Brow Beat

“If They Can Do It by Busting a Union, They’ll Do It”

John Sayles on his labor-uprising masterpiece Matewan, as it enters the Criterion Collection.

John Sayles poses for a portrait.
John Sayles in San Sebastián, Spain, in 2010.
Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

“There’s but two sides to this world: them that work and them that don’t,” the union organizer Joe Kenehan says to the hardscrabble coal miners of West Virginia in Matewan, the indie-film hero John Sayles’ vivid, warm portrait of the events that touched off the great West Virginia “coal war” of 1920. Released in 1987, Matewan was frankly leftist in its politics, portraying the union as an unalloyed good in a town being exploited by greedy coal barons and menaced by company thugs. But it’s also a thoughtful exploration of how difficult it can be for workers of different races and backgrounds to find solidarity.

Sayles shot the film in West Virginia with a cast that, typical for a Sayles film, is packed top to bottom with faces you’ll recognize from the long and successful careers they later enjoyed, including Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, and Ken Jenkins. (The only honest-to-God star at the time in the film was James Earl Jones.) But watching it now, two faces stick out: Chris Cooper, who plays Kenehan, made his screen debut in Matewan, and he’s remarkable—wise, empathetic, brave, and sexy as hell. And as a teenage preacher, the singer Will Oldham—only 16 during filming—makes a mighty impression.

Matewan comes to the Criterion Collection this week, and I spoke to writer-director Sayles over the phone about how Matewan happened, Will Oldham’s acting career, the Writer’s Guild, and whether the long decline of labor unions in America can ever be turned around.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dan Kois: So much of the story of your career is how you finance your films and keep them independent. I’m curious where the financing for Matewan came from. Was it hard to get financing for a movie about organized labor?

John Sayles: Yeah, we thought we had financing. One company said, “Oh, we can take a bank loan and finance the film,” back when we thought we could make it for under $2 million. And we were one day from flying to West Virginia to start preproduction, we’d already mostly cast the movie, when they called and they said, “You know that minor detail about the bank loan? Well, they just turned down our bank loan.” So a couple years went by—

A couple years?

A couple years, yeah.

Oh my God.

I made Brother From Another Planet, and a couple Bruce Springsteen videos in the meantime, so it wasn’t a total disaster. I made Brother From Another Planet with my own money, for about $300,000. [Sayles has long been a screenwriter-for-hire and won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1983, which helped.] And then we were able to, with me putting in some money, a couple independent investors putting in some money, and Cinecom, which was a distribution company at that time, putting in some money, do Matewan for three-something, I think it was like $3.6 million back then, which was still very low-budget. But with the actors working for scale, and me shooting only about, I think, seven weeks, it was doable.

So you had cast most of the actors before Brother From Another Planet, when the script was already done, and then you just sort of crossed your fingers that they would remain available?

Yeah, well, what happened is, of course, we, there were a few parts that we hadn’t cast, including two of the big leads, which were the kid, Danny, and Joe Kenehan.

Chris Cooper.

Chris had come in the first time and had never at that point done a TV show or a movie. He’d done some theater in New York. We probably saw 25, 30 actors for that, and Chris was the first actor to come in, which, when that many people are coming in, is an enormous disadvantage if you’re not known. But we really liked him, and it was like, “Boy, that first guy was really good.” And so then two years later, I think it was about two years later, we again started casting. And once again, Chris Cooper was the first person who came in to read for Joe, and finally it was, “He’s never been in anything, but he’s the right guy. He’s so good, and he’s the right guy for this part.”

For Danny, we got Will Oldham. He was a kid at the time. He had done a couple plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville and was recommended to us.

And then we thought, for scale, we’re never going to get James Earl Jones, so we were looking for a James Earl Jones type for a long time. We were already down [in West Virginia] doing preproduction when we finally just gave up and said, “Well, just take a shot at James Earl Jones.” And he called me in the production office one day and said, “I’d like to do this.”

Chris Cooper in Matewan.
Chris Cooper in Matewan.
Cinecom Pictures

Right. I can just imagine getting that call and hearing the actual James Earl Jones on the line.

Yeah, it was like, “Darth Vader’s on the phone.”

Will Oldham is remarkable to watch in this movie. He’s so baby-faced and so passionate. I’m sure he’s happy with the career that he’s had, but it makes me wish he acted more. Between this and Old Joy, I feel like there’s this great lost American actor out there.

Yeah, right after that he did one or two smaller things—I think maybe even a TV movie about a kid in a well.  And then he went to Brown for a year, and then was really just kind of more into the music. I think he’s one of those people who says, “If I wouldn’t watch this, why do I want to be in it?” Which really limits your acting choices.

In the film, you really dramatize how these three disparate groups—the black miners, the Italian immigrants, and the locals—are played against each other by the company, how they band together, the ways that they still keep secrets from each other even as a union. Was that all part of the Matewan story as you were researching it, or were those conflicts that you created for the purpose of the film?

There was a very overt policy by the mine owners. It was called a “judicious mixture”: There’s this cancer of unionism going around the world, and how do we avoid it? Well, one way we can avoid it is by having a judicious mixture of local hillbilly miners and immigrants, whether they’re Greek or Italian or from wherever, and blacks who were brought up from Alabama. And those people will never get together. In fact, we’ll keep them in separate housing and put mine guards in between them.

What was amazing to me as I did the research on this is that, despite that, the conditions were so bad that people who did have prejudices and suspicions against each other snuck around the mine guards and found some kind of solidarity. But one thing that you do see is it’s just like in our country: The strands are woven together but not that tightly. So, when maybe the crisis is over or gets to a certain point, they can start to unravel a little bit.

The early ’80s, when you were writing Matewan, and then the late ’80s, when it came out, now look like the early stages of a long decline in the power and effectiveness of organized labor in this country. What do you think right now about the state of workers in America and the state of worker-management relations?

They’re pretty bad, worker-management relations. The main power that a union had was that you had to do it in this one place. The material that was basic to the industry was in this place—the iron ore, the coal, the cotton, whatever. One of the things that’s happened is that, basically, we don’t mine that much coal anymore, we don’t make that much steel anymore. Manufacturers are going to make things as cheaply as they can and try to make as much profit as they can. And if they can do it by busting a union, they’ll do it. And if they can do it by moving to a place where there isn’t a union … I come from Schenectady, New York, which was where the General Electric Co. made most of its stuff. And building by building, starting right about when I was in high school, they started moving stuff overseas. And all those big buildings are empty now.

Even the film business—we’re actually one of the last unionized industries, and more and more films shoot in Canada or elsewhere overseas. I think when they made the Hatfields & McCoys miniseries, they shot in Romania or Bulgaria or something like that. “They have mountains. We’ll take all the actors over, and the extras will be Romanians or Albanians or whatever.”

I do think that if the gap between the haves and haves-not doesn’t get much better, you’re going to see more efforts to organize the service economy. It’s going to be really tough. I mean, if you work for a Walmart, you got to watch a couple hours of anti-union propaganda just to get the job. And they have closed down outlets that were about to be unionized just to not let the cancer have a precedent.

A black-and-white photo of John Sayles putting a ballot in a box.
John Sayles casts his ballot on Aug. 7, 1988, in New York, as the Writers Guild of America voted on a tentative contract to end a 22-week strike.
Bettmann via Getty Images

The Writers Guild of America is in the midst of a long labor action dealing with agencies. Where do you stand on that? Did you fire your agent, as so many writers did, in April?

Yeah. My agent is taking care of deals that were already made, that were still in process before that, but not looking for other work. So I haven’t had a job, a new job, for quite a while, and that’s just kind of loyalty to the union. I personally don’t think that the membership was informed or kept in the loop enough about this particular strike. I don’t think it’s especially popular. But you’re in a union, you’re not always going to be striking for something that affects you personally.

Right, that’s the point.

I’m pretty marginal. I’m definitely marginal as a director, and somewhat marginal as a writer. The nice thing is, I can always work for myself. So I’ve written two novels in the last four years, one’s about to come out in February, and I tend to get a lot of work done during writers guild strikes.

Yeah. It’s interesting that you say you feel like the membership was not informed or kept in the loop enough. Watching Joe Kenehan do all that legwork to tell everyone what needs to be done and make sure everyone is on the same page—the grunt work of organizing is not glamorous, but this movie seemed like an attempt to make it clear how important that is.

Because unions’ hands are tied by legal restrictions right now, you’re going to see things like the wildcat strike by the teachers in West Virginia. It’s not necessarily that the union thought that the strike was a bad idea, but if they did it, the union could get fined an enormous about of money. I don’t think they met secretly with the wildcatters, and they may have had some differences, but I don’t think that the official union was too unhappy with the membership for that wildcat strike.

But sometimes the needs of the overall membership might be disastrous for one or two locals. And the needs of one or two locals might not be met by the organization. Whenever an organization grows to that size, it can’t always serve everybody equally all the time. Or take the film industry: I’m in four guilds, craft guilds—the editors guild, the writers guild, the screen actors guild, and the directors guild, and none of our contracts come up at the same time, and we can’t strike in sympathy with each other. So they’re able to have a situation where, when the writers strike, the actors are pissed off at the writers instead of supporting them.

But it’s just one big union the whole world over, as your narrator says at the end.

Well, that’s something that you’re—you got to get into Elizabeth Warren and totally revamping laws, as well as people’s thinking. And that has worked in certain situations for a certain period of time, but it really hasn’t caught on anywhere permanently.

Do you think there’s any hope for America that it can someday?

I think you’d have to have the kind of shock and awe of some kind of depression for people to be that bold. Right now, you’re risking the little bit that you have. It’s like my movie, Limbo. The theme of Limbo is that most people will stay in limbo because their fear of hell outweighs their hope for heaven. And they’re willing to keep treading water, whether it’s a bad relationship or a bad government or a bad neighbor situation or you hate your boss. It’s not that easy to say, “Oh, I’ve got three kids and a mortgage to pay off and I’m going to go out on strike.” It’s often easier to stay in limbo if you don’t know that you’re going to win.