Independent filmmaker John Sayles may be know for classics such as 1979’ s Return of the Secaucus Seven and 1996’s Oscar-nominated Lone Star. But to raise money for his own projects, Sayles wrote screenplays for hire on many schlock classics of the 1970s and ‘80s, including Piranha, Battle Beyond the Stars, and The Howling. This weekend, the Anthology Film Archives on the Lower East Side is hosting a retrospective of director’s work. Fans will have a chance to revisit his best-loved B movies and the curious can see them for the first time.
BY WILL SLOAN
Independent filmmaker John Sayles made his name with movies like 1979’ s Return o the Secaucus Seven and 1996’s Lone Star, which was nominated for an Oscar.
But to raise money for his own projects, he wrote screenplays for hire. These included many schlock classics of the 1970s and ‘80s, including Piranha, Battle Beyond the Stars, and The Howling.
This weekend, the Anthology Film Archives on the Lower East Side is hosting “From the Pen of John Sayles,” a retrospective of Sayles’ early workwork. Fans will have a chance to revisit his best-loved B movies…and the curious can see them for the first time.
Believe it or not, Piranha did not win any Oscars. But Sayles biographer Gavin Smith says Sayles wrote Piranha and movies like it to be practical.
“They were a good way for him to break into the movie business, to make a little bit of money, meet a lot of people, to make connections, and I think he figured out that he could make a film,” says Smith.
With Piranha, the 28-year-old Sayles made an important ally: he wrote it for producer Roger Corman, a behind-the-scenes impresario who has mentored some of Hollywood’s best-known filmmakers. His name appears on early work by Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and Francis Ford Coppola, among others.
Beverly Gray worked at Corman’s so-called “factory,” New World Pictures in the 1970s. She recalls that for most of those famous filmmakers, their work with Corman was trial- by-fire. “It was just understood going in that it had to be fast and it had to be cheap. Roger would come in at the beginning and see if you had what it took, and if you did, he’d leave you alone,” says Gray.
Gray has also written a biography of Corman, and says that John Sayles was an especially keen student of the Roger Corman school of film production. “He learned how you advertise a movie; how you sometimes take a title you want and make a movie around it; how you create a poster image…He knew all of that smart stuff on how to sell a movie from Roger.”
But Corman didn’t wipe out Sayles’ personality. Gavin Smith says Sayles’ screenplays have his sense of humor, and a trademark deadpan approach to outlandish stories. ‘A real effort to sort of take the subjects seriously in order to make them, in a way, realistic, to follow a more realistic logic. There’s a certain scientific basis certainly in Alligator or Piranha for how things unfold.”
The Piranha paycheck allowed Sayles to direct his first movie, Return of the Seacaucus Seven. Today, he still subsidizes his income with screenwriting – including uncredited work on E.T. and Apollo 13. For his personal work, Beverly Gray believes Sayles’ philosophy has remained consistent. “He’s a true Roger Corman heir – keep it small,know what you want to do, make it your movie.”
“From the Pen of John Sayles” runs at the Anthology Film Archives until February 29th.