Film buffs know John Sayles and Maggie Renzi, the famed husband-and-wife duo known for indie films like 1996's Lone Star or 2004's Silver City. From 1978's Piranha and 1994's The Secret of Roan Inish to indie Westerns, fantasies and dramas, Renzi and Sayles' resume is in fact so long, it would be impossible to include all they've done here. Fitting, then, that they'd be the recipients of this year's Lifetime Achievement Award from the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Sayles and Renzi join good company, such as last year's recipient Gena Rowlands and fellow 2017 honoree N Scott Momaday. Is "legend" a strong enough term? Probably not. Regardless, we talked on the phone.
SFR: What does it feel like to pick up the phone and have someone say "Hey, we want to give you a lifetime achievement award?" Is that weird?
John Sayles: It is weird! It's a little strange when you're still trying to get things finished. But we always look forward. It's always great, though, to get a public screening, and they're going to screen some of our films.
Maggie Renzi: Of course, it's nice. I think the whole business with a career that's as up and down as the movie business is, is to pause and wear the laurels. To sit and wear the accolades is a wise thing to do, and we're old enough to be that wise. I didn't need a reward to reflect, but if you're not reflecting when you're 66, you're a fool. It's an opportunity to bring attention to this body of work; it's a chance to bring people to a whole body who might have only known one or two [of our films].
With mainstream movies bemoaning what a terrible year it's been, do you think people are consciously seeking out more independent films?
JS: No, not necessarily. They may be looking for them, but I think the money problem is that there is actually so much out there: TV is better than it used to be and people are streaming TV shows—binge-watching them. There are so many options that I think the impetus to go on the opening week of a movie isn't what it used to be. So many people are willing to wait for a movie for six months to a year. They're also seeing it on some form of digital platform where they may, in fact, not be paying for it. It affects smaller filmmakers even more, too, because it just hasn't been monetized. If you could make sure you got three dollars for every person who saw your movie digitally, things would be great. But I don't think the movie makers have worked that out.
MR: I think you'd have to talk to distributors to see if more of that has happened. I mean, Sundance, Telluride—the film fest circuit is still strong in this country. I just don't feel like we're in an international conversation like we were when John and I were young and in film. I'm not sure many indie filmmakers get to be in the conversation anymore. One of the huge things you learn when you're a young American filmmaker is that we are unique in not receiving state funding. I had a funny conversation once with a Swedish filmmaker and said it was difficult for us to get our films made. He said, "Well yeah, that's a question of campaigning with your minister of culture." And I said, "We don't have that." Even as a young filmmaker I understood that filmmakers in other countries have a kind of support that we, in this affluent country, don't have. When I talk to film students, the first thing I say is to band together and insist that artists get support.
I'm glad you bring up TV, John. With television getting so much better, do you ever think about breaking into that?
JS: I've written a couple things that weren't picked up. I've been brought out to Los Angeles where they wanted me to pitch a series. It would be nice, but so far nothing I've worked on has gotten on the air as a series. I'm one of the writers on The Alienest, which is a new TNT show that's going to be on based on a Caleb Carr novel that was a big deal about 20 years ago. There's good stuff and bad stuff and stuff that's good for a year or two and then they run out of story. It's a good time to be an audience member—there are a lot of choices. I started working back when there were three networks and anything that was a little bit quirky … if you weren't getting 30 percent of the audience, you were off the air. These days, if you get 3 percent you are probably on for a couple years. You can go into characters with more depth. My last novel was 1,000 pages, so I do like that, and if somebody wanted to pony up and make that into a mini-series … I certainly have gotten to work on a bigger scale in my novels, to have the story last for a longer period of time and not have to squeeze it into two hours of drama.
MR: So much of our success has happened outside the system, so whether it's outside Hollywood or outside corporate TV, I would say our voice is an independent voice and no more suited to proper television. I think it's another kind of Hollywood. I don't think they're interested in these original and independent voices. So much of television is about a drug dealer, a bigamist, a junkie, and that's not really our world; we celebrate the human spirit rather than dwell in the gutter, and that's what we're being celebrated for—a body of work that celebrates the human spirit.
You've said in interviews that it's harder than ever to make movies. Is this still so, given better access to equipment and software programs?
JS: I think it's easier to make a movie. People are making them on their credit cards over the weekend. But to actually get a movie into theaters, financed to the point where you can work with professional actors with a professional crew, is harder than ever. I think that studios especially are more interested in what they call "underlying material," which is something they can buy the rights to that's already proven to be of interest to people. And it protects them from lawsuits—you wouldn't believe. If you make a movie about fireman, you get "I wrote a movie and they put out fire with hoses filled with water and you stole that from me!" Some of it is caution, some of it is lack of imagination. They want tentpole movies you can make sequels to. Then you'll make money even if they're not very good. The stakes are higher now, but I was never that careful about "I'm gonna make something that'll get me a studio deal next time!" No. Everything we do it kind of risky, because it's off-Hollywood.
MR: I don't think it's any easier to make a good movie. You have to have really good lighting and sound, and it doesn't hurt to have some soul. The cameras are cheaper, you don't have to pay for film, but all those other things are harder than they were to get. It's much harder to find investors now that it used to be. That's why your'e not always hearing the independent voices. We've turned to private individuals, so there's a chance now for people who have money to be patrons of the arts.
Any pearls of wisdom for those kids out there who are hoping to break into filmmaking?
JS: The main thing is to just make stuff. Get together with people you like to work with and make stuff. I just saw this documentary with Stephen Spielberg, and he was making movies when he was a teen. He was a lucky guy who had a camera, but everybody has a camera now. Soderbergh, I think, made his last movie with his phone.
Santa Fe Independent Film Festival
Lifetime Achievement Award: John Sayles and Maggie Renzi
6:30 pm Friday Oct. 20. $30.
Lensic Performing Arts Center,
211 W San Francisco St., 988-1234