Cybersurfing: Sayles on Sci-Fi

In an interview plugging his latest movie, writer-director John Sayles briefly talks about some of his genre work. Before moving into independent art-house films, Sayles wrote scripts for low-budget exploitation efforts like THE LADY IN RED and ALLIGATORY. More recently, he has contributed drafts to big-budget fantasy films like THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES.

Of course, the drawback is that he can’t dream big when it comes to his own films – but at least he has an outlet for his imagination as a Hollywood writer-for-hire. His unproduced script for Jurassic Park IV has passed into blogger legend thanks to leaked reports that it features a race of genetically modified, machine gun-toting tyrannosaurs. He also once wrote a movie for another Corman alumnus, James Cameron. “That was great,” Sayles recalls. “I was like, wow, I can write stuff that hasn’t even been invented yet and if Cameron likes it, he’ll invent the technology. It was a pretty good science-fiction movie called Brother Termite, about how bulb-headed aliens have secretly been running the country for 50 years.”
More recently he co-wrote current fantasy hit The Spiderwick Chronicles. He’s worked on plenty of other big studio movies too, but as often happens, Sayles’s work ends up being changed to such a degree that he doesn’t always take credit.
“What happens is, I read the final script over and say: first of all, do I want my name on this? Second of all, do I deserve to be on this?” he explains. “On Spiderwick I thought, ‘Yeah, there’s enough of what I did left for me to be credited.’ But sometimes I’ve read scripts and within ten pages I know there’s nothing left. I did a couple of drafts of The Mummy when Joe Dante was going to direct it. There were 15 writers on The Mummy, including George Romero twice, and I read it and thought they did a good job, but the only thing left from my version was the sand and mummies.”
Given that credited screenwriters get residual fees, that’s a typically principled approach, especially when you consider that Sayles turned down a credit on a script he wrote for Steven Spielberg. The film? E.T.
Any regrets? He laughs. “No, no, not at all. I read that and was like, ‘Boy, this is really well written.’ Besides, any similarity to my work was because I got all the research from Steven Spielberg. It was research he’d done for Close Encounters, so it wasn’t like it was something I’d invented.”
He pauses. “Of course, it would have been nice if they’d sent me some money, but, then, a lot of people could send me money.”

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