'Roan Inish' director John Sayles

By Anne Thompson
February 24, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Critics seem pleasantly surprised by John Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Inish, a wee fable about one family’s encounters with the Selkies, seals out of Irish seafaring myth that can slip their skins and go forth as humans. Why? Maybe it’s because Sayles so smoothly slips his realist’s skin to reveal the fabulous fabulist within. He did it in 1984 with The Brother From Another Planet, then returned to the serious storytelling of Matewan, City of Hope, and 1992’s Passion Fish, which landed an Oscar nomination for its script. Still, Sayles has been too flexible for the mainstream to grasp. What is the truth about the actor-writer-director?

*He’s not Hollywood, he’s American. Raised in upstate New York, he lives in Hoboken, N.J., with producing-partner Maggie Renzi. Roan Inish, filmed on Ireland’s western coast, marked the first time in his nine-film career that he’s directed overseas. At 44, he still dresses like a college jock.

*But he does cash Hollywood checks… Castle Rock has bought the distribution rights to his next film, Lone Star, about ethnic relations on the Tex-Mex border.

*And doctor Hollywood scripts… Trained by Roger Corman in the ’70s (Sayles went on to pen Alligator and The Howling), today he’s a busy rewrite man on everything from The Quick and the Dead to Ron Howard’s upcoming Apollo 13. He’s currently developing a script set in the 1960s for Rob Reiner to direct.

*And love Hayley Mills. Among Sayles’ inspirations for Roan Inish were The Black Stallion and ”those pre-Disney Hayley Mills movies like Tiger Bay. The biggest risk of this movie was that it had a large part for a 10-year-old you don’t know, and we had no Hayley Mills or Jodie Foster. We had to find the kid.”

*Still, he doesn’t spring for F/X. Sayles did without morphing Selkies. ”We put grease on a seal skin,” he says, ”and there’s a woman underneath. We did stuff that could have been done in a Lon Chaney silent movie.”