John Sayles and Maggie Renzi
EmptyAWARDS: 1987 WGA Award (TV), Original Long Form, "Unnatural Causes"; 1980 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, Best Screenplay, "Return of the Secaucus 7." CURRENT CREDIT: John Sayles and Maggie Renzi have been partners on- and offscreen since the early 1970s; Renzi has produced the vast majority of Sayles' 16 films, including "Honeydripper," which the pair are self-distributing through Emerging Pictures on Dec. 28. "Honeydripper," which stars Danny Glover, follows a remarkable few days in a 1950s Alabama town where rock 'n' roll is just taking hold. MEMBERSHIPS: Writers Guild of America (Sayles), Directors Guild of America (Sayles), Motion Picture Editors Guild (Sayles). Academy member since: 1987 (Sayles), 1994 (Renzi)
The Hollywood Reporter: Because of your self-starter style, and in part because of 1987's "Matewan," you're closely identified with unions -- and now of course the WGA has been on strike. Do you feel guilds and unions are still very important?
John Sayles: They're important in this country because so few people are unionized anymore, and because a lot of employers have worked this thing, "Oh, we have no full-time employees, everybody works 38 hours a week." I make my living as a screenwriter. A big part of my earnings, for instance, this year, I'll probably make as much from residuals as I made as a screenwriter.
Maggie Renzi: I don't understand why producers wouldn't get that writers would deserve some compensation for the reuse of their work. People just say to me, "Oh well the producers are in charge." Well, they weren't always. We have to remember that and I think reclaim that history.
THR: Speaking of history, let's talk a bit about "Honeydripper." Do you consider it a musical?
Sayles-Renzi (together): It's a music movie.
Renzi: But it might be a Broadway musical. People have been coming to see us for that very reason.
Sayles: Hey, if they made "Little Shop of Horrors" into a musical ...
Renzi: Wouldn't that be cool?
THR: You incorporate music into many areas of your films. Do you consider music to be an emotional shorthand to character?
Sayles: You can use it in so many different ways. Sometimes it is the story. Sometimes it is the emotion. It's just part of the storytelling, and it's just part of the rhythm of the movie. In "Honeydripper," there are songs I knew we were going to use before we shot. There were songs that I found afterwards that I put on top of things. Going into something like this, you're already thinking about the music.
Renzi: We just showed it to the National Board of Review. Afterwards, this one lady said how she loved the framing of the little boys at the beginning and the boys at the end. She said, "That music was in their heads." I wanted to give her an A-plus. She got it. P.S., did you know that this movie was not nominated for one single Independent Spirit Award? The hell with it.
THR: Which brings up the whole issue of what really is "independent" any more. We're talking on the day the Spirit Award nominees are announced -- and no "Honeydripper." And simultaneously, the Gotham Awards are happening tonight -- but no "Honeydripper." What does "indie" even mean today?
Sayles: To me it really is, did somebody start out to make a movie and end up making the movie they wanted to make without somebody else saying, "We'll only give you the money if you cast this person," and that's not the right person or, "We'll only give you the money if you change the script?" So it doesn't matter where the money comes from, to me. I think probably Tim Burton is an independent filmmaker, because the studios don't know what the fuck he does.
THR: Do you think you could release "Secaucus 7" today using the same business model you had back in 1980?
Sayles: The same movie wouldn't get distribution, because there's 6,000 people making that kind of movie now. We're basically distributing ("Honeydripper") ourselves -- so theater owners, why do they want to make us happy? Every multiplex wants to keep Paramount and those guys happy because eventually they are going to have a movie they want, so they will take their dogs and run them for two weeks. So we have been going to a lot of local film festivals and partly it's to campaign to get a screen in that city, ever. Just give us a week or two.
THR: For "Honeydripper," did you have any concerns over creating a movie about African-American culture, starring almost entirely African-Americans -- which neither of you are?
Sayles: My feeling is, what's the deal with this straight Chinese guy (Ang Lee) coming to our country and making a movie about gay cowboys? It would be more difficult for a white director to get away making something that's basically a black vaudeville piece like any of the Tyler Perry movies.
Renzi: Danny (Glover, the star of "Honeydripper") was talking about this (in a) master class. They were showing (1985's) "The Color Purple." He has a very strong, Afro-American centrism to the way he sees history and his life, and he includes "The Color Purple" when he says, "Look what that did for the conversation. A white Jew made that movie and it provoked a conversation about men and fatherhood and incest that nobody else was going to make."
Sayles: It's like when people say, "Are movies important?" Movies are important, not necessarily because they are the best movies, but because they get the conversation going.
THR: John, you've had two Oscar nominations -- for 1996's "Lone Star" and 1992's "Passion Fish" -- and both as a writer. At this stage, would your career change significantly if you won?
Sayles: The people who will hire you to be a writer pay attention to that. Literally, your price goes up. And we exist as filmmakers partly because I can make money as a screenwriter. Certainly in the last few movies that we have financed ourselves.
Renzi: As we battle from the outside to get this movie out there to audiences that I think are going to like it -- anything that gets us to that is huge. Would I be thrilled to have an Oscar in our house? How cool would that be?