A behind the scenes photo from John Sayles’ first movie, plus info on his latest effort

John Sayles (and DP), Return of the Secaucus 7

John Sayles (seated on the left) on the set of his directorial debut, Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979). The photo is part of an archive of material Sayles recently donated to the University of Michigan, which also houses collections of artifacts from Robert Altman and Orson Welles.

John Sayles funded his first directorial effort with approximately $40,000 of his own money, earned penning screenplays such as Piranha for B-movie impresario Roger Corman. Thirty years later, he funded his newest film – Go For Sisters, out in limited release today – the same way. Out of his own pocket, earned from his screenwriting-for-hire.

Go For Sisters tells the story of two long-ago high school friends whose lives intertwine again decades later when one is released from prison (Yolonda Ross) and the other is assigned as her parole officer (LisaGay Hamilton). The film opens today in New York and expands in the coming weeks (here’s the full schedule of cities).

No director outside of John Cassavetes has the word “independent” more permanently affixed to them than John Sayles. As such, he’s a barometer for the landscape of independent production. And if Sayles’ latest round of interviews is any indication, that landscape is post-apocalyptic. (continue reading for a collection of recent Sayles quotes)

“I’m writing like crazy and I’m [earning] about a third of what I used to — like every other American worker. So my ability to finance my own movies is getting to be less and less possible. So I imagine unless someone taps me on the shoulder and says, “We want you to direct this or we want you to write and direct this,” I doubt if I’m going to get to continue to make features. But I’m still getting work as a writer, so I’m very lucky. I can still make a living and kind of rebuild the war chest. And you never know, every once in awhile, one of our movies actually makes its money back or makes a little profit.” – Sayles, from Entertainment Weekly

On what he would’ve done differently with access to a larger budget.

“I would have liked to pay actors and crew better. I mean the reason I (could barely make) Go for Sisters was because its budget was low enough to qualify for the SAG Modified Low-Budget Scale agreement, which I understand, is about the same as the California State minimum wage…So I would’ve definitely paid them more – actors, crew, everyone involved.” – Sayles, from Twitchfilm

On his advice for young filmmakers.

“I can’t give them ideas on how to make a living at it. Unless you get discovered by the mainstream, I’m not sure there’s a living to be made by making indie films anymore.” – Sayles, from NewsDay

But for anyone foolhardy enough to try to do so, here’s a link to 15 low-budget filmmaking tips from Sayles via MovieMaker magazine. The best of which is…..

 “On your second film you should either pay (people) something or get new friends.” – John Sayles

UPDATE: I didn’t run across this until after my original post, but it was too good not to tack on. From the excellent film website The Dissolve (most of the writers are AV Club alumni), Sayles discusses the 12 films that most influenced his career. The list includes The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Third Man and Mean Streets.

“I had insomnia, and in college, I would stay up and watch the midnight movie from WPIX, or one of the NY stations. There were gazillions of commercials, so during the commercials, you’d flip to another station and see what was on there. So you might start watching a movie at midnight, and it might not end until 2:30 or 3. Back in those days, you couldn’t get movies on video, so if you were going to see a movie more than once, you really had to pay attention to find it. And then the stations might cut different scenes, or it might be in a different format. There were movies, like King Kong,that I really liked, and might have seen five times over a 15-year period. I didn’t live near a revival house or anything. I grew up in Schenectady, New York, and there was an art theater that was too far away. I also was Catholic growing up, and once a year, we all stood up and pledged not to go to movies that the Catholic Church had condemned, and that extended to, “Don’t even go to the theater where those movies play.” So even though there was an arthouse within a 20-minute drive from home, my parents never went there, and I didn’t have a car, so I never saw any of those movies.” – John Sayles

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