Jan Chats with Maggie Renzi

Jan Chats with Maggie Renzi

(First Posted in 2002)

If you’re a John Sayles fan, perhaps you’ve asked yourself how this huge, muscular guy has both the interest and the skill to create such complicated, multi-dimensional characters as the women in BABY IT’S YOU, LIMBO, LONE STAR, MATEWAN, PASSION FISH, and now SUNSHINE STATE.

Like most Sayles fans, we knew the name “Maggie Renzi.” We knew she starred in the early films. We knew she produced the recent films. We knew she was also one of the producers of GIRLFIGHT. But look up Maggie Renzi in the Internet Movie Database, and all you will find today is: “Height – 5’5”. Trivia – Dated John Sayles.”


So on June 20th, when Sayles and Renzi came to Chicago to promote SUNSHINE STATE, as well as to open the JOHN SAYLES RETRO at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Jan Huttner went in search of Maggie Renzi. We talked about her career, her aspirations, and the challenge of turning 50. 

I began the interview by expressing my own frustrations about the roles offered to women in most recent films. I told her that, as far as I was concerned, the only reason to see THE BOURNE IDENTITY was to enable their own leading man, Chris Cooper, to make some “real money” as the CIA creep. It doesn’t have to be that way. I offered as my first example, Maggie’s wonderful portrayal of “Rosaria” in MATEWAN. “Yes,” she said, “we try to create complete worlds. Men. Women. Old people. Young people. Everyone.” 

So did she miss acting? Was she planning to do more acting in the future? “No. When we were making PASSION FISH, it was very difficult to act and produce, and I realized that what I really wanted was to produce.” (NOTE: Renzi is listed as a producer on 11 of John Sayles’ 13 films, beginning with the second one, LIANNA, made in 1983. On the most recent films, LIMBO and SUNSHINE STATE, she is listed as sole producer.)

In 2000, Maggie was one of the producers of GIRLFIGHT, the award-winning first feature made by Karyn Kusama (who began her film career on Sayles/Renzi production teams). Was Maggie planning to produce other non-Sayles films? Specifically, was she planning to produce other films by women directors? “No. I have my dream job. When you look close, you’ll see that a lot of important directors have sustaining relationships with a single producer. They’re not picking up a new producer each time. People like the Coen Brothers and Merchant and Ivory, they’re working together as a team… My primary role on GIRLFIGHT was to help Karyn get the money she needed.”

So what responsibility did she have toward other women in the business? Did she think of herself as a mentor? Maggie responded by telling me about a trip she once took to Japan. She was meeting with a Japanese journalist, and the woman said to her: “You’re here now for the third time. How do you get to do what you do?!?” “That was the moment,” said Maggie “when I realized that I was a role model.” Now she sees her contribution as helping women make connections (like at a recent conference convened by Allison Anders) and offering advice: “Don’t wait for some big star’s agent to call you back. Don’t make excuses. Find a way to make the movie YOU want to make.” 

For herself, Maggie said: “I want to take care of the people in my workplace. A movie set isn’t glamorous. I don’t want the cameraman working until 3 AM every night and then crashing his car on the trip home.” (NOTE: Following the breadcrumbs in the Internet Movie Database, you can see the enormous effect Sayles and Renzi have already had on independent film. For example, Peggy Rajiski, who started with them on BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET and MATEWAN, went on to produce THE GRIFTERS and LITTLE MAN TATE. Sarah Green, who started with them on CITY OF HOPE and PASSION FISH, is now producing David Mamet films such as WINSLOW BOY and STATE AND MAIN.  These are all films with strong, wonderful, women characters.) As Karyn Kusama says in the section on Maggie posted on the JOHN SAYLES RETRO website: “Maggie has a very dynamic personality, so she moves things through when most people couldn’t. She’s persuasive and charismatic. Those are very important qualities for someone who has to be diplomatic with a host of different people, and at times forceful with those same people.”

Circling back to the subject of acting, I asked Maggie how she knew Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had such a wonderful voice. She started laughing, and replied: “You know the answer to that, Jan, one of my girlfriends told me! We were casting LIMBOand one of my girlfriends told me that Mary Elizabeth had originally trained as a singer.” I told her how much I loved the LIMBOsoundtrack, and she agreed: “People who hear it for the first time think she’s Emmylou Harris.” This brought us, naturally, to the subject of LIMBO’s ambiguous ending. “The backers only had one question for us. ‘At the end, is it clear that these three people have become a family? Are they working together as a unit? If so, that’s the only ending that really matters.’ ”

Our time almost exhausted, I asked Maggie what she wanted me to tell the world about Maggie Renzi. “I am very proud of our shared body of work.” That seemed like such a simple answer until I realized the impact. You never hear anyone talk about “the new Joel Coen movie.” You never hear anyone talk about “the new James Ivory film.” From the woman’s point of view, “John Sayles’ movies” are as good as they are because they are, in fact, part of a shared body of work.

The new Sayles/Renzi film, SUNSHINE STATE, opens nationwide on Friday July 12th. 

© Jan Lisa Huttner (6/30/02)

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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