John Sayles said his independent films offer a worthwhile window into the past – even four decades after his first film in 1979.
Sayles began his career as an independent filmmaker with “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” and he said the feature films that followed all touch on some aspect of American life. His small-budget films are being brought back to the big screen in a collaboration with the UCLA Film & Television Archive. “John Sayles: Independent” will run at the Billy Wilder Theater through Feb. 29, and programmer KJ Relth said the selected films focus on Sayles’ exploration of culture, community and the American working class. For Sayles, these films provide audiences a way to enter into history.
“If you’re studying the history of the culture or interested in the history of the culture, look at the movies that were made in that time,” Sayles said. “What are the attitudes towards race and class and sex and ethnicity?”
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For archivist Todd Wiener, he said discovering Sayles’ work offered an educational opportunity as well as an entertaining one. Giving independent films a platform like screenings at the Billy Wilder Theater provides a chance to preserve the past of independent film institutions that are often overlooked, he said.
Sayles said independent films in particular allow viewers to explore the world as it once was to better understand it as it is now. The on-location shooting inherent to independent filmmaking transforms each film into a preservation of its time period, he said. High-budget studio films have the privilege of constructed sets and sound stages, but Sayles said the downside of these expensive, controlled environments is removal from reality.
Instead, with independent film, Sayles said costume designers, production designers and film fanatics of today can draw on the past by simply looking back at the feature films shot on location in the streets of New York or Chicago. Sayles said that context is important when determining the significance of films made now.
“What are the attitudes towards race and class and sex and ethnicity, how was history told back in 1907 as opposed to 2017?” Sayles said.”You learn a lot from that kind of stuff.”
A goal for Hollywood studios is turning a profit, and Sayles said that the preservation of lower-budget films with less monetary potential tend to be neglected as a result. Large pieces of cinematic history are often lost when the original print of films that no longer stand to make money are cast aside, falling victim to deterioration, Sayles said.
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However, Wiener said the UCLA Film & Television Archive has an entirely different approach to the care and keeping of original film prints, one that places value on preserving the cultural and cinematic history featured in Sayles’ work over making money. Sayles said the collaboration began as an effort to clear old film canisters and original prints out of his basement in Hoboken, New Jersey. But Relth said the project transitioned into preserving those prints in a way that celebrates their contribution to the history of independent film.
“We’re interested in breaking the canon open and making room for marginalized voices,” Relth said. “In the case of someone like John Sayles, he is a voice that is incredibly prolific but is not necessarily included in traditional discussions about American film history.”
On the importance and impact of Sayles’ work, Wiener said the minority communities and character studies central to his work make them particularly valuable. Wiener said a platform for independent feature films is rare in an industry more focused on high-concept stories and sound stage shoots. As for the future of his work with independent filmmaking, Sayles said he currently has around five in the works, and, similar to any independent film, it is a matter of finding the funds to produce them.
“There is a lot of competition,” Sayles said. “But it’s not as exclusive a club as it used to be. … If you’ve got a story, it’s not that hard anymore to get out there and get people listening to you.”