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John Sayles: An Artist for the Environment

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"We think we can wound the planet, we think we can cut costs and stick the money in our pockets and just walk away. But some day the bill comes due. It's only a matter of time."

--Silver City (2004), written, directed, and edited by John Sayles

John Sayles, Duke's LEAF award recipient 2012. (Photo by Ric Kallaher)

John Sayles is the 2012 recipient of Duke's Lifetime Environmental Achievement in the Fine Arts (LEAF) award.

Not Exactly a Household Name but ...

Sayles is one of America's most respected contemporary filmmakers and storytellers. He's been nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, a Palme d'Or from the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, and a Golden Globe. He also has a few rather impressive awards under his belt: the Writers Guild of America's Ian McLellan Hunter Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Eugene V. Debs Award, and the John Steinbeck Award. Is he a genius? Not for me to say, but in 1983 Sayles was among the 17 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius awards."

He's a writer of significant distinction. His 1975 novel Union Dues received nominations for the National Book Award and the National Critics Circle Award, and his first published short story, "I-80 Nebraska, m.490-m.205," bagged him an O. Henry Prize. I am currently in the midst of his most recent novel, A Moment in the Sun (2011), which has been described as "a sprawling work which takes the turn of the 20th century in its sights -- from a white racist coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, to the first stirrings of the motion picture industry, to the bloody dawn of U.S. interventionism in Cuba and the Philippines." It's an incredible journey -- I can recommend that you take it.

As a filmmaker, Sayles has been prolific. Directing movies since 1979/1980 -- and writing them even before that -- he currently has some 30 features to his credit. (Check out this list of his many credits [e.g., writer, director, film editor, producer]. Word is, he has had a hand in quite a few others -- including some blockbusters -- but has chosen not to receive credit on them.)

Filmmaker John Sayles on the set of
(2010). Sayles is the 2012 recipient of the Duke Nicholas School's LEAF award. (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

Though many a blank look has been the initial reaction of people hearing about this year's LEAF recipient, when I follow up with, "You know, the filmmaker?" and quickly tick off some of his films -- The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), the Oscar-nominated Lone Star (1996), the Oscar-nominated Passion Fish (1992), Eight Men Out (1988), Matewan (1987) -- a flash of recognition crosses their face. "He made those?" they'll say. "I loved them." (If you want recognition and surprise, just mention he got his start in the movies writing the screenplay for Roger Corman's Piranha [1978].)

Yeah, Sayles is a consummate storyteller. And though he's had his hand in Hollywood films, he is the ultimate indie filmmaker. He explores big ideas in his narratives of often small-town folk up against big odds. Though he learned early on that dialog is cheaper to shoot than action sequences, there is plenty of drama, mayhem and murder -- witness Limbo (1999), Matewan, and Lone Star. But there is also nuance, breathtaking camera work, and plenty of quirky characters. He tends to write ensemble pieces, focusing keenly on community. And though there are plenty of laughs, at their core his films explore serious subject matter, inviting the viewer to confront issues of greed, poverty, justice, community, and the environment -- but more about that later.

For moviegoers accustomed to films with short scenes and lots of quick, staccato cuts, Sayles's cinematic narratives can seem to unfold slowly. But for good reason. Sayles wants people to do more than watch his films, he wants them to think -- and so his movies are paced with just enough space to allow continuous reflection on what's happening on the screen. In that sense, Sayles's movies remind me of the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman -- someone who also pretty much operated as an independent filmmaker. (Turns out, Sayles's Passion Fish, which stars Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard, was inspired by Bergman's Persona [1966].)

Independent Movie Trailblazer

Time was, if you were a filmmaker trying to get your movie into theaters so people could actually see it, you needed a major studio for financing and distribution. In such a world money generally talked (still does). That meant that by bankrolling a film, studios held sway, to a large extent, over content and production. And because a studio's primary goal is usually commercial success, its edicts often require artistic compromises.

Such compromises do not appear to be part of Sayles's DNA. His approach when it comes to filmmaking: he's an original "do-it-yourselfer." And by that, I mean, he does it all -- he raises the money, writes the screenplay, directs and edits the film (occasionally acts in it) and then shops it around for distribution.

So, yes, Sayles is what we call an independent filmmaker, in the truest sense of the term. That's not such a big deal today. While still challenging in a big-money, Hollywood-dominated world, it's not terribly unusual for small independent films to get distributed, watched and make money. Think the Sundance Film Festival -- and kudos to Robert Redford, our first LEAF recipient, for starting that and creating that first modern indie-film wave.

Sayles too figured prominently in the launching of the independent film movement. He produced his first film, The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), on a 25-day schedule and a shoestring budget of $60,000 (most of which came out of Sayles's own pocket). Within four months, having played on a mere four screens, the movie had brought in $500,000 and received critical acclaim, with Variety magazine concluding that the film "should prove ... that extremely low-budgeted projects can be just as entertaining as any multimillion dollar production turned out by the studios." Many have followed in Sayles's footsteps, conceiving of a good idea, writing the script, raising the funds, making the movie, and getting it into theaters without kowtowing to the studios.

In choosing the independent filmmaker path, the name Sayles might not be as recognizable, say, as Spielberg or Lucas. But he has told the stories he has wanted -- needed -- to tell, the way he's wanted to tell them without compromises. Of this choice, Sayles says: "However small your audience is, however frustrating it is to get your version of the world or what you want to talk about out there, it's part of the conversation. And if you shut up, the conversation is one-sided."

Why the LEAF?

OK, Sayles is a great filmmaker and writer. Why an award as an environmental artist?

In many ways I view his work as political in nature -- stories of social conflict between people and groups of people, the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor, one culture against another.

But underneath the political conflict is often a more basic theme, one that is profoundly about the environment and our -- that is, humanity's -- connection to the natural world. It is a theme of the land and the conflicts that arise over its use and control (think of the historic coal-mining strike and massacre on which Matewan is based).

These conflicts, which tend to arise out of different economic priorities or cultural identities, are sometimes writ large. In Sunshine State (2002) developers attempt to steamroll, figuratively speaking, the long-time residents and subvert the political process to gain approval for a new construction project. In Lone Star, as a murder investigation unfolds, Anglos and Hispanics in a Texas town clash over what aspects of the state's history should be taught to "American" children. In others, the theme is posed more symbolically. In Brother From Another Planet (1984) a mute, escaped alien slave landing in New York's Harlem must navigate its sights, sounds, and culture with extraterrestrial bounty hunters hot on his tail.

The Duke LEAF award is given annually to "an artist whose work has lifted the human spirit by conveying our profound spiritual and material connection to the Earth and thereby inspiring others to help forge a more sustainable future for all." To date, we have recognized Redford, Jackson Browne and Barbara Kingsolver.

This year the selection committee of the school's Board of Visitors chose John Sayles for

"his use of sense of place and the land as the context for the human dramas that unfold in his narratives; the interweaving of environmental themes and conflicts with themes of human conflict and struggle, ultimately compelling us to confront on a visceral as well as intellectual level our strong material and spiritual connection to the land and, in the process inspiring us to value and steward our environment."

Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment will present the award to Sayles in a ceremony open to the public on April 21 on Duke's campus.