Laura Cohen and Joe Winston
Laura Cohen and Joe Winston Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

Sitting in his dining room in Lincoln Square with his son, Milo, on his knee, director Joe Winston only vaguely resembles the tousled host of This Week in Joe’s Basement, the Chicago Cable Access show he created 20 years ago after graduating from Yale. Today Winston wears a T-shirt that reads, save your mind. kill your television. He doesn’t own a TV set, despite being an Emmy-nominated editor who’s worked on documentaries for PBS, A&E, Discovery, and HGTV. And with his new feature-length documentary, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, based on the best-selling 2004 book by (past Reader contributor) Thomas Frank, Winston is aiming for the big screen.

In What’s the Matter With Kansas? Frank examines the state’s liberal past and conservative present and asks why working- and middle-class Americans have voted against their own economic best interests over the past several decades. A native of Hyde Park, Winston was familiar with Frank, who graduated from the University of Chicago, and in June 2004 he attended a panel discussion at the Harold Washington Library Center that included Frank, Studs Terkel, and Howard Dean. “Tom was the only one I had heard who had a coherent explanation for what went wrong,” Winston recalls.” I approached him and asked him about [movie] rights, and he just laughed.”

But Winston persisted. He and his wife, Laura Cohen, optioned the rights and began to ponder how they might turn the book into a documentary. “It’s a brilliant book,” says Cohen, a production professional who’s worked for Bill Kurtis, but “there are no characters with arcs, and there’s not really a plot.”

Although some people mentioned in the book also appear in the movie, Winston and Cohen had to find new subjects whose stories might unfold during the filming. Because Frank identifies social issues like abortion and gun control as the key to the Republicans’ success, Winston made overtures to conservative ministers who were politically active in the state. “We interviewed the first one who took our phone call,” says Cohen. “Pastor Terry Fox. At that time he was at Immanuel Baptist Church, a huge megachurch, just a real happening place.”

When they approached interview subjects, the filmmakers said they were making a documentary about the conservative movement but didn’t mention Frank’s book. ‘If we had, I don’t think we would have had much of a movie,” admits Winston. “Plenty of Kansas conservatives wouldn’t talk with a film crew because we were from Chicago.” At the time he and Cohen met Fox, though, the pastor was feeling confident after a successful statewide campaign to ban gay marriage and civil unions: “I really think he would have sat down with anyone with a microphone.”

The film uses no narration, and Winston made a point of never challenging any arguments, letting Fox and the others make their own case. To reassure their subjects that they’d be treated fairly, Winston and Cohen kept their crew small, their demeanor respectful, and their profile low. “We always dressed for church,” says Cohen.

Over three years the couple made 13 trips across Kansas, shooting for a total of 55 days, all on their own dime. “We would go shoot, then we would gather some footage, and we’d start editing a bit and see what we need, and go back out and shoot some more,” Winston explains. “We were still working jobs while doing this, too”—Winston at the postproduction facility Superior Street Post, which has since closed, and Cohen at Kurtis Productions.

With 165 hours of footage, they finally stopped shooting when Milo was born, in December 2007. (Their second child is due in November.) The completed 90-minute film premiered in August at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on September 18; Winston and Cohen are currently shopping it for nationwide distribution. v

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