John Sayles knows of what he speaks. Parlaying a gig writing exploitation movies like Piranha and Battle Beyond the Stars for low budget king Roger Corman into a career making critically lauded indie films, he has forged a career on the fringes of Hollywood.
“Independent, when we started, which was a long time ago in 1980,” he says, “meant an independent way of thinking about story as well as not getting your money from the usual places.”
His first film, Return of the Secaucus 7, is a case in point. The story of a group of friends who reunite for a New England summer weekend was made for just $60,000, half of which came from the money he saved while working for Corman.
It was low budget but earned a reputation large enough to have possibly inspired The Big Chill—that movie’s director denies the connection—and be chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
His indie spirit is very much alive in the seventeen films he’s made since then even though the business has changed. He notes that these days his style of filmmaking—“legitimately low budget independent movies” he calls them—are usually “attempts to break into Hollywood.”
He also notes that Hollywood is simply not interested in his brand of small movie. “In terms of business sense [the studio] is going to spend between 15 and 50 millions dollars to advertise it,” he says, “so the upside of the thing has to be so huge that they don’t want any modest hits. They don’t care if they strike out, but they are going for a home run every time.”
He adds his new film, Amigo, a period piece set in 1900 during the Philippine–American War, wouldn’t appeal to the studios because it has “not only subtext, but subtitles.” With no studio involvement Sayles set about telling the ambitious story of foreign incursion in his usual fiercely independent way—he packed up and moved the production to the Philippines where a small budget can yield huge returns.
“We went to the island of Bohol which is in the Visayas. I was able to afford six weeks of shooting. My last films were five and five and four, so I was like, ‘Oh my God! I have six weeks!” he says grinning at the thought.
“We built a 1900s rice growing village in a 2010 rice growing village so there weren’t too many things we had to hide or take down. We took down a couple of wires and we actually built a church over the one cinder block house we had to disappear. Then we bought the rice crop. So they actually got what they would have gotten if they were able to cut out all the middle men. We asked them to plant at a certain time so it would mature at a certain time. Then we could burn it down or trample it or harvest it or whatever. Quite honestly eighty percent of it was left when we left so they were then able to cut it down and resell it. It was a good deal for the village.”
And also a good deal for an independent filmmaker who has always made movies his way.