Things I’ve Learned: John Sayles’ Golden Rules of Moviemaking

Stop and think for a while – which working American director do you suppose would give the sagest, most no-nonsense advice to aspiring moviemakers? If you guessed the man who made such films as The Brother From Another Planet, Passion Fish and Lone Star, you’d be right. John Sayles is our guest lecturer of the day and he brings some wry, practical insight to our Wednesday.

The two-time-Academy-Award nominee started his long career with the 1979 classic The Return of the Secaucus 7. Since then he’s been known as one of Hollywood’s greatest writers – on his own films and on other people’s, serving as script doctor on movies such as Apollo 13 and Mimic. MovieMaker admires above all the sheer versatility and diversity of his oeuvre: Who else could have convincingly shot the music video for Springsteen’s Born in the USA, written Joe Dante’s Piranha, and made the searing Latin-America-set 1997 drama Men With Guns – just to name three highlights from Sayles’ continually surprising career? Passionate, individualistic and allergic to cliché, Sayles represents, for our money, the best of American independent moviemaking.

His latest feature, Go for Sisters, stars Edward James Olmos, Lisa Gay Hamilton, and Yolonda Ross. A relationship-driven crime drama set in Tijuana’s gritty underbelly, Variance Films opens Go for Sisters November 8 in New York, November 15 in LA, with a wide release to follow. Sayles’ full list of Golden Rules (with a whopping 30 more rules) will be published in our next issue, Winter 2014, released in January. Until then, we hope these 15 will satisfy.

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1. Fund-raising is like hitch-hiking – it could be the third ride that comes by, or the three-thousandth. But you have to know when not to get in the car.

2. The vital question is “Can I make this movie well with this amount of money?” Sometimes the answer is no.

3. On a low-budget shoot with few available amenities, you have to cast your actors for talent, ‘rightness’ for the part, and their willingness
to dip under the limbo bar of union scale, short schedule and no perks.

4. A short schedule can be a plus in attracting known actors – just be sure you can promise them hard in and out dates (and demand the same
from their agents).

5. If you can possibly do it, be in the room for all your auditions. Direct the actor a little and see what it feels like.

6. On your second film you should either pay something or get new friends.

7. The first quality I look for in a cinematographer is obedience – the movie is not their chance to show all their stuff off at the expense of the schedule and actors’ time. Their job is to do their best with the time, equipment and crew that are available. It’s a good idea to let a DP know exactly what they’re getting into before hiring them.

8. Don’t be afraid to squeeze or fatten the image slightly to make images cut more smoothly (blending 50mm and 35mm angles), or to be kind to actors who porked out during the shoot.

9. Location, location, location. Where the scene is shot is a huge part of the story – telling information on the screen, at times more like a character in the film. Find the place with the right vibe for the scene, then go back with your DP and talk about where the light is (exteriors) and how you want to cover the scene.

10. Schedule your days with coverage and the rhythm of the actors involved in mind, not by page count. Remember that everything moves at about three-quarter speed at night.

11. Trailers and posters will always be presented by the distributor at the last possible moment, so even if you hate them there’s not much you can do. This is an immutable law of physics.

12. Film festivals can be fun, a chance for near-broke filmmakers to see the world on somebody else’s nickel, and occasionally useful for finding a distributor or advertising the movie. Try to see other people’s movies that probably won’t get theatrical distribution, and do your best in the interviews. You’re hoping to talk to these people again.

13. Using cue cards is no dishonor – if they help the actor, find good places to hide them.

14. Not everybody, critics or audience, is going to like your movie. The job is to get it in front of as many of the people who might as possible. Whether you like it or not this is a big part of the job.

15. Enjoy it while it’s happening- getting to make movies is a privilege, not an entitlement, and for most of us it doesn’t happen that often. As Hyman Roth says to Michael Corleone, ‘This is the life we’ve chosen.’ As hard and frustrating as it can be, you could be emptying bedpans for a living (one of my previous occupations). MM

This is an abbreviated list of Golden Rules. To read John Sayles’ full 45 rules, pick up the Winter issue of MovieMaker in January 2014.

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4 Comments

  1. Nicole Franklin

    November 13, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Love Sayles’ advice here. Loved reading Sayles on Sayles. Gospel.

  2. Mike

    November 9, 2013 at 2:55 am

    Go for sisters had some great performances. Broken Circle Breakdown was fantastic. Very difficult and sad story but the acting was so good and the music was incredible. .

  3. netcut

    November 7, 2013 at 7:30 pm

  4. WILLIAM X LEE

    November 6, 2013 at 11:58 pm

    so true!

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