March 08, 1993 12:00 PM

THE MAYOR IS WEARING A TUX, HIS WIFE GOLD LAMÉ, AND 400 other residents of Jennings, La. (pop. 11,305), are equally resplendent for the gala premiere of the movie Passion Fish, which was filmed here. Amid the sequins, satin and silk, one rangy figure stands out, rugged in jeans and a half-buttoned work shirt, sleeves rolled up to reveal well-developed biceps. It’s easy to believe that this 6’4″ hunk once worked at a sausage factory, hoisting 40-pound slabs of salami. What’s more suprising is that he also wrote, directed and edited Passion Fish, a film that has earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay (his second) and its star, Mary McDonnell, a nomination for Best Actress.

Since his $4.40-an-hour stint in that Boston meat-packing factory 20 years ago, John Sayles, 42, has become one of the country’s most accomplished independent filmmakers. But by Hollywood standards, he’s still toiling at minimum wage. In the past 13 years he has made eight movies, beginning with Return of the Secaucus Seven (a $60,000 precursor to The Big Chill), at a total cost of $21 million. That’s not even half of what Jack Nicholson earned playing the Joker in Batman. And at a time when the average Hollywood movie costs $26 million, Passion Fish, which traces the relationship between a paralyzed soap opera star (McDonnell) and her hired nurse (Alfre Woodard), was produced for a mere $3.1 million.

“I don’t live in a world where status is attached to the budget of your movie,” says Sayles, who splits his time between a row house in Hoboken, N.J., and a farm in upstate New York. As for the few critics who carp that Passion Fish is too long at 2 hours, 10 minutes, Sayles says. “II you’re working at McDonald’s and they hire you to make quarter-pounders and you keep giving people two thirds of a pound, you’re going to get fired. But I don’t feel like I’m working for McDonald’s.” Nor is he a slave to box office tallies. “I ran into people all the time who are paralyzed by the fact that they might fail,” he says. “To me, there’s no failure. This is all an exploration.”

Established actors are willing to join that exploration, even at union scale. “You don’t do a Sayles movie for money,” says McDonnell. “You do it for the incredible text and for what you know will be a great movie.” Woodard agrees. “You wish time stood still and you were in a vacuum together,” she says of working with Sayles. But, she adds, the vacuum could stand a bit of refurbishing. Whereas most movie sets offer elegant catered meals, Woodard reports good-naturedly that during her six weeks shooting Passion Fish “my family lived like vagabonds, crouching on the floor of a Holiday Inn over a steamer, eating rice.”

Sayles runs his private life just as frugally, flying coach and driving a Subaru. “John helps us all stay on the straight and narrow and out of the trap of materialism,” says Maggie Renzi, 41, who has lived with Sayles for 20 years, producing his films and acting in many of them. “Most temptations don’t have any call for him.” Save for the temptation of work: Sayles has written three novels, a collection of short stories, a book on filmmaking, more than two dozen screenplays, a pair of one-act plays and the occasional essay. He also developed Shannon’s Deal, a short-lived but acclaimed NBC series about a down-on-his-luck lawyer, directed three Bruce Springsteen videos and established a side career as an actor. (He is currently onscreen, albeit briefly, in Malcolm X and Matinee.) Plus, says Renzi, he is a proficient cook and “last year was big into tree identification.” If all that makes Sayles sound like something of a genius, he is—officially so—having won in 1983 the so-called genius award from the MacArthur Foundation, which provided him with a tax-free income of $32,000 a year for five years.

Sayles, who likes to say he is now “an ex-genius,” was precocious from the start. The son of schoolteachers, he grew up in Schenectady, N.Y. By the fourth grade he was reading The Caine Mutiny and, soon afterward, writing stories that were, he says, “mostly rip-offs of TV shows like The Untouchables and starred people from the neighborhood.” As a high school jock, he got some insight into the outcasts and losers who would people his films by playing basketball on a team that lost 48 straight games.

At Williams College in Massachusetts, Sayles discovered foreign films and took up acting. He played the Indian in a summer-stock production of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lennie in Of Mice and Men and, he says, “other large guys who weren’t too swift.” After graduation, Sayles was unsure what he wanted to do next but certain that he “didn’t I want to join a corporation or sign on as a permanent employee.” Safe from the draft (and a war he opposed) because of a perforated eardrum and degenerative disks in his back, he worked as a day laborer in the South before settling in East Boston, where he started dating Renzi (whom he’d known casually when both were Williams students), joined the meat-packers union and began sending his short stories to every magazine he could find. “I’d gel a rejection from, like, Ar Arrad,” he recalls, “saying we don’t understand why you’re sending us your work. We’re the Armenian national quarterly, and there are no Armenians in your story.” He was still in the A’s when an editor at the Atlantic Monthly suggested he expand a 50-page story into a novel that became Pride of the Bimbos, a comic saga about an exhibition baseball team that plays in drag.

After publishing a collection of short stories and a second novel, Union Dues, which was nominated for both the National Book and National Book Critics Circle awards, he began working as a screenwriter for B-moviemeister Roger Corman, turning out scripts like Piranha, a bare-bones Jaws. In 1978, with $40,000 saved from screenwriting fees, Sayles hired a group of friends for $80 a week and shot his first movie in 25 days. “I still hadn’t looked through a camera when I made Secaucus Seven,” he says, “but at least I’d been on a movie set.” He was a quick study: TIME, The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times voted the movie one of the year’s 10 best, and it won an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

Over the past 12 years, Sayles has continued to channel the money he earns for scripts such as The Howling and Clan of the Cave Bear into the movies he writes and directs—among them, The Brother from Another Planet, about a black extraterrestrial who lands in Harlem; Eight Men Out, about baseball’s infamous Black Sox scandal: and City of Hope, a dense parable about urban despair. Still, with his movies breaking even at best, he has found it harder and harder to finance his films. (“People who hand out money for movies look at us and say, ‘Lightning didn’t strike this guy in eight tries. Forget it.’ “) Then, too, he refuses to trade the right of final cut for studio funding. Baby, It’s You, the story of a doomed romance between mismatched teenagers, was the one film he made under the control of a studio, and he and Paramount Pictures clashed even before the cameras rolled, back in 1983. Studio execs wanted a name actor like John Travolta to play the delinquent high schooler; when Sayles convinced them the Saturday Night Fever star was too old, they countered with Joey Travolta. (Eventually the part went to Sayles’ first choice, Vincent Spano.)

If Sayles cedes control to anyone, it’s Renzi, who, whether she is reminding him of his schedule or pointing out that a shirt button is undone, prefaces each directive with “Sweetie.” In response, Sayles will affectionately slip a finger into Renzi’s belt loop and pull her toward him. “I feel blessed every day I’m with John,” Renzi says. Neither wants children. “There’s no shortage of kids in the world,” says Sayles, “so if you don’t have a burning need to have your own family, don’t do it. As for marriage, the word that always comes into my head is ‘unnecessary.’ ”

Sayles and Renzi are now working on the screen version of The Secret of Roan Inish, a children’s book about a girl who believes her baby brother, who was lost at sea, may be living among the seals off the coast of Ireland. As usual, it’s a struggle: With only hall of the movie”s $6 million budget raised, production might not be completed before the seals, now bring trained, begin to molt. Also as usual, Sayles will improvise some solution to the problem: When he couldn’t afford enough extras to fill the stadium in Eight Men Out, he populated the stands with life-size photographs of the location manager. “Every time out, people like your movie or they don’t like your movie,” he says. “It makes a lot of money or it doesn’t. I don’t take any of that personally. For me, it’s such a triumph just to get a movie financed and made, that the very existence of these movies is success enough.”

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