John Sayles biography

John Sayles

Date of Birth: September 28, 1950

Born in Schenectady, New York, John Sayles had no interest in academia in high school, preferring to immerse himself in sports such as baseball and football. He went on to Williams College, where in his spare time he joined a theater group and began taking part in plays, then graduated with a degree in psychology in 1972. In spite of his degree, Sayles decided to work in various blue collar jobs after college, taking a position as a factory worker, and later, as an orderly in a nursing home. Meanwhile, he began writing stories and sending them to magazines. Atlantic Monthly was so impressed by one that they suggested he turn it into a novel. He did, and Pride of the Bimbos was published in 1975. His second novel, Union Dues, was released in 1977, and in 1978 his first screenplay, Piranha , was produced. Sayles, who had returned to stage acting in between novels, took a small role in the film. Three more of his screenplays were produced in the next two years, giving Sayles enough money to finance his directing debut with his screenplay Return of the Seacaucus 7 (1980). Sayles won a Writer’s Guild Award for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen, as well as a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Screenplay.

In 1982, Sayles was awarded a “genius grant” from the McArthur Foundation. It amounted to a tax-free gift of $33,000 annually for the next five years. The money went towards financing his film, Brother From Another Planet (1984), which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. His 1992 film, Passion Fish, earned Sayles his first Oscar® nomination for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), the haunting tale of a small Irish girl who learns of a mysterious local legend involving an ancestor, was a box office and critical success. For his work Sayles won the International Critics Award at the Gérardmer Film Festival and was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards. Lonestar (1996) earned Sayles a second Oscar® nomination for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, as well as Lone Star Film & Television Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay, and a slew of other awards and nominations from film festivals around the world.

A prolific writer and detailed director, Sayles creates complete biographies to give to each of his actors about their character's life up to the point where each movie takes place. As Marcia Gay Harden told Tribute about her role in Sayles’ Casa de los Babys (2003), “John loves actors and he provides these bios for you, which have a lot of background about your character.” Her co-star, Darryl Hannah was also enthusiastic about working with Sayles, saying, “You are so fortunate when you get to work with John Sayles because he gives you so much of your background information, so you have all of the actor’s homework in terms of the history of the character.”

Sayles not only continues to direct and write screenplays, but also works as an actor when he has the time. His third novel, Los Gusanos, was published in 1991. He divides his time between his home in Hoboken, New Jersey and a farm in upstate New York.

John Sayles Filmography




  • The Alamo (2003)
  • Men with Guns (1997)
  • Lone Star (1996)
  • Men of War (1994)
  • The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)
  • Passion Fish (1992)
  • City of Hope (1991)
  • Breaking In (1989)
  • Eight Men Out (1988)
  • Matewan (1987)
  • Wild Thing (1987)
  • The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986)
  • The Brother From Another Planet (1984)
  • Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1983)
  • Lianna (1983)
  • The Challenge (1982)
  • The Howling (1981)
  • Alligator (1980)
  • Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
  • Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980)
  • The Lady in Red (1979)
  • Piranha (1978)

John Sayles Photo