The Making of
“The Killing Floor is a truly compelling, blistering, and vital historical document.”
– Jen Johans, Film Intuition
“The Killing Floor is thrillingly watchable, profoundly stirring and perennially relevant.
And it’s an exemplary exercise in how to dramatize history and ideas.”
– David Bax, Battleship Pretension
“A vast amount of research clearly went into writing it.
The Killing Floor presents, in fascinating dialectical wrangles,
the large-scale political events of the time: an original and fruitful template
for the cinematic analysis of social systems and confrontation with history.”
– Richard Brody, The New Yorker
Many reviewers have praised The Killing Floor for its approach towards illuminating history through drama and for the strong sense of authenticity it achieves. At the same time, the film uses self-reflective (distancing effect) techniques, as Brody notes elsewhere in his review, both "to set off the dramatizations as latter-day artifices and to verify them as authentic parts of the historical record."
A key theme of the film is racial and class solidarity: both how essential it is for progress to be made and how difficult it often is to achieve. Likewise, solidarity was key in the development of the content and style of the film through an unusual collaboration of African-American and white artists, scholars and intellectuals. And solidarity also played an important role in making the production of this ambitious historical drama financially viable on a very modest public television budget.
Premiering on PBS in the American Playhouse series in 1984, The Killing Floor was also the pilot production for producer and co-writer Elsa Rassbach's proposed public television series on the history of American workers, Made in U.S.A. In the series she planned to present ten dramatic films exploring experiences of working people of different races, ethnicities and genders in various times and places whose lives were impacted by industrialization. (A detailed description of the proposed series is here.)
In producing The Killing Floor, Rassbach worked in four separate phases, collaborating first with historians (ca. three years of research for the overall series), then working with leading African-American creative talent to bring the story to life: the acclaimed playwrights Ron Milner and Leslie Lee (ca. five years), then the director, Bill Duke (ca. three months), and then the editor John Carter (ca. seven months).
As was usual in Director's Guild public television contracts of that time, Duke was engaged for prep, principal photography and the first weeks of editing. As the series' executive producer, Rassbach had overall creative control, because she was setting the style for her proposed series via the pilot, as described by John J. O'Connor in his review of the television premiere of The Killing Floor for The New York Times in April 1984.
Overview: The Four Phases of the Production
1) HISTORICAL RESEARCH (1975 - 1978): Rassbach's commitment to historical authenticity and her continuing close collaboration with historians, also in the screenwriting and editing phases of The Killing Floor, were key to achieving some of the qualities of the film that have been most acclaimed. The work with historians was supported by the lead funder of the labor history series, The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which provided development financing for the labor series in 1975 and again in 1977. Leading historians consulting on the series (such as Eric Foner, Herbert Gutman, Alice Kessler Harris, and David Brody), as well as the younger scholars working with the project, were well-versed in "the new social history", a major growth field of scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s that saw as its task: 1) documenting large structural changes; 2) reconstructing the experiences of ordinary people in the course of those changes; and (3) connecting the two.
The research team scoured historical archives, seeking original source material with dramatic potential for the planned series of ten films, above all documents that would shed light on individual personal experience: newspaper stories, diaries, letters, transcripts of trials and other official hearings in which working people had testified. Rassbach then wrote the series' stories under contract as a member of the Writers Guild, including an 80-page treatment for The Killing Floor that describes the main characters and plot development in story form. Professor David Brody became the leading historical advisor for The Killing Floor. He consulted with Rassbach during research and story-writing, and he also reviewed and made dramaturgically useful comments on each draft of the screenplay. (The source material for The Killing Floor is described on page 5.)
2) SCREENPLAY (1978-1984): In selecting the screenwriter(s) for The Killing Floor, Rassbach held individual discussions with several African-American writers who had read her story as the source material for the screenplay. In 1978, she engaged African-American playwright Ron Milner, who wrote a draft script that provided a richer psychological development of the central characters, Frank Custer and Austin "Heavy" Williams (including Heavy's song, "Down on the Killing Floor"). From 1979 through the post-production of the film in 1984, she worked closely with the Obie Award-winning African-American playwright and screenwriter, Leslie Lee. She wrote most dialogues of the white workers and officials, which he incorporated into the screenplay. Rassbach later engaged Lee to write a script on young white women working in a textile mill. The two became lifelong friends.
3) PRODUCTION (1983): After a suitable authentic "killing floor" location was found in Chicago, the production office was set up there in January1983. The experienced low-budget line producer, George Manasse, who had prepared the production budgets, joined Rassbach in Chicago, as did Jim Dennett, an experienced DGA Unit Production Manager from California. Almost all remaining crew that were hired were living in or near Chicago. Based on the screenplay that had been set in consultation with historians, Rassbach interviewed several African-American DGA directors and selected Bill Duke. The two travelled to New York and LA to audition leading cast members but selected most of the cast from among the talented Chicago film, television and stage actors.
4) POST-PRODUCTION & FURTHER SCREENWRITING (1983-1984): After Bill Duke completed the ca. two-week television director's cut provided by the DGA contract, he had further television directing engagements. The African-American editor John Carter agreed to complete the editing working with Rassbach. The two agreed that it would be beneficial to restructure the 5 film somewhat during editing. They added material that had not been in the original screenplay, including:
a voiceover narration of the lead character, Frank Custer. Rassbach directed Damien Leake's performance of the voiceover, which Leslie Lee wrote in consultation with her and John Carter;
external film material, such as: authentic black and white documentary archival film of the period 1917-1919 to create historical "chapters"; establishing shots of some well-dressed period street scenes from Hollywood stock shot libraries; and color documentary material of the slaughterhouses that had been shot in the Chicago Stockyards before they were they were closed in 1971.
titles at the beginning of the film to establish that the main characters were based on historic persons, as well as titles at the end of the film to inform the audience of the longer-term results of the efforts of the main characters and of what happened later in the lives of the characters about whom further information could be found in the historical record.
Rassbach supervised the sound mix, with music by Elizabeth Swados, as well as the final color grading of the 16 mm film. She delivered the film to PBS in March 1984, one week before her only child was born. He was just six days old when he watched with her the premiere on television.
Sources of The Killing Floor Characters and Story
Just as I got right at the gate, six or seven or eight Polacks grabbed a colored fellow out there and carried him on the wagon, and said, “You son of a bitch, you will join the union!”
*– Testimony of Joe Hodges, black stockyard worker, June 1919
It seems as though they bring a bunch of colored men from Texas here to Chicago in order to break the power of the union...They are not only making agitators on that floor, but they are making them all over Chicago. ...Supposing race trouble starts, I am a colored man, and I love my family tree, and I ain't going to stand for no white man to come imposing on my color.
*–Testimony of Frank Custer, black stockyard worker and shop steward, June 1919
Rassbach literally followed up on a footnote of history to develop the story for a stirring drama about labor, race, and ethnic conflict among Polish, German and African-American workers in the World War I Era Chicago Stockyards – a conflict which erupted in the bloody Chicago Race Riot of 1919 and was repeated by white supremacist attacks (so-called "race riots") in cities throughout the U.S. in that year. She came across a provocative footnote in William Tuttle’s landmark historical work, Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919: In a 1919 government hearing in front of a white judge, one African-American slaughterhouse worker had screamed an expletive at another.
Curious about the background of this conflict between these two African-American workers, she located the obscure testimony on which the footnote was based in the National Archives. In thousands of pages of testimony before federal Samuel Alschuler in a hearing of the U.S. Labor Department, the characters of the film leapt out – among them Frank Custer, an African American labor organizer torn in a conflict between union activism and loyalty to friends like Austin "Heavy" Williams and his sidekick Joe Hodges, tough older black workers who trust no whites; and Bill Bremer, a German-American shop floor union leader who is trying to win the black workers to the concept of building a multiracial union for the first time in the Chicago Stockyards.
Through extensive further research in union newspapers of the time, government and journalist's reports on the "race riots" (including one by the poet, Carl Sandburg) and original letters of African- American migrants and Polish immigrants to Chicago, Rassbach reconstructed a "true story" of the first attempt to forge a multiracial meatpacker's union in the face of increasing racial violence.
Pieced together bit by bit, document by document, the story takes place approximately ten years after the events depicted in the renowned novel by Upton Sinclair, The Jungle. It is a story of men working with knives in the blood-soaked "killing floor" of the Wilson meatpacking company, men who increasingly had to fear for their own lives in the atmosphere of conflict and racial violence – a story which, according to The London Evening Standard, "mainline Hollywood hasn't tackled since the humanist talents of Kazan, Huston, Ray and Jules Dassin…".
The racial tension due to unemployment culminated in the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, through which the union effort, based on the concept of racial solidarity, was crushed. Nevertheless, as the film indicates, the efforts of black and white workers like Frank Custer, Bill Bremer, Robert Bedford, who are largely unknown in history books, sowed the seeds for the success, in the 1930s, of the American industrial union movement and later for the Civil Rights movement.
A search for surviving relatives of the film's authentic characters who worked on "the killing floor" (Frank Custer, "Heavy" Williams, and Bill Bremer, Robert Bedford and Dan Michora) was unsuccessful; their fate after the summer of 1919, when they testified before Judge Samuel Alschuler, remains unknown. This is why a title near the end of the film states that these characters "disappeared from the historical record," even though most or all of them likely lived on.
The film also portrays more well-known figures in the history of the American labor movement, such as John Fitzpatrick, head of the Chicago Federation of Labor; Dennis Lane, Secretary-Treasurer of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America; and Jack Johnston, a radical young organizer from Scotland who later worked with the early U. S. Communist Party and then with Gandhi in India.
*Source: U.S. Department of Labor Hearing: "Violation of Agreement by Employees,"
Hon. Samuel Alschuler, Arbitrator, June 20, 1919
Financing the Production through Solidarity
The complexity and difficulty of the research was only the first obstacle the project faced. In February 1980, shortly after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as U.S. President and Republicans had taken charge of the U.S. Senate, the labor series and its pilot production, The Killing Floor, became the object of a heated national debate. Stories were published in leading newspapers (such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe) on the issue of whether it would be appropriate for a series on the history of American workers to accept partial financing from U.S. labor unions.
The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) ultimately determined that it would be appropriate for the producers to accept up to one third of funding from unions, as the usual corporate underwriters for U.S. public television had initially not shown much interest in sponsoring the project. More than forty unions as well as Xerox and American Home Products Corporation made contributions. The majority of funding was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the PBS American Playhouse, which offered a licensing agreement to showcase the pilot production of the labor series.
However, the funding received was not enough to produce The Killing Floor while paying normal union rates for the large cast and crew. In the end, the film could only be made due to the good will of the writers' and actors' guilds, WGA and SAG, and the production unions, IATSE and the Teamsters. They provided special conditions to the non-profit independent production company, Public Forum Productions, Ltd., for the production and distribution of the film so as to help tell an authentic story about the oppression of African-American workers. Thus, interracial solidarity played a key role throughout the production.
On Location in Chicago
Many emerging talents received on The Killing Floor their first chance to work on a significant feature-length dramatic film: the Director Bill Duke, who has since made Rage in Harlem, Sister Act II, and Deep Cover; the Art Director/Production Designer Maher Ahmad, a theater set designer who became a top Hollywood production designer on films like Goodfellas, Married to the Mob, and The Paper Chase; the Chicago theatrical Costume Designer Kaye Nottbusch, who later designed the costumes for well-known films like Sleepless in Seattle; and the Cinematographer Bill Birch, an experienced Chicago news and documentary cameraman whose father, also a news cameraman, had founded the Chicago IATSE camera local.
Many actors who later became well-known had first or early feature film roles on the film, including Dennis Farina, John Mahoney, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Ted Levine, Wanda Christine, Patrick Nugent and Ernest Rayford. Due to strong interest in the subject matter of the film, The Killing Floor was also able to attract well-known stage and screen actors like Alfre Woodard, Moses Gunn, Clarence Felder, Mary Alice Smith and Damien Leake.
The historical and contemporary social situations dovetailed during shooting of The Killing Floor. Principal photography followed shortly upon the 1982 election of Harold Washington, the first African-American Chicago Mayor, and racial tensions in Chicago were again high. The African-American campaign workers for Washington served as extras for the film on a volunteer basis. Unemployed steelworkers from Chicago’s South Side, many of them Polish, also volunteered, playing the many Polish workers in the Chicago Stockyards during the time the film takes place. In realistic fashion, Polish is scattered throughout the film's dialogue. Today, more people of Polish heritage live in Chicago than in any other city except for Warsaw. Henryk Derewenda, a Chicago actor who was previously a stage actor in Warsaw, plays the legendary Chicago Polish union organizer John Kikulski in the film.
Working conditions on the authentic Chicago "killing floor" where the film was shot were quite perilous. Animal blood made the floors dangerously slippery; frozen cow carcasses were constantly in danger of melting under the hot lights. As in the World War I era, the majority of the workers employed at the last existing Chicago killing floor in 1983, when the film was shot, were African-American migrants and Polish immigrants. Their tutoring of the actors added to the film's authenticity.