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John Sayles

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John Sayles

John Sayles
John Sayles, March 2008
Born John Thomas Sayles
(1950-09-28) September 28, 1950
Schenectady, New York, U.S.
Occupation Director, screenwriter
Years active 1978–present

John Thomas Sayles (born September 28, 1950) is an American independent film director, screenwriter, editor, actor and author. He has twice been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Passion Fish (1992) and Lone Star (1996).

Early life

Sayles was born in Schenectady, New York, the son of Mary (née Rausch), a teacher, and Donald John Sayles, a school administrator.[1] Both of Sayles's parents were of half-Irish descent and were Catholic.[2] He attended Williams College.


Like Martin Scorsese and James Cameron, among others, Sayles began his film career working with Roger Corman. In 1979, Sayles funded his first film, Return of the Secaucus 7, with $30,000 he had in the bank from writing scripts for Corman. He set the film in a large house so that he did not have to travel to or get permits for different locations, set it over a three-day weekend to limit costume changes, and wrote about people his age so that he could have his friends act in it. The film received near-unanimous critical acclaim at the time and has held its reputation. In November 1997, the National Film Preservation Board announced that Return of the Secaucus 7 would be one of the 25 films selected that year for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.

In 1983, after the films Baby It's You (starring Rosanna Arquette) and Lianna (a story in which a married woman becomes discontented with her marriage and falls in love with another woman), Sayles received a MacArthur Fellowship. He used the money to partially fund the fantasy The Brother from Another Planet,[3] a film about a black, three-toed slave who escapes from another planet and finds himself at home among the people of Harlem.

Sayles at the Miami Book Fair International 2011

In 1989, Sayles created and wrote the pilot episode for the short-lived television show Shannon's Deal about a down-and-out Philadelphia lawyer played by Jamey Sheridan. Sayles received a 1990 Edgar Award for his teleplay for the pilot. The show ran for 16 episodes before being canceled in 1991.

Sayles has funded most of his films by writing genre scripts, such as Piranha, Alligator, The Howling and The Challenge. Having collaborated with Joe Dante on Piranha and The Howling, Sayles acted in Dante's movie, Matinee. In deciding whether to take a job, Sayles reports that he is interested mostly in whether there is the germ of an idea for a movie which he would want to watch. Sayles gets the rest of his funding by working as a script doctor; he did rewrites for Apollo 13, and Mimic.

A genre script, called Night Skies, inspired what would eventually become the film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. That film's director, Steven Spielberg, later commissioned Sayles to write a script (unused) for the fourth Jurassic Park film.

He has written and directed his own films, including Lone Star, Passion Fish, Eight Men Out, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Matewan. He serves on the advisory board for the Austin Film Society.

Maggie Renzi has been John Sayles' long-time companion (and collaborator), but they have not married. Renzi has produced most of his films since Lianna. They met as students at Williams College.

Sayles works with a regular repertory of actors, most notably Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and Gordon Clapp, each of whom has appeared in at least four of his films.

In early 2003, Sayles signed the Not In Our Name "Statement of Conscience" (along with Noam Chomsky, Steve Earle, Brian Eno, Jesse Jackson, Viggo Mortensen, Bonnie Raitt, Oliver Stone, Marisa Tomei, Susan Sarandon and others) which opposed the invasion of Iraq.

In February 2009, Sayles was reported to be writing an HBO series based on the early life of Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The drama, tentatively titled Scar Tissue, centers on Kiedis's early years living in West Hollywood with his father. At that time, Kiedis's father, known as Spider, sold drugs (according to legend, his clients included The Who and Led Zeppelin) and mingled with rock stars on the Sunset Strip, all while aspiring to get into show business.[4]

In February 2010, Sayles began shooting his 17th feature film, the historical war drama Amigo, in the Philippines. The film is a fictional account of events during the Philippine–American War, with a cast that includes Joel Torre, Chris Cooper, and Garret Dillahunt.[5]

His novel A Moment in the Sun, set during the same period as Amigo, in the Philippines, Cuba, and the US, was released in 2011 by McSweeney’s. It includes an account of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 in North Carolina, the only coup d'état in United States history in which a duly elected government was overthrown.[6]

Legacy and honors



Writer (movies)

Writer (TV)



  • Pride of the Bimbos (1975) (novel)
  • Union Dues (1977) (novel)
  • Los Gusanos (1991) (novel)
  • A Moment in the Sun (2011) (novel)

Collections and non-fiction

  • The Anarchists Convention (1979) (short story collection)
  • Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie "Matewan" (1987) (non-fiction)
  • Dillinger in Hollywood (2004) (short story collection)

Music videos



Awards for Honeydripper:

Award for Silver City:

  • Golden Seashell Award for Best Film (Nominated) – John Sayles – 2004 San Sebastián International Film Festival

Awards for Sunshine State:

  • Golden Orange Award (Win) – John Sayles – 2003 Florida Film Critics Circle Awards
  • Special Mention For Excellence In Filmmaking (Win) – 2002 National Board of Review

Awards for Limbo:

Awards for Men with Guns/Hombres armados:

  • Best Foreign Independent Film (Nominated) – 1998 British Independent Film Awards
  • Best Foreign Film (Nominated) – 1999 Golden Globes
  • Peace Award (Nominated) – 1999 Political Film Society
  • FIPRESCI Prize (Win) – John Sayles – 1997 San Sebastián International Film Festival
  • OCIC Award (Win) – John Sayles – 1997 San Sebastián International Film Festival
  • Solidarity Award (Win) – John Sayles – 1997 San Sebastián International Film Festival
  • Golden Seashell Award for Best Film (Nominated) – John Sayles – 1997 San Sebastián International Film Festival

Awards for Lone Star:

  • Best Original Screenplay (Nominated) – John Sayles – 1997 Academy Awards
  • Best Original Screenplay (Nominated) – John Sayles – 1997 BAFTA Awards
  • Best Screenplay, Motion Picture (Nominated) – John Sayles – 1997 Golden Globes
  • Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Nominated) – John Sayles – 1997 Writers Guild of America Award
  • Best Picture (Nominated) – 1997 Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards
  • Best Motion Picture Original Screenplay (Win) – John Sayles – 1997 Golden Satellite Awards
  • Best Motion Picture – Drama (Nominated) – Maggie Renzi & R. Paul Miller – 1997 Golden Satellite Awards
  • Best Screenplay (Nominated) – John Sayles – 1997 Independent Spirit Awards
  • Best Film (Win) – Lone Star – 1996 Lone Star Film & Television Awards
  • Best Director (Win) – John Sayles – 1996 Lone Star Film & Television Awards
  • Best Screenplay (Win) – John Sayles – 1996 Lone Star Film & Television Awards
  • Special Achievement Award for Outstanding Feature Film (Win) – 1996 NCLR Bravo Awards
  • Best Director (Win) – John Sayles – 1997 Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards

Awards for The Secret of Roan Inish:

Awards for Passion Fish:

  • Best Original Screenplay (Nominated) – John Sayles – 1993 Academy Awards
  • Golden Spur Award (Win) – John Sayles – 1993 Flanders International Film Festival
  • Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Nominated) – John Sayles – 1993 Writers Guild of America

Awards for City of Hope:

Awards for Matewan:

  • Critics Award (Nominated) – John Sayles – 1987 Deauville American Film Festival
  • Best Director (Nominated) – John Sayles – 1988 Independent Spirit Awards
  • Best Screenplay (Nominated) – John Sayles – 1988 Independent Spirit Award
  • Human Rights Award (Win) – 1988 Political Film Society

Awards for The Brother from Another Planet:

Awards for Return of the Secaucus 7:

Other recognition

Sayles' first published story, "I-80 Nebraska", won an O. Henry Award; his novel, Union Dues, was nominated for a National Book Award as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award.

In 1983,[7] Sayles received the John D. MacArthur Award, given to 20 Americans in diverse fields each year for their innovative work. He has also been the recipient of the Eugene V. Debs Award, the John Steinbeck Award and the John Cassavetes Award. He was honored with the Ian McLellan Hunter Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Writers Guild of America (1999).

Recurring collaborators

Like many film directors, Sayles has cast certain actors in his films more than once, including Cooper, Strathairn and Clapp as aforementioned, his producer/partner Maggie Renzi, sportswriter Eliot Asinof and even himself.

See also

Further reading

  • Diane Carson and Heidi Kenaga, eds., Sayles Talk: New Perspectives on Independent Filmmaker John Sayles, Wayne State University Press, 2006
  • John Sayles, Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan, Da Capo Press, 2003


  1. ^ John Sayles Biography (1950–) from
  2. ^ John Sayles Interview
  3. ^  
  4. ^ Sayles red hot for HBO's 'Scar' from Variety
  5. ^ Joel Torre believes ‘Baryo’ may stir controversy from
  6. ^ "BIOGRAPHY OF JOHN SAYLES". Retrieved August 13, 2010. 
  7. ^ Sayles, John. 

External links

  • John Sayles' official website
  • John Sayles at the Internet Movie Database
  • Senses of Cinema: Great Directors Critical Database
  • Interview April 2007 by Cathy Pryor in the London Independent
  • (audio) John Sayles interview at KCRW
  • interviewThe Rumpus
  • (5-part interview)Return of the Independent: Sayles on Sayles from
  • An Extended Interview with John Sayles — video report by Democracy Now!
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