Meeting my hero, John Sayles
by Sean McGinly
Towards the end of college I decided I wanted to be a writer. This came out of nowhere. I’d never written anything besides school term papers and if they hadn’t been assigned and required I wouldn’t have written them. I didn’t know where to begin so I decided to fill my electives at school with classes that in any way related to writing.
I took a course called “Theatrical Experience.” It was taught by a theater director and was a very rudimentary introduction into the principles of theater. In one of the first classes the professor showed us a scene from the movie, City of Hope, written and directed by John Sayles. I’d never heard of the movie or of John Sayles. We watched 5 minutes of it and then had some sort of discussion that I can’t remember and that was it.
Around this time, I was also just starting to get interested in cinema. Right across the street from where I lived there was an independently owned video store that grouped films by director. I’d grown up in the suburbs on the East Coast seeing a handful of movies a year at the local mall. It’d never occurred to me before who’d directed or written them. For the first time it hit me that films were like books, there was a person behind them — an author.
All the names you’d expect were there: Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet. And there was also a John Sayles section. There was that name again. I watched City of Hope and then made my way through all of John Sayles’ films. It’s hard to describe exactly what moved me about his work. It just felt more authentic than anything I’d been exposed to up to that point. The stories were simple. The acting was subtle. The writing just felt like how real people talk.
Over the years, the more I learned about Mr. Sayles the more I admired him. I liked that he seemed to make films for himself that told stories no one else could or would tell. Most did well critically. A few did well commercially. Either way, he just kept going. I liked that he worked with a lot of the same actors and occasionally gave great character actors like David Strathairn starring roles. In interviews he came off as very humble, like a regular guy or maybe a college professor. He was just an artist doing his work.
So, John Sayles became and remains a kind of hero to me, an ideal to aspire towards. In the summer of 2012, I got to meet my hero. A friend of mine mentioned that he was producing John Sayles’ new film, Go for Sisters, and invited me to the set.
The scene they were filming that day was set at a recycling center in the Valley. It was extremely hot. I know, of course, that John Sayles is an independent filmmaker who often works with small budgets, but this looked almost like a student film. The entire crew was maybe 20 people. I didn’t meet with John Sayles in his trailer because there were no trailers. My friend walked me to the set and John was just sitting off to the side on an apple box, all by himself, while the next scene was being prepared.
I got the chance to talk to Mr. Sayles for about 15 minutes and was too nervous to tell him what a fan I was. There was nothing extraordinary about our conversation and Mr. Sayles didn’t enlighten me with any particular wisdom. We just chatted casually about his film and about films in general. Before I knew it, they were ready for him and he shook my hand and walked away.
I watched him direct the scene and here too, there wasn’t anything that stood out as monumental or brilliant. It was all very simple in fact. John stood right beside the camera and didn’t use a monitor. After each take he had a quick talk with the actor; what looked like a sentence or two at most. He clearly knew exactly what he wanted and when he got it, after 4 or 5 takes, they were on to the next set up.
After about an hour I left, but what I saw that day had – and continues to have – an impact on me. Filmmaking is a tough business, and probably no part of the business is tougher than making small independent films. They’re hard to get the financing for. They’re hard to get actors and crew attached to.
Once you get the money and actors and crew, the reward is usually a short schedule with long hours and a really crappy craft services table. At the end, it doesn’t get any easier. The vast majority of independent films struggle to find distribution, and most of the ones that do, struggle to find an audience. This is the case even for established filmmakers.
From what I’ve read and been told, John Sayles has made a very good living over the years as a script doctor. A few times he’s even gotten screen credit on films that he was just brought in to write as a hired gun. He’s had indie film successes like Lone Star that were made on decent budgets. And he’s put out a body of work that any filmmaker could be proud of. So if he wanted to, I don’t think anyone would blame him for coasting the rest of the way or only taking on projects with budgets that made it easier or at least comfortable.
Yet here he was, in his early 60’s, sitting on an apple box in the blazing heat making what appeared to be a really, really low budget film with absolutely no comforts. He didn’t need to be there, working so hard but he was, I imagine, because he’s truly committed to his craft and to telling stories, whatever the limitations.
I haven’t seen Go for Sisters yet, but I will. I’m sure I’ll like it. Even my least favorite John Sayles films always seem to have something in them that moves me and makes life feel a little more profound. Mostly though, I’ll always be inspired by just meeting him that day and seeing that he’s still out there, still connected to his work and to trying to make art, however difficult that might be.Tags: City of Hope, David Strathairn, Film lover, Go for Sisters, Hollywood, Independent filmmaking, John Sayles, Sean McGinly, Theatrical experience