John Sayles Talks 'Matewan' at the Marchesa


Chris Cooper in Matewan

As soon as I heard about the Austin Film Society's special screening of Matewan with director John Sayles in attendance, I purchased my ticket. I've made it a point to see as many Sayles movies as I can, since seeing my first (The Secret of Roan Inish) as a teenager.  Unfortunately, the quality of the Matewan DVD I rented a few years back was so awful that I couldn't watch more than 5 minutes of it -- the sound was terrible.  I couldn't pass up an opportunity to see the 35mm print at the Marchesa.

I spied the director's tall form in the Marchesa lobby, among the booths at the Blue Genie bazaar, before we were seated.  After being introduced to the audience, Sayles explained to us the correct pronunciation for the town in the title: MAYTE-one, not MATT-uh-won (which is how I'd been saying it, oops).  He then told us how he found the subject matter through discussions with miners who kept referring to the "Matewan massacre."

The print of the 1987 film was gorgeous and crisp on the big screen, with Chris Cooper in his film debut as a man sent to a West Virginia town to help organize the union. The cast of players includes other Sayles regulars David Straithairn (Passion Fish, Eight Men Out & Limbo) as the town's sheriff and Mary McDonnell (Passion Fish) as a widow innkeeper. Tom Wright (Passion Fish & Sunshine State) and James Earl Jones appear as a couple of workers sent in to replace the striking West Virginia miners.  A young Will Oldham (aka musician Bonnie Prince Billy) plays one of the youngest miners hoping for the union.

After the screening, Sayles and producer Maggie Renzi -- who played an Italian immigrant in Matewan -- answered questions from the audience. They talked about casting an unknown in the primary role (that would be Oscar-winning actor Cooper) and Renzi offered some suggestions to independent filmmakers: Make casting decisions that benefit your story and don't limit the scope of your story (see more here). Sayles discussed how they got James Earl Jones involved in the film, saying the prestigious actor is shy and didn't mind playing the supporting character of Few Clothes. During his off-days in West Virginia, Jones would speak at area schools.

Renzi and Sayles talked about casting Oldham and how the boy walked around the set eating the day-old birthday cake provided by catering. Sayles was asked about his own role of an evangelical preacher in Matewan, and the director said that it is easier for him to play a character with no progression in his films.

I left the screening thankful to have been able to see John Sayles speak about his movies twice in the same year [see my SXSW dispatch]! I only wish Matewan would get a better DVD or Blu-ray release...