Dutchess filmmakers John Sayles and Maggie Renzi chat about movies and more
Photograph by Michael Polito
How is it that John Sayles, the renowned independent filmmaker, has never been to the “fiercely independent” Woodstock Film Festival? After all, Sayles is a resident of Clinton Corners, so the five-day festival happens practically in his own backyard, and several of his films have screened there throughout the years. It’s not like he doesn’t ever make local appearances: In 2004 he was on hand at the Hyde Park Drive-In to answer questions at a free screening of his politically charged film Silver City. And his good buddy, actor David Straitharn — who has appeared in at least four Sayles films and moved to the same town after Sayles introduced him to the region — is often actively involved in the festival. “Gee, I don’t know, it just hasn’t been on my list of things to do,” says Sayles about his absence. “But Maggie has gone a few times,” he says of his longtime girlfriend, ace film producer Maggie Renzi.
But Sayles’ no-show days are now coming to end. At this year’s event, Sayles and Renzi will both present famed cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler with the Woodstock Film Festival’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award. So how is it that the duo — who have been personally and professionally united since their college days more than 30 years ago — were selected for this honor? “Because we live locally and didn’t need to be flown in for the occasion,” quips Renzi. True. But perhaps the fact that Sayles and Wexler have a long history of successful collaboration is the main reason. The two first worked together on 1987’s critically acclaimed Matewan, Sayles’ drama about a 1920 labor strike in West Virginia’s coal country. Subsequent collaborations have included Limbo (1999), Silver City (2004), and The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), which will be screened at this year’s fest. “I’ve worked with [Wexler] more than I’ve worked with any other cinematographer,” says Sayles.
So while it remains to be seen how the duo will honor Wexler, a two-time Academy Award winner best known for such classics as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Bound for Glory (1976) and Days of Heaven (1978), the respect they have for him is sure to shine through. Says Sayles: “If you go to YouTube now, you can see the camera being used as a weapon, usually for ‘the good.’ If cops want to beat somebody up, they better do it in private now. That’s a positive thing, and Haskell was one of the first people to say, ‘This is a tool to get the word out about issues that people should know about.’ ”
Sayles and Renzi recently stopped by Soul Dog in Poughkeepsie, where they chatted with HV about the Hudson Valley, filmmaking, and working with Wexler.
You’ve been living in the Hudson Valley for 20 years...
Maggie Renzi: And it just keeps getting better and better.
John Sayles: Just don’t roll in the grass: we’ve both had Lyme disease several times.
So why is life here improving?
JS: The area has finally been discovered by more interesting people. We still live in the country, but it no longer seems that isolated. There are more high-quality restaurants within 20 or so minutes; there is an arts center nearby. More is going on here, and yet the basic nature hasn’t changed.
What brought you to the area originally?
MR: A friend of ours from Williams College grew up in Millbrook. We took a look around Dutchess County and liked it.
JS: It’s the country. I wanted to live in the country, not in a suburb.
MR: And close enough to New York City so if we have to go down there it wouldn’t be a trial.
How did you end up working with Wexler?
MR: When we went down to West Virginia to make Matewan, I read aloud to John from a book of interviews with cinematographers. When I finished reading the section on Haskell, we talked about his style and his politics, and I said to John, “You know, we should just ask him if he would maybe shoot Matewan.” There was no reason to think that he would say yes. So we scouted on location, and one day the woman at the reception desk of our hotel said that a fellow had called us from a phone in his car. This was 1986, there weren’t many car phones, but Haskell had one; he always had to have the first of anything. She said, “His name was Haxell Wexler” — she didn’t quite get the name right — and he’d said, “Whatever the question is, the answer is yes.”
MR: I think the movie was very hard for him. We made it pretty fast and on a very low budget. John was a pretty new director, and there was no reason to know how good the movie would really be and how proud of it Haskell would be. Later, John wrote a book called Thinking in Pictures about the making of Matewan. It explains a lot about how they worked together.
Early on, do you remember being impressed by any of the films that Wexler is famous for?
JS: I remember really liking In the Heat of the Night (1967), which I saw at a drive-in. What occurred to me was that it’s set at night, but it looks hot. Everything that was supposed to take place at night was actually shot in the nighttime, but somehow it didn’t look all blue. This was the first time I started noticing cinematography and began wondering how a film was shot. Haskell showed me how cinematography is part of the storytelling.
MR: Now, everybody goes to film school, but we didn’t. What I learned from Haskell is that what we were doing was shooting the light. Sometimes you have to remind cinematographers and cameramen — and they usually are men —that there is a person in the scene as well.
Many of your films are shot with natural lighting and on location.
MR: That effort for authenticity is something that we’re committed to.
JS: Matewan is a good example of that. One of the great things that Haskell will do is say, “OK, what are we shooting here? We should shoot that at 4 o’clock,” because of his sense of lighting. And his skill-to-time ratio is incredible: He just doesn’t take that much time to work, and what you get is really good. This is important because our budgets are lower compared to the ambition of the film. He figures out the best he can do.
MR: He had so much experience and knowledge when we met him, and we were new at filmmaking. From our production designer on Matewan we heard that Haskell won’t be happy to just shoot the building, there has to be smoke coming out the chimney.
Looking at Haskell’s landmark documentary films — The Bus, The Bus Riders’ Union, Who Needs Sleep? — have you considered stepping back and making your own documentaries?
JS: They’re such hard work. The people I know who make documentaries are so obsessed and driven. You just don’t know where they’ll end, so often you have a couple of projects in progress at the same time. You have to commit yourself.
What are you working on now?
JS: I’ve been writing screenplays [most recently, Jurassic Park IV] for other people that may or may not get produced. The work ranges from HBO, Disney, and other film production companies. Movie producers and directors send me books to read and then I write script proposals. A lot of time is spent on pitching these proposals and having all the research for them taken care of. But that’s how I make my living; I’ve never made a living making movies. We didn’t make any money on our last two features. During the Writer’s Guild strike last year I wrote a novel called Some Time in the Sun, which takes place in the Philippines between 1898 and 1902. Right now my agent is looking for a publisher for it.
Are there any new John Sayles films in the works?
JS: I just don’t know how we can pull them off anymore. Finding a distributor for an independent film is nearly impossible these days, and we haven’t been able to raise the necessary financing in the U.S. for our projects in the last six or seven years. Now it just doesn’t seem possible to make a movie for $100,000 — it takes at least two-three million. Even the independent films that become hits have $10 million of advertising behind them. I was able to make my last movie, Honeydripper [released last year, it depicts the rise of rhythm and blues music in the early 1950s], because I had an amazing run writing scripts. Now, I just don’t know when we’ll be able to get to make another movie.
What was the best movie you saw recently?
JS: There is not much out there that I want to go see. But I liked Iron Man. I thought it was fun and well-made.
What do you think of the future of movies?
JS: Who knows if there will even be movies? The technology is changing so fast, and it is affecting people’s habits of how they see things. There will be some sort of storytelling, and cameras will be involved. But I can’t say what will happen.