John Sayles, an icon of independent films, named as this year's guest at The Port Townsend Film Festival

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — The Port Townsend Film Festival's special guest this September is a filmmaker who made his name in independent films.

John Sayles, who has written and directed 18 of his own films and worked on countless others, will visit Port Townsend for this year's festival, set Sept. 19-21, which will showcase some 80 films at venues around town.

Although not as widely known as past special guests, Sayles is the “father of the independent film movement,” according to film festival founder and board member Rocky Friedman, who owns the Rose Theatre in Port Townsend.

As in past years, the film festival sponsored a Guess the Guest contest where weekly clues gave obscure hints to the identity.

This year, 200 entries were received, 25 of them correct.

The winner, the first correct entry, was Sequim resident Cindy McClain, who will get her photograph taken with Sayles during the festival.

Earlier special guests had made their reputations as actors.

But Janette Force, film festival executive director, said Sayles' appearance at the 15th annual festival is in keeping with the festival's original mission to recognize the best independent efforts.

“Everyone knows the major movie stars, but that's not what we're about,” Force said.

“When the festival was first imagined, the founders looked forward to a time when we could host someone who was actually at the root of independent films, and someone said that one day, they'd like to get someone like John Sayles.”

Force said that when she announced Sayles' confirmation, Friedman “fell off his chair.”

Friedman said he was overjoyed to hear about Sayles' visit but that the fall from the chair wasn't literal.

Sayles, who has never been to Port Townsend, said he has “no preconceptions” about his visit.

“I expect it will be a nice local festival where people will get a chance to see movies that ordinarily wouldn't come to their town,” he said Monday from his office in Hoboken, N.J.

Sayles defines independent film in two ways: those made outside of the studio structure and those made by a director or writer where compromises are not required.

“Making an independent film is mostly an economic thing, as cast and crew are working for union scale,” he said.

“But it also has to do with the independence of spirit that the filmmaker is given in order to make the movie he really wants,” he added.

Sayles said studios have priorities other than making a good movie.

“Studios are making decisions based on maximizing their profits,” he said.

“They base their release dates on when the toys that tie into the movie are released or when the special McDonald's cup will be available.”

Sayles joins a list of 14 other guests, all of whom have impressive film resumes, beginning with Tony Curtis in 2000.

Those following were Eva Marie Saint, 2001; Patricia Neal and Stewart Stern, 2002; Peter Fonda and Shirley Knight, 2003; Jane Powell and Dickie Moore, 2004; Debra Winger and Arliss Howard, 2005; Malcolm McDowell, 2006; Elliott Gould, 2007; Piper Laurie, 2008; Cloris Leachman, 2009; Dyan Cannon, 2010; Buck Henry, 2011; Bruce Dern, 2012; and Karen Allen, 2013.

Sayles, 63, is the festival's third youngest special guest; Allen is one year his junior, and Winger was just 50 when she made her appearance.

Friedman thinks Sayles' age is an advantage.

“He's the perfect guest for our demographic,” Friedman said.

“So many people in this town have grown up with his movies. He is the father of the independent film movement and, aside from John Cassavetes, is one of its most important figures,” Friedman added.

Sayles will be attending the festival with his partner, Maggie Renzi, who has worked in collaboration with him on all his movies, most recently as producer.

While Sayles has never had huge commercial success, his movies have resonated with audiences who aren't attracted to mainstream fare.

He has written, directed and edited 18 films, including “Return of the Secaucus 7” (1979), “The Brother from Another Planet,” (1984) “The Secret of Roan Inish” (1994) and “Lone Star” (1996), which will be screened Sept. 20 as part of the festival.

He hasn't been able to attract financing for any of his past three films and so has funded them himself.

He is not sure when — or if — he will direct another movie.

“In the independent world, most moviemakers have no idea if you are ever going to make another movie,” he said.

“Even if your last one was a huge success, there is no guarantee.

“I've written three or four scripts that I've been unable to raise any funding for,” he added.

“Who knows if I'll ever get to make them.”

He makes his living as a screenwriter for hire, working on and refining other people's ideas for the film industry equivalent of a daily wage.

His script work ranges from the serious “E.T.” and “Apollo 13” to the less so “Piranha” and “The Howling,” although he keeps many of these credits to himself.

In his screenwriter-for-hire role, Sayles more often asks for his name to be omitted from the credits than allowing them to appear.

He would not name the projects in which he is now involved but said he felt the best writing work is now on television.

“Most of the best writing is happening in long-form TV series where there are eight to 10 episodes,” he said.

“In a limited run, you can get more into the characters than you can in two hours, which is a false size for a story,” he added.

“Some of the regular TV series have been great for two years and the third is just terrible, and you wonder how to keep the characters alive.

“In a limited series, you can wrap things up in a resolution and pick it up later if there's interest in continuing the story.”

Throughout his directing career, Sayles has used many of the same actors in repertory format, both as leading and supporting players.

Like Sayles, most of them — such as Chris Cooper, Joe Morton and David Strathairn — aren't household names but are respected craftspeople.

“I've made 18 movies now, and it's almost unavoidable that I use some of the same actors,” he said.

“But film is a very collaborative medium, and whenever you can work with someone who you've worked with before where you know their style and they know yours, that's one unknown you don't have to deal with.

“So when I finish a screenplay and think I'm going to get to make a movie, the first people I think of are actors I've worked with before and want to work with again.”


Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or

Last modified: June 24. 2014 7:31PM
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