By Alan Prendergast
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All of Denver was starstruck in August when director John Sayles announced that much of his next feature film, Silver City, would be shot in town. Suddenly, this celebrity-starved city could count an actual Hollywood big shot as a local resident, albeit a temporary one. Better yet, the Sayles production brought the promise of even more VIPs: Images of cast members Chris Cooper, Daryl Hannah and Jennifer Aniston loafing about LoDo were too delicious to deny.
No one was more excited to learn of Sayles's arrival than Katie O'Brien and eight of her closest girlfriends -- or, as they call themselves, the John Sayles Club. Formed long before Sayles-mania took hold of Colorado, the group is not a fan club, per se. The members know very little about the director outside of his art, they don't wear matching buttons bearing his likeness, and they have never baked him a birthday cake. But roughly once a month, they get together to talk, eat a feast, drink wine and, usually, watch Sayles movies. It's a brainy outlet for a group of pedigreed professional women -- a modern variation on the sewing circle.
"This is kind of like a book club, but it's a little more fun," says O'Brien, a prosecutor in the Denver District Attorney's Office. "There've been times when we get together and just start talking and eating, and time passes and someone has to say, 'Are we going to watch the movie, darn it?'"
"It's really a way to get us all together, because we love being in each other's presence," says psychologist Suzanne Keating. "We have a great connection that's deepened in so many ways. Now we all come together under this theme of John Sayles."
Several of the members are from the East Coast, all are in their fifties and sixties, and, in addition to an abiding love for Sayles's work -- which spans nearly four decades and thirty films -- they have advanced degrees (members include two attorneys, two librarians, three psychologists and an educational consultant), a liberal persuasion and a combined thirty-year friendship in common. Bookish, opinionated and prone to interrupting each other and finishing one another's sentences, they rarely agree on anything. After much deliberation about the origins of the John Sayles Club, for instance, they decide that it was formed somewhere between two and a half and five years ago. But they all agree that John Sayles's films are the best movies there are. Period.
"I just love the way he uses light, and all of his characters are intelligent and fully drawn," O'Brien says. "Sayles is subtle. That's something I've learned from trying cases. You don't want to hit your jury over the head with anything; you let them draw their own conclusions. That's what Sayles does."
"We just love really great stories," adds attorney Jackie St. Joan, who as a judge in the late '80s, established the country's first restraining-order-and-domestic-violence court. "Every place he chooses to set them in is so different. For us, his films are a way to sustain our own little community. And when you think about it, that's what the best culture does."
The post-'60s political subculture first brought these women together. They met in Denver amid a rise of women's support groups, bookstores and artistic collectives, such as Virago Productions and Olivia Records. Most significant, however, was St. Joan's Big Mama Rag, a monthly feminist publication that boasted both good writing and a controversial bent. The zine led her to O'Brien -- who at the time was active in theater and had her own solo comedy show -- and, eventually, Keating, Ronnie Storey-Ewoldt, Rita Singer, Linda Fowler, Maria Elena Guzman, Molly Moyer and Nina Sokol.
Many of that era's relics have disappeared -- Big Mama Rag, for one, had a ten-year run before dissolving in the '80s -- but the women's friendship thrived. As the years turned into decades and championed causes morphed into all-consuming professions, they decided they needed an activity to bring them together. Someone -- no one can agree on who, exactly -- suggested a cinematic theme, and someone else suggested Sayles.
Cerebral and character-driven, the director's oeuvre is a good fit for the group. His preference for heady subjects -- from cultural alienation and urban chaos to workers' rights and incest -- jells nicely with the women's worldview, and they've seen, dissected, analyzed and debated all of it: the surprising, subtle wit of 1984's The Brother From Another Planet; the devastating humanism of 1987's Matewan; the beautifully dusty atmospherics of 1996's Lone Star. And in approximately one year, they'll be able to turn their gaze upon Silver City and, for a few moments, themselves.
In August, St. Joan sent a letter to the Silver City casting office, asking on behalf of the entire group to be cast as extras. Each woman sent in an individual photo and resumé identifying herself as a member of the club (or a "Sayler," as psychologist Guzman has dubbed her fellow clubbers). Though hundreds of other local hopefuls had also sent resumés and photos, casting director Kathleen Broyles took notice of the Sayles Club materials and alerted the director; he eventually wrote a part for his namesake club. In an ironic twist for a group of still-radical-at-heart feminists, they'll play campaign workers backing a right-wing conservative candidate played by Chris Cooper.