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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“I Had Gunfight Westerns in Mind With the Structure”: Writer/Director John Sayles on the Criterion Rerelease of Matewan


When John Sayles wrote and directed Matewan in 1987, he was already a hero to those of us following American independent film, both for his witty, energetic genre screenplays (Piranha, The Howling, Battle Beyond the Stars) and for his self-financed directorial efforts (Return of the Secaucus Seven, Lianna, The Brother From Another Planet). His movies as writer-director, which also included a detour into studio filmmaking with the exquisite coming of age drama Baby It’s You, were major inspirations for an entire generation of aspiring filmmakers, because they gave us a high standard of excellence to reach for yet also seemed doable – they were films modest in resources but substantial in their thematic ambition. Then Matewan took Sayles’ work to a whole new level, adding historical and epic qualities to his sociologically and psychologically driven cinema while still, remarkably, keeping the overhead low. The budget was somewhere under $4 million, an astonishing feat when one considers the scale of the piece; an ensemble film set in 1920s Virginia, it tells the true story of a coal miners’ strike with astonishing attention to detail on every level. There are dozens of important characters, each of whom feels rich enough to carry his or her own movie – Sayles’ ability to give the viewer the sense that all of his people have independent lives outside of the narrative is one of his greatest strengths as a writer and director – and Sayles depicts the interconnectedness not only between the characters but between them and the politics of their time (and ours) with a clarity and subtlety that would define later productions like Lone Star and Sunshine State. After years during which rights issues made it difficult to access, Matewan is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion with a flawless new transfer supervised by Sayles and a bounty of informative extras; taken together with Sayles’ book on the making of the movie, Thinking in Pictures, the disc is an essential crash course in filmmaking on a budget. Sayles took a few minutes to answer my questions about the making of Matewan in between stops on a book tour for his latest novel, Yellow Earth, a riveting account of how warring agendas and differing perspectives create chaos when oil is discovered underneath a North Dakota town. It’s the latest in a long line of Sayles masterpieces about class, culture, and the impact of the profit motive on both.     

Filmmaker: When did you first become aware of the Matewan massacre and what did you find interesting about it that made you want to take it on as the subject of a film? 

John Sayles: I first heard of the Matewan Massacre while hitching through Kentucky and West Virginia in the late 60s – during a hotly contested UMW election between incumbent Tony Boyle and reformer Jock Yablonski (Boyle eventually had Yablonski murdered).

Miners who gave me rides kept saying “we’re gonna have another Matewan Massacre on our hands.”  There weren’t many books written about the incident at that time, but I was able to get hold of a history by Lon Savage and some old UMW Journal articles.

Filmmaker: I always say that a great period piece is about the time in which it takes place, the time in which it is made, and the time in which you’re watching it. Matewan definitely satisfies this criteria; why did you want to tell that story in 1987?

Sayles: When Ronald Reagan came to office in 1980, one of his first acts was to bust the Air Traffic Controllers Union. I felt like people needed a reminder of why unions are needed.

Filmmaker: The scale and period detail are remarkable for a modestly budgeted independent film. What are some of the methods you employ to make the most of limited resources, and is that something you start thinking about right from the beginning, during the writing phase?

Sayles: In the case of Matewan it was mostly the efficiency of shooting. I had Haskell Wexler as a DP, with his very high skill-to-speed ratio and experience shooting documentary. I storyboarded everything, worked with talented people, and never had to pause to know what to do next. Haskell had shot Bound for Glory, which had a great period feel, as well as some terrific black-and-white work.  He and Nora [Chavooshian, the production designer] and I talked about controlling the color palette of the movie – very few reds, the surfaces of buildings and clothes to be properly worn and faded, a kind of black-and-white-in-color approach (Huston’s Moby Dick was a model) that used neutral density filters instead of sepia to take the edge off the look.

Filmmaker: What other kinds of conversations did you have with Haskell?

Sayles: I come in with my camera moves mostly worked out and then challenge the DP to make it look as good as it can within the time we have to shoot. We only had one day where the weather betrayed us, and Haskell was able to salvage a decent-looking scene (the eviction confrontation) with dead light all day. Haskell was worried on Matewan that we were “shooting the schedule and not the movie,” but when he saw the final film he said “all right, next time I’ll just do what you want.” I always told him he’d bat below the Mendoza Line (less than .200) on his suggestions, but to keep them coming, so he didn’t feel not listened to. Like most DPs he wanted to make every shot a complete story with a good intro and exit – he finally got it that I was editing in my head and didn’t need to spend time getting all that extra. Haskell also understood the politics of the story, which contributed to his enthusiasm for the work.

Filmmaker: Did you have any other movies or traditions on your mind as reference points? Matewan’s structure and conflicts are a little reminiscent of Westerns like Shane or Pale Rider, though without the mythologizing of those pictures.

Sayles: I definitely had gunfight Westerns in mind with the structure – a series of escalating conflicts leading to a final, high noon shootout. The massacre itself was influenced by Night of the Shooting Stars, which has a great mess of a battle in a field of high grain at the end – something like the Battle of Antietam must have been.

Filmmaker: Where did you shoot the movie, and how much was built and when were you just dressing preexisting locations? What were the challenges and the benefits of shooting on location?

Sayles: We shot much of the movie in Thurmond, West Virginia, a town that still has only railroad track running through it. We shot in an exhibition mine in Beckley, and all over the rest of the state to get things like the driftmouth of the mine and the company housing. The main benefit of shooting on location was the people we met and worked with there, lots of locals serving as extras, crew, sources of information and filling many small speaking roles.

Filmmaker: This was Chris Cooper’s film debut; where did you find him, and how did you know he was the guy to play the union organizer?

Sayles: We had most of the cast, minus the lead, together when the financing fell apart. A year and a half later we had to recast and finally got to make the film. Chris was the first of dozens of actors we read for Joe both times, a disadvantage for an actor we’d never seen on stage or screen, but he just seemed to inhabit the part. Listening to your own dialogue is tricky – if an actor can bring it truly alive you sit up and pay attention.

Filmmaker: On the other end of the spectrum in terms of on screen experience is James Earl Jones. How did you get him for the role of Few Clothes, and how did he like to work? I’m always curious when you’ve got a large cast like this, if you run into problems where some actors like to rehearse and some don’t, or some need a lot of takes to warm up and some are better on the first take…were there any issues like that on this film?

Sayles: We didn’t think we’d get an actor of James Earl’s stature to work for scale in a supporting role, and spent time looking for a “James Earl Jones type.” Didn’t find one, so we were only a few weeks from shooting when we got in touch and he said yes. I think the low-key, guerilla filmmaking aspect of the production made him feel very comfortable and he is generous working with other actors. I always quickly handicap my actors and try to get their best work – also, actors get excited when working with other talented actors, and bring their A game.

Filmmaker: What are some of the challenges of casting and directing actors in a piece like Matewan that’s so specific in terms of time and place? How do you insure authenticity?

Sayles: I write in dialect and you can tell if an actor can handle it in a casting session. Our actors got to hang with local people and some did their own period research. The rest is the work of our costumers, hair and makeup people, etc.

Filmmaker: I’m curious about the planning and staging of the action, because one thing I find interesting about the violence is that it’s kind of messy and haphazard. How do you choreograph violence so that it doesn’t look choreographed? 

Sayles: The point of the battle is that it’s an ambush that quickly turns into a free-for-all. I used rubber army figures on a tabletop to work out all the angles and storyboarded them before we shot. So the shooting was tightly controlled to efficiently capture an anarchic shootout.

Filmmaker: For me, Matewan was valuable not only as a movie but as the subject of your book Thinking in Pictures, which remains one of the essential filmmaking texts alongside Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies. When I was a film student in the days before information was readily available on the Internet that book was pure gold – one of the only sources of information on how indie films really were made by somebody who had done it and done it well. What motivated you to write that book, and what did you get out of it?

Sayles: My literary agent at that time, John Sterling, asked if I’d like to publish the screenplay. I felt that talking about the thought and decisions that went into writing the movie and then making it would be more useful – if we could keep the price down (hence no color pictures). It is not about how to do things, but about what you’d better think through before you make your choices. I wrote it on the bus commute between Hoboken and our mixing studio in New York City. It’s the only book I’ve written that has never gone out of print.

Filmmaker: I’m assuming you had to revisit Matewan to supervise the beautiful new master that the Criterion Blu-ray was taken from…how do you see it now?

Sayles: I still like the movie and feel great about people’s work on it – acting, production design, music. More of the mine wars story has been documented now, and I think the movie helped encourage people to dig deeper into it. Mostly I feel good that it celebrates the people who fought that hard life to a draw.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is

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