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Sayles' films reflect his independence

SEATTLE -- Steven Spielberg may be more financially successful and Martin Scorsese may be more critically acclaimed, but no director of the generation that has dominated American filmmaking for the past 20 years is more universally admired than John Sayles.

The even-dozen films he's made since 1980 have made his name virtually synonymous with filmmaking integrity and independence, and so many hundreds of young filmmakers have been inspired by his example that he's truly the Godfather of the American Independent Film Movement.His 12th film, "Limbo," began its national theatrical run following its U.S. premiere in the 25th Seattle International Film Festival, where his career was also honored with a special in-person tribute, "An Evening With John Sayles."

"There's always that quality about a tribute, isn't there? It assumes your best is behind you," he said of the experience. "I guess if I let myself think about it very hard, or took it seriously, it might be intimidating. But I just take it as a compliment, and let it go at that."

Still, it's been quite a career. In the '80s, he followed up "Secaucus" with a lesbian love story ("Lianna"), a college romance ("Baby, It's You"), a sci-fi meditation on race relations ("Brother From Another Planet"), an epic about the American labor movement ("Matewan") and a drama about the Black Sox baseball scandal ("Eight Men Out").

In the '90s, he made an inner-city political drama ("City of Hope"), a woman's buddy movie ("Passion Fish"), an Irish fairy tale ("The Secret of Roan Inish"), a murder mystery set on the Texas border ("Lone Star"), a Spanish-language political drama ("Men With Guns") and a Conradian survival story set in Alaska ("Limbo").

Each has been a highly personal film with weighty themes done in a different style with name actors and Hollywood-class production values; each has been produced outside the studio system (even if some were financed by studios); each has been, in some way, better than the last. How has he managed such a feat?

"The trick to having a movie career is in not losing money. You can almost always make another film if your last one made a little money. So I make low-budget movies. 'Limbo' was studio-financed (Sony) but the budget was only $8 million. The studio probably can't even remember the last time it released a movie that cost them so little."

He also credits his creative longevity with the fact that -- unlike the normal, super-stressful, heart-attack-inducing Hollywood filmmaking ordeal -- making a film is, for him, "almost always a good experience."

"I not only work with people I respect, but with people that I like. That seems to make a big difference," he said.

Sayles has, in fact, achieved a filmmaking stability that has few precedents in the modern era. He displays none of the symbols of movie success. He still lives in Hoboken, N.J., and on his farm in Upstate New York. He works with the same actors and technicians again and again. Both "Secaucus" (1980) and "Limbo" (1999) have the same producer (longtime companion Maggie Renzi) and star (David Strathairn).

While his contemporaries are thinking in terms of daring camera angles or showy sequences that wink at "The Battleship Potemkin," Sayles is invariably struggling with how to tell a particular story that has captured him.

"Usually an idea just comes to me out of nowhere, and shapes itself into a story and just won't let me go, and I think, 'What is the best way for me to get rid of this thing?'

" 'Limbo' is a good example. It started with the concept of a fisherman who was the sole survivor of a ship that went down -- which was a true story that someone told me. The idea of this character feeling responsibility for what happened, and needing redemption -- naturally got me thinking of (Joseph) Conrad, who I love.

"But the idea kept working on me, and developed along the lines of 'how people take risks in their lives,' so that I finally had the characters and story but no (setting). Gradually, I thought of Alaska, where I'd attended a conference about 10 years ago and which had seemed to me a place where people go to make a fresh start. It's also a place in some cultural transition. So it finally dawned on me that it was a good place to tell this particular story and give it added depth."

Still and all, you have to wonder. Why, as he edges the half-century mark, does he keep doing it? After the success of "Lone Star" in 1996, he could have cut a deal with any studio in Hollywood on his own terms. He could be collecting $10 million fees making $100 million epics.

"I'm very tired. But I do what I do to make the kind of films I need to make."