Sayles, John: From the Pen of…Anthology Series

Starting this calendar year, Anthology inaugurates an ongoing series called FROM THE PEN OF… to spotlight that brutally neglected figure most often forgotten in the filmmaking process, namely the screenwriter. Famously devalued by cinephiles more prone to celebrating auteurs and actors, screenwriters are rarely honored with the likes of critical studies or repertory retrospectives.

While a few classic Hollywood scribes continue to earn attention (Ben Hecht, Preston Sturges, Dalton Trumbo, etc.), most have never received their fair share of credit or acknowledgment. This is particularly true of screenwriters who emerged hot on the heels of the demise of the studio system in the 1960s. While audiences may associate the works they penned more closely with particular directors, a closer study reveals that the sensibility and ingenuity of particular screenwriters shines through in each of these films.

Over the next several calendars Anthology will focus on some of the most interesting, talented, and unheralded screenwriters from the last 50 years, connecting the dots between terrific, seemingly disparate films that, unbeknownst to many,just happen to have issued from the pen of a single, often unheralded scribe!

To start the series off in high style, we have selected a number of smile-inducing, seriously quirky movies scripted by writer-director John Sayles.

Though the films he’s both written and directed have won numerous awards and wide acclaim, Sayles toiled for many years as a screenwriter on other director’s projects before launching his own distinguished directorial career. We are happy to call attention to this partially obscured body of work, and also to present a handful of films, selected by Sayles, that he considers shining examples of the craft of screenwriting.

To be screened:

Joe Dante: THE HOWLING

1981, 91 minutes, 35mm. Screenplay by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless, based on a novel by Gary Brandner. With Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, and Slim Pickens.

“A popular Los Angeles TV reporter is given doctor’s orders to visit a remote consciousness-raising retreat called ‘The Colony’ after a traumatic incident with a serial killer. The bizarre behavior of the residents begins to make sense once the reporter discovers that she is staying amidst a community ofwerewolves! THE HOWLING is not only a great werewolf movie, but also a witty and knowing commentary on the genre itself. The film is as full of impressive werewolf transformation scenes as of social satire, which is no surprise given that the special effects were done by Rob Bottin (THE THING) and the screenplay was written by John Sayles.”

Bill Forsyth BREAKING IN

1989, 94 minutes, 35mm. Screenplay by John Sayles. With Burt Reynolds and Casey Siemaszko.

The second American film by Scottish director Bill Forsyth (GREGORY’S GIRL, LOCAL HERO) portrays the relationship that ensues when professional thief Burt Reynolds and the younger, inexperienced Casey Siemaszko break into the same house. Reynolds decides to take the amateur crook under his wing, and the result is a charming, unexpectedly affecting comedy.

“A subtle, masterly film, a series of life lessons which never ducks the moral ironies, no less precious for their simplicity.” –TIME OUT

 Joe Dante: PIRANHA

1978, 94 minutes, 35mm. Screenplay by John Sayles. With Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn,Dick Miller, and Barbara Steele. Print courtesy of the Joe Dante and Jon Davison Collection at the Academy Film Archive.

“A massive horde of genetically modified piranhas with a taste for human blood is unintentionally released into the waters of a summer resort named Lost River Lake. Do-gooder Maggie teams with Paul, the town drunk, to rid the lake of the razor-toothed menaces before it’s too late! This 1978 cult classic offers more than its fair share of blood, guts, and body parts. But don’t let thedismembered limbs fool you – this campy gorefest is also a smart, thinly-veiled critique of America’s military-industrial complex.” –BLOCK CINEMA

Lewis Teague: ALLIGATOR

1980, 91 minutes, 35mm. Screenplay by John Sayles. With Robert Forster.

“A very funny meditation on the old ‘what happens when you flush the goldfish down the john?’ nightmare. It is also a formula film that simultaneously demonstrates the specific requirements of the formula while sending them up with good humor. Lewis Teague, the director, and John Sayles, who wrote the screenplay, know exactly what they’re doing. … Though ALLIGATOR is done straight, not as parody, it never for a minute loses its sense of humor.” –Vincent Canby, NEW YORK TIMES

Jimmy T. Murakami: BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS

1980, 104 minutes, 16mm. Screenplay by John Sayles. With Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, John Saxon, and George Peppard.

This Roger Corman-produced mash-up of STAR WARS and THE SEVEN SAMURAI finds seven intergalactic mercenaries teaming up to defend a peaceful planet from the evil tyrant Sador (Saxon). The film’s charming modesty belies the heavy duty talent behind the scenes, including James Cameron (who was responsible for the artdirection), composer James Horner (TITANIC), production assistant Gale Ann Hurd (producer of ALIENS), and of course, John Sayles, who contributed the witty, memorable screenplay.

SELECTED BY JOHN SAYLES:

Michael Ritchie: THE CANDIDATE

1972, 110 minutes, 35mm. Screenplay by Jeremy Larner. With Robert Redford, Peter Boyle, and Melvyn Douglas.

Left-wing lawyer Bill McKay (Redford), enlisted by a politico (Boyle) to run for the Senate, agrees on the condition that he can say exactly what he thinks. His honesty captivates the electorate, but as he inches up in the polls the corrupting forces of the American political process come into play. Released the fateful year of Richard Nixon’s reelection, the film garnered numerous accolades including the Oscar for Best Screenplay (screenwriter Larner thanked the “politicians of our time” for inspiration).

“THECANDIDATE managed to garner real followers, if not votes, for its imaginarycandidates. Indeed, it was thanks to THE CANDIDATE’s satire of image politics that a good-looking if dimwitted law student named Dan Quayle decided to follow his electoral destiny.” –J. Hoberman, VILLAGE VOICE

–Thursday, February 23 at 9:00, Sunday, February 26 at 2:00, and Wednesday, February 29 at 7:00.

Martin Ritt: HOMBRE

1967, 111 minutes, 35mm. Screenplay by Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank Jr., based on a novel by Elmore Leonard. With Paul Newman, Fredric March, and Richard Boone. Archival print courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

“Don’t try towolf it down crudely, the way you do with slapdash Western barbecues. Savor it for its fine ingredients. Let it slowly subdue your appetite. Dwell on its peppery pungence, its blood-red juiciness, its spicy surprises and the warmtaste it leaves in your mouth – or, if you insist on being literal, in the pit of your emotions and your mind. For this is a first-rate cooking of a western recipe – not a great Western film nor a creation, but an excellent putting of heat to a fine selected blend.” –Bosley Crowther, NEW YORK TIMES

Martin Ritt: NORMA RAE

1979, 110 minutes, 35mm. Screenplay by Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank Jr. With Sally Field, Beau Bridges, Ron Leibman, and Pat Hingle.

The screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank Jr. collaborated repeatedly with director Martin Ritt, working together on, among other films, HOMBRE (also included here), THE LONG HOT SUMMER, THE SOUND AND THE FURY, and HUD. Perhaps their most beloved film, though, was NORMA RAE, with Sally Field as a North Carolina cotton mill worker who fights to unionize her factory. Based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, it’s genuinely stirring without lapsing into easy sentimentality.

Michael Ritchie: SMILE

1975, 113 minutes, 35mm. Screenplay by Jerry Belson. With Bruce Dern.

“This 1975 satire about a ‘Young American Miss’ beauty pageant and the middle-class mentality of small-town southern California is Michael Ritchie’s best feature, though it hasn’t won anything like the reputation it deserves. … Screenwriter Jerry Belson supplies an unexpected amount of pain and even horror as well as comic nuance.” –Jonathan Rosenbaum, CHICAGO READER

 

 

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