‘Let’s fuck up the frame’

The Gene Siskel Film Center’s monthlong celebration of Chicago native Haskell Wexler’s centennial concludes May 31. You can still catch Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory. Also screening before the month is out is Matewan (1987), Wexler’s first collaboration with director John Sayles, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography and was the recipient of an Independent Spirit Award.

Based on a true story, Matewan chronicles the violent 1920 confrontation between striking West Virginia coal miners and the mining company and its goons. Sayles learned about the incident while hitchhiking through Kentucky and was compelled to make the film following then-President Ronald Reagan’s move to bust the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization following their strike. 

New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called Matewan a film “with the sweetness and simplicity of an Appalachian ballad . . . Haskell Wexler’s photography doesn’t go overboard in finding poetry in the images.”

Wexler, who died in 2015 at the age of 93, was a pioneering cinematographer, director, documentarian, and social activist. He won Academy Awards for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bound for Glory. His directorial debut, Medium Cool, is an iconic Chicago film made amidst the 1968 Democratic Convention. 

Following Matewan, Sayles and Wexler made three more films together: The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), Limbo (1999), and Silver City (2004). The Reader spoke to Sayles about their initial collaboration, which began with an unrelated phone call: Wexler sought Sayles’s advice and guidance concerning distributors he was considering for his own film, Latino.

Sayles recalls later leaving a message on Wexler’s answering machine: “We have this movie, Matewan. Would you be interested in shooting it?” The response arrived when Sayles was in West Virginia. “A woman at the desk said she had received a call from this character named Hacksaw who called from his car and he said, ‘Whatever these people want, tell them the answer is yes.’ He liked the script and came loaded for bear.”

Donald Liebenson: Before we get to Matewan and working with Haskell, you got your start writing scripts for Roger Corman. Did he mentor you in ways that would be helpful when you became a director?

John Sayles: Unlike writing for studios, there wasn’t a room of six to 12 people giving you notes and you wondering who you should actually listen to. So, as a writer for Roger, it was really just him and Francis Dole, his right-hand person and story editor. What I learned there was how to write a more cost-effective script. Directors would say, “This scene is set at night instead of day, and that costs more.” Or they’d ask if I could give a line to a different actor to avoid carrying another actor as a weekly player even though they were scheduled for two days’ work. All those little tricks of the trade I learned working for Roger and the people who directed for him.

That must have come in handy for Matewan.

We had three-point-something million, which was a lot of money in those days. We had a union crew; there was more experience below the line. One thing Haskell talked me into that he had worked with and which was relatively new to me was the video assist. Before that, I had to wait until dailies [to see the footage]. I had to ask the camera operator, who actually had his eye to the lens, how the scene looked, and take their word for it. There was one point where Haskell noticed the extras were looking in the camera. What we were able to figure out was a lot of them were walleyed; no matter how you shot them, it looked like they were looking at the camera. With video assist, you can see when someone stares into the camera and ruins the shot. You don’t like to discover that three days later.

Haskell’s Oscar-winning reputation surely preceded him. What films of his made an impression on you and made you think of him for this project? You two seem like political kindred spirits, so I’m guessing Bound for Glory is one.

Bound for Glory and In the Heat of the Night. I saw Medium Cool in a theater in Washington, D.C. The weekend it opened, there was a protest march against expanding the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Instead of going to get arrested, I decided to go see this movie I’d heard of. The tear gas from the streets of D.C. drifted into the theater.

That sounds like a William Castle gimmick! Matewan is a period piece. How did you two work together in determining how you wanted it to look?

Film had gotten very fast, so it was sharper. I didn’t want Matewan to look very Disney or old-fashioned MGM, where the colors pop. We didn’t want to pre-fog anything, which was a way of taking the edge off. The film is set 25 years before World War II, and very few color pictures exist even of WWII. What you can tell from early color pictures is there weren’t as many colors in those days. We made the decision to limit the amount of red you see in the movie. Haskell would use diffusion in front of the lens. We were careful to have everything in the town and what the people were wearing look weathered and worn. This was a place where everything would have been covered in coal dust so everything that went in front of the camera was very faded. 

Matewan
May 28, 7 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State.
$12 general admission, $6 Film Center members
www.siskelfilmcenter.org/matewan

Matewan has a gritty, documentary feel.

Haskell made a lot of documentaries. He would always say, “Let’s fuck up the frame.” That meant an image looked a little too planned or choreographed. Even when it’s choreographed, you feel that in Robert Altman’s films, someone is likely to wander onto the screen that doesn’t feel like they belong there. You’re discovering a story inside this crowded frame. 

Can you give an example of how your collaboration worked in capturing a specific image? I’m thinking of the scene that introduces David Strathairn’s sheriff. 

Usually what I do is I give the cinematographer a list of every scene with a word or phrase, such as mysterious, exhilarating, tense. In that scene, David is walking at night parallel on a raised sidewalk to James Earl Jones’s character. I said I want him to appear like a nightmare to the Black man who knows he’s behind enemy lines, and at some point we need to see he’s wearing a badge to establish that he’s the law here. What Haskell did was make me some pools of light so David goes in and out of the light and there’s enough of a kicker so that you also see light bouncing off his shiny badge.

Were there ways in which his expertise helped you be more cost-effective?

The great thing about Haskell was we would scout locations and he would be able to say, “We should get here by nine because by noon we can’t shoot there anymore because there will be shadows.” So, we could plan our day where we felt we weren’t always racing the sun. Basically, I would say to Haskell, “We have 20 minutes to do this scene. Do the best you can.” He would do it and it would look good. That kind of experience and knowledge saves you so much wear and tear and so much wasted time where people are waiting who don’t have to wait.

On the Criterion Collection release of Matewan, Haskell says during your joint commentary that he was glad he was on this film with you. I imagine you feel the same way.

I’m the only fiction director who worked with Haskell four times. We worked out our way of working with each other. I always said to Haskell, “You’re probably going to bat below the Mendoza Line with only two out of ten suggestions you give me being ones I can or want to do. But I need you to keep telling me them; don’t get frustrated. We’re only getting what we need, and not what would be nice right now, but I need to keep hearing your ideas ’cause there’s going to be something I never would have thought of that’s going to be great to use.”

Was he OK with that?

He was fine with that, especially after he saw the movie. He was so relieved. He would often say, “I feel like we’re shooting the schedule, not the movie.” And I would say, “We’re doing both, Haskell. If we don’t shoot the schedule, we run out of money.” Then he saw the movie and he said, “Shit, it worked out.”

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