Filmmaker John Sayles began his career as a novelist and short story writer with the publication in 1975 of PRIME OF THE BIMBOS, followed in 1977 by UNION DUES, a National Critics' Circle and National Book Award nominee. A short story collection, THE ANARCHISTS' CONVENTION appeared in 1979, when he began working as a screenwriter for Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Early screenwriting credits include PIRANHA, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, THE HOWLING, and ALLIGATOR.
Using the money he earned writing "creature features," he financed his first film in the roles of writer, director, and editor, RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN, a bittersweet look at a reunion of 60's political activists. The film, with a production budget of only $40,000, gained a national theatrical release, won the LA Film Critics Award for Best Screenplay and helped launch the "American Independent" film movement. His second film, LIANNA, was one of the first American movies to deal with a lesbian relationship in a non-exploitive manner, and set several house records in theatres around the United States.
His first studio movie, BABY IT'S YOU, was released by Paramount in 1983, and featured newcomers such as Rosanna Arquette, Vincent Spano, Matthew Modine and Robert Downey, Jr. in a mid-60's coming-of-age drama. Next was the very low budget THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, an African American sci-fi allegory starring Joe Morton as a black extra-terrestrial who crashes to earth in Harlem.
Sayles filled a three-year filmmaking hiatus by acting in a critically acclaimed theater production of The Glass Menagerie with Joanne Woodward and Karen Allen and directing three rock videos for Bruce Springsteen: "Born in the USA," "I'm On Fire" and "Glory Days." He also won a Writers Guild Award for best TV movie screenplay for UNNATURAL CAUSES, which dealt with the legacy of exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war and starred Alfre Woodard.
He was then able to film MATEWAN and EIGHT MEN OUT, projects he had written several years earlier. MATEWAN is the story of a bloody 1920 West Virginia coalminers' strike, and marked his first collaboration with Chris Cooper and Mary McDonnell, as well as with cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who received an Academy Award nomination for his photography. Sayles wrote a textbook about the screenplay and the experience of the production entitled THINKING IN PICTURES that is used in film courses to this day. EIGHT MEN OUT, the story of the 1919 Black Sox baseball scandal, was based on the book by Eliot Asinof and was one of the last movies released by Orion Pictures. It has become a perennial on television during playoff and World Series time.
The television movie SHANNON'S DEAL, written by Sayles, led to a highly-acclaimed but short-lived TV series of the same name in 1989-90 and starred actors Elizabeth Pena, Richard Edson, and Migue Ferrer who would later appear in his films. The teleplay won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers Association.
CITY OF HOPE, appearing in 1990, was an urban epic filmed in a mere five weeks, one of the lowest-budget Cinemascope movies ever made. It featured appearances by actors he would work with again and again: Cooper, Morton, David Strathairn, Angela Bassett, Miriam Colon, and Tom Wright among others. His third novel, LOS GUSANOS, a multi-generational tale set in Cuba and Miami's Little Havana, was published in 1991, and since has been translated into several languages. Next came PASSION FISH, a film about the healing relationship between a home-care nurse coming out of rehab and a paraplegic former soap opera star. Alfre Woodard was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, Mary McDonnell for an Academy Award for Best Actress and Sayles received his first Academy nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH was based on the children's book THE SECRET OF THE RON MOR SKERRY by Rosalie K. Fry and was the first of his movies filmed outside the United States, on the Northwest coast of Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. The story deals with the legend of a half-human, half-seal selkie and the fate of her descendants. Moving to the Mexico-Texas border, Sayles next directed LONE STAR, a tale of race and history that proved to be his most commercially successful picture and garnered a second Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
MEN WITH GUNS, a road movie set in a strife-torn Latin American country, was shot on a very low budget in three different states in Mexico, with dialogue principally in Spanish and several indigenous languages. The film starred the eminent, award-winning Latin American actor Federico Luppi. It was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for best foreign-language film. LIMBO, released in 1999, was a story of three damaged people (played by David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Vanessa Martinez) who find each other in the extremes of the Alaskan wilderness. It was invited to the Official Competition of the Cannes Film Festival and remains Sayles' most controversial movie.
SUNSHINE STATE, boasting a stellar cast led by Edie Falco and Angela Bassett, was released in 2002. The film takes place during a festival week in a Florida coastal town about to be inundated by corporate tourism. The film received a National Board of Review Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking. The film also appeared on over 25 Top Ten Lists, including The New York Times, Premiere Magazine, Film Comment, The Associated Press, L.A. Weekly and The San Francisco Examiner. Additionally, Angela Bassett received the NAACP Image Award for Best Actress for her performance.
Sayles' fourteenth film, CASA DE LOS BABYS starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden, Daryl Hannah, Mary Steenburgen, Lili Taylor, Susan Lynch, and Rita Moreno is the story of six American women waiting to adopt babies in an unnamed Latin American country. Moreno plays the head of the hotel where they are staying.
Throughout his career, Sayles has continued to function as a screenwriter for hire, working with a "Who's Who" of American and international directors and writing over 50 scripts. He received the John D. MacArthur Award, given to 20 Americans each year for their innovative work in diverse fields. He is also a recipient of the Eugene V. Debs Award, the John Steinbeck Award and the John Cassavettes Award. In 1998, he was honored with the WGA Lifetime Achievement Award.
As an actor he has appeared in dozens of films, written songs for his own features, and served as executive producer on Alejandro Springall's SANTITOS and the Sundance Picture Winner GIRLFIGHT, written and directed by Karyn Kusama.
- Dickie Pilager, one of the main characters in SILVER CITY, is running for Governor of Colorado.
- John Sayles Retro, IFC Films' retrospective of the filmmaker's work