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Sayles' Little 'Secret': A Film for Children : Movies: Adapted from a book based on a Celtic myth about a young girl's encounter with seal people, the film is the independent filmmaker's latest venture.


ROSBEG, Ireland — There's a film crew working on the wind-swept beach here--but it's accompanied by none of the usual trappings.

There's not a trailer in sight--nor, indeed, a movie star who might feel at home in it. There are no catered delicacies at meal breaks. Rather, meat-and-potatoes lunches, which cast and crew eat communally on board a converted double-decker bus.

Luxury accommodations to retire to when shooting ends, then? Forget it. Try spartan rooms in bed-and-breakfast cottages rented out by locals at about $20 a night. Clearly, this is a production that counts every penny.

Of course. It's a John Sayles film.

Sayles, the acknowledged American master of low-budget independent filmmaking, is making two departures here. He has come to this sparsely populated coastal district in the northwest corner of Ireland to shoot his first film outside the United States. And in filming "The Secret of Roan Inish," his adaptation of a children's book by Rosalie K. Fry based on a Celtic myth about a young girl's encounter with selkies (seal people), he is making his first children's movie.

Not, as Sayles points out, that this relates to Hollywood's current preoccupation with "family entertainment." "I've felt like a 10-year-old could understand most movies," Sayles says equably. "The big blockbusters, the Stallone and Schwarzenegger movies, aren't pitched at that high a level intellectually. Movies pitched at adolescents are the main thing being made by Hollywood. There's just a new spin being put on it by the studios. Macaulay Culkin hit big, so they figured, well, there's gold to be mined here."

He adds ruefully that by the time "The Secret of Roan Inish" opens next year, the vogue for family entertainment may well have passed. "Once again our timing's lousy," he says, recalling that shooting began on his 1983 film "Lianna," about a young wife who falls in love with another woman, just before a spate of gay-themed Hollywood movies were released.

But then Sayles is usually out of step with Hollywood and seems to relish the fact. "The Secret of Roan Inish" is costing about $6 million to produce: a tiny sum by studio standards, but more than most of his films, and twice as much as last year's "Passion Fish," which won Oscar nominations for Sayles as screenwriter and for Mary McDonnell as best actress.

Even with its modest budget, "The Secret of Roan Inish" has been beset by money problems. Sayles is himself a major investor in the movie, as a partner with the Denver-based Jones Intercable. But Jones' part of the deal was only finalized two weeks into shooting--a factor that virtually caused Sayles to close down the film.

Maggie Renzi, who has lived with Sayles for 20 years, has produced his films and acted in many, says: "Getting the money for this was a huge hassle, a really ugly experience. At one point John said he just wanted enough money to pay the crew severance and send them home. But he also wanted the fun of getting to make the film, so I let that be the overriding rule.

"As it is, John ended up investing considerably more than he intended and Sarah (Green, co-producer) and I are getting paid considerably less. But we're getting it done." Renzi added that she and Sayles would be renegotiating the recoupment deal with Jones.

It sounds like a stressful way to make films, so why does Sayles do it? "Independence," he says.

"Sure, it's wearisome. But people I know who started at the same time I did, working for Roger Corman, who have made movies within the system--they haven't made any more than I have, and they've had much bigger problems. They've felt negative about some of their movies or how they were treated.

"There's Joe Dante and Lewis Teague. Even Jonathan Demme hasn't always had it that easy. We (he and Renzi) have been lucky with our movies which have had their own integrity and at least have done what they've set out to do."

From Sayles' accomplished debut, "The Return of the Secaucus Seven" (1980), a precursor to "The Big Chill," which cost a mere $60,000, he has mostly gone the independent route--with films such as "Brother From Another Planet" (1984), about a black extra-terrestrial stranded in Harlem; "Matewan" (1987), which dealt with a West Virginia miners' strike in the 1920s, and "City of Hope" (1991), a brooding densely populated drama about a strife-riven inner city.

Only twice has Sayles worked within the studio system; he was unhappy on both occasions. He argued fiercely with Paramount over the sweet-natured teen romance "Baby, It's You" (1983). He felt Orion didn't push as hard as it might have done to distribute "Eight Men Out," (1988), the story of the scandal that rocked the 1919 Chicago White Sox, because the studio already had two hit movies in theaters.

Sayles, one of the few name filmmakers who still consistently works from a leftist viewpoint, always demands final cut.

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