You can't talk about America's independent cinema without mentioning one of its most important voices, director and screenwriter John Sayles and his longtime producer, Maggie Renzi. Since his 1980 debut, Return of the Secaucus 7, Sayles and fellow Williams College grad Renzi have teamed up to create novelistic, socially conscious dramas with a soul. Currently wrapping up their latest, Honeydripper, Sayles and Renzi took a moment to ponder the past and future of independent film for Creative Loafing on the eve of their appearance at the Atlanta Film Festival.
In terms of innovative content and the ease of financing projects, has making independent films become easier or harder since you both began making films?
John: Harder. Thoughtful films are as rare as ever. Financing for films of budgets more than a million dollars is still almost impossible to find. It feels harder, because shouldn't it be easier when movies are all anybody talks about these days?
There has been a huge proliferation in film festivals, but the Atlanta Film Festival, which is honoring you both with an Ossie Davis Award this year for creative excellence and dynamic contributions to the art of cinema, has been around for three decades. What does a film festival need to do now to maintain a strong, unique identity within this larger playing field?
John: It has to serve its local public well. A good festival has to be well-organized and responsive to the local audience: Some films should challenge and others should be crowd pleasers. The best festivals broaden the horizons of the people who go to them. Leadership is vital in a successful festival and the festival board needs to be involved, decisive and also flexible and supportive of the leadership.
What is your definition of an independent film?
John: Same as it ever was: The director is the storyteller, controls the casting and has final cut.
What does there need to be more of in filmmaking these days?
John: Better journalism. More adult independent filmmakers. More women making movies. More imagination from distributors.
An awareness of how larger forces, whether political or social, impact individuals is a reoccurring theme in your films. What social forces have most defined both of you?
John: The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Labor Movement, the Women's Movement.
If you could offer independent filmmakers today some advice, what would you tell them?
John: Make it count. You don't know how many times you're going to get to do it, so make a movie you'd want to go see.
If it's not too personal a question, why have you decided not to marry?
Maggie: John says it's too personal. I say it never seemed necessary.
Who are the independent filmmakers you both admire who are making films on their own terms?
John: Most filmmakers we admire have difficulty sustaining their careers. Among the filmmakers we would like to see more from are Jim McKay, Josh Marston, Nancy Savoca, the Half Nelson team [Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden], Karyn Kusama, Mora Stephens.
All of your films, despite incredibly varied locations, from Florida to Alaska, Ireland to Acapulco – and one can only imagine Honeydripper – have a real sense of place. How do you achieve that peculiarity of place? And what drives you to offer such comprehensive portraits of these diverse communities?
John: To the second question, place helps define culture and who people are and how they see the world. We do a lot of research and then we go to the places we're considering for a look around before John writes the script. Then we continue to respond to suggestions from the locals who work with us on both sides of the camera.
Maggie, what are the advantages and pleasures of producing films that have encouraged you to focus on that role as your career has developed? What is the most valuable personality trait to have in order to be a good producer?
Maggie: To be a good producer you have to be a good hostess: that requires joy, good organization, patience and good food. Producing employs all the skills I was born with and tests my moral fiber. It's like traveling, which I love, but with a higher degree of difficulty and we stay long enough to really dig in.
What in your backgrounds gave you the progressive values that come through so clearly in your films?
John: Paying attention to what goes on in the world.
Maggie: I agree with that, but I would add that our parents' values set us up to take the very best from the times we were born into, and those were good times to be coming of age.
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