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John Sayles Looks Back: The Indie Film Hero Tells Us Why Making Movies Never Gets Easier

John Sayles Looks Back: The Indie Film Hero Tells Us Why Making Movies Never Gets Easier

John Sayles is one of the film industry’s rarest creatures. For nearly 30 years, he’s built a career as a director of smart, uncompromising, character-driven films that include lesbian drama “Lianna” to the allegorical black sci-fi thriller “Brother From Another Planet.”

And yet, as he’s the first to confess, it never gets any easier.

Those movies, along with “City of Hope” and “Baby It’s You” — which, like most of his work, he produced with longtime companion and collaborator Maggie Renzi — are the subject of a retrospective this weekend at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles, where Sayles delivered a masterclass Saturday. On the eve of the series, Sayles spoke to Indiewire about his current fundraising challenges, how the film industry has changed, and his own experiences working on Hollywood projects, including an unrealized script for a “Jurassic Park” sequel.

The Cinefamily series contains films from the first decade of your career. How do you feel about this period now?

Well, it’s certainly representative of the start of our career. We’ve been doing this for over 30 years now. So it’s kind of interesting, I think, that many of them — “City of Hope” we just saw at Sundance — seem like we could have made them last year. They really haven’t dated very much. “Baby It’s You” was a period movie when it was made, and it still seems fine in that period, and something like “Lianna” could still be made today as well.

How about “Return of the Secaucus 7”?

You know what it is? That movie, you’ll see something like it at Sundance, or submitted to Sundance. It’s made outside of Hollywood. It’s about a bunch of people turning 30. While I think that movie is getting made, I don’t think it’s getting distributed. That weekend reunion genre has been done before. “The Big Chill” was the first one — and there have been summer camp movies, gazillions of them after “Secaucus 7.” But I think now they tend to be independent movies. Since no one gets killed during the weekend [laughs], they’re unlikely to get a distributor.

You never stopped making movies over the past few decades. When did you start to notice the opportunities for distribution changing? 

I think we’ve been lucky in that we’ve continued to be able to make movies, but what has changed the most is the distribution system. Moviemaking has actually gotten a little bit easier. Just the idea that you don’t have to buy film stock and develop it has been a lifesaver for documentaries. And certainly for filmmakers starting out, it’s just made it so much more democratic.

But the business end of it — the distribution end of it — has changed, so it’s very hard for people to get theatrical distribution these days. Even if it’s used as a loss leader, that’s still how you get on the map. All the other things follow, all the DVDs and TV sales and things like that. They’re usually based on some kind of theatrical release. There are people who make movies and give them a theatrical release, knowing that they’re only going to break even and make their real money on those other ancillary rights.

So I think a lot of filmmakers — including people who started out when we did — they make a movie whenever they can, and they just keep their fingers crossed that when it’s done they can find a distributor. And if they’re really lucky, they don’t have to pay that distributor to do it.

You started off working with Roger Corman and wrote the screenplay for “Piranha.” What did you learn from Corman about the economy of independent filmmaking?

One of the things that Roger did that was interesting was he would test market titles. “Piranha” was a title that test marketed very well. And within the genre, he might test market a couple science fiction titles. Another movie I wrote for him, “Battle Beyond the Stars,” marketed very highly. With “Piranha,” it was obviously capitalizing on the success of “Jaws,” and so it rated very high. So he felt that, generically speaking, there’s an audience that wants to see this movie. They don’t even know who’s in it or any of the details about it, but they like the genre. So if we delivered that, there was enough of an audience for us to make the movie.

How did the challenge differ for the movies you directed?

With independent movies that are just straight dramas, you just don’t have that. Occasionally maybe there’s a movie about vampires or something, so you have a little bit of a genre going for you, but usually you’re selling a totally new product. If you were a low-budget production, you used to rely on getting lucky and getting some great reviews.

When we started out, Siskel and Ebert had a TV show and one of the great things for independent filmmakers is they would review those movies. They only reviewed the ones they liked, whereas the Hollywood movies, they always wanted a dog of the week — I think “Piranha” got their first dog of the week, ever. They would unload on those movies, but they weren’t going to bother to say bad things about an independent movie. So you got a national show, and you got free national publicity, and there was just no way you could pay for that.

How do you feel about the rise of television? A lot of filmmakers are turning to that space, but you haven’t exploited it that much.

Back in the early ’90s, there was a television show called “Shannon’s Deal” that I wrote. It started as a two-hour TV movie, and then it went on for 13 episodes over two years and it never really caught on. It was fun to work on, but that was when there were only three networks. So you had to get something like 27 percent of the people watching TV to watch your show to stay on the air. Today, if you got a 27 share, it would be the biggest hit on television. There are people who get 1.5 to 3, and it’s considered a very successful show for a little cable network. That’s one of the reasons that people who want to do things that are quirky or a little more complex tend to go to TV. It’s almost like an independent moviegoer niche. You don’t need that many people for it to fulfill or earn its budget back.

But it’s never appealed to you in quite the same way?

I continue to get called up by producers who say, “Is this an interesting thing? Would you like to pitch it to this TV series?” And I go out and pitch these things. None of them have been picked up yet. I did write the pilot for a series called “Dr. Dell” that Katie Jacobs — who was one of the creators of “House” — produced and directed. It had a great cast and they made it independently, and then it didn’t get picked up. John Hawkes was the lead — he’s great — and there were other good people in it, but it wasn’t noisy enough, which is the big word out there.

So it’s not that I haven’t tried to do that, it’s just that it’s not that easy [laughs]. Everybody in the world is pitching a TV series right now. At the moment, what’s getting made are things that tend to be pretty noisy, meaning there’s a lot of kinky sex or serial killers or whatever.

So what’s your thinking behind writing a new “Django” movie starring the original Django, Franco Nero?

That’s a genre I’ve always liked — the Spaghetti Western — and I remembered seeing that film way back when it came out on a double bill with some other Italian westerns. What really appealed to me about the offer to do a rewrite of the script was that they were thinking of continuing the character and having Franco play the character. It’s really about who this guy has become after all those years. The thing that I liked the best about it is that when we find him, he’s working as a horse handler and extra on the set of “Birth of a Nation.”

You’ve managed to move between genres better than a lot of filmmakers. You’ve written horror and sci-fi movies while directing more straightforward character pieces. You wrote an unproduced “Jurassic Park” sequel years before “Jurassic World.” How do you manage that kind of flexibility?

Genre can be used for all kinds of purposes. Sometimes you can just do straight genre — “let’s just blow up things a lot” — and other times, you can kind of subvert it a little bit. I’m more interested in the ones that are a little more self-conscious. I think you see both in the marketplace. I’ve liked the “Iron Man” movies because they’re very well-written. What was interesting about writing a “Jurassic Park” movie was that there were a couple ideas that I had been handed because I wasn’t the first writer on it. But they could probably shoot the script that I wrote today and it would different enough from what they did make. But I think they had realized because it took years to finally make the movie, by the time they made it, people were ready to go back to the island. The script that I wrote never went to the island.

So I think it was just a matter of time before they realized, “Oh, people aren’t going to feel cheated if we go back to the island.” There’s a whole generation of people who never went to the island with the dinosaurs, so this could be a much more familiar, traditional dinosaur movie. I think it’s safer — especially if you’re going to spend over a hundred million dollars — to make the more conservative choice, which is, “Let’s just startle people.”

For instance, the last Bond movie was well made in its way, but there wasn’t anything that surprised me. There wasn’t anything that I hadn’t seen in another Bond movie or something like it. And that’s not an accident, that’s a decision. The one before had actually gone back into the characters and tried to give them a backstory, so it was a little different. But those are huge corporate decisions that are made, and by the time a writer is brought in, the decision has pretty much been made: “Which kind of movie are we going to make? Are we going to get jiggy with this thing or are we going to just make another one?” I can’t imagine the conversations they’re having about “Fast and Furious”: “What are going to do that’s new with this thing? How do we crank another one of these out and make it surprising?”

Knowing how the studios work, do you get frustrated with what you have to go through working outside the system?

You’re disappointed when you can’t raise money for something, even if it’s not especially expensive. Especially when you feel like, “There really is an audience for this.” Most of the films that we’re talking about that are going to be in this retrospective were released by companies that no longer exist. In fact, most of them were out of business by the mid-’90s, and that’s because it got so competitive. The few movies that they thought would be commercial, released by the Weinsteins and a couple other companies, the big studios have classics divisions competing with them. They said, “We’ve gotta put up money up front and make our own movies,” and boy, if they’re not successful two or three movies later, you’re out of business.

So you must feel like you got away with a lot during those first couple of years.

Yeah, we were allowed the distributor’s money to hire Chris Cooper, who’d never been in a movie, to be the lead of “Matewan.” That’d never happen today. But we got lucky. And the film got lucky.

Right now, we’re trying to raise money to make a movie that I’d written called “To Save the Man” that’s set in 1890 at the Carlyle Indian Industrial School. It’s a story that’s never been told, and it’s a high school movie. Think about how well something like “Dead Poets Society” did. It’s something that might play well in some places as an art movie, but it would certainly play well with kids. But so far it’s been really hard to raise money. If you can’t point to three similar movies that recently came out that made a lot of money, people are really hesitant to invest in it.

What sort of challenges do you see newer generations of filmmakers facing today?

I see people who persevere as filmmakers. Our friend Karyn Kusama, who made “Girlfight,” she made a couple studio films, she didn’t have total control over them, and she wasn’t crazy about how they came out. But she’s married to a screenwriter and they continue to discuss things that they might do together for lower budgets. She’s got a movie that’s going to come out in April called “The Invitation” that’s a psychological horror movie. It played at SXSW as a midnight movie and really knocked people dead. I think it was made for under $2 million. It’s got some actors who eventually will be well known in it. That’s the perseverance I see. Karyn’s certainly got other scripts she’d like to make, some of them need studio financing to make them work. I usually tell people to have more than one project and have some that are low budget. It took 11 years from the time I wrote “Eight Men Out” until we got to make the movie.

Why so long?

It took eight years [to raise money], but 11 years from when I wrote the script. Every couple years — as new heads of studios would be named — we’d make another round in Hollywood and the studio that eventually did it, Orion, had already turned it down twice. So I hate to discourage people by saying it might take 11 years, but if a project is good, sometimes it doesn’t get dated. And maybe you have something that works and all of a sudden people say, “Well, what would you like to do next?” and you go back to something that nobody was interested in five years before.

Since you mention Karyn Kusama, what do you make about conversations surrounding diversity in Hollywood today? We’re hearing a lot about the marginalized role of women directors, and of course there’s the #OscarsSoWhite conversation. You’ve been making movies with diverse characters since the beginning.

I think every five years or so people talk about it, and then they forget about it. There will be one or two movies that have good roles for women or a female director and get some attention. And then they say, “Well, fine, we did that,” and nothing changes [laughs].

It’s not just Hollywood, it’s the country itself. There’s a way of looking at the movies that people go to and saying, “Well, that’s the kind of dream-life of the country,” and I think for a lot of people, the dream life doesn’t include black people or women. The dream-life of the people who finance movies just doesn’t include those people. Certainly there are a lot of women who would go to women movies that were about women or made by women more than the number that are getting made. There are very good filmmakers [like] Randa Haines, people like that, who have had big successes — and then there’s one movie that doesn’t succeed, and they get one more chance, and if it doesn’t go platinum it’s just like, “Forget about it.” That is just not the case with male filmmakers. That’s something that people haven’t really dealt with.

There are plenty of women filmmakers at Sundance… but when you start to look at, well, who gets a studio movie financed, there are probably three big Hollywood agencies that represent 80-90% of those directors. You have to look at the directors they have on their list.

So, it’s not just the studios. It is a pandemic to the system as more money gets involved that people feel safer with thinking, “You know who goes to movies? Guys between 15 and 25. Why don’t we get a guy who only 10 years ago was a guy between 15 and 25 to direct it?” [laughs]

Separately, what do you make of the way VOD has changed the marketplace?

Steven Soderbergh, who was the head of the Director’s Guild for a couple years, had a study done about this. So far, the web has not been monetized for movies. If you look at the percentage of the money that content producers are actually making from things that have gotten on the web, it’s very, very small. I often say to people: “You absolutely can make movies. The idea of having a career in the movie business is a very, very different thing.”

That’s just dollar and cents. A garage band can release their music for free on the web make their money by gigging live. You can’t do that as a moviemaker. People have to pay for the movie, not to see you talk about it. There’s a pretty big generation of people who are just so used to getting things for free. It’s really hard to make money back on a movie now. If you want to work with professionals — that is, guild members — it’s really hard to make a movie under a million dollars. And it’s really hard to make a million dollars back if you don’t get a theatrical distribution and then DVD deal and all that ancillary stuff. Doing it on just an iTunes level is really not going to amount to that much money.

Have you been able to retain most of the rights to your movies?

More recently, yes, because we not only finance them ourselves, we end up distributing them ourselves. [laughs] There’s nobody asking for a piece of the pie and nobody had to get one. But among our early releases, we’re still in legal contention with people who say they own the rights to things and have never paid any of the people they’re supposed to pay from the money that the movie has made over the years. All of those early independent companies that went under, they sold their libraries to somebody and that company may have sold their library to somebody else or broke it up in pieces. So it’s even pretty hard for independent filmmakers from the ’80s and ’90s to find out who should own the rights to the movies, because the companies don’t exist anymore.

Does that include some of the films in the Cinefamily series?

We kind of know who owns “City of Hope,” but they’ve never released it on DVD. We had a kind of celebration for it at Sundance, where it was first presented and sold 25 years ago. We’ve done work with UCLA and Sundance on the print, so it’s a nice new version. We’re hoping that helps to influence the people who own it to actually put it out on DVD.

When you look back at these movies, what makes you proudest?

I would say it’s just the fact that we got them done. They were mostly made outside of any kind of mainstream. They were movies that I hadn’t seen before — except for “Piranha,” which is nothing but a spin-off. But the others are in between genres. They’re characters who you haven’t seen before. I was talking about with somebody yesterday about the time that “Lianna” came out, the only other movie that came out at that time that had anything to do with gay people or gay women was “Personal Best.” I had talked to Scott Glenn in a hotel room in Japan because he was the star of a movie I was writing, and when I asked him what “Personal Best” was about he said “track and field.” As far as he was concerned, that’s what it was about. It was a pretty rare thing for any movie to deal with [gay characters], to the point where it was very hard for us to get somebody to agree to be the lead in it. We had actresses that said yes and then had to say no because their agent said, “No, no, you don’t want to be in a low-budget movie playing a lesbian.” So really the thing that strikes me is, “My god, we got this thing made in the ’80s, and nobody was making that movie then.”

Do you think enough people are trying to make those movies now?

People are trying. I see the attempts and occasionally they get one made. It’s just really hard to get them out. As I said, moviemaking has gotten a lot more democratic. If you’re just starting with a credit card and a bunch of friends, you can make a movie. You don’t have to buy film stock and develop it anymore. But getting it distributed is really tough, and one of the reasons it’s tough is because everybody else can make a movie.

I bet Sundance got over 2,000 feature films submitted this year. Let’s say a hundred of those are pretty good, and let’s say 40 of those get a theatrical distribution. Well, add those to the foreign movies that come in and the studio movies that get made. There are only 365 days in a year, so one of the reasons it’s hard to get a movie distributed is because there’s just too much competition. And there’s good TV on, so why would somebody pay the money and go out to the mall to watch a movie when they’re binge-watching some TV show that they love? It’s an ecosystem, and you have to look for where the opportunities are to tell the stories you want to tell.

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