I Stalked John Sayles

I discovered and fell head over heels for independent, foreign, and repertoire films in the early 1980s. I fondly recall my first visit to the Ritz 3 Movies in Society Hill, which was one of the few Philadelphia cinemas screening these types of films during that period. The feature that day really blew my mind, Liquid Sky, depicted brain sucking aliens landing in Manhattan and feeding on the endorphins of heroin addicted punk rock fashion models. I would have the pleasure of meeting Liquid Sky‘s director, Slava Tsukerman, years later at PhilaMOCA http://www.philamoca.org/ and seeing the picture with a live band performing its surreal electronic music soundtrack.

My true film education began when I entered LaSalle University as a communications major in 1985. The curriculum included screenwriting courses under the tutelage of local film critic Bill Wine. I also took a course titled “Film as Art,” which was taught by Brother Gerry Molyneaux, a film professor and historian who had written a book about Charlie Chaplin and would later write a biography of John Sayles. This course introduced me to foreign films like The Rules of the Game, which inspired me to venture out to movie houses like the TLA on South Street where I saw my first Akira Kurosawa film The Seven Samurai and a restoration of Abel Gance’s silent film classic Napoleon. Seeing these films made me feel like I was part of a secret society of cinephiles and one of the select few to view these rare and wonderful films.

While one could argue that independent films began in 1959 with the release of John Cassavetes’ Shadows or even some seventies films like David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Charles Barnett’s Killer of Sheep, they really took off in the 1980s with the emergence of screenwriter/director John Sayles. Sayles soon became my favorite living director (Frank Capra is my favorite old time director) with great films like Matewan, about a 1920s coal miners’ strike in West Virginia and Eight Men Out, which told the story of the members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox who threw the World Series.

My stalking of Sayles began with his appearance for a screening of his film Silver City at the Directors Guild in Beverly Hills. This inspired me to bring along a copy of my screenplay Downsize This in order to ask him to direct it. (I moved to LA in 2004 where I enrolled at UCLA for screenwriting, which provided many more opportunities to encounter film industry people—more about these experiences in a future blog.)

I clutched my screenplay in my sweat-soaked hand as I waited in line to meet my director hero. When it was my turn to greet him, I held up my script and pitched my movie. Mr. Sayles seemed amused by my moxie, but politely declined with the explanation that he only directed his own screenplays. I was disappointed, of course, but felt good about the fact that I had at least tried.

When I recounted this story to a friend of mine on a visit home from LALA Land, he told me that it took a lot of courage to do what I did. I replied that my stalk that day was merely a reflection of the old sales philosophy: They can’t say yes if you don’t ask. There is another old sales adage which states that you need to get a certain number of “no’s” before you get to the “yes.” I apply this same attitude to my search for a literary agent, which includes my personal mantra to be “persistent, but polite.” So far, I’ve received a good number of “no’s” and so hopefully this means that I am getting closer to a “yes” from an agent who will represent me and my novel A Bold & Brazen Article as well as help to manage my future writing career.

My second and last stalking of John Sayles occurred in 2007 when I grabbed my script and set off for his appearance at Philadelphia’s International House for a screening of his then new film Honeydripper. I don’t know if the auteur remembered me exactly, but he did seem to cast a wary glance towards me as I approached. He was cordial, but again declined my generous offer to have him direct my Oscar worthy material. Despite another “no,” I still felt good for at least having tried. In fact, I have left instructions that I would like the words “He Tried” to be carved into my tombstone someday. I ain’t dead yet, though, and the query letters to literary agents continue to fly out of my office and will continue to do so (politely) until I receive that elusive, but inevitable “yes.”