Shepard Fairey poster for "The John Sayles Restoration Project" film festival (2002)
By Deborah Holdship
Perhaps more than any modern filmmaker John Sayles personifies American individualism.
From his 1979 directorial debut "Return of the Secaucus 7" to his November 2013 release "Go for Sisters," he has thrived outside the Hollywood mainstream, using his films to explore such complex, nuanced themes as race, class and gender identity. Sayles is an iconoclast who sees film as a means to an end and not an end in itself.
Now, thanks to a gift to the U-M Library, documents, images and props illuminating Sayles’ vast body of work will be made available to researchers in the John Sayles Archive at the Special Collections Library.
President Mary Sue Coleman announced the gift Tuesday at her annual Leadership Breakfast where she highlighted the university's accomplishments and announced key initiatives going forward.
“The John Sayles Archive is a scholarly treasure trove for students, faculty and anyone interested in exploring the inner workings of this artist,” Coleman said.
The Sayles acquisition complements U-M collections documenting the careers of American filmmakers Orson Welles and Robert Altman. With the Sayles collection, U-M is a major destination for research on the American maverick filmmaker. Together the works are known as the Mavericks of Film Collection.
"These are three independent thinkers and artists, not traditional filmmakers consistently supported by the studios," said Philip Hallman, film studies librarian at the U-M Library. "They are all American mavericks with much to teach us not only about film but about our shared heritage, culture, and society."
A 'living collection'
Sayles and his longtime producing partner, Maggie Renzi, donated the John Sayles Archive to U-M in September. The collection includes approximately 230 boxes of archival material spanning Sayles' career, up through the soon-to-be-released "Go for Sisters."
"The fact that John Sayles is a contemporary filmmaker producing new work as we speak is significant," said Hallman. "His is what we call a 'living collection,' providing researchers with unparalleled opportunities for discovery and insight."
Sayles' films are housed at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The U-M collection includes scripts, production documents, legal documents, photographs, storyboards and correspondence regarding such films as "Matewan," "Brother from Another Planet," "The Secret of Roan Inish" and more.
There are personal journals and notebooks, business records and props. Also included are manuscripts of some of Sayles' novels, short stories and plays. The archive even showcases his uncredited work as a writer on such films as "Apollo 13."
These items will be available to the university community as well as the general public. Perhaps among the first to use them will be students in U-M's winter 2014 Department of Screen Arts & Cultures class Major Directors.
Students will research and develop an exhibit about Sayles and his work for display in April 2014. A Sayles symposium in June will coincide with Cinetopia, an annual Ann Arbor-based film festival. Lectures and screenings will complement the symposium and student-driven exhibit.
"Students enjoy a much deeper learning experience when they engage in the actual exploration of the archive," said U-M Library archivist Kathleen Dow. "The thrill of discovery is a wonderful supplement to the student's introduction to research and critical thinking. We acquire archival material in the hope that it will be used in exactly this way."
Sayles' partner Renzi points to this kind of hands-on activity and practical scholarship as the primary reason she and Sayles chose U-M to house the archive.
The university's ability to integrate academic disciplines across colleges and schools mirrors Sayles' artistic and intellectual breadth. His archive offers a unique point of entry into myriad topics, from the art and business of the creative process to the provocative themes of political unrest, class warfare, racial discrimination and more.
"We chose the University of Michigan over other excellent archives and libraries because we wanted to see John’s work studied as part of the curriculum at a great university," Renzi said.
Mavericks at Michigan
As a director, Sayles taps into his own experience as an actor, screenwriter, playwright and novelist. He garnered near-unanimous critical acclaim with his directing debut, the self-financed character study "Return of the Secaucus 7," which he also wrote.
The Oscar-nominated "Lone Star," set in a Texas border town, earned Sayles a best screenplay nod in 1997 and firmly established the writer-director as a voice of social consciousness in America. His 1992 movie, "Passion Fish," earned multiple Oscar nominations, including best screenplay for Sayles and best actress for Mary McDonnell.
Sayles has penned close to 100 screenplays throughout his career, and "Go for Sisters" marks the 18th picture he has both written and directed.
As American mavericks, Sayles, Altman, and Welles each cultivated a distinct artistic vision. Taken together, their work exhibits an independent and often defiant quality that stands outside the conventions and conservative sensibilities of corporate studio filmmaking.
Their portrayals of American life — from Welles' iconic "Citizen Kane" to Altman's "Nashville" — have evoked some of the most memorable moments in cinematic history. Sayles' 1988 baseball picture, "Eight Men Out," about the 1919 Black Sox scandal, was his first screenplay. It is as relevant today as it was 25 years ago.