NEW YORK -- It was hard to find an empty seat at the premiere of "Matewan." A new written-and-directed-by John Sayles movie creates its own kind of buzz. What Sayles' producer Maggie Renzi calls "the usual John Sayles crowd" was out in force.

He'd pulled it off again, it seemed. Without groveling to a studio owned by Coca-Cola, shaking hands at parties in Bel Air, casting a teen dreamboat or acceding to an upbeat ending -- without, in short, any of the humiliations creative people supposedly have to endure to get movies made -- Sayles was still doing what he wanted to do.

Not that he was crowing about it. Asked to say a few words before the film rolled, he ignored the applause, hunched over the microphone stand and mumbled two sentences of barely audible thanks. In the movie about to unreel, Sayles had given himself a flamboyant scene as a Baptist preacher; in person, he was underplaying. Nothing in his demeanor or language signaled triumph.

But perhaps that's because Sayles, more than the crowd, knew what an ordeal it had been to film "Matewan." It has taken him the better part of a decade to bring this story of bloody union struggles in the West Virginia coal fields to the screen (it opens Friday in Washington).

This is supposed to be the era of the nonstudio filmmaker, with everyone from Spike Lee ("She's Gotta Have It") to Oliver Stone ("Salvador," "Platoon") demonstrating that independent movies can win audiences and Oscars.

Yet as the making of "Matewan" demonstrates, even a guy who trails hyphens, as in novelist-screen writer-director-actor-"genius" award recipient, has to hustle hard for money. Even a track record that includes "Return of the Secaucus Seven," "Baby, It's You" and "The Brother From Another Planet" doesn't mean that an indie's next project will fall smoothly into place.

It's still true, Sayles points out philosophically, that "two percent of your work is making the movie. Ninety-eight percent of your work is raising the money to make the movie."

"Matewan" was still hanging in strips around a darkened editing room near Times Square last winter when Sayles offered that estimate. A drawling voice on the sound track said "Awright, boys," over and over, while outside in a hallway the writer-director-etc. unwrapped a meatball sandwich for lunch.

He's tall and broad-shouldered -- the word "strapping" comes to mind -- and he was tired that day. It had been only a few weeks since Red Dog Films (what the Sayles production company is calling itself for purposes of "Matewan") had returned from 44 intense days of shooting in West Virginia, where the cast and crew worked six days, and sometimes nights, a week. Sayles would have liked a less exhausting pace, but weekends are one of the luxuries one forgoes when trying to create an epic for a paltry $3.6 million.

"Money does affect how good a movie is," Sayles acknowledged, around the sandwich. "Almost every shot I make in a movie, I know there's a better way to make it. But it may not be worth what it would take.

"I almost always have to tell the technicians, 'Sorry, it's not your night. I know you could make it look better, but you'll have to make it look as good as you can in the next half hour.' I tell the actors, 'We have until this minute. I know it's a difficult scene. If we had more money we could come back tomorrow and try it again. We don't.' "

At the beginning, making his $60,000 debut with "Return of the Secaucus Seven," getting backing from Hollywood studios wasn't an option. "I sort of always knew the stuff I was interested in was not necessarily what they're interested in," Sayles recalled. So he made movies about a faculty wife leaving her marriage for a lesbian affair, and about an alien landing in Harlem, and he and his producers scrounged for cash.

By now, he probably could get Disney or Columbia to ante up, but the prospect makes him twitch. A few years ago, he made "Baby, It's You" for Paramount and had to go hand-to-hand with the studio to retain control of it.

"A low-budget movie to them is 7 million," he figured. "You gotta open it nationally, that's another 3 million. With bank loans, maybe 15 to 20 million. That's a lot of economic pressure on a story," he concluded. "I don't want that kind of pressure."

In the past, he was able to compensate for scrawny budgets by setting his movies in living rooms and bedrooms, peopling them with contemporary characters who liked to talk, and worrying more about compelling dialogue than shimmering production values. "Small, raggedy movies," as Renzi, who shares Sayles' Hoboken town house, describes them. But "Matewan" demanded different treatment.

Sayles had first caught scent of the narrative as a college student hitchhiking around the country. "I got a lot of rides with miners, rapping about this and that," he remembered. Among the mining lore he picked up was the story of the Matewan massacre, "which to southwestern West Virginia is like the Alamo is to Texas." He tucked a scrap of the saga into his 1977 novel, "Union Dues."

As a movie, however, the tale called for exteriors and locations, period costumes and sets, locomotives, gun battles and scores of extras. Its scope and sweep were what had attracted Sayles to the 1920s saga in the first place.

"There was this push and reaction going on," he explained, slamming his knuckles into his palms. "The coal operators decided, 'This is where we make our stand.' The UMW local decided, 'This is where we make our offensive.' It was very violent, very raw."

His script combined historic events and characters with composites and inventions, like the heroic union organizer. Sayles made him a pacifist, just to keep matters interesting. "A very hard thing to sell to Americans," he mused. "Some little Indian guy like Gandhi, okay." Sayles' Joe Kenehan, however, is a regular all-American fella. "You're waiting all this movie for this guy to bust loose, and he doesn't bust loose."

Manipulating his audience's expectations was part of the "Matewan" strategy. There's no question who the good guys are -- Sayles said the coal operators represent "19th-century, entrepreneurial, {expletive}-the-worker capitalism, with no constraints" -- but the good guys can tax a moviegoer's loyalty. "It was a massacre, not the usual American fair-fight ending where the good guys and bad boys step into the street and face off. I want that question to be asked by the audience -- 'Wait a minute, I was rooting for these guys and now they're shooting people point-blank in the head.' "

While Sayles was tinkering with moral ambiguities, however, it fell to Maggie Renzi and coproducer Peggy Rajski to find people willing to part with $1.8 million to put "Matewan" on film; by the time they'd cornered the money several years later, they needed twice that much. "We would say to one another, how can people work so hard to make 'Piranha II'?" Renzi recalls.

Red Dog Films occupies one crowded room in a West Side neighborhood that seems devoted largely to the sale and repair of sewing machines and air compressors. The Sayles floating rep company of producers, actors, designers and techies legally reconstitutes itself for every production -- it was A Train Films for the last one, "The Brother From Another Planet," and it's Black Sox Inc. for the next one -- but at its core are Rajski, 34, Renzi, 35, and Sayles, who turned 37 last month.

"Matewan" was their longest collective struggle. "For four years we'd been trying to raise money, failing to raise money, getting so close that the money fell through on a Monday when we were all set to go down {to West Virginia} on a Thursday," Renzi recites.

They had grappled with this process before, but on a much smaller scale. It took only $1,500 or so to be an "investor" in "Lianna," which Sayles shot in 16-mm for $340,000; among the backers were actors in the movie, Renzi's and Sayles' parents, "all very low rollers," Renzi says.

"The Brother," pulled together quickly when the "Matewan" deal first fell through, was even simpler. Sayles came up with most of the $400,000 himself from his MacArthur Foundation we're-not-supposed-to-call-it- "genius"-grant and the proceeds of screenplays he wrote for such dubious releases as "Alligator" and "The Howling." "It's an easy way to do it," Renzi says. " 'John, we need another $30,000.' "

But Sayles couldn't write a check for nearly $4 million, so the producers formed a limited partnership. This involved hustling "every business person you've ever talked to, every rich person you've ever had lunch with," Renzi explains. Red Dog Films kept busy and solvent in the meantime by making three videos for fellow Jerseyan Bruce Springsteen.

Finally, Rajski and Renzi wrangled a commitment from Cinecom, which distributes small-but-classy films like "A Room With a View." With what Cinecom committed and raised, what Rajski and Renzi raised, the presale of home video rights to Lorimar and more than half a million of Sayles' own dollars (including his profits from "The Brother"), the cadre began its long-delayed trek to West Virginia last fall.

Everyone put up in the Econo Lodge north of Beckley, where the motto was "Spend a Night, Not a Fortune." The crew got lucky with the weather -- it stayed mostly dry, just as the producers' seasonal rainfall charts had promised. Sayles also had the good fortune to attract cinematographer Haskell Wexler, whose contributions to the film's look have been much praised by critics. "We didn't even ask what he usually gets," says Renzi. "We just said, 'Can you do it for this much?' And he said yes."

The belt-tightening meant, however, that to keep casting costs down the widow Radnor wound up with one child and one old woman boarder, instead of several of each. Costume designer Cynthia Flynt shopped flea markets and thrift shops for old-looking clothing. The location scouts never did find an appropriate coal tipple and building one proved far too expensive. Nor does "Matewan" feature a scene of a mule pulling a coal car. The single mule is stationary ("but he was live," Renzi points out).

The stinginess is intentional; Sayles' movies, participants know, reach comparatively small (though growing) audiences. "They're not going to appeal to teen-aged boys," Rajski explains. "Inherent in these kinds of films is a smaller return," which necessitates, in turn, lower expenditures.

Red Dog stayed within its modest budget, a point of pride. When Rajski and Renzi deliver their little opening speech to their crews, they say they've hired them to be ingenious. Anyone can do it with money.

There is no multimedia company called Sayles Inc., but sometimes it seems there should be. "Matewan" has spun off both a sound track recording (on Rounder Records) and a Houghton Mifflin book called "Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie 'Matewan,' " which Sayles wrote on the bus to and from New York during the weeks of editing.

What Renzi calls "the usual suspects" keep cropping up in the movies, too. Cynthia Flynt helped with wardrobe for "Lianna" and was wardrobe assistant on "The Brother"; this time out she was promoted to costume designer. Actress Nancy Mette, who plays Bridey Mae in "Matewan," will be recognizable to Sayles fans as the rock critic in "Secaucus Seven" and the film student writing a thesis on Audie Murphy in "Lianna." Production designer Nora Chavooshian is married to Joe Morton, who starred as "The Brother." Josh Mostel, the sheriff in "Matewan," is Rajski's husband.

The Sayles floating rep company consists of "people you can stand to spend grueling hours with for seven weeks on end," explains Renzi. "There are not a lot of people that can pass that test." She and Sayles are jointly completing the last task of making "Matewan," which is to give hours of hotel-room interviews in hopes of bringing the film to a wider audience than "the usual John Sayles crowd." Reviews so far have ranged from the very impressed (New York Times critic Vincent Canby called it "a film with the sweetness and simplicity of an Appalachian ballad") to the distinctly disappointed ("a righteous homily without the grits," said Richard Corliss in Time).

Renzi and Sayles are themselves charter members of the floating rep company. Sayles usually awards himself a few juicy scenes in his own movies. "I just like to act," he shrugs. "I'll hire myself. I work for scale." Renzi's acted in most of them, too, though in "Matewan" Sayles hesitated to give her the role of an Italian miner's wife.

"John was worried I couldn't do the Italian," Renzi says.

"I threatened Maggie with Isabella Rossellini," he jousts back. (Renzi did get the part.)

Sayles et al. are part of an informal circle whose current artistic mission seems to be writing/singing/making movies and videos about working-class America. Among its more prominent members are Springsteen and critic and biographer Dave Marsh (who introduced Springsteen to Sayles).

Sayles never was the campus activist type he re-created so knowingly in "Return of the Secaucus Seven"; he was more of a jock. He wasn't a blue-collar kid either -- his parents were Schenectady educators. But somehow he's wound up identifying with miners, mechanics and ballplayers.

"Some of it is having lived in a lot of different places as a kid, in the country and in the city," Sayles muses, trying to explain. "I think that gives you some perspective. If you live in the same place it's possible to think, there's Us and there's Them, and They're not like Us. If you move around, sometimes you move into Their neighborhood."

"John obviously doesn't give a {expletive} about clothes or fast cars or even the world looking clean," adds Renzi. It's true that in the editing room or at premieres or in the pages of Rolling Stone, Sayles is in shirt-sleeves. (It's also true that those sleeves are rolled an inch higher, and the shirt unbuttoned one button lower, than is absolutely necessary.)

"I'm sure at some point I'll make stuff about people who are educated and white and that stuff," Sayles says, a bit uncomfortably. "Very often I feel like filling a vacuum. There are people I see all around me and I never see them on the screen ... We don't really need another movie about kids going through high school right now."

But filling the vacuum seems to mean, inevitably, scrounging for money. Having made five movies in 10 years helps Sayles & Associates arrange meetings more easily, but doesn't necessarily make investors open their checkbooks.

"I saw 'The Molly Maguires' on the Movie Channel the other night," Sayles says, referring to another mining movie, starring Sean Connery. "They actually built a coal tipple that worked, and coal came down." He sounds wistful. "But you're talking half a million dollars for two or three shots."

On the other hand, five movies is more than lots of people who want to make movies have made. "Think of Martin Scorsese -- with Paul Newman! -- going around saying, 'Would you like to make the sequel to "The Hustler"?' and people saying no to him." Sayles shakes his head. "People with better track records and more hits have a hard time raising money."

But what if it were otherwise? What if some benefactor -- Spielberg, say, or Lucas -- gave Sayles $15 million or $20 million and said, "Here. No Strings. Do what you want." What then?

Sayles, pleased to ponder the possibility, thinks for a moment. Gears are turning, almost audibly, in his brain. "Fifteen million? That'd be great," he says. "I'd probably make six or seven movies out of it."