John Sayles is a long way from that day 18 years ago when he took the $40,000 he had in the world — bounty from his screenwriting jobs — and used it to fund his first directorial effort, “Return of the Secaucus Seven.”
“I was catapulted from obscurity to near-obscurity,” Sayles said, in typically self-deprecating fashion, to the audience Friday at a Writers Guild Foundation tribute in his honor. ” ‘Secaucus’ did very well — maybe because it came out the same year as ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ ”
To the writers gathered to hear him, Sayles is an iconoclastic figure, a screenwriter and director who not only “marches to a different drummer but brings his whole orchestra,” said foundation president John Furia Jr. as he presented Sayles with the organization’s 1997 Career Achievement Award. Furia described his guest of honor as “a writer of significance, style and protean excellence.”
It was easy to observe that Sayles — a native of Schenectady, N.Y., dressed down in a faded denim shirt, his sleeves rolled up — was a little uncomfortable with the hyperbole. He was more at ease discussing his early years as a fledgling screenwriter, when his own struggle for recognition paralleled the hardships of some of his troubled, working-world characters.
“When I was really young I didn’t know there were things like screenwriters,” Sayles told Leonard Maltin in an onstage interview. “I thought movies were made by cowboys — ‘You fall off the horse this time, you fall off the next.’ ”
He learned fast. Sayles has been responsible for 22 films, either as a writer or a director and often both. Five of them were shown at the Writers Guild Theater on Thursday and Friday as part of the Sayles tribute — “Baby It’s You” (1982), “The Brother From Another Planet” (1984), “The Lady in Red” (1979), “City of Hope” (1990) and his latest, “Men With Guns,” due for release next month by Sony Pictures Classics.
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who shot two of Sayles’ films, spoke at the tribute, as did veteran director Robert Wise and Kris Kristofferson, who starred in “Lone Star.”
“I was trying awkwardly to express my gratitude to John for resurrecting my acting career,” Kristofferson recalled. “I said to him, ‘Anytime you can use me, I’ll work for scale.’ He looked at me and said, ‘If you work for me, you will be working for scale.’ ”