A realist wrapped in fantasy

John Sayles (right) is a romantic with a social conscience. In the week that 'The Secret of Roan Inish' (top) opens, he talks to John Lyttle about the future of intelligent - and earnest - film-making

John Sayles, imposingly tall and muscular, sits in the sunlit office above Soho's Wardour Street, the beaten heart of Britain's film industry, wearing an outfit of checked shirt, black, practical boots and washed-out denim - almost identical to the clothes he wore for his in- joke bit part as a hired heavy in Joe Dante's Matinee: "A gag thing," Sayles says, "done in two days." Denim so pale, so perfectly washed that the material has lost all connotations of cowboy roughness. The desired impression should be blue collar, but, although friendly and down-to- earth - as with the man himself - finally it's just, well, a touch too tailored, a little too smooth: the Artist as Ordinary, the Ordinary as Artist.

This accords with Sayle's direction of the about-to-be released The Secret of Roan Inish, which manages to be both plain hewn and - sometimes painfully - literary (if you were previously unaware that the director also maintained a second career as a novelist, Roan Inish would tip you the wink). Call it Unmagical Realism and a rare misfire. "It's also," Sayles sighs, "my first movie not about Americans."

True. He's in town to promote the Celtic fairy story of enchanted seals and lost babies before flying back to the States to oversee the launch of the modern western Lone Star - it will open to raves and bigger box office than the independently financed and independently minded maverick is accustomed to - and he's patient and polite as this dissenting voice offers that the Irish actually like their stories to meander, magical, lush and colourful, rather than proceed at a careful, pragmatic, though ravishingly photographed, pace (two-time Oscar winner Haskell Wexler was behind the camera).

Sayles nods. "I really liked Rosalie Fry's book, particularly the 'Selkie' story. It's very similar to Native American folklore, the idea of getting to know the soul of the animal you hunt - in this case, a seal. Those myths come out of taking the attributes of the animal and using them for themselves; hence the wolf clan, the bear clan. But those legends are very practical. They had to be. Ultimately it's about catching the animal - the spirit of the deer gives you deer to eat. So Roan Inish attracted me because it's a very strong realist story wrapped in fantasy. Very much like Brother from Another Planet, which has this science fiction surface but a hard realist core about black life."

Immersing himself in other cultures and subcultures - usually ethnic, proletariat (or lower) - is a Sayles obsession: "I don't try to intrude. I work with the community. I get everyone together, tell them what we're doing, ask them to be involved. It's about contribution." See Matewan, which tells not only of unionisation but brotherhood in the coal mines of West Virginia in 1920, or Eight Men Out, set a year earlier and revolving around how and why the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series and were banned from baseball for life. Or take City of Hope, weaving its way through a huge, interconnecting cast of down-trodden or dead-beat characters to make its points, and state its message, about America and urban decay.

The movies may appear primarily sociological - "genre pictures", Sayles comments, "that don't live by genre expectations" - but they are peculiarly romantic, too, a quality routinely overlooked by supporters and detractors alike. The critic David Ansen says Sayles is "superbly attuned to every nuance of class", while Pauline Kael pondered, "His scripts are thoughtfully constructed, with neatly placed shards of irony, but I almost always come out of Sayles movie feeling: Is that all?" Sayles is drawn to outsiders - the lesbian Lianna, the alien Brother from Another Planet, the drunken, disabled actress who is a Passion Fish out of water, the bad boy Sheik who wants the Uptown Girl in Baby, It's You - and it may be more a matter of temperament than politics.

Certainly, after years of churning out smart, energetic trash such as Piranha and Battle Beyond the Stars for Roger Corman, his 1980 directorial debut, Return of the Secaucus Seven, lays bare Sayles's born-in-the-Sixties sensibility. The layered story of an activist reunion, Return is socially conscientious but with feeling, a treatise double-crossed by loss, unrequited love and infinite regret: The Big Warm, if you will. It's a mixture - or a clash - that makes Sayles's movies both uncomfortable and compelling viewing, while saving them from condescension.

Although Castle Rock / Turner are behind Lone Star, Sayles's vision - intelligent, adult and earnest - remains a tricky proposition. Each project is a gamble. "I still chase after finance," he says, putting up "my own money", his own home, to propel scripts into production. This in an era when the media tells us that "difficult" material is in vogue - Kids, Spanking the Monkey, Fargo - that independent companies are coining enough cash to almost qualify as "minimajor" studios, and Hollywood itself has bought up Miramax and learnt to Xerox the offbeat. What else are The Usual Suspects and Things to do in Denver When you're Dead but the better budgeted, less bloody and well brought up bastard children of Reservoir Dogs? Margin and mainstream wed and bed and Sayles stays in a kind of no man's land.

Which he knows. "What independent film making is now, more and more, is your way into mainstream film making. They're calling cards. Your first picture is an independent release. Your second picture you're directing Sylvester Stallone." Sayles shrugs. "It's nice for the industry that they don't have to pay too much to try out new talent.

"When I started out there was an attempt to make sure that there was a political consciousness that went with the term 'independent film-making' and you simply can't do that anymore. I think the term is meaningless now." Sayles pauses, pours himself a Coke. "But you keep trying. You keep trying... Until you don't."

Spoken like a hardened romantic.

n 'The Secret of Roan Inish' is on general release from Friday

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