Sayles/Renzi Film Festival

film festivalOn March 25th and 26th, we will be hosting acclaimed filmmaker John Sayles and producer Maggie Renzi on campus. In support of their visit, we will be sponsoring a John Sayles mini-film festival during the week prior to and during their visit. Sayles and Renzi will be attending classes, meeting with faculty, students, and staff during lunches and dinners, and will be giving a public talk after the screening of Amigo, one of their more recent films starring academy award winner Chris Cooper. In addition, Sayles, who in addition to having been nominated for two academy awards, is a MacArthur Award winner and a National Book Award finalist,  will be giving a public reading of some of his fiction. More about the film festival and their visit during our meeting.


From Sayle’s website: “Sayles’ career as a storyteller BEGAN WITH HIS FICTION. HIS FIRST NOVEL WAS Pride of the Bimbos (1975), FOLLOWED BY Union Dues (1978, nominated for National Book Award and National Critics’ Circle Award)). Los Gusanos (1990) CAME NEXT AND THEN short story collections The Anarchists’ Convention (1979) and Dillinger in Hollywood (2004)THE epic historical novel A Moment in the Sun  IS HIS MOST RECENT NOVEL, PUBLISHED IN 2011 BY MCSWEENY’S.

Fiction brought him to the attention of legendary director/producer Roger Corman, for whom he wrote screenplays for such B classics as Piranha, Battle Beyond the Stars and The Lady In RedContinuing to work with directors who had developed in the Corman school, he penned The Howling and Alligator, two works that helped establish a new, more self-aware horror film tradition.

Screenwriting is still Sayles’ primary profession, and credited or not, he has been able to work in a myriad of genres- Western (The Quick and the Dead), techno-thriller (Apollo 13), action (Men of War), monster flick (Mimic), romance, historical epic, animated features- crafting over sixty screenplays-for-hire over the years.  The job has allowed him to work with directors such as John Frankenheimer, Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, Sidney Pollack, Billie August, Ron Howard, Sam Raimi, Joe Dante, Rob Reiner, and James Cameron among others, and get a view of their storytelling process.

Secaucus 7 was a surprise success, one of a number of films in the early 80’s that began to be described as part of ‘the independent film movement’.  The Sundance Film Institute and its make-or-break Festival did not yet exist, but with each subsequent indie film Sayles and his collaborators found more company, and competition, at the theatrical box office.  Standing out from the crowd is always a challenge for a filmmaker, and Sayles’ work was notable not only for its rapid increase in technical mastery (breaking the $100,000 budget barrier didn’t hurt) but for the eclectic, ever-changing array of subject matter.  Lianna (1983) was a tight family drama about a wife and mother dealing with the realization that she is a lesbian, whileBaby It’s You (1983), Sayles’ first studio backed (and virtually abandoned) film, dealt with the life crisis of a Jewish girl catapulted from working-class Trenton to Sarah Lawrence college in the wild mid-60’s.  Cult classic Brother From Another Planet (1985) followed a three-toed alien stranded in Harlem attempting to ‘assimilate’.

During a lull in financing, he had the opportunity to direct three early rock videos for Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA, I’m on Fire and Glory Days.

Finally able to raise just enough money to shoot Matewan (1987) an extremely ambitious low-budget pseudo-Western about a bitter, violent coal miners’ strike of 1920, Sayles continued to explore different territory each time out.   Eight Men Out (1988), based on Eliot Asinof’s classic non-fiction account, explored the Black Sox Scandal of the 1919 World Series, while City of Hope (1990) is set in a decaying, eastern-urban city and features a complex web of politics and crime that foreshadows the HBO series The Wire.   Passion Fish (1992)a sadVespa-portrait-e1333472182505, romantic trip to Cajun country in Louisiana for a story of two women who help each other rebuild their lives, won Sayles his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Sayles’ first feature shot outside the U.S was The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), based on a children’s book about a young girl descended from a selkie (seal-woman).  Lone Star (1996),also garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, took place in a town on the Texas-Mexico border and dealt with race, memory and legend.   Even further afield was Men With Guns (Hombres Armados, 1997), a political parable set in a fictional Latin American country (nominated as Best Foreign Language Film for the Golden Globes).  With dialogue principally in Spanish, it remains one of the few instances where the long tradition of foreign directors coming to Hollywood and working in English has been reversed.

Limbo (1999), another studio-backed film, took Sayles to Alaska, ‘where Nature is big and people are small’ and provoked controversy everywhere it played with its 70’s-style open ending.  The next picture, Sunshine State (2000), took place at the extreme opposite end of the country in a multi-character tale of roots and real estate on a Florida tourist island.   As usual there were familiar faces from other of Sayles’ films as well as newcomers.  Over the years he has been able to work with excellent actors on several different stories, actors like David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Morton, Angela Bassett, Mary McDonnell, Gordon Clapp, Mary Steenbergen, Vanessa Martinez, Bill Cobbs, Susan Lynch-  the list goes on.

One of Sayles’ short stories became the mico-budgeted Casa de los Babies (2003), shot in Acapulco with a knockout American/Mexican cast.  Silver City, rushed into production for the election year of 2004, was much more specific in its politics than previous outings, and marked his fourth collaboration with noted cinematographer Haskell Wexler.

Honeydripper (2007), about the origins of rock and roll in the deep South, was shot in Georgiana, Alabama, where country legend Hank Williams grew up. Danny Glover, Charles Dutton, Stacey Keach, R&B legend Mabel John, singer-songwriter Keb Mo and Austin guitar sensation Gary Clark Jr. combined their talents for a feel-good movie with a memorable soundtrack, winning an NAACP Image Award for best independent film.   His latest film,Amigo (2011) deals with a suppressed aspect of our history, the Philippine-American War, and was nominated for the Filipino equivalent of the Oscar in several categories.

Sayles continues his work for hire on features and television series, as well as writing original scripts.  He will be shooting his 18th feature, currently titled Go for Sisters, this summer.


Maggie Renzi has been John Sayles’ creative partner since 1978 and she has produced nearly all of his movies.

From Maggie Renzi’s page: She has also acted in many of them. Renzi and Sayles were students together at Williams College in the early 1970s, and have been together since 1973.

Before becoming a fulltime producer Renzi had worked as a bookstore clerk, a pediatric receptionist, a substitute teacher, a casting assistant, a talent agent’s assistant, and for two years as a salad chef in Southern California. She began her acting career as a child at the Williamstown Theater Festival, where she continued to perform into her twenties. Renzi began her professional association with Sayles when she played a leading role in his first film,The Return of the Secaucus Seven, where she was also Unit Manager and Assistant Editor.

For John Sayles, Maggie Renzi has produced Lianna, The Brother from Another Planet,Matewan, City of Hope, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, Men With Guns,Limbo, Sunshine State, Silver City, Honeydripper, and Amigo.

In addition to mastering the highly specialized craft of producing thematically ambitious films on small budgets, under often adverse conditions, Renzi has made key creative contributions to many of Sayles’ films-suggestMaggie-on-Amigo-Set1ing that Louisiana was the perfect location for Passion Fish, for example, and discovering the novel by Rosalie K. Fry that Sayles adapted as The Secret of Roan Inish.

Since her linchpin performance as Kate, who hosts the weekend gathering in The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Maggie Renzi has also played featured roles in many of the movies she has produced. She is especially memorable as Sheila the friendly neighbor in Lianna, as the social worker Noreen in The Brother From Another Planet, as the Italian immigrant wife Rosaria in Matewan, and as the American tourist glued to her guidebook in Men With Guns. She also appeared in Jonathan Demme’s film Swing Shift (1984) and in Key Exchange(1985).

“It’s pretty interesting to have a record of yourself aging on film.” Renzi says. “In Secaucus Seven I was 28 years old and I weighed 118 pounds. By the time I saw myself in Passion FishI thought, ‘I think I’m gonna wait until I’m a genuine old lady before I go in front of a camera again.’ Also, I really like producing. It’s where I am most fully myself at work, more than I am as an actress.”

In 2000 Renzi produced, in partnership with Sarah Green and Martha Griffin, Karyn Kusama’s acclaimed debut feature Girlfight. The film went on to win several international festival awards (including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance) and the Independent Spirit award as Best First Feature. The film’s star, Michelle Rodriguez, also won critical acclaim and several awards for her performance as a young Latina pursuing a boxing career. Co-Executive Produced by Sayles and Jonathan Sehring of IFC Films, Girlfight featured Jaime Tirelli (Hector in The Brother From Another Planet) as the heroine’s show-me trainer.

According to director Karyn Kusama, “Maggie has a very dynamic personality,” “so she moves things through when most people couldn’t. She’s persuasive and charismatic. Those are very important qualities for someone who has to be diplomatic with a host of different people, and at times forceful with those same people.”

“Different producers have different styles,” Renzi asserts. “Mine is very hands on. Even now, I’ve been doing it for twenty years, I’m still up and on the set at morning call and I eat with everyone else and I wrap out the day with everyone else. My job is really about fulfilling the director’s vision. I think particularly as a woman it’s taken me a long time to really sit in my own chair. But also it doesn’t really suit the independent style to be too much of a show-off about being a producer.”

Most recently, Renzi was an Executive Producer with Sayles on the Alejandro Springall movie, entitled Morirse esta en Hebreo or My Mexican Shivah.


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