Winter 2020


Barbara Kopple's Fearless Quest for Truth

The pioneering documentarian has repeatedly put herself at risk, and she wouldn't have it any other way

By Thelma Adams

Barbara Kopple (Photographed by Andrew H. Walker)

On the first bitingly cold day in Manhattan, Barbara Kopple invites the DGA Quarterly into her sixth-floor loft, a short walk from the Angelika Film Center. She greets the photographer and me with croissants and the offer of coffee or tea, staging the encounter as a hostess primed for a free-flowing dialog about a career that spans three DGA Awards, two Oscars, six Emmy nominations and the SilverDocs/Charles Guggenheim Award.

Driven by a curiosity about the human condition, but also what makes individuals tick and how they work together and break apart, Kopple has created a body of work—largely documentaries but also fiction and commercials—that will stand the test of time.

She was a star out of the gate—if that's what you can call a first-time filmmaker who attended her first Oscars on the fly, with no entourage, a blow dryer and a tube of mascara as her hair-and-makeup team. She won for the seminal 1976 documentary Harlan County, U.S.A., a complex portrait of a Kentucky coal mining town in crisis that Congress later added to the National Film Registry. Kopple took the technique she'd developed interning for the Maysles brothers and burrowed deep into the mines to show what that dangerous, claustrophobic experience was like and who the men were who plied the trade. This risky plunge below the surface of the earth is nevertheless overshadowed by the moment when Kopple cries, "Don't shoot!" from behind her camera as management goons terrorize striking miners on the picket line. But she didn't set her camera aside even then and continued to bear witness to the very American battle between capital and labor depicted in Harlan County, U.S.A., which remains as relevant today as it was then.

For her sophomore feature, American Dream (1990), for which she earned a DGA Award and her second consecutive Oscar, she once again placed herself in harm's way and left no stone unturned as she chronicled another labor dispute, this time between meatpackers and their overlords at Hormel. Kopple's trademark access, and her uncanny ability to get her subjects to speak, comes to the fore in a kitchen-table discussion as three manly union members tearfully confess plans to cross the picket lines and return to work to put food on the table for their families.

The risk-taking pioneer has continued to make movies without pause—interviewing the soul singer Sharon Jones for the vital and heartbreaking Miss Sharon Jones!; diving deep into the Hemingway family's legacy of mental illness in Running From Crazy; and comparing and contrasting generations of rock music lovers in the Woodstock-set 2000 doc My Generation. She turned to fiction, directing Anne Hathaway and Bijou Phillips in 2005's Havoc, and tackled episodic television with Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz.

Her latest film, Desert One, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past fall, examines the failed-and-nearly-forgotten mission to rescue the captives during the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis. Among her many interview subjects was former President Jimmy Carter, who teared up in Kopple's presence as he revealed how emotionally devastating it was for him not being able to free the captives on his watch.

Whether gaining access to presidents or pugilists or performers, Kopple's work is defined by her humanism, her compassion, her relentless search for truth and her ability to connect as a storyteller.

DGAQ: Harlan County, U.S.A. and American Dream open with the workers' process—heading into the mine, packing pork: If you were going to film your process, how would you dramatize it?

Kopple: It's all about the people. I get as intimate and close as I can, as soon as I can, so they'll trust me to do all the other things I want to do with them. So talking to them, being with them, filming with them, and getting into trouble with them. I'm there to make the atmosphere as comfortable as I can and allow that person to be courageous enough to tell their story. If I'm able to open them up and let them speak about what they feel, or things they've never spoken about before, for me it's like a treasure.

Q: For example, in Miss Sharon Jones!, how'd you develop that central relationship with the subject with such intimacy?

A: Sharon was going through one of the toughest times imaginable. She had cancer and was having her hair shaved off. The very first time I filmed her was in one of the most intimate, difficult moments imaginable. It bonded us immediately. It's hitting her—the severity of everything. As women, you and I—both with our long hair—[know] to lose your hair, it's huge, and to figure out who is she going to be now? Is she going to wear a wig? Is she going to let her bald head show and be proud, whatever it is?

Q: How'd you get access?

A: Her manager called and said, "Why don't you come up?" and didn't tell me what was happening. I said we didn't have a contract signed. We didn't have anything. I also said I'll be right there. I drove three hours upstate to Sharon Springs, N.Y., and filmed.

Q: How big was your crew?

A: It was me and (a) camera and sound for that shoot. I'm committed to a small crew. There are maybe three or four of us because of the intimacy it allows. I don't want the technical stuff to take over unless I'm doing a feature or television. I've been really lucky to work with a great team of people who always have my back—and I have theirs. Because, these films, we don't do them by ourselves—and that's always very important to me. And most of the people I work with have been with me for a long time. For documentaries, I want it to be small and (with) people that I know are great at what they do technically, so that it's going to look and sound good, and the lighting's going to be great.

Q: It sounds like you threw yourself into the deep end.

A: Why do a film if you're not going to go into the deep end? No matter how high the waves are, I'll go under them or wherever the challenges are. I love challenges. If things are difficult, it makes the film more meaningful to do. What's important to me is truth—truth and storytelling.

Barbara Kopple, right, with Nagra recorder in hand, gets down and dirty while filming her first feature, the Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), which involved following miners into a two-foot-high under-ground passage. She's with cameraman Hart Perry and associate director Anne Lewis. (Photos: Courtesy Barbara Kopple)

Q: And part of Sharon's truth was that in the '90s, a record producer had told her that she was "too fat, too black, too short…"

A: And too old. For Sharon, she got through that and realized that when she sang, she was seven feet tall. When she danced and moved, the whole audience moved, so she had total control. But she was rejected by people because of how she looked, and then she went to see the Dap-Kings and life opened up.

Q: Music is influential in your films—including Miss Sharon Jones!, My Generation and Shut Up & Sing with the Dixie Chicks. In a stunning moment in Harlan County, U.S.A., Florence Reece sings her original "Which Side Are You On?," which underscores one of that film's themes: taking a stand.

A: Music speaks to us and connects us and tells stories that sometimes talking can't facilitate. In Harlan County, these were geographically connected people whose songs talked about the horrible things that had happened and people overcoming them. People would sit on their porches, strum their fiddles and we'd all sing at night.

Q: Did you join in?

A: Of course! You have to. When I got there, they made me drink white lightning and chew tobacco.

Q: And you followed miners into a two-foot-high underground passage. Did part of your bravery stem from being young?

A: I didn't fear anything. It was a journey. I'm going to get to go into the coal mines and feel what it's like—and I dragged my Nagra [recorder] along.

Q: How did that talent for confronting danger reveal itself on location? Harlan County, U.S.A. is terrifying in spots because the audience feels there's only the camera between them and the violence between mine owners, law enforcement and strikers. As an outsider, did you feel immune?

A: No. People told me (when) the last camera crew that was there, the cameraman was killed. He went on a miner's property and the miner shot him. Down there, people live and die by their guns. The first week I went to Harlan County, there had been an argument between two miners, and one had been shot with a .38, and he went to the hospital. The next day I saw him riding around in his car with a sign: ".38s ain't shit." So, people were tough. He wanted to show that he was macho and, in Harlan County, you didn't hide guns. Everybody had a gun.

Kopple, with headphones, is caught in the middle of a melee between law enforcement and meatpacking strikers in her second feature, American Dream (1990). (Photos: Courtesy Barbara Kopple)

Q: What defines a great DP in your book?

A: Somebody who can tell the story through the lens of the camera and is attuned, wears a Compex, so that we hear everything that's happening. They're following the story, they're following the people, they're not awkward, they're not unsure, and they're not afraid to get in there. I twist them around by putting my hands on their battery belt to slowly move them around to show them something—a moment, someone with their hands over their face. I have motions when I want them to roll: I put my finger in a circle on their shoulder or back. If I take my finger and do one line, it means cut. These are also camera people that are storytellers in their own right; they're able to follow stories.

Q: As someone who often interacts with macho culture, does being a woman factor into the equation?

A: I'm not intimidated. Doing my work with Fallen Champ: The Untold Mike Tyson Story, if you were a guy, there is some sort of language shorthand. You couldn't ask these touchy-feely questions. But being a woman, you can get away with it because the tough boxers and sports journalists figured you really didn't know about boxing and they were not intimidated by me. In fact, they wanted to help to have me understand.

Q: Is that talent for questioning also rooted in your study of psychology at Northeastern University?

A: I don't intentionally do that, but my son, Nick, who is a psychiatrist, came and saw Desert One. The next morning, he called and said, "We're so alike." I said, "Well, of course we are—you're my son." He said, "No, but you ask these questions and you listen and you let them take over with answering them and you go in whatever direction they want to go in." I said, "Yes, it's a conversation." He said, "Well, that's exactly what I do in my work." So that made me feel so good.

Q: Is it a family trait?

A: Maybe it's because I had parents that were so loving and told me there was nothing I couldn't do in life. That empowered me. I grew up in a cocoon of love. They said if anything happens to you, don't be afraid to tell us. We won't judge. That was the kind of home that I had.

Q: How do you collaborate with your editor?

A: With the people that I edit with, I don't tell them anything about the story because I was there, I know the story, I see more than maybe I have on film. The editor is my first audience. I let them view everything without saying a word of what's going on. After they've watched, that's when we sit down and discuss structuring. We take selects. We start to develop which characters are really coming through. Sometimes characters that I thought on location were not very good turn out to be wonderful and just what we need to be able to tell the story. So you're always surprised by how things look when you get into the edit room.
In Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing, I had no idea how extraordinary their longtime manager Simon Renshaw was. He wasn't afraid of Natalie Maines. He would pinpoint at any moment what was happening and push the band and provoke them. In one scene, Natalie gets really mad [following her anti-Bush comment and the backlash] and says, "I'm not going to ask forgiveness from anyone." And then they go and write a song, ["Not Ready to Make Nice"].

Kopple is flanked by cameraman Kyle Kibbe and sound recordist Peter Miller while filming her latter-day Woodstock documentary My Generation (2000). (Photos: Courtesy Barbara Kopple)

Q: Do you see yourself as a journalist?

A: I'm more of a humanist.

Q: Is that behind your willingness to take sides in your films?

A: It depends on the subject. In Desert One, which is an extraordinary tale of heroism told from both the perspective of the U.S. and the Iranians, it wasn't which side are you on, it's who are you? What did you go through? What [is it] about the situation [that] makes you decide to risk your life? The Americans were committed to rescuing the Iran hostages, no matter what it took, even if they didn't think that the plan was going to work. But their buddies were going. They would have their buddies' back and do the best that they could.

Q: In this film about Operation Eagle Claw, the failed 1980 rescue mission ordered by President Jimmy Carter, you interviewed Carter. Easy?

A: Hard. I worked for three months to get him. I got 19 minutes and 47 seconds. Beforehand, my friend Bernie said, "He's not emotional. You're not going to get anything emotional." So, I asked President Carter how he felt about the men who'd died in Iran during his watch. He said, "It was heartbreaking." I said, "Heartbreaking? What do you mean? It had to be much deeper than that. You lost all these men and it didn't even get off the ground. You didn't even do anything." Then he went into this little piece about his father, and how his father had died [while Carter was serving on] a submarine. That was so painful for him that Carter never thought he'd feel that way again. But when he heard about these men dying, those same feelings came up for him.

Q: Can you discuss the significance of archival materials in your work?

A: When I need archival material, my goal is to blend it into the film so it's seamless. For example, with Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson, I found out there was a German cinematographer who came to the house of Cus D'Amato, the person who managed many fighters. They all lived there and in the daytime they would practice, and D'Amato's dream was to have a heavyweight fighter. The cinematographer had all the material in a barn. I said give it all to me, and he charged me $10,000. Tyson was included in a lot of the material, which included the boxer sitting at a dinner table and talking about his life. It added rich layers to the film.

Q: Were there other treasure troves that helped crack open subjects for you?

A: Many. For Running From Crazy, where Ernest Hemingway's granddaughter Mariel Hemingway was tracing the legacy of suicide and mental illness in her literary family, we discovered footage that nobody had ever seen before. Her late sister Margaux Hemingway had been attempting a film tracing the footsteps of her grandfather Ernest. It included the model-actress interviewing her father, going to Europe and watching the bulls run in Pamplona. Ultimately, she went to her grandfather's house and said if there's nothing more that you can do in your life, I understand about killing yourself. And, of course, she killed herself. And so did her grandfather. We found all this material in a Minnesota stock footage house. The people who ran the house had to literally blow off the dust. I never mentioned it to Mariel and so when I showed her the film in fine cut, she burst into tears. It was the most amazing material I've ever seen: I have 43 hours of footage Margaux had shot many years before, including a huge interview of her interviewing her father Jack.

Kopple interviews former President Jimmy Carter for her most recent documentary, Desert One, about the '79-'80 Iran hostage crisis. (Photo: Courtesy Barbara Kopple)

Q: Tell me about your approach to cinéma vérité as it applied to Harlan County.

A: You don't put yourself into it, and you allow things to happen. That's what I tried to do. I let people go and toss them questions when I needed them to answer specific questions and reveal their feelings. And I try to leave my voice out of the film.

Q: You're nearly invisible until you toss in a question from behind the camera, which makes it all the more frightening when the camera is rolling and guns are popping and you cry, "Don't shoot!"

A: The scene I love the best of me being in Harlan County was when [mine foreman] Basil Collins stopped his truck and said, "Come over here, honey." After I did, he said, "Who do you work for?" And I said, "United Press." He said, "Let me see your press card." And I yelled for Anne Lewis to go in my purse and get my press card. I actually did have one. He had guns in the car, and I asked him questions like, "Who are you and how do you feel about these people picketing up here?" I said, "And what's your position?" And he said, "Mine foreman." And I said, "Do you have any identification?" He said, "Well, I may have lost mine." And so he said, "Well, where is your press card?" I said, "Well, I may have misplaced mine." Then he zoomed off. The people who were on the picket line said: "Easy. He's the chief gun thug. He's the one who could take your life at any point." But I wasn't afraid.

Q: You weren't afraid?

A: I wasn't. Basil let me come on his picket line, when he was grouping the gun thugs and scabs who were going to cross the picket line. He let me ride in the line with them, and I interviewed them, little bits and pieces all along the way, so he always let me. But I was told that if I was ever caught alone at night that I'd be killed. There was a bounty on my head. I promised I'd never be caught alone at night.

Q: From your first feature documentary, the power of unions has been a subject of your work. As a longtime member of the DGA, how has it figured in your career?

A: Since the 1980s, I've been a DGA member. Most of the time it was wonderful to be a part of an organization, whether they understood what you were doing or no. It took years for them to figure out how we service documentarians. We were sort of the stepchildren. There were no budgets for our films. Sometimes there are still no budgets. It took time to figure out what do documentarians need from the DGA—and what does the DGA need from documentarians?

Q: How has this evolved?

A: Now we're considered as films, which is wonderful. And healthcare, and if anybody wrongs us, we have the DGA to defend our rights. It feels good to be part of a protective group that has fiction and documentary directors. And now people are embracing our work. At most film festivals like Sundance, the documentary tickets sell out first. People want to see that sense of truthfulness and be taken on these wild and furious journeys. We're in good stead now.

Kopple, right, tracks down Mariel Hemingway for her 2013 doc, Running From Crazy, which probes the Hemingway family's history of suicide and mental illness. (Photo: Courtesy Barbara Kopple)

Q: What changed?

A: I think because of Netflix, Amazon, HBO and A&E, and there's so many more places that want this kind of content. Also, people are seeing that this isn't a film about the capital of Uruguay, it's about people, it's moving and entertaining. Look at this year: American Factory, The Cave, The Kingmaker, One Child Nation and The Edge of Democracy, all these different films bring you so much. You're on the edge of your seat or you want to sing along or you want to cry with them. Documentaries are enjoyed by audiences like they've never been enjoyed before. And people are distributing them; they're getting into theaters and doing well. It's wonderful.

Q: What directors have influenced your work?

A: D.A. Pennebaker had an impact from early days. When I was doing Harlan County and we were at final cut, I was an unknown filmmaker, it was an unknown film, and I didn't know if it was good or bad. I decided I wanted a screening, and Penny called up all these people I revered, like [documentary filmmaker] Charlotte Zwerin and (producer) Susan Steinberg, and filled it with amazing people. I was nervous that nobody would like it and they loved it. He stuck his neck out for me.

Q: Would you say there's a generosity among documentarians?

A: Documentarians want each other to succeed; we know what each one of us has to go through and want them to make the best films they can. If they're feeling nervous or can't get money, or bad things are happening, you want to be there for them. Every time you step out to do this kind of work, you need all the help you can get.

Q: You've also directed a feature film, Havoc, and episodic television with Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz.

A: Homicide was the first one I did with the wonderful (writer-producer) Tom Fontana. The director is the only newbie on the set since the actors stay the same. My first episode was called "The Documentary." I didn't realize that it was much harder than the others because all the others got to follow two people. In this one, it started as a documentarian was filming everybody, and all their secret rendezvous with each other, and going out on a crime scene, or doing something they weren't supposed to do. It was the hardest one to do, but I didn't know that. I remember Yaphet Kotto called me [over] because we were changing lighting and said, "You're a documentary filmmaker and you're new at this, and I don't have any lines so I think I'm going to go to my honey wagon." I said, "Stop it, these are your men, you don't want to miss any of this." I said, "When we put the camera on you, that's the money shot." I couldn't believe I said that, but I did. So, he came up and apologized. The 1st AD said he'd never heard Yaphet say I'm sorry to anybody. I wasn't frightened. I figured if I could live through machine-gun fire, I could work with actors. In a barroom scene, Andre Braugher said, "Since you're a documentarian, does that mean that we only do it once?" I said, "No, every documentarian stays there even if it is all through the night to make sure that no stone is left unturned. So, I suggest that we go for it." He went, "OK!" I had a blast.

Q: Is your motto "No stone left unturned?"

A: You've got to find all the different angles and ensure you're not missing anything. But my motto is bringing a sense of truthfulness of who people are, and what they're about, and upending stereotypes.

Kopple interviews Woody Allen, the subject of Wild Man Blues (1997), which focuses on Allen's 1996 European tour with his New Orleans jazz band. (Courtesy Barbara Kopple)

Q: Tell me about Wild Man Blues. How do you feel Woody Allen's legacy has impacted that movie?

A: Are you talking about #MeToo?

Q: Yes.

A: Well, his reputation had shifted before I started the film. My friends said, "Oh, you can't do that." I said, "Are you kidding? Yes I can do that and I'm doing it." I don't know (what's) true or not. I mean, what they're accusing him of. But I don't think it is. I don't feel that it is. There was no way I wasn't going to do that film. I mean, they fell in love, and this wasn't his daughter with Mia Farrow; it was Andre Previn and Mia's daughter. It's a unique relationship. They have two adopted children, and they're still together and, from what I can tell, enjoying each other. I was glad to be part of it.

Q: Did Allen see it and have input into the film?

A: When we were editing, he used to call up all the time: "OK, so can I come see it?" I would say, "No, Woody, it's eight hours long." He'd wait a little bit and he'd call and say, "OK, can I come see it?" And I said, "No, Woody, it is five hours long." Then finally he said, "I'm coming." I said, "It's three hours long." So, he and Soon-Yi watched it, leaning together and holding hands and laughing. It was as if their relationship was coming out of the screen and they were reliving it. At the end, he stood up and said, "Well, you have some editing to do."


Q: At least he didn't say, "And I'm going to tell you where," right?

A: No. He trusted me.

Q: What's next?

A: I have a bunch of projects, but I don't know what one's going to happen. If I talk about it and it doesn't happen, I'll be sad. I usually tell everything, but I'm unsure today because I've been struggling to do one film and there's no financing.

A scene from Kopple's narrative feature, Havoc (2005), starring Anne Hathaway and Bijou Phillips. (Photo: Photofest)

Q: Is money always an issue, not only professionally but personally?

A: Yes. For example with New Homeland in 2018, we had a partner that only put in a small amount of money and then said, "I'm sorry, but we can't give you any more, so stop filming." And I said, "No, I'm going to finish it." Unfortunately, my mom passed away, and she left me a little money, and I put all of it into the film. Financing is always hard.

Q: Do you find asking for funding hard?

A: My parents told me as a kid, "Don't ever ask anyone for money." Hmmm. Hard for a documentary filmmaker. That stayed with me. A lot of times, I like it when people call and say, "How would you like to do a film about...," 'cause then I know there is a budget. For This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, I was thrilled to do it, and I would probably never have considered [making] that film. Once somebody says something to me, it gels in my head and then consumes me and that's what I want to do. Even though it didn't come from me, it becomes part of me. And, wow, I get to look at this person and then discover what she's about, find out about her family, find out about how she came to do this and what obstacles she had to go through. It's a whole different world way outside of my bubble. They all are.

Q: And you've shot commercials?

A: I've made commercials for Target, Sprint, Ford, Dove and Marlo Thomas' St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. It's great telling a cool story in a short amount of time. There's a big budget and you get to work with so many different people that know their craft and make things look absolutely exquisite.

Q: Do you see yourself as having a visual style—or deliberately not having one?

A: My style meets the subject. If I'm doing a commercial, I definitely have a visual style and set it up so it has a stylish look and they're fun. A commercial is set up to make it look "wow" because you're selling something.

Q: Looking back, if someone watched your work from beginning to end, what would that experience inspire?

A: Hopefully, these films take them on a journey and let them see people in the light in which they existed. There's a beauty in being able to do that. For me, it means the world every time I'm working on a film. I feel blessed and happy. When it's finished and I get to show it to people. I can't get enough of it.

Kopple accepts the DGA Award for directing Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson. (Photo: DGA Archives)

Q: There's also an athleticism to your movies. You demonstrate great physical—and emotional—stamina…

A: Yes. When I used to do sound and have this heavy Nagra around my neck, if nothing was happening I'd feel that Nagra's weight. When something happened, I didn't feel the weight at all. I could run and fly with it because I'd be so into what was happening. I wouldn't feel anything except what my subjects were doing in their lives. That's what it's about. I'm motivated by the people I film. Where they're doing things they love, or things they're afraid of, or making tough choices, and things are alive, then I'm alive with them. I am a person who loves being in the moment. I don't want to miss anything…in life.

Q: Documentary filmmakers are often activists and change-makers. One of the industry's most vital changes is inclusion. How do you feel about this critical moment?

A: If we continue as women or filmmakers and make fantastic stories, then people have to deal with them. You can't change what's going to happen out there. All you can do is put together your best work and, hopefully, open people up to a different way of thinking. That's what's going to keep us strong.

Q: What can you learn from watching an audience?

A: Depending on the audience, I learn when they're into it and animated. When I show my films, I never leave, because I want to see when the audience laughs, I want to see when they get bored. I watch different people's faces, taking things in. I wonder, "Are they enjoying this?" I learn a lot about whether the film still reaches people or how it moves them. For me, being with an audience watching one of my films is always the dessert after working on a film. And whenever I show a film, I always bring everyone on stage, whatever their participation, because you don't do these films on your own; you do it with a team of people who work together to make it happen.

Q: Harking back to Harlan County, U.S.A., you plunge deep into the mine, taking your camera and putting yourself on the line.

A: How else can you be part of what's happening if you don't put yourself out there? It doesn't mean there haven't been challenges. Being able to be in somebody's life and have the kind of access that you want are challenges. But I'm an optimist. If something terrible happens, I think about what corner I can go around to do something differently, or plan B or plan C. I don't get upset and stymied because this didn't happen the way I wanted. You're following people who are going to do what they're going to do, and you don't want to control them, because you want to see who they are through the choices they make. It's real life.

Q: Looking back over a career of storytelling, do you find life chaotic?

A: I think life's fantastic. It's chaotic. It's funny. It's loving, amusing. It's painful. It's naughty, it's dangerous and all of those things. My job is to capture it.

Q: To look it straight in the face—

A: And not shy away.

DGA Interviews

Prominent directors reflecting on their body of
work through an extended and in-depth Q&A.

More from this issue
This issue trains the spotlight on directors of non-fiction programming, including documentaries, news, sports and reality programming. In this regard, the subject of our centerpiece DGA Interview is Barbara Kopple. The three-time DGA Award winner and recipient of two Oscars discusses her relentless quest for truth and her uncanny ability to get her subjects to bare their souls. Read about Kopple's career and more in our latest magazine.