Thinking in Pictures

John Sayles’s film, MATEWAN, is a moving depiction of the battle for unionization fought by West Virginia coal miners in the 1920’s. Based on the events surrounding an armed confrontation that occurred in Mingo County, the film brings the miners’ story to life with a combination of real and fictional characters whose lives are changed by the shoot-out that became known as the Matewan Massacre. In his book, THINKING IN PICTURES, Sayles uses his experience making the film to form the basis for a thoughtful, intelligently told explanation of the process a filmmaker goes through to bring his ideas to the screen. In his introductory remarks, he refers to the book as “a kind of reporting from the front” and expresses his hope that it will prove useful “to anyone interested in the process of storytelling on film.”

The book is broken down into four main sections--"Thinking,” “Writing,” “Shooting,” and “Editing"--and also includes a few thoughts on the finished product as well as the film’s entire shooting script, which makes up the final quarter of the book. The inclusion of the script is invaluable, both for those who have not seen the film itself and as a means of referring to various scenes discussed throughout the book. What emerges from this structure is a sense of the steps involved in making a film and the way in which all aspects of the writing, production, and post-production are interrelated.

What separates THINKING IN PICTURES from most behind-the-scenes books on filmmaking is that its emphasis is not on anecdotal storytelling (unless it is pertinent to a point regarding film technique), but rather on the thoughts and decisions that go into writing a script, casting a film, directing actors, setting up a short, and so on, all the way through to the film’s completed version. As such, it provides a valuable look at those variables which shape a finished picture but remain unseen by the audience. For those with a genuine interest in films and filmmaking, THINKING IN PICTURES is the equivalent of an engrossing field guide to a territory that is both familiar and far more complicated than it appears.