This is an article from the Fall 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.

Sifting through a box in the John Sayles archive feels a bit like taking a private tour of the acclaimed writer-director’s brain. Students can see Sayles’s inspiration in stacks of yellow legal pads, each crammed front to back with story notes. They can sense his personality in the piles of testy business communications that Sayles and producer Maggie Renzi—who is also Sayles’s partner—had with difficult marketers and distributors and through candid photographs of Sayles goofing off on set. 

The collection—part of the Special Collection Library’s growing Mavericks of Film Collection—provides a vital resource for students, says Philip Hallman (’87), the film studies field librarian for Screen Arts and Cultures and the curator of the Screen Mavericks Archive. 

“Students have this perception of what they want to do,” Hallman says. “And as we get more of the archives into their hands, they begin to realize all that goes into producing a movie. 

“It’s not just about having a vision or writing a story or making it look a certain way on set,” Hallman says. “It’s about making lots of decisions and just keeping at it.” 

Outside the System

John Sayles made Return of the Secaucus 7 in 1979 for $40,000. He kept the budget low by shooting in a ski lodge that he rented for a dollar a day and in a bar that a friend of his ran. Made for a fraction of the cost of a Hollywood blockbuster, Return of the Secaucus 7was a hit, playing in theaters across the country and landing on a number of end-of-the-year Top 10 lists. The film launched Sayles’s film career and is credited with jumpstarting the American independent film movement, proving that you don’t need massive star power or a $100-million budget to be successful. All you need is a great story and to tell it well. 

Many of John Sayles's films feature working-class characters. The 1987 film Matewan(1987) follows the events of a miners' strike in a West Virginia town. This cap lamp from the film is now part of the Mavericks of Film Collection.

Nominated twice for Academy Awards in the Best Original Screenplay category, Sayles has built a career outside of the studio system, financing, writing, and directing 18 feature films and working with actors like Angela Bassett, John Cusack, and Matthew McConaughey. 

With hundreds of boxes of material gathered over decades of work, Sayles and Renzi began looking for an institution that could both preserve their collection and use it to teach the next generation of film students. According to Hallman, a friend told the pair early on in their search: “There are a few places that you should look at, but you’ll end up at Michigan.” 

Michigan—already home to the archives of Orson Welles and Robert Altman, both outsider filmmakers who achieved popular success while insisting on their personal artistic visions—seemed like a natural fit. 

What It Takes

U-M Library Special Collections Curator and Archivist Kathleen Dow and a team of library archivists spent a year sorting through the collection, making finding aids and grouping boxes together by project and topic. But even before the archive had been fully cataloged, LSA students were given early access and a rare chance to explore items that no one other than Sayles and Renzi had seen in years. 

As part of a course in the Department of Screen Arts and Cultures, students worked to select content for an exhibit in Hatcher Library that took place earlier this year. Screen Arts and Cultures major Katherine Sherry, who was part of the class, says the project gave her a deeper understanding of what it takes to make a film independently. 

It wasn’t the first time Sherry had worked with an archive. She had participated in a similar class that worked with the Robert Altman collection in 2013, although she was the only one “brave enough to come back” for the class on Sayles. 

Finding material in either archive wasn’t easy. You couldn’t google where a particular item might be. Sherry and her classmates sifted through boxes, flipped through photographs, and read letters to search for content for the exhibit. It was time-consuming but rewarding work. 

“You don’t have to search really hard to find sources, generally because everything is digitized now,” Sherry says. “But you don’t have the same kind of ownership that working with an archive allows you to feel. It’s a very tactile experience.”  

The Next Generation

When the exhibit for the Sayles archive opened, Sherry toured it with Sayles and Renzi, which Sherry calls an “amazing experience.” 

The archive includes items from throughout Sayles’s life and career, including school papers, drafts of novels and short stories, personal photographs, marketing materials, film props, costumes, and this slate from the film Lone Star.

“With John and Maggie, they would look at something and then they would remember something,” Sherry says. “And just to hear their stories about what they went through to get these films made meant so much.” 

Sherry has broad interests, including museum studies, screenwriting, and set design. Working with the Screen Mavericks Archive has had an impact on how she thinks about all of those things, and she hopes that other students will take advantage of the tremendous resources available to them in LSA to expand their studies. 

“U-M’s film experience is unique,” Sherry says. “And I think that adding this archival aspect to the department’s program just offers so many new and rich opportunities. I can’t wait to see what comes out of it.”


Photos by Katie Barkel. Video by Natalie Condon.