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Born in the USA 

  • Jennifer May

Independent. The word echoes through the American mythos with a clatter of cowboy boots. “Independent filmmaker” carries the same smack of feisty, lone-wolf autonomy. But John Sayles, who writes, directs, edits, and frequently acts in his work, never claims an above-the-title credit (“A John Sayles film”); in conversation, he invariably uses the first-person plural: our film. Call him an interdependent filmmaker.

Since 1980, Sayles and his producer partner Maggie Renzi have made 16 films, starting with the shoestring-budget Return of the Secaucus 7. He’s supported his indie habit with Hollywood rewrites ranging from quirky B-movies (Piranha, The Howling) to blockbusters like Apollo 13 and The Mummy franchise; he’s also directed videos for Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” “I’m on Fire,” and “Glory Days.”

Between movie gigs, he’s published three novels and two story collections, most recently Dillinger in Hollywood. Like a latter-day Woody Guthrie, Sayles spins populist tales that crisscross the continent, from Alaska (Limbo) to Florida (Sunshine State), with pit stops in the Rockies (Silver City), Chicago (Eight Men Out), New Jersey (City of Hope), Cajun country (Passion Fish), Texas (Lone Star), and Latin America (Men with Guns, Casa de los Babys). He’s written about striking coal miners, Cuban immigrants, lesbian midwives, and alien slaves. Talking to him, it would seem that the only story he’d rather not tell is his own.

Affable and verbose, Sayles can shrug his way out of a personal question in seconds. Ask him about growing up in Schenectady, and after a nod to Proctor’s Theatre, he’s off on a tangent about Guyanese politics. Ask what background information he’d give to an actor who had to play him in a movie, and he’ll tell you about the character bio he wrote for Joe Morton in City of Hope.

Sayles has agreed to meet at Rhinebeck’s Upstate Films, where he’s screened nearly all his movies, often appearing at benefit screenings. He and Renzi have lived in a quiet corner of Duchess County since 1992. “We wanted a place in the country, not the suburbs,” he says. Writer Akiko Busch, a longtime friend who grew up in the area, introduced them to a realtor; they bought the first farmhouse they saw.

Sayles is an imposing man, six-foot-four, with the burly arms of an ex-jock and thick, mobile eyebrows. His manner is friendly, but far from relaxed. He gives an impression of restless vitality, of someone who needs to be working to know who he is. After a photo session in the theater, he stays on his feet, pacing constantly as he discusses his work. Only when we relocate to nearby Bread Alone does he settle reluctantly into a chair. He even answers a question or two about being John Sayles.

The Schenectady of his youth was a “multiethnic, multiclass place, a real cross-section of America.” His dad was a school administrator; in high school, Sayles played football, baseball, and basketball. He also wrote stories for fun. “As a kid, I thought books came from someplace like Battle Creek, Michigan, where you sent away box tops for things. I didn’t know there were professional writers who got paid for it. Writing was just something you did, like watching TV.”

At Williams College, he began writing more seriously. He also started acting, appearing in “Of Mice and Men” with fellow students David Strathairn, Gordon Clapp, and Adam LeFevre, all of whom would eventually act in his movies.

After college, Sayles did summer stock theater and honed his blue-collar street cred by working in factories and as an orderly at an Albany nursing home. “I was a great orderly, the Paul Bunyan of orderlies,” he reports. He also sent stories to magazines, including obscure literary quarterlies he found in the back of Best Short Stories anthologies. “I started getting rejection slips like, ‘Ararat publishes Armenian fiction. There are no Armenians in your story.” He hung them on the wall of his Boston apartment. “A handwritten ‘sorry’ was a big deal,” he recalls.

An upstairs neighbor flooded the building, destroying Sayles’s only copy of a 75-page story he’d submitted to the Atlantic. He called up the magazine. Editor Peggy Yntema suggested he cut his “novella” in half or expand it into a novel (“I recommend you put a plot in it,” he remembers her saying). But she liked his writing enough to ask for more stories. He sent two, and the Atlantic published both.

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