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John Sayles talks about being a script doctor, his future projects and more


John Sayles

Here is the second part of our two-part interview with John Sayles (part one is here), to tie in with the home video release of The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot. In this part, he talks about his work as a script doctor, future Blu-Ray releases of his own films, and what he is currently working on.


It’s well known that you’ve been a script doctor for many years. You’ve said that you’ve taken your name off more films then you are credited on. Does that happen when it comes to a point where it’s going in a different direction, or is it that the contract is up? 

In the United States, the rule rather than the exception is more than one writer on a project. It’s much different in Europe, and I know in England and Australia it’s fairly rare that just multiple writers come in. From the beginning of the US film industry, it was “oh we’ll get this guy to do one,” and then somebody would come in for dialogue, and maybe a woman will come in and rewrite the woman characters, and blah blah blah. Sometimes you really feel like your contribution is not big enough to ask for credit, sometimes after you’ve written your drafts they go into a completely different direction and go with a different writer. That the writing changes so much that you don’t feel like it has a whole lot to do with what you wrote anymore, so you don’t ask for credit.

Every once in a while you just don’t like it and don’t want your name on it. There is this adjudication that can happen when you are in the Writers Guild if a movie is about to happen or it was just shot, the producers say “this who we want to give writing credit to” and they send it to every writer who ever touched that script and say “are you fine with this?” whether you’re on or off it. You can say you want to dump another writer off it, I don’t think they should share credit with me, I’m not given credit here but I think I deserve it. Then you have to write a self-serving statement that says basically you’ve written 40% of it that is just your input. If you are coming in on a project that is based on a novel, and even if the original draft wasn’t written very well and it’s still sort of based on that story, that first writer gets credit for inventing that story. Often you know you’re not going to get credit, but you know it from the beginning and other times its kind of up for grabs, and then you really have to decide if you think you deserve credit, and also if you think you want credit. It’s also money because there are residuals and things like that, and no matter how much work you did on a movie, you don’t get any more if your name is not it as one of the credited writers.

Apollo 13

Your most famous example of script doctoring is probably Apollo 13. Why didn’t you get credit on that? 

That was a tricky thing. I was brought in to actually bring it back closer to the story, to Jim Lovell’s book and what had happened. I got to talk to him and another astronaut and some science people, and brought some of the science back into it. But finally it’s the Apollo 13 story, and you are following it pretty closely. I felt if I had a female stowaway onboard [laughs] and they shot it, I would’ve gotten credit, but it would’ve made the movie a lousy movie. That was one of those instances where I’m really happy that I worked on that, proud of the movie and getting to be part of something that good. Getting credit would be nice, but there are things where I have gotten a credit but would rather not than have got to work on that and not gotten any credit.


Can I ask you about Night Skies? [Note: this project is what became E.T.] I read that the boy was supposed to be autistic, which would’ve been one of the first film depictions of somebody on the autism spectrum.

That was early on, it was kind of based on research Steven Spielberg had done when he was working on Close Encounters. He gave me a couple of books, one of them actually talked about the Men in Black which I later used in Brother From Another Planet. I already knew some of that UFO lore myself. I always saw the script that I did as kind of like John Ford’s Drums Along The Mohawk, except with E.T.s, kind of malevolent E.T.s, rather than Indians surrounding this isolated farmhouse. I think that Mel Gibson movie Signs has some elements, just in tone and theme, of what it might have been like.

I was interested in an autistic kid in that, people on the spectrum are sometimes better at some things than “regular” people are. They may be really good pattern thinkers or might be able to tell if it’s 1947 June the 5th and they would say Tuesday. They might have that kind of insight into some very specific things. I just felt like if there was one malevolent E.T., there was one benevolent E.T. who might want to save this kid, and the rest just want to take him apart to see how he works, because they sense something different about it. You always wonder why the Creature from the Black Lagoon is grabbing this human woman who must be as loathsome to look at to him as he is to us. Why are they interested in one of these people to kidnap them? I did a couple of drafts on Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic, he did something interesting with an autistic kid in that. He identifies more with these plucking insect creatures than he does with his very lovely old grandfather, so he isn’t very affected when the grandfather is eaten. That was softened some by the Weinstein Company, it was a more hardcore Guillermo/Buñuel type movie in Guillermo’s cut, there is some interesting stuff in that.


Can you say anything about the infamous Mummy film you wrote for Joe Dante? 

That was a studio kind of fishing for ”we own this property and we are thinking of doing a remake.” Joe had the Mummy being brought back and coming to live in the back room of a museum in Los Angeles. It was contemporary for when we wrote it, one of the executives at Universal said “What’s this contemporary stuff? Why don’t you make it a period movie like the original?” and Joe said “The original was a contemporary movie, it was just made in the ’30s, it was not a period movie in its day.” Basically at some point they decided to go into a totally different direction with it and with the Writers Guild adjudication, when they were ready to make it they sent me the script and I quickly looked at it and said “there is sand in this and bandages and Egyptians, but besides that isn’t much left of what I wrote,” so I didn’t ask for credit. But what was interesting was they also send you the list of the other writers who worked on it, and over a long period of time, many years, there were 13 to 15 different writers on it, including George Romero… TWICE with several writers in between. I hope he just sent the same script in and they had forgotten he had done a draft of it years and years earlier.


Any news for Blu-Rays of some of your films? because Matewan certainly needs one at some point. 

We are working on freeing up Matewan and The Secret of Roan Inish. What happens with these movies is the companies that release them go out of business, and they sell the rights to them to other companies which make a lot of business. In the case of Matewan, it was just given to a person who worked at the company that they probably owed money to. They may or may not have had the rights for a while, so we are just clearing up the rights. We are hoping to work something out with The Criterion Collection and get Matewan and some of the other movies out by them.


They would be a perfect choice, and I know you’ve worked with them before.

Just knowing someday we might get the rights available again. The company who did the original VHS did a kind of sloppy job transferring it, they did a one light transfer that they didn’t supervise. The opening scene is like eight candle power down in a mine. I think they just left the room and let the movie run. They put a gate on the soundtrack, so the gunshots and some of the dialogue is pretty muffled. When Haskell Wexler was still alive [he] did another good negative of it that’s there if anybody wants to make a really good Blu-Ray out of it. The quality will be much higher than what has been available on VHS. I did a yak track with Haskell,that will be an extra.


What are you working on now? is the Rosenberg film still on the cards?

We just didn’t get anybody interested in financing it, but I would still love to make it at some point. Let’s see, I’m working with John Hillcoat on a TV series called Electric Church, which if it goes will be about the rise of the religious right and TV evangelicals, starting in the ’70s and ’80s, so Tammy Faye, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robinson and that crowd, plus the political ramifications of that. I’ve got a western which we were about to shoot in New Mexico, and then “somebody” shut the US Government down and because a third of our locations were on Federal land, we kind of had to wrap and not shoot. We hope we will be able to keep our financing together—it was a loan, and loans have to be repaid, so when you add seven months’ hiatus to the loan, things often fall apart. That’s called I Pass This Way and will star Chris Cooper. I have a novel coming out in January called Yellow Earth, and I’m working on another novel, Jamie McGiverey, that’s based on a screenplay that we were never able to raise the money for. It starts at the battle of Culloden and ends at the battle of Quebec, so it’s another big historical novel that I’m hoping to keep down to around 500 pages.

The Rider

Have there been any films or TV shows you’ve been impressed with recently?

I don’t get to watch much when I’m working, and I’m working most of the time. Of last year’s crop, The Rider was one of my favourite movies. I liked Black Panther, having worked on those kinds of comic book movies some. That really paid off, and had a little more heart than many of them do, besides that it was just really, really well-made. I’m in the Academy and I get the screeners, and I really haven’t caught up, I’ve got a pile of them here. I’ve usually one and a half to two years behind on my screeners.

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