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The king of American indie filmmaking, John Sayles, says that making his movies is tougher than it was 20 years ago.

Before the Coen Brothers buried alive a vengeful bar owner in Blood Simple, before Steven Soderbergh had James Spader reveal his kinks in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, even before Quentin Tarantino got a job at a video store, there was John Sayles.

The undisputed king of American independent filmmaking, Sayles has made 15 feature films without the Hollywood studios---and only one, Baby It's Youin the early '80s, with studio financing---even though he helps pay for his own work as a writer/director/editor by penning Hollywood genre pictures. Whereas John Sayles' films tend towards socially conscious stories of working-class Americans and their struggles---The Brother From Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out, Casa de los babys, to name a few---his Hollywood scriptwriting is quite different: Piranha, The Howling and The Spiderwick Chronicles are amonghis credits. He was one of 15 writers who took a crack at The Mummy and he wrotethe yet-to-be-made Jurassic Park IV. It definitely won't be Sayles who helms the big dinosaur sequel.

"I've never been offered a directorial job," he says on the phone from his office in Hoboken, New Jersey. "It's kind of a mutual understanding that what we do they're not interested in. And I'm really not interested in working as an employee, a user-friendly director who just casts who they say, cuts it the way they say."

It's an interesting dichotomy: the very humanist stories he directs and spinning up a populist horror movie or family fantasy adventure. His new film, Honeydripper, scheduled to open soon in Halifax, is set in rural Alabama in the year of Sayles' birth, 1950, and is a quiet yarn of racial tension amid a community preparing for a wild Saturday night of music and dancing at the local bar. It stars Danny Glover as a pianist and bar owner. Though the birth of rock 'n' roll is something of a plot point, no one would confuse it with Step Up 2: The Streets.

"Every movie is kind of a world that you enter, that includes a rhythm," he says. "And the rules of a comedy movie might be there's comic violence. If you think of Raiders of the Lost Ark there's comic violence: same director . If you think of Schindler's List, there's no comic violence. Part of those rules is, 'What's the pace of this?' Is it more a 'movie' movie or is it more like people's lives?"

Sayles has a keen ability to capture lives and eras that are not his own. Spending time visiting family in the deep south when he was a child inspired his films set in southern locales, such as earlier films Passion Fishand Lone Star---though he was born in Schenectady, New York.

"I certainly remember the cotton and the coloured drinking fountains, separate entrances," he says. "Coming from the north it struck me because it seemed so strange. What is going on here? Right now I'm working on a novel set in 1898 to 1903 in the south, New York City and the Philippines. Some of that is having an ear and some of it is doing research. What a writer does is imagine himself into other people's heads."

Though he's a legend to indie filmmakers, Sayles doesn't receive any special consideration from financiers to help support his projects. In fact, it's harder to make his movies now than it was 20 years ago.

"What's happened is now there are three tiers," says Sayles. "It's not studio movies and independent movies. Now there are studio movies and what they call 'specialty movies.' And the specialty movies, some are financed from outside the studio system, but generally they're classics divisions of the studios and their average now is $40 million, with $20 to $25 million in advertising."

The budget of Honeydripper was closer to that of a TV movie: $5 million dollars, shot in five weeks, with about $2 million of advertising. "We're really scrounging for money," he says. "I don't know if we're going to be able to continue to make movies in the United States."

When reminded that Canada, particularly Nova Scotia, offers very attractive tax benefits to visiting filmmakers, Sayles says, "You know, if I shoot a movie in Canada, it'll be set in Canada. It just seems like a waste, to go to a place and not make something about the place."

As of press time, Honeydripper's Halifax release is indefinitely delayed. For regular showtimes see Movie Times, page 40.

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Vol 25, No 25
November 16, 2017

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