Champion of the underdogs
JOHN SAYLES champions the underdog, but there’s a lot more to America’s greatest living independent filmmaker. For a start, he knows far too much about cockroaches. Words: Miles Fielder
14 THE LIST ,.
square tip to .lohn Sayles' sturdy (il't 4in frame and shake his
shovel of a hand and it feels like l’vejust introduced myself
to hall of the whole oi North America. In a way. I have. Sayles. who 25 years down the line remains the henchtnark success against which American independent filmmakers measure themselves. has always championed the underdogs and the disenlranchised. And. boy does America have those in spades: ethnic. sexual. economic and political minorities. Sayles. who rightly refers to them as ‘the majority". has championed them all. again and again in the thirteen hand- crafted lilms he‘s written. directed and edited. starting with I‘)S()‘s Return oft/1e .S't't'ata'as 7.
Sayles' second film. Liana. is a leshian romance. The Ifi'oI/u'ij/i'oni Another Planet might have heen extra-terrestrial. htit he was treated like a black man by the racist white men he
encountered on liartli. .llatmran dealt with the railroading of
miners during a strike in a hackwater white trash community in the 1920s. Sayles‘ opus. ('itv (if/lope. set the lives of building lahourers against corrupt contractors and politicians. His ()scar—nominated Tex-Mex murder mystery. Lone Star. involved illegal immigrants. l‘or Men with Guns Sayles crossed the border. hoth geographical and linguistic. to make a Spanish language drama ahottt the victims ol~ a corrupt Latin American regime. And in his new lilm. .S'ans/itne State. Sayles constructs a Florida community undergoing unwanted redevelopment by corporate mtiney-grahhers.
ll‘ John Steinbeck had made movies. his name would he .lolm Sayles.
‘l'm interested in how people have more or less control over their lives.‘ says Sayles. shitting his lrame. ‘And generally people have less control. Sans/tine State asks what happens when you‘re selling your land. your culture. eventually your history."
Saylcs might he calm. httt he‘s a passionate lilmmaker and
committed to causes. And. as a socially aware artist. he sees the big picture. ‘Most people are not conscious ol’ what's happening in a big social way to them.‘ he says. ‘lt‘s very hard to understand. unless you do a lot of homework. what developers’ plans are. These people are on Mount Olympus. What is depressing is even in a democracy people. in their vote. have less and less power. less and less sayf
Just as control and autonomy are key themes in Sayles‘ ﬁlms. so they are to his method of making tnovies. His third ﬁlm. the 1983 ol'lheat romance Baby. It 's lint. was the lirst and last lilm he made for a Hollywood studio. Since then. he and his partner and producer Maggie Ren/i have l'ound linancing elsewhere (ol‘ten liurope). in order to guarantee the ﬁnal cut of his ﬁlms. And with his lilms. linal cttt is very important. "l'he thing that sets our movies apart from Hollywood is that they‘re complex.’ he says. ‘Hollywood movies simplify things. Ahsolute evil and absolute good. And then they hattle. With our movies. it‘s not always clear who the hero is.’
There are examples of this everywhere in Sims/zine State. The property developers are portrayed as regular guys just doing their job. guys who know il‘ they weren’t hulldo/ing heach li'onts somehody else would he. ()ne ol‘ them (played by Timothy Hutton) even gets a little romantic with a local small business owner (lidie lialco). And. without giving away the ending of the lilm. there’s no dramatic iinal showdown. ll’ Hollywood got its mitts on .S'ansln'ne State you can he sure Bruce Willis would he taking the hulldo/ers on hare-handed.
And so. even 25 years down the line. and with all the attending respect his career has garnered. Sayles still has a tough time raising cash for his lilms. ‘lt happens movie by movie.’ he says. scratching a muscular upper arm. ‘Still. sometimes we just can't raise the money.‘
Sayles doesn‘t make it easy on himself. His next lilm. (‘asa