INTERVIEW: Behind The Strike Lines: "American Standoff" Director Kristi Jacobson Chronicles the Teamsters
by Matthew Ross
(indieWIRE/ 06.07.02) — “American Standoff” is the latest documentary about the U.S. labor movement to which the venerable Barbara Kopple has lent her considerable filmmaking skills. Previous directorial efforts — 1977’s “Harlan County, U.S.A.” and 1991’s “American Made” — took home Academy Awards for best documentary. Now, Kopple (this time serving as producer), director Kristi Jacobson, and Kopple’s Cabin Creek production team have taken on a project about America’s most famous union, the Teamsters. HBO (which also financed the film) will begin broadcasting “American Standoff” as part of its “America Undercover” series starting Monday.
“American Standoff” begins in 1999, when newly-elected Teamster president James P. Hoffa, Jr. (son of Jimmy) vows to organize trucking giant and longtime union nemesis Overnite Transportation. But what begins with copious amounts of bravado and pro-labor enthusiasm soon transforms into a grueling, exhausting trench war with no end in sight. As was the case with Kopple’s previous union movies, the workers on the front line in “American Standoff” prove to be fascinating, subjects, and Jacobson does a commendable job of chronicling the often heartbreaking battle without ever bowing to sentimentality.
indieWIRE spoke with Jacobson about working with Barbara Kopple, the emotional challenges of filming her subjects, and knowing when to stop shooting.
indieWIRE: How did you get involved with the project?
Kristi Jacobson: I was looking for another project, and Barbara was pitching ideas, and when Jimmy Hoffa was elected president of the Teamsters, I think for her it set off bells. And so we started doing some research together, and after researching for a little bit, she pitched it to Sheila Nevins from HBO. And that was when the project really started.
iW: So were you involved from the beginning as the director?
Jacobson: From the beginning we were working together to try to figure out the best way to make the film, and as we started doing more and more research, and then started shooting, and realizing how much of a commitment shooting was gonna be, and how much time we were going to have to put in, and hours we were going to need to shoot, I think the relationship emerged from there. I was out in the field shooting a lot and Barbara was also shooting, but I just became completely ensconced. She played a hugely important role in helping to shape the film and make the film and find the story. Working with Barbara was an incredible experience.
iW: From a production point of view, the film must have been unbelievably challenging.
Jacobson: It was unbelievably challenging. We were following all these different characters that lived in different cities, and of course they didn’t care about our schedule, so things would just happen and we would do our best to just get there and be there. But in the beginning when the strikes started, we roamed from each of our locations, just to be around and earn the trust and respect of the people that we were filming. I think it helped in the long run, because we were there as much as we could possibly be there.
iW: The characters in the film were so compelling, especially Hope and Mike [two of the striking Teamsters]. How did you find them? What made you decide to commit to them?
Jacobson: I think in the beginning of covering the strike it became immediately apparent for me that you’re not making a film about an issue or a strike, it’s about the people; it’s the people’s stories. The Teamsters have been fighting this fight for years, since 1994, so certain people have emerged as leaders in the fight. I started meeting with many of those people, but the day I met Mike outside the terminal, and started talking, it was just clear that this was a dynamic guy. He has a pure and honest commitment to what he had now signed on for, even though he originally had voted against the union. That kind of honesty is very important when you’re looking for a character. He also had a great sense of humor, which drew me to him. The first day I met Hope, I went back with her to her house, and her kids were so at ease around her, and they were at ease around us. She was screaming from the minute we met her, so I guess we just clicked.
iW: Work on a film like this must has been an emotional experience.
Jacobson: I think my emotional involvement and attachment really began in the weeks before the strikes started. I was spending a lot of time with [Teamster organizer] John Murphy and watching him work around the clock, running his local union, preparing for this strike and meeting with all these different members and it started to make sense to me how much the union meant to people. I wasn’t just looking at it from the outside; I started to really understand what the union could mean. But then the strike started, and it wasn’t the quick resolution that everyone had anticipated. No one thought it would go on as long as it did. You know, the more you spend time with a woman like Hope, who has to relocate her family three times, all because she wants to join the union; and seeing someone like Mike go through the agony that he went through; I ended up not only caring about these people, but having a deep respect and admiration for them.
iW: Are you relieved that it’s over?
Jacobson: It’s pretty bittersweet. I was so attached to what was going on in the Teamster community. I never woke up in the morning without checking teamster.org and overnite.com. So it became my way of life, and I sort of miss that. But at the same time it’s been really rewarding screening the film at festivals and actually standing up there. Also all along while we were filming, people kept asking when it was going to air, and I said, “Oh, sometime in 2002,” and it seemed so far away. And then to actually have finished the film and see it on the screen, and see it with the people who are in the film has been really rewarding. It really feels like all that hard work paid off. One of the most important things I got out of making this film and working with Barbara Kopple is how important collaboration is when you’re making documentaries. As a filmmaker it is essential to be aware of the fact that you are not only collaborating with the other filmmakers, but also with the subjects that you are filming.
iW: Is the strike still on?
Jacobson: Yes. Just because the film is completed and is being broadcast, does not mean the strike is over. The strike continues, and every day the Teamsters are forced to reinvent themselves, as you saw in the film.