So we make this movie about an independent filmmaker, see?
It's called something like "My Frickin' Way: The John Sayles Story." It's got everything. A tall, swaggering anti-Hollywood hero from New Jersey considered to be one of the most important independent filmmakers of our age. His longtime lover who used to be an actress but gave it up to help him make his critically acclaimed -- and financially difficult -- movies.
Here's our hot hook: He's got a new movie coming out called "Silver City." It's a headline-hugger with great acting -- by Chris Cooper, Daryl Hannah and others -- and mixed reviews.
The problem is that American movie screens have been aflash lately with political movies, such as "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Outfoxed" and "The Hunting of the President." That's where the creative tension comes: Will Sayles's movie get attention? Will it get good reviews? Without both, can Sayles continue to make low-budget, independent films in this over-hyped age of studio blockbusters?
We get Sayles to play himself. He'll be 54 this month and he has some back pain, but he's still got movie star looks -- wispy blond hair going white, blue eyes, tan skin. We can cover up that mole on his neck. He's 6 feet 4, so we'll need tallish extras. We don't want this to look like some Gulliver flick.
He has been in the movie business for more than 25 years, so he knows the ins and outs. He has made 15 movies, including several political films, such as "City of Hope" (1991). "Silver City" is his most blatant poke at power.
His real-life companion, Maggie Renzi, can also play herself.
Our biopic opens up at Sayles's office on the top floor of an old building on West 25th Street in Manhattan. Sayles is wearing a short-sleeve denim shirt, with the hems rolled once at the biceps, and several buttons undone exposing a cotton field of chest hair. He looks workmanlike in khaki cargo pants and running shoes. His blue shirt is darkened by sweat.
"I'm going to stand," he says. "I messed up my back." Apparently his back has been messed up for a long time.
He speaks fast and not loudly. On the conference room table there is a bowl of bananas, apples and grapes. Sayles eschews the fruit and pops the domed lid of a Krispy Kreme frozen coffee drink. It's hot in the office. The small window-unit air conditioner works better as a symbol than as a cooler. Its power cord is draped over a butterfly-shaped international movie award.
You get the picture. This isn't Hollywood. This is a man who does things his own way. His company is called Anarchists Convention. It's named after his first collection of short stories. Sayles had a promising career as a fiction writer before getting sucked into the moviemaking business.
He still is a writer first. And his movies show it. The scripts are smart and clever and sometimes too wordy.
"Silver City," for instance, is a tale of political intrigue. Think "Chinatown" meets "Fahrenheit 9/11." Chris Cooper, playing a gubernatorial candidate in a western state, reminds the viewer eerily of George W. Bush. He speaks in an undisclosed locution.
"He did a lot of observing," Sayles says of Cooper. "But he wasn't trying for an impression."
Sayles is showing the movie at fundraisers for organizations such as the Sierra Club and the American Civil Liberties Union. He has made an advertisement for the pro-John Kerry Web site MoveOn.org.
As one writer for the Nation puts it: "Director John Sayles doesn't have much of an activist profile, but he does something that virtually no one else in Hollywood does: He makes left-wing movies."
Flashback to childhood. John Sayles is born in Schenectady, N.Y., to a couple of teachers. Both of his grandfathers are cops.
As a kid, Sayles is a jock. "Not the best jock," he will tell you. "But I played all sports."
Pan the interior of the house. Sayles is in his room with several books. He becomes an eclectic reader at a young age, taking in easy books and tougher ones. "I was reading 'Black Stallion' and 'The Caine Mutiny' in the same year," his voiceover says.
He has an older brother, Doug. They are extremely athletic. Think "A River Runs Through It" without the trout. One year Sayles even hit for the cycle -- single, double, triple, home run -- in a Little League game. Everything, he says at one point, has gone "downhill from there."
When John Sayles graduates from high school, he is a clean-cut kid -- nondrinking, nonsmoking. He goes to Williams College because it doesn't have fraternities. During summers he works in hospitals and a plastics factory that makes backyard kiddie pools. Imagine if "The Graduate" had really taken that old man's advice about plastics.
These brushes with the working class will come in handy when Sayles turns his attention to making films.
Portray Williams, circa 1970, as a school pretty much out of the activist fray. He's a psychology major and he's beginning to write. He acts in school plays. Maggie Renzi also performs on the college stage. "I was in a play with her," Sayles says, "but we did not have any scenes together."
Kind of a "Sleepless in Seattle" situation.
After graduation, he goes to work as an orderly in an Albany hospital. He gets fed up with cold weather, like Ratso in "Midnight Cowboy," and winds up in Atlanta in the mid-1970s, working as a day laborer and selling his own blood plasma.
Soon he returns north, settles in East Boston. Takes a job as a meatpacker and writes short stories. Think "Rocky" for the thinking man.
He sends a short story to the Atlantic Monthly magazine and they suggest he spin it into a novel. "Pride of the Bimbos" is published in 1975. He publishes another novel, "Union Dues," in 1977 and his short story collection in 1979. His literary agent knows someone who knows someone who helps him get into screenwriting. His first screenplay, "Eight Men Out," is about the Black Sox scandal of 1919. But it's not made into a movie until 1988.
Roger Corman is getting old. He's almost 80. If we can't get him to play himself, maybe Chris Cooper will be available. Or Kris Kristofferson. They both show up regularly in Sayles movies.
Corman is important to the John Sayles saga because Sayles writes three screenplays for him -- "Piranha" (1978), "The Lady in Red" (1979) and "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980) -- and they are produced quickly.
And he learns from Corman what other directors such as Joe Dante and Jonathan Demme have learned: In the movies, you can make a movie without spending a lot.
And you can make the points you want to make.
He takes the money he earns from Corman's movies to finance his first film, "The Return of the Secaucus Seven" (1980). The movie is said to be inspiration for "The Big Chill." One big chilling difference, however: "Secaucus Seven" was reportedly made for $60,000.
Over the years he has raised money whenever he wanted to make a movie. Or he has won it: In 1983, he received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Or he writes screenplays for movies such as the forthcoming "Jurassic Park IV." He has written about 70 screenplays, though many of them have never been produced. "I really like writing for the movies," he says. "They should make more of the movies I write for."
Instead, he crafts his own. The list is long and includes "Baby It's You," "Matewan," "Lone Star" and "Sunshine State." Maggie Renzi produces his movies and helps him raise money. "Silver City" cost $5.5 million to make. It took six weeks to shoot.
In the last scene of our movie, we see Sayles enjoying the good life. He is drinking his coffee concoction. Cut to scenes of UCLA where a few years ago movie buffs restored Sayles's first three films for a retrospective and to Schenectady High School, where the building's arts wing has just been named for him. He will soon be signing copies of a new collection of short stories, "Dillinger in Hollywood," due out next month.
He has several ideas for new films, but "I don't know what the next project will be," he says. "Depends on the funding."
And the funding depends in part on the public's reception -- and perception -- of Sayles's latest work.
Some moviegoers like it: A reviewer in the New York Times writes that Cooper's "performance and Sayles's exhilarating script and direction make 'Silver City' something rare among the dozens of politically themed works on screen and onstage: a Bush-bashing work that is more than Bush-bashing."
Others don't. A Boston Globe critic writes that the movie "excels in thinly veiled G.W. Bush impersonations by Chris Cooper but otherwise feels like an addendum to the antidevelopment sermon of 'Sunshine State.' "
For Sayles, the appearance of the movie and the publicity surrounding it give him an opportunity to wax political. As the movie fades to black, we see Sayles, still standing in his office, speaking out against Bush: "No Child Left Behind," he says, is not working. "Every teacher I know is feeling the squeeze in their school districts because there is less and less money."
He has been in that situation before, knowing what it is to have, and to not have, riches. Like, say, "Citizen Kane."