One of America's preeminent and best-respected independent filmmakers, John Sayles has established a reputation for refusing to abandon his values in favor of becoming a studio filmmaker. As a result, his films tend to be rich, nuanced explorations of personal and political relationships, a style that reflects Sayles' beginnings as a novelist; he once admitted, "My main interest is making films about people...I'm not interested in cinematic art."
Sayles' interest in storytelling began at an early age: before the age of nine, he was an avid novel reader. A native of Schenectady, NY, where he was born on September 28, 1950, he went on to study at Williams College. In addition to pursuing a degree in psychology, Sayles also appeared in school plays and summer stock. It was through such activities that he met many of the people who would be his future collaborators, including actor David Strathairn and Maggie Renzi, who would serve as his producer and offscreen companion.
Following his graduation from Williams, Sayles decided to embark on a career as a fiction writer. Supporting himself with jobs as an orderly, a day laborer, and a meat packer, he began to write, submitting stories to magazines and eventually publishing two novels. Both Pride of the Bimbos (1975) and Union Dues (1977) met with positive critical notices but little financial success. Sayles' 1979 short story anthology, The Anarchist's Convention, met a similar fate. Meanwhile, Sayles found additional employment, joining Roger Corman's stable of B-movie writers in the mid-'70s. Under Corman's auspices, he wrote Piranha (1978), The Lady in Red (1979), and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). Armed with this rudimentary filmmaking experience, Sayles directed his first film, Return of the Secaucus 7, in four weeks in 1978. Shot for a reported 40,000 dollars, it was a poignant look at a reunion of 1960s activists on the cusp of adulthood. Featuring future Sayles regulars like Strathairn, Renzi, and Gordon Clapp, the film garnered critical praise, winning awards for Best Screenplay from both Los Angeles and New York film critic groups when it was released in 1980, and predating by several years Lawrence Kasdan's similar but more commercially successful The Big Chill.
In 1983, Sayles made Lianna and Baby, It's You. The former was an examination of the changes facing a married woman who realizes that she's a lesbian, while the latter was the first and last film the director made under the control of a studio. Sayles' negative experiences while making the film caused him to vow that he would never again trade the rights to a final cut for funding; fortunately, he didn't have to. The same year that Baby, It's You was released, the director was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, which provided him with at least 32,000 dollars per year, tax-free, for five years. One of the results was The Brother From Another Planet (1984), the story of a mute, black alien (Joe Morton) who wanders the streets of Harlem. A look at a variety of issues, including racial prejudice and drug addiction, the film won further acclaim for its director, who also wrote, edited, scored, and acted in it. Matewan (1987) and Eight Men Out (1988) followed, providing complex studies of union politics in a 1920s West Virginia coal-mining town and the 1919 Black Sox scandal in baseball, respectively. Both films provided unconventional looks at pivotal aspects of American history, further marking Sayles as a director who traveled down his own road.
After beginning the 1990s with a similar exploration of (contemporary) American society in City of Hope (1991), Sayles earned further praise and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for Passion Fish (1992), a film that examined the often-fractious relationship between a paralyzed former soap opera star (Mary McDonnell) and her live-in nurse (Alfre Woodard). Sayles then changed pace with The Secret of Ro