Every picture does not tell a story. As digital effects have become more wizardly, Hollywood’s plots have grown thinner and its characters more shopworn. Which is why Lone Star, a sprawling, intricate tale of murder, mystery, and incest set on the Tex-Mex border, left audiences as grateful as desert wanderers slaking their thirst at a lush oasis. Lone Star (which interweaves the lives of more than 10 characters) not only had a cast that included perennial hipster Kris Kristofferson as a small-town sheriff and new hunk on the block Matthew McConaughey as his deputy, it had story to spare — novelistic, the critics called it. When the film came out last June, writer, director, and sometime actor John Sayles, 46, found himself with the biggest hit of an 18-year directorial career that has been long on accolades but sometimes short on box office success. ”Some of my early movies had long runs in art-house cities like Seattle, but this one played in places like Dallas and Houston,” he says. Shot for just $5 million, Lone Star has grossed $12.8 million, a figure that may grow if the Academy finally rewards America’s most resolutely maverick filmmaker with a Best Director nomination.
In 1996, more and more moviegoers were taken with the offbeat stories of Lone Star, Fargo, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and Big Night — all fresh alternatives to studio blockbusters. And in an era when last year’s indie wunderkind is too often this year’s studio sell-out, Sayles’ rugged self-reliance sets a worthy example. ”John stands apart,” says John Pierson, author of the indie-world survey, Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes. ”He cuts a fantastic figure in the way he’s handled his career.”
Sayles has often been ahead of the curve. His first film, 1978’s $60,000 Return of the Secaucus Seven, paved the way for The Big Chill; 1983’s lesbian love story, Lianna, predated the boom in gay indie cinema by a decade. But Lone Star’s release seemed as timely as a Nightline segment — a cinematic response to politicians intent on sealing U.S. borders. ”One thing I was trying to get at,” says Sayles, ”is that if you define America as a Christian, Anglo-Saxon country, you’re ignoring a lot of history. The idea of Pat Buchanan calling for forces to go down there and build a wall — that’s a paranoia that has to be dealt with.”
Although he makes his home in upstate New York, with his companion and producing partner Maggie Renzi, Sayles refuses to cut himself off from Hollywood, where screenwriting and script-doctoring assignments (like a gig on Apollo 13) provide seed money for his own projects. ”I’m not antagonistic toward Hollywood, but most of what I want to make isn’t appropriate for a major studio,” he says. Which is why Sayles is now in Mexico prepping his next film, Men With Guns, on his own dime. He calls it ”kind of a road movie,” and he’s going to film it in Spanish. It should be easy to find in theaters next year — just look for the movie that sounds unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.