Matewan (1987) featuring a Q&A with John Sayles


Matewan (1987)
Written and directed by John Sayles
Produced by Peggy Rajski, Maggie Renzi
Cinematography by Haskell Wexler
Music by Mason Daring
Edited by Sonya Polonsky
AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center (2:12)


Seeing him in person, John Sayles strikes you as a no-nonsense type of guy, a tall, confident man carefully absorbing everything around him: the immediate environment, the people in it, and how those two things affect each other. Based on my limited experience of Sayles and his work, I’d say he carefully observes, then shows you what he sees. I was fortunate enough to hear about some of those observations Tuesday night at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Maryland.


Before the screening of Matewan (part of the DC LaborFest) Sayles related the story of how he found himself hitchhiking as a young man in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Traveling through West Virginia, he spoke to several coal miners, asking about their lives and working conditions. One of those miners told him things were “not as bad as the Matewan Massacre, but pretty bad.”

Sayles had no idea what the miner was talking about, but he educated himself quickly. In his book Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan (Da Capo Press, revised edition, 2003), Sayles states “The people I read about in the history books and the people I met in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia had important stories to tell and I wanted to find a way to pass them on.”

Sayles stated that labor unions had always been a part of his life. He commented that unions bring value and balance to our society and that without them, things get unbalanced, especially in the healthcare industry (where he worked for a time). Also the process of creating unions has been important culturally when people are attempting to define “we.” “If you’re doing the job,” said Sayles, “you’re one of us.”


That concept of defining who “we” are is essential to Matewan, a film based on the 1920 Battle of Matewan (or the Matewan Massacre) in the small mining town of Matewan, West Virginia in 1920. The working conditions quickly unravel, going from bad to worse. The miners are fed up, yet fear what might happen if they unionize. Chris Cooper (above right, in his first film) plays Joe Kenehan, an organizer for the United Mine Workers. He quickly discovers that fear is crippling these men. Even worse, the reluctance of local white miners to embrace black and immigrant miners may just set off a powderkeg before any steps toward unionization can take place.


After the film, Sayles and one of the film’s producers Maggie Renzi (Sayles’s longtime companion and collaborator) spoke about the film and took questions from the floor. (Rather than give a play-by-play Q&A transcript, I’m going to present more of a narrative of what was said by Sayles and Renzi. Actual quotes are as accurate as I could get them writing as fast as I did.)


Sayles spoke first about the music in the film, particularly the phenomenal singer Hazel Dickens (1935-2011), who not only sings on the soundtrack but appears in the film as a singer at a funeral. Dickens (my words, not Sayles’s) had a voice that sounded like she was born in the depths of the earth and had seen or experienced every amount of human suffering since the dawn of time. You cannot hear her singing and not be moved. Music was vital in the film, not only supplying its soundtrack but also pivotal in helping to bring unity to the different races and ethnicities of people portrayed in the film. (Harmonica player Phil Wiggins was also in the audience.)

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Twenty of the film’s speaking parts were supplied by locals, people who didn’t have to learn the accent. Locals also worked on the film’s art direction, providing an authenticity that simply wouldn’t be possible on a Hollywood soundstage. During the production, one local man approached Renzi and took her aside, saying “I’ve been a miner since I was 12 years old. I’ve seen people take things away from us. You’re the first to give anything back.”

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Speaking to the authenticity of the story itself, Sayles said that bringing miners together to unionize “didn’t happen unless people were treated really badly.” There’s no way the diversity of these people would’ve allowed them to get together unless conditions were so awful that they had to stand together. If they separated themselves, all was lost. Sayles later stated that although fewer people are unionized today, unionization is still relevant and important. “When people are not organized, it’s easier to separate them.”

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Sayles said that he is not a big fan of having his actors improvise, although he did mention that Joe Morton got to improvise quite a bit in The Brother from Another Planet (1984), which elicited laughter from those familiar with the film. (Morton’s performance in the film is totally silent.) Sayles doesn’t exactly consider himself a “dictatorial” director, but if you’re an actor in one of his films, you’d better know your character. “Talk to me before we get to the set. Here’s the deal between you and me: I’m gonna use your best stuff. You’re gonna have to trust me on that.” Sayles hires talented people, then tells them “Here’s what I’m thinking” in a particular scene; then has them show him three choices of how to play it.

When asked, Sayles said that his “Mount Rushmore” directors would include John Ford, John Huston, Vittorio De Sica, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Jane Campion, Mike Leigh, and Ken Loach. Of Kurosawa, he said “My films are nothing like his, but maybe the feeling is.”

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Both Sayles and Renzi had huge praise for the cinematography of Haskell Wexler (who died in 2015). The emotion of color, said Sayles, was very important, saying he wanted the palette of the film to have “a very worn look, not a dirty look.” Some of this was achieved by Wexler’s photography but also through the music. Renzi learned much from Wexler’s visual philosophy. “He would say, ‘If there’s a chimney, smoke should be coming out of it. If there’s a window, it should be open. If a man has a pocket, it should have change in it.’”

Some of the film’s actors had worked with Sayles before, including David Strathairn and Gordon Clapp. Others he worked with for the first time, including Chris Cooper, who had a theater background and had never before worked in film or television. Cooper was the first actor they saw for the role of Joe Kenehan and although they looked at several other actors, Cooper was their top choice. Sayles didn’t think he’d be able to get James Earl Jones for the film, but picked up the phone one day and head the voice of Darth Vader.

When asked about the state of movies now, Sayles replied, “They want everybody to be Tony Soprano. People want to see real shits being shitty to each other.” Hollywood executives want to see a character’s dark side, regardless of who the character is. “I’m interested in (a character’s) values,” Sayles said. “There’s something good in Christianity. There’s also some other stuff in there.”

What’s Sayles working on now? A high school movie about the Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Indian Industrial School in 1890 (I assume this will focus on the Dec. 29 shooting), and a movie based on an unnamed western novel published in 1922. Still in the first draft stage, that film will “explore what it is to be a good American: to stop what you’re doing and take care of a stranger.”

I haven’t seen all of Sayles work (although I plan to), but it seems that taking care of a stranger is a theme that runs throughout his work. The Brother from Another Planet (1984) is an obvious example, but you also find the theme appearing in more subtle ways in films such as Lone Star (1996), in which a sheriff explores his own past as well as different races and cultures as he investigates a murder. Passion Fish (1992) examines the relationship between two women, a former soap opera star (Mary McDonnell) confined to a wheelchair and her African-American caregiver (Alfre Woodard). Even Sayles’s first film, Return of the Secaucus 7 focuses on a group of high school friends reuniting several years later to discover things they didn’t realize about each other. In all of these films (and probably others), taking care of a stranger is a primary concern, explored in multifaceted ways, all of them fascinating and personal.

Do yourself a favor and explore the films of John Sayles. Many are currently available on FlimStruck. Again, a huge thanks to the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center and the DC LaborFest for making this event possible.

Photos: Movie, Public Transportation Snob, Roger Ebert, Just Screenshots

2 thoughts on “Matewan (1987) featuring a Q&A with John Sayles

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  2. Pingback: Movies Watched in May 2017 Part II | Journeys in Darkness and Light

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