John Sayles and the Indie Film Movement

Independent film began the day motion pictures were invented. In fact all films were independent until a Mr. Edison decided he was going to scoop up all the patents and try to control the fledgling business. And throughout the history of film, there were always outsiders, creating work that was of no interest to the industrialized machine. Some of that work was categorized as “art,” but most if it fell under the category of “specialized.” The term “independent,” as such was used sparingly and mostly in conjunction with particular companies or personalities.

The term “American Independent,” which connoted the sense of a “movement,” came into common usage in the late 1970s with the formation of the IFP (at the time it stood for Independent Feature Project), and crystallized with the release of John Sayles’ “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” which was released in 1980 by Ben Barenholtz’s Libra Films. If John Cassavetes was the Godfather of independent film, John Sayles was its poster child. 

At the time, I was at U.A. Classics, working with Tom Bernard. We were aware of this budding movement, and the success of “Secaucus Seven” was discussed internally as a missed opportunity. 

A few years later, when Sayles was shopping around his second feature, “Lianna,” I was at Cinecom, and tried my best to acquire it. Instead it ended up at U.A. Classics–which made me all the more hungry to work with Sayles. He made his next film, “Baby Its You,” for a major studio, but came back to the indie world on his next movie, which turned out to be “The Brother From Another Planet.” This time I got it.

“Brother” was such a breath of fresh air in the midst of a lot of earnest, well-meaning indie films that had begun to be called by journalists “granola films.” It was funny, sharp satire. It was sci-fi grounded in the real world, and subtly subversive. The film was a hit, and began for me a long and productive relationship with Sayles and his producer/partner Maggie Renzi.

Now, thanks to the screening series at Columbia, you can see the film with an audience on the big screen for the first time in a long time.  They’ll be showing a 35mm print accessed from the UCLA Film Archive and both John and Maggie will be there for a Q&A, moderated by Columbia’s own Jamal Joseph. Tickets are available, along with the rest of the series at nyindieguy.com. See you there.

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