John Sayles, the chairman of the board of independent filmmakers, was last here three years ago to show his movies “Men With Guns (Hombres Armados)” and “Honeydripper” at the Binational Independent Film Festival.
This time, he’s returning at the behest of the festival’s director, Cesar Alejandro. But the 60-year-old filmmaker won’t be showing any of his movies.
He’ll read from his new, 968-page historical novel, “A Moment in the Sun,” which covers a five-year period at the turn of the 19th century that marked the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of American imperialism, with the three-year Philippine-American war as a backdrop.
The free reading — at 4 p.m. May 14 at the El Paso Public Library, 501 N. Oregon — will focus on a chapter with local ramifications. “A couple of my soldiers end up at Fort Bliss,” Sayles said by phone from his office in New York. Race is one of the threads in the book. The soldiers in question are black, stationed at the post.
“They are composites of guys,” Sayles explained. “I got regimental histories of a couple of the 25th Infantry (Colored), which was a regular outfit. It was scattered around the West. That’s what they did with African-American soldiers. ... A bunch were at Fort Bliss.”
Sayles, 60, known for films such as “Lone Star,” “Eight Men Out” and “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” writes all of his own scripts and has authored several books, including “Union Dues” and “Los Gusanos.”
But, as he noted, “I make my living as a writer for hire,” or script doctor, having rewritten screenplays for several movies, including “Apollo 13” and “The Fugitive.” The novel grew out of writing his 17th and newest film, “Amigo” (formerly “Baryo”), due this August, which is set during the Philippine-American war.
“It started with a screenplay, but it turned into a much bigger story,” he said. The more he wrote, the more he realized it would make a better novel than a movie, at least for a guy who makes his movies on small budgets. “I thought, ‘Nobody’s ever gonna give us money to make this. It’s too ambitious. It’s not something you can make on a low budget,” he said.
The book languished until Writers Guild of America strike in 2007-2008, which left Sayles unemployed. He wrote most of it over an eight-month period during the strike, crafting about a chapter a week, but only after he’d done exhaustive research, including diaries, letters, books and other material from the period.
Now he’s out reading excerpts on a cross-country tour with longtime companion and producing partner, Maggie Renzi, who is posting photos and notes from their Prius-fueled excursion at johnsaylesbaryo.blogspot.com.
“It’s kind of like doing theater if you’re a movie actor,” Sayles said of the road trip. “The actors I know who do theater say it’s a much more intimate and personal experience. You’re not just sending (the book) out into the void. You’ve got an audience there.”
It’s also a way to support independently owned book stores. Returning to El Paso is a way to promote the book and the Binational Independent Film Festival, held each January in El Paso and Juárez. Sayles is one of its advisors.
“I like the idea of that film festival,” he said, noting both El Paso and Juárez are “starving for stuff like that. Not enough (grassroots) stuff comes through.”
That's music to Alejandro's ears. "Both John and Maggie are part of our advisory board, and every year they give us very good suggestions to bring to El Paso," Alejandro said. "Additionally, I've always admired John and Maggie, that admiration turned into a beautiful friendship that has blossomed through the years, and one that I'm very proud of.
"The reason for bringing him: do we really need any? El Paso needs more of these type of events, so let's keep on doing it, don't you think?"