If there is a guru among modern independent filmmakers, it has to be John Sayles.
A prolific Renaissance man, Sayles writes and directs very personal movies, perhaps the best-known being "Eight Men Out," "Matewan," "Baby, It's You" and "Return of the Secaucus Seven," when he's not writing Hollywood screenplays or churning out novels.Though he has never really had a big hit by Hollywood standards, neither do his movies lose money for their investors. How can you when the budget is kept ridiculously low. Though Sayles is reluctant to discuss his films' budgets, "Secaucus Seven" was reportedly made for $60,000. That's less than Eddie Murphy's "Coming to America" bill at McDonald's.
Even Sayles' forays into popular genres are off-kilter enough to bring praise from critics who normally vilify anything labeled "horror" or "science fiction."
His screenplays for "Alligator" and "The Howling" were filled with weird gags and inside humor for movie buffs, yet remained surprisingly true to the genres they represented. And "The Brother from Another Planet," which he wrote and directed, manages to say something about race relations and poverty in what is essentially a zany comedy.
In addition, Sayles always manages to write himself a solid, often funny supporting role in his own films.
His latest, most ambitious and, by all accounts, darkest endeavor is the ironically titled "City of Hope," screening as a premiere film in the Sundance Film Festival. He also has an acting role in the Okinawan film "Untama Giru," which is playing in the festival's Japanese sidebar program.
Sayles was also on a panel Wednesday with director Robert Altman and cartoonist Garry Trudeau discussing "Art, Politics and the Independent Film" and will act as emcee for Friday's awards banquet.
"I have not been there since the Sundance Institute took over," Sayles said in a telephone interview last week, adding that he is no stranger to the festival. In the past he's had three films screened here, both in and outside of competition - "Return of the Secaucus Seven," "Brother from Another Planet" and `Lianna.' "
"It's a good place to get a buzz going. So we'd take them there, whether they were in the competition or not. It's a place where a lot of people go into various corners and just talk about these new movies."
But Sayles is hesitant to come up with any advice for independent filmmakers at large. "Good luck, that's about all you can say. It's a world where probably seven-eighths of your time is taken up with financing. There are no rules about that, so it's hard to give advice about it."
Sayles' latest, "City of Hope," is a complex ensemble film about graft in urban America and set in modern-day New Jersey - but it was filmed in Cincinnati.
"We decided not to shoot any of it in New Jersey. We have shot in urban New Jersey before, with `Lianna' and parts of `Baby, It's You.' And the one thing you realize is that Eastern cities are just more congested. You really see the difference when you are trying to get from one end to the other with trucks, cars and people. It's six times as difficult as it is in St. Louis or Cincinnati.
"When we were working (in Cincinnati) on `Eight Men Out,' we said, `Now, here's a place that has an urban look with the same brick, in some cases the same architects. It's the kind of city we're talking about - but you can move around in it. If there's a traffic jam, it's a five-minute wait. In Jersey City if there's a traffic jam you can kiss your day goodbye.' "
While he won't say "City of Hope" washis most difficult film, Sayles says it was complicated. "We had a limited budget (he won't say how much) and had to shoot it in five weeks. That's very little time to shoot a complex movie, and we wanted to spend as much time as possible with the actors. We shot for 30 days and had 40 or 42 locations."
The film doesn't have a distributor yet, which is one reason Sayles is here. "The Sundance Film Festival has singled itself out as the meeting place for American independent filmmakers. The most likely distributors are very well-represented, and it's a great opportunity to get everybody under the same roof at the same time. They can see it with an audience, rather than on video or in a screening room. These people are very busy, they're swamped with filmmakers throwing their movies at them."
As for "Untama Giru," Sayles says he did it for the opportunity to go to Okinawa. "I think it came about through a couple of people we had sold our movies to in Japan who recommended me as someone who'd like to come to Okinawa and work for very little money.
"It's always fascinating to see other people working on a low-budget film."
And how did he become emcee for the awards banquet? "I guess they got down to my name."
Egyptian: "Untama Giru," 10 a.m.; "Blood in the Face," 1 p.m.; "Trust," 4 p.m.; "City of Hope," 7 p.m.; "Little Noises," 10 p.m.; "Tetsuo," midnight.
Holiday I: "Legends," 10 a.m.; "Christo in Paris," 1 p.m.; "The Restless Conscience," 4 p.m.; "A Little Stiff," 7 p.m.; "Paris Is Burning," 10 p.m.
Holiday II: "In the Shadow of the Stars," 10:15 a.m.; "Amazonia," 1:15 p.m.; "Slacker," 4:15 p.m.; "Intimacy," 7:15 p.m.; "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," 10:15 p.m.
Holiday III: "Maria's Story," 10:30 a.m.; "Poison," 1:30 p.m.; "Takeover," 4:30 p.m.; "American Dream," 7:30 p.m.; "Straight Out of Brooklyn," 10:30 p.m.
Prospector: "Dr. Petiot," 10 a.m.; "Art, Politics and the Independent Film," 1 p.m.; "Mindwalk," 4 p.m.; "Queen of Diamonds," 7 p.m.; "End of the Night," 10 p.m.
Sundance: "The Trip to Bountiful," 4:30 p.m.; "One Cup of Coffee," 7:30 p.m.
Trolley Corners: "Lola," 6 p.m.; "Twenty-One," 8:30 p.m.
Z Place: "Tanner '88," 1 p.m.
Egyptian: "Trouble Behind," 10 a.m.; "Legends," 1 p.m.; "Poison," 4 p.m.; "Vincent and Theo," 7 p.m.; "Whore," 10 p.m.
Holiday I: "Paradise View," 10 a.m.; "Maria's Story," 1 p.m.; "Takeover," 4 p.m.; "Coney Island," 7 p.m.; "Blood in the Face," 10 p.m.
Holiday II: "Amazonia," 10:15 a.m.; "The Juniper Tree," 1:15 p.m.; "Red Dawn," 4:15 p.m.; "Daughters of the Dust," 7:15 p.m.; "One Cup of Coffee," 10:15 p.m.
Holiday III: "Broken Meat," 10:30 a.m.; "Thank You and Good Night," 1:30 p.m.; "Absolutely Positive," 4:30 p.m.; "Short Wave," 7:30 p.m.; "Sure Fire," 10:30 p.m.
Prospector: "City of Hope," 10 a.m.; "Twenty-One," 1 p.m.; "Hangin' with the Homeboys," 4 p.m.; "Iron Maze," 7 p.m.; "All the Vermeers in New York," 10 p.m.
Sundance: "Waiting for the Moon," 4:30 p.m.; "American Dream," 7:30 p.m.
Trolley Corners: "In the Shadow of the Stars," 6 p.m.; "Enid Is Sleeping," 8:30 p.m.
Z Place: "Tanner '88," 1 p.m.; Seminar: Altman & Trudeau on "Tanner '88," 3:30 p.m.