Q&A with John Sayles author David Shumway

Cover for shumway: John Sayles. Click for larger imageOn March 26, 2012 the University of Illinois Press published John Sayles, a new book in the Contemporary Film Directors series.  Author David Shumway comments on the filmmaker’s independence and reveals his favorite Sayles film.

Q:  What are some of John Sayles’s most prominent films?

Shumway:  Sayles is best known for Return of the Secaucus Seven, Matewan, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Lone Star.

Q:  How does he raise money for his films?

Shumway:  Sayles has self-financed many of his films using the proceeds from his work as a screen writer for hire and script doctor.  He has sometimes attracted investments from individuals, and has financed a number of productions through the sale subsidiary rights such as for cable TV or home video. A few of his films have been financed by production or distribution companies such as Castle Rock Entertainment or Columbia Pictures.

Q:  How would you describe Sayles’ personal directing style?

Shumway:  Sayles’s personal style is defined by distinctive themes, foci, approaches.  His films always depict work and people who do it.  They concern social issues and problems that remain unsolved at the end of the film.  They explore the way people of different classes, races and ethnicities, genders, or sexualities experience their lives and relations to others. His characters are always shown to be part of a community or society. His narratives typically entail many different characters, often involved in multiple plot lines.

Q:  How did you come to define him as a critical realist?

Shumway:  The term “critical realist” was borrowed from the Hungarian literary critic Georg Lukács, who used it to describe the novels of Balzac and some other 19th century writers.  Their fiction sought to accurately represent the societies in which they lived, but did not endorse the way of life depicted. Sayles similarly tries to show us the realities of our world in ways that will make us see them anew.

Q:  What topics do you think Sayles’ has been able to cover because of his independence from funding?

Shumway:  Among the controversial topics Sayles has addressed that are not typically
taken up by products of the major studios are a Lesbian’s realization of her sexuality, life in the African American community in Harlem, the Matewan Massacre (an incident in the labor strife known as the Stone Mountain Coal War), the effects on indigenous peoples of civil wars in Latin America, and the control of politicians and the media that cover them by the very rich.

Q:  What is your favorite film of Sayles’ and why?

Shumway:  My favorite of Sayles’s films is Lone Star, because of the complexity
of its story, characters, and themes.  The film not only explores the politics of race and ethnicity on the U.S.-Mexico border, but also how individuals differently experience the problem of identity.  It is also a murder mystery, a modern day Western, and a love story. Its multiple plot lines and complex chronology remind me of the novels of William Faulkner.


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