If you are desperate to make a movie but have no idea how to go about it, rush out and buy this book. It is a primer, a “Dick and Jane” that takes you step by step through the process--from script to editing. John Sayles declares that he wrote it because he wished such a book had been around when he was trying to learn how to make movies. If you already make movies, it will be of only marginal interest. A moviegoer with a passing interest in the process will most likely find it too detailed and plodding.
Sayles is clearly determined to de-mystify. He takes the evanescent goddess, spreads her out on the mortician’s slab and methodically slices open the organs and demonstrates that it is all just mechanics. As a manual, a textbook, the result is fine, even exemplary. This is his intent. He succeeds. It works. What a pity, though, that he found it necessary to leave out just about everything--the magic, the poetry and (dare I say it) the glamour--that makes movies so compelling, fascinating and vital.
Sayles’ sober and cautious approach to his subject can be put down to the way he came up in the industry. He served his time as a galley slave for Roger Corman and others, writing screenplays for exploitation pictures like “Piranha,” “Alligator,” “The Howling"--"schlock-horrors,” you might call them. He saved up and financed his first film as a director out of his own pocket, thus breaking a cardinal Hollywood precept: Never ever use your own money. We are told he made the admirable “Return of the Secaucus Seven” for a paltry $60,000, which he forked out himself.
Unfortunately he does not reveal in this book how he managed this miraculous feat. His book would be a best seller in the movie industry if he shared that secret with us. Film stock (even used most frugally), laboratory charges and camera hire would swallow that up and more, even if crew and cast worked for free.
Since “Secaucus,” Sayles has jealously maintained his status as an “independent” film maker with further movies, “Lianna,” “Baby, It’s You,” “Brother From Another Planet” and now “Matewan,” the making of which is charted in “Thinking in Pictures.” He defines independent as retaining control of the script, the casting and the editing. The Hollywood studios like to abrogate those rights when they finance a film, and so Sayles looks for what we in the business call “civilian money.” For a man who spares us no detail of the intricacies of making low-budget movies, Sayles is curiously coy about money. He offers us a detailed shooting script of “Matewan,” the designs, storyboards, even call-sheets, but the very items that any pro would want to look at to judge a picture--the schedule, the cross-plot and the budget--these are all omitted. He merely tells us that “The Return of the Secaucus Seven” cost $60,000, “Lianna” $30,000 and “Matewan” $4 million, without breaking down those costs.
Judged as a read, as a piece of writing, Sayles’ book is often woeful. In his determination to take the heat out of his subject, to present himself as an honest, no-nonsense craftsman, he often becomes dull and obvious: “Casting for movies is a tricky business . . . Actors don’t take every part they’re offered . . . Chemistry between actors is important, as is relative age and difference in size.”
He describes how he auditioned actors: “I didn’t give them much direction at first, but if they were in the ball park physically but blew the reading, I’d make a few suggestions and have them do the speech again.”
This has the sound of a man talking into a tape recorder, certainly not the writing style of a published novelist, and Sayles’ films are much better than you would assume from reading this book.
On screenwriting, Sayles endorses the conventional Hollywood wisdom of plot construction and the manipulation of audience emotion that make so many American movies predictable and repetitive: surprising, particularly when you recall the structure of the “Secaucus Seven.” “By the end of the first half-hour, they better know what the game is and who the players are . . . all the basic stuff should be established.” That tape-recorder voice again.
It is disappointing that a man who has bravely elected to work outside the system should be ready to accept Hollywood and Hollywood audiences on their own terms, at least in his advice to others.
On the credit side, Sayles demonstrates a thorough grasp of the techniques of his trade and sets them out simply and clearly. But if you’re interested in the spirit and magic and poetry of movie making--the bits he leaves out--I recommend you read Luis Bunuel’s “My Last Breath” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Sculpting in Time,” then watch Francois Truffaut’s “Day for Night” and Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2.”