Director John Sayles: Harder now to make a living off indies

Filmmaker and novelist John Sayles in New York Filmmaker and novelist John Sayles in New York City. (April 13, 2009) Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times

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Ever since his directorial debut with 1979's "The Return of the Secaucus Seven," John Sayles has been regarded as the quintessential indie director. He's made 17 films since "Return," only one of which, 1983's "Baby It's You," was made under studio control (Sayles finances his films with money he makes writing mainstream screenplays). Along the way, the 62-year-old auteur has been awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant and been Oscar-nominated for his screenplays for "Passion Fish" (1993) and "Lone Star" (1997). Sayles' latest, "Go for Sisters," stars LisaGay Hamilton as a mother who travels to Mexico with a friend (Yolonda Ross) and ex-cop (Edward James Olmos) to find her son, who has become involved with criminals smuggling undocumented Chinese immigrants into the United States.

Newsday contributor Lewis Beale spoke by phone to the director, who was at his upstate home.

You've made several films set in Mexico or along the border. What's your interest there?

That's kind of where people define themselves. You say this is what happens here, and you walk 25 feet on the other side of the line and there are different rules. And there's a secret history. In "Go For Sisters," there is this persistent smuggling that has gone on for years. Smuggling liquor, drugs, people. And the real money now is in smuggling Chinese in.

Where did the idea for the film come from?

Mexican people are going back [because of]the economic downturn. The smuggling thing is still happening, but not at the volume it once was. I read about a couple of these rings that bring Chinese people in and charge a lot of money. They guarantee that you get where you're going with good papers or they refund your money. That's been going on for quite a long time. Historically, Chinese have been able to be here without assimilating. In plot function, what I wanted was a kind of detective problem that's not easy to solve and retained some mystery, and Chinese gangsters retain some mystery to those who aren't in their circle.

What's it like raising money for your films these days?

Pretty much impossible. This is another film I self- financed. Right now, the budgets are lower and lower. I write a lot of screenplays for other people, and build up a war chest. I don't think there's an independent movie business anymore, there are only a few distributors, and they are not financing the films; they only agree to distribute them. The business part is kind of mythical. But you really can't complain if you're lucky enough to make any movies at all. I actually feel we had a good, lucky run with our timing, I started making movies when there was an indie business, and the timing was good. It's a volatile thing even in the mainstream business.

Tell me about the work you do for the Hollywood mainstream.

I don't write spec scripts for Hollywood. Pretty much the way it works now is an intermediate producer will have an idea, they contact agents for two or three writers, then you talk to that producer, make a small pitch to them, then they say "you go in and sell it." Then, you go into the studio or cable network, and tell them the story. And then, you may never hear from them again. I do an awful lot of meetings where I verbally tell them how I would handle the story.

You've made a fair number of films with political messages. Anything political today you'd like to make a film about?

I think our political life has fragmented; there are no longer red states and blue states, there are red neighborhoods and blue neighborhoods. It's hard to make something about fragmentation. People grab onto whatever they can to believe in; it's usually not a political party, it's like "I'm a fan of Alabama football," that's a guiding principal. What do people hold onto as their identity?

You started out by writing screenplays for the legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman. How did that influence your work?

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His main influence on all of us was we got to make movies. I wrote three movies for Roger, and they all got made. It was amazing to get to play with the equipment, and in six months see it on the screen. It was certainly a hands-on film school. It was rare that anybody would say this person seems to have talent, let's try him out.

Any advice for young filmmakers?

I can't give them ideas on how to make a living at it. Unless you get discovered by the mainstream, I'm not sure there's a living to be made by making indie films anymore.

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