"I wanted to do it right," said John Sayles, recalling his aspirations for "The Return of the Secaucus Seven," a low-budget, independent first feature that turned out admirably right. "I wasn't sure I'd get another chance to direct a script of my own.
"A lot of guys try to break in by directing genre stuff, especially horror thrillers. The expectation is that if the first one makes money, you go on to a second one that's a little classier and eventually position yourself to qualify for a mainstream project.
"I was prepared to salvage the best half-hour, or even 10 minutes if necessary, and show that around in hopes of getting an opportunity to direct a studio system anyway, why make a studio sort of movie at all?"
These sensible calculations paid off: "Secaucus Seven" won the Los Angeles Film Critics' award for best screenplay and placed a close second to "Melvin and Howard" in balloting by the National Society of Film Critics. "Sayles, in town recently to help promote the movie's opening today, thought the critical acclaim had given his script "a fair outside chance" at an Oscar nomination as best original screenplay, a category it deserves to win in a breeze.
The son of schoolteachers ("the first in either family to graduate from college"), Sayles was born in Schenectaky, N.Y., in 1950. He recalls "writing rip-offs of 'The Untouchables' for the amusement of myself and my pals. As a kid, I figured I'd always write, but it never occurred to me I'd get to do it for a living. Writing had no reality as a profession. It was something which you did in your spare time, which was pretty much the way I did it until my first story was published. I was vaguely aware that places paid for stories, but I thought they were off someplace where you mailed boxtops, like Battle Creek, Mich.
"Most people get out of high school in Schenectady and go straight to work at the General Electric plant," Sayles said. But he went to Williams College, graduating in 1972 with a bachelor's degree in psychology, a credential he found "utterly useless," compelling him to work as a hospital orderly, factory and construction laboror, meat packer and stage actor. "I had a high number in the draft and a missing vertebrae,"said Sayles, who is tall, rangy and lean-faced, with high cheekbones and a long, sharply chiseled jawline that makes him a distinctive supporting presence in his own movie, playing an ambivalent young family man named Howie.
"I had no idea what to do after graduation, and 1972 was a bad time to leave college. So I began to write short stories on the side while working at the hospital or the sausage-stuffing plant. I thought if I'd bothered to write the things, it was pointless not to send them around to see what happened. I had nothing to lose." After two years of steady rejections, his stories began being published in 1975, first in The Atlantic. One of them, "I-80, Nebraska," won an O. Henry Award. His first novel, "The Pride of the Bimbos," was published in 1975. Three years later his second novel, "Union Dues," was nominated for both National Critics' Circle Award.
"I had sold the first novel to a publisher on my own," Sayles said, "but I got an agent to handle 'Union Dues.' The agency had a connection with film properties, so I had an 'in' when I inquired about screenwriting jobs. The same agency agreed to represent me in Hollywood.I actually wrote one script before getting hired, an account of the Black Sox scandal that I still hope to direct one of these days. Then I moved out to Santa Barbara and did seven scripts very quickly.
"The amazing thing is that most of them ended up on the screen. To some extent I thought of them as technical exercises, and it wasn't difficult to maintain a critical perspective. As a rule, I was working for people I liked, guys like Roger Corman, who can be valuable teachers once you accept the pretexts you're dealing with on movies like 'Piranha.' You know, that rougue piranha fish are out to ravage people."
Sayles raised the $40,000 production cost on "Secausus Seven" with savings from his book royalties and screenwriting assignments. He shot it over 25 days in North Conway, N.H., in September 1978, took the footage back to Santa Barbara and spent a year cutting the film on a rented flatbed editing machine while continuing to support himself by screenwriting. Lab and editing costs added another $20,000 to the production cost.
Sayles, who now lives in Hoboken, has two major studio projects in the works -- "The Blood of the Lamb," an original drama about the infiltration of a fundamentalist religious sect, and "Baby, It's You," a romantic comedy set in the mid-'60s and adapted from a story idea by producer-actress Amy Robinson. Sayles' next production is likely to be a small-scale project like "Secaucus Seven," but now budgeted at the luxurious sum of $800,000.
As short story writer, novelist and screenwriter, he has earned considerable praise for the comic accuracy of his dialogue and the range of his social sympathies. "We moved around a lot when I was a kid," Sayles commented, "and I was an actor, if you know what I mean. Being in strange, new surroundings so often, you tend to listen harder and assume roles in self-defense. I think rather early on I began to develop a good ear and a certain empathy.
"When I started writing seriously; I found first-person too easy. It's the usual way to start, but it didn't appeal to me as much as trying to imitate several voices. It's fascinating to listen to the way people talk. They agree more than they think they do, because they're too preocupied or prejudiced to pay attention to what the other people are saying."