaptation of Amy Robinson’s short story)

The Brother from Another Planet, 1984

The Clan of the Cave Bear, 1986 (adaptation of Jean Auel’s novel)

Wild Thing, 1987 (adaptation of a short story by Sayles and Larry Stamper)

Matewan, 1987

Eight Men Out, 1988 (adaptation of Eliot Asinof’s book)

Breaking In, 1989

City of Hope, 1991

Passion Fish, 1992

Men of War, 1994 (with Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris)

The Secret of Roan Inish, 1994

Lone Star, 1996

Men with Guns, 1997

Limbo, 1999

Sunshine State, 2002

Long Fiction:

Pride of the Bimbos, 1975

Union Dues, 1977

Los Gusanos, 1991

Short Fiction:

The Anarchists’ Convention, 1979

“Dillinger in Hollywood,” 1980

“The Halfway Diner,” 1987

“Treasure,” 1988

“Peeling,” 1993

“Keeping Time,” 1993

“Above the Line,” 1994

Drama:

New Hope for the Dead, pr. 1981

Turnbuckle, pr. 1981

Teleplays:

A Perfect Match, 1980

Unnatural Causes, 1986

Shannon’s Deal, 1989 (pilot and two episodes)

Nonfiction:

Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie “Matewan,” 1987

Sayles on Sayles, 1998 (with Gavin Smith)

Biography

John Thomas Sayles is one of the United States’ best-known independent filmmakers as well as a prolific screenwriter. He also writes novels, plays, teleplays, and short stories. He likes to describe himself as a storyteller. Sayles is the son of Donald John Sayles, a teacher and school administrator, and Mary Rausch Sayles, a schoolteacher. Both of his grandfathers were policemen. Sayles attended Mount Pleasant High School in Schenectady, New York, earning letters in basketball, baseball, track, and football.{$I[A]Sayles, John}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Sayles, John}{$I[tim]1950;Sayles, John}

In 1968 he was rejected by the U.S. Army because of a missing vertebra and entered Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He graduated in 1972 with a bachelor of science degree in psychology. While in college he did some acting, both at school and in summer stock. In the several years following his graduation, Sayles worked as an orderly in a nursing home, as a day laborer, and as a meat packer. In addition, he hitchhiked hundreds of miles around the United States, talking to people as he went.

His writing career began in earnest in 1975 with the publication of his first novel, Pride of the Bimbos, and a short story titled “I-80 Nebraska, M.490-M.205,” which won Sayles an O. Henry short-story award. Sayles began writing for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, a factory-like production house known for its horror and exploitation films. There he learned to pace stories for the screen. The film Piranha, for which he wrote the screenplay, was released in 1978. While working in the Hollywood film industry, he continued to write fiction successfully. Union Dues, his second novel, was published in 1977 and nominated for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award, the only novel that year to be so honored. Additionally, he won a second O. Henry Award for the short story “Breed.”

The year 1979 was a breakthrough in Sayles’s career. He wrote, directed, and edited his own first feature film, Return of the Secaucus Seven, a story about a reunion of college friends from the 1960’s. Shot in twenty-two days for sixty thousand dollars, the film earned two million dollars and a Los Angeles Film Critics Award for best screenplay for Sayles. Shot in a realistic style with little camera movement (for economy’s sake), the film struck a chord with young people because of its intelligent dialogue. Sayles’s collection of fifteen short stories, The Anarchists’ Convention, was published that same year.

Throughout the 1980’s Sayles continued to be productive as a writer, director, and actor. Even though his films continued to be guided by his vision for telling a story, his budgets increased over the years, as did the list of actors willing to work for relatively lower pay when it was tied to a significant and challenging role. Sayles’s films often reveal a social conscience and political awareness; however, he has said that he is most interested in developing rich characters and telling stories:

I think some of the depth in my writing comes from having been an actor. When I finish a screenplay, I look at every part as if I had to act it and ask, is there enough here to be a three-dimensional character? Or could it use maybe one more line or one more relationship or one more indication? No matter what your part is, you have to believe that you have a life outside of the movie. When a supporting character walks off screen, we should feel like it would be neat if the camera could follow him, and see what he’s up to next.

Sayles’s films from the 1980’s show a growing sophistication with the same kind of complex story that always attracted him. In 1983 he directed the films Lianna and Baby, It’s You in addition to receiving a MacArthur Foundation award.

In 1987 Sayles wrote and directed a film he had been planning for some time. Matewan was based on the brutal suppression of union organizing in a West Virginia coal town in the 1920’s and the massacre of miners by hired security. The book Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie “Matewan” explains how the film was conceived and created. Another socially controversial film followed in Eight Men Out; it concerned the bribery scandal behind the 1919 World Series.

Of his many films, the ones receiving the best critical acclaim have been Lone Star, Passion Fish (Sayles’s screenplay received an Academy Award nomination), and The Secret of Roan Inish. The Secret of Roan Inish, set in Ireland in 1949, was filmed on the west coast of Ireland. It revolves around a young girl’s encounter with “selkies” (seal people). The most successful commercially was Lone Star, with total gross box office sales of almost twelve million dollars. Sayles’s screenplay for Lone Star was nominated for an Academy Award. Sunshine State, about development in a small Florida coastal town, was released in June of 2002.

Some have criticized Sayles for verging on sentimentality at times or for pushing an agenda too forcefully. His early work was devalued by critics because of what they saw as a lack of visual style and sophistication. Low budgets sometimes affected visual style. Because he often does not have studio backing for his films, he must constantly be concerned with fund-raising for his projects. He has been assisted in financing by his partner of twenty years, Maggie Renzi, producer and actress.

Sometimes Sayles works with Hollywood studios but only on his own terms, crafting relatively low-budget films with a personal vision. His films are known for crisp dialogue, passion, and realistic characters. He supports his independent filmmaking with his work as a sceenwriter on big-budget Hollywood projects. He is also in demand as a “script doctor” and has been called in to refine such films as Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995).

Even in films in which major studios are involved, Sayles insists on control of casting and of the final editing of the film. Of his work he has said, “I don’t regard anything I do as art. That’s a foreign world to me. I regard it as a conversation. Very often in a conversation, you tell a story to illustrate something you think or feel.” The importance of character and the themes of community and identity resonate throughout the work of this writer and independent filmmaker. Many of Sayles’s notes and manuscripts are in the Williams College Library collection.

BibliographyBourjaily, Vance. “A Revivalism of Realism.” The New York Times Book Review (April 1, 1979): 15, 33. Lengthy review of The Anarchists’ Convention, stressing Sayles’s links to the realism of Theodore Dreiser and James Farrell, tempered by a limited amount of optimism. He also points out Sayles’s fascination with the technical details of particular kinds of work, usually jobs Sayles has had at one point in his life.Butscher, Edward. “Books in Brief: The Anarchists’ Convention.” Saturday Review 6 (April 28, 1979): 46. Butscher suggests that Sayles’s tendency toward sentimentality, caused by his sympathy for his lower-class characters, occasionally interferes with his ability to translate “acute psychological insights into viable fiction.”Epps, Garrett. “Tales of the Working Class.” Book World–The Washington Post, April 29, 1979, p. M5. Epps focuses on the blue-collar workers in Sayles’s fiction and praises his “unerring ear for American speech.” According to Epps, Sayles presents keen observations about America in the 1970’s and succeeds in depicting characters without caricature or sentiment.Carson, Diane, ed. John Sayles: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. Carson’s questions are primarily about Sayles’s films, but there are scattered references to the stories through the book. The book contains an invaluable four-page chronology of Sayles’s life and career.Romney, Jonathan. “Out on a Limbo.” The Guardian, January 14, 2000. An overview of the director’s career, with special attention to the 1998 film Limbo. The article stresses Sayles’s research for his films and their extraordinary sense of place and community.Ryan, Jack. John Sayles, Filmmaker: A Critical Study of the Independent Writer-Director. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, 1998. A thorough, objective analysis covering Sayles’s films in chronological order. Includes filmography, extensive bibliography, and an index.Sayles, John. John Sayles: Interviews. Edited by Diane Carson. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1999. A comprehensive collection of interviews with the filmmaker, selected to demonstrate the scope of his career. Readable articles from respected publications. Includes a filmography and a chronology of Sayles’s life.Smith, Gavin, ed. Sayles on Sayles. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. An extended interview by Smith, who tends to focus on Sayles’s films, but who also elicits some comments by Sayles about The Anarchists’ Convention and the two stories (“Breed” and “Hoop,” in which he compares basketball to jazz) that were adapted to film. Sayles compares the stories in The Anarchists’ Convention to an album, with each picture or story having its own “emotion and rhythm.”Smith, Gavin. “John Sayles: ‘I Don’t Want to Blow Anything by People.’” Film Comment, May/June, 1996, 57-68. Places the writer and director in context with other independent filmmakers. Also discusses his realism, integrity, and style.
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