Saturday, September 5, 2020

This Day in Film History (‘Return of the Secaucus 7’ Boosts Indie Movement)

Sept. 5, 1980—With a simultaneous prominent spot at the Toronto Film Festival to go along with a wider release in the U.S., The Return of the Secaucus 7 marked a kind of coming-of-age for the American independent film industry. 

The directorial debut of John Sayleswho had paid his dues as a screenwriter and script doctor for horror honcho Roger Corman, was a low-budget affair with plenty of dialogue. He had expected it would be shown on an outlet like PBS rather than movie theaters, and its original subpar performance on its original New York release did not help matters.

But more successful runs in Boston, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles led to a more successful return to the Big Apple, along with Top Ten citations for the year 1980 in Time, Roger Ebert's Sneak Previews, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

Sayles would be the first to tell interviewers he was not the first filmmaker to go outside the Hollywood system—John Cassavetes, for instance, he noted, encouraged “this feeling that there’s no rule that says you can’t make a good movie without studio money and somehow get it on a screen somewhere.”

But The Return of the Secaucus 7 came out when the VCR created an at-home audience for prior art-house mainstays like, say, the French new wave. Theaters suddenly needed to replace them. The modest but real profits that Sayles generated (on a budget of only $40,000) demonstrated that success in this form was indeed possible.

That same year, with Robert Redford helping to establish the nonprofit Sundance Institute, an infrastructure was being put in place that would provide resources that would enable directors to tell their stories as they wished—and provide an alternative to the screenplay-for-hire financing mode that Sayles followed when he was starting out in the industry.

For his directorial debut, Sayles shot his script about seven college friends who come back together a decade after their arrest on the way to a massive protest. The title is a wink at the infamous “Chicago 7” trial that encapsulated the student unrest of the Sixties. In contrast, Sayles’ group has been arrested before the big protest in DC—in Secaucus, New Jersey, for heaven’s sake!—and they’re unlikely to be remembered in the annals of their time.

With males and females thrown together, the goings-on end up having sex with one another—except for one member who stands apart from it all.

Now that I’ve told you the plot, you must be thinking, “Where have I heard that before?” And yes, Sayles’ film does remind many people of The Big Chill, which was released three years later.

Lawrence Kasdan, the writer-director of The Big Chill, has stated that he never saw The Return of the Secaucus 7. Whatever the case may be, it is true that Sayles (directly or indirectly, through The Big Chill) kick-started an entire genre best thought of as "friends reunion" movies and productions, including The Decline of the American Empire (1986); Peter's Friends (1992); Everything Relative (1996); Indian Summer (1993); Grand Canyon (1991); The Myth of Fingerprints (1997); The Men's Club (1986); and Beautiful Girls (1996).

To adhere to the self-imposed spartan budget, Sayles followed several practices:

*Maximize a single locale. In the book Off-Hollywood, Sayles recalled: “I decided to make the film at a ski lodge, which was cheap to rent out-of-season. We were able to use it as our set, as well as lodging for the crew and actors.”

*Use individuals in multiple roles. Sayles himself was not only writer, director, and editor, but played motel clerk Howie. Offscreen partner Maggie Renzi acted in effect as business partner, too: Not only playing Katie Sipriano, but serving as unit manager, assistant editor as well as location manager.

*Use cheap music whose rights don’t need to be acquired. Out of necessity, these were folk songs created by his Boston-based friends. That must have rankled, because for his third film, Baby, It’s You, Hollywood financing enabled him to secure the rights to enormously popular songs he deemed essential to the time, in the same way that The Big Chill had. But this opened the door so much to interference by Paramount Studios that he resolved to avoid this in the future.

*Avoid well-known actors. The major cast members of The Big Chill had each, in some way, been involved in high-profile projects, and would go on to become even more successful. In contrast, Secaucus 7 featured five actors who had only appeared in one production prior to this film. Only two actors became famous afterward: Gordon Clapp (NYPD Blue) and David Strathairn (in just about everything). Several of Sayles’ actors never appeared in another film.

In several later films—notably Matewan, City of Hope, and Lone Star—Sayles was able to create complex, challenging stories way out of the Hollywood mainstream. But these projects could not have been made without the favorable reception given Return of the Secaucus 7.

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