Barbara Kopple is anything but a stranger to the world of documentary film, having accomplished notoriety in the genre, directing “Harlan County, U.S.A.,” which won the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 1977. Kopple again took the Oscar for best doc (shared with Arthur Cohn) in 1991 for “American Dream.” Both films delve into the plight of workers, in the case of “American Dream” at a meat-packing plant in Minnesota, while “Harlan” focuses on a bitter miners strike in Kentucky. Kopple has also turned the lens on celebrity, including “A Conversation with Gregory Peck” in 1999 as well as television doc “Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson” in addition to many other titles throughout her career. In “Shut Up & Sing,” Kopple and co-director (and longtime collaborator) Cecilia Peck, turn the spotlight on the massively successful band the Dixie Chicks. At a London concert in 2003, lead singer Natalie Maines made what she believed was a fairly off-handed comment to the audience on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas” — their home state. The comment won cheers from the audience that night, but the fallout at home could not have been imagined.
Kopple and Peck explore the aftermath of CD burnings, censorship, insults and death threats in addition to how the mayhem impacted the band’s personal lives. The film also takes a look at how the trio catapulted themselves to their successful new album “Taking the Long Way” and having children. In this interview, Kopple talks about their approach in making the film and how they didn’t want it to just be about “the incident” in addition to her early career working with Peter Davis and the Maysles before striking Oscar gold. The Weinstein Company opens “Shut Up & Sing” in limited release beginning Friday, October 27.
Barbara Kopple recently participated in indieWIRE’s email interview series and her answers to our standard set of questions are published below.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I’ve always been interested in how people think, how they react to challenges in their lives–what makes people tick. I’ve also always been passionate about social issues and causes, and I wanted to make films that addressed important issues in very human terms. I think that over the years my vision has evolved and has come to include things that I probably never would have guessed I’d be filming –like Woody Allen‘s Jazz Band, or Mike Tyson.
I think I still have that same drive and determination, the same curiosity and passion for filmmaking that I did when I first started. Every film brings with it unique challenges and experiences, and I approach every one with the same enthusiasm.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking either on the creative side or industry side etc. that you would still like to explore?
Most of my films have been documentaries, but I’m also very interested in narrative filmmaking. I directed a few episodes of “Homicide” and “OZ,” and recently directed the feature film “Havoc,” as well as commercial spots. I hope to have more opportunities to direct features and I’ve got a few ideas in the works now. They include a film about the life of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, and another that tells a story about race and politics in America through the life story of Dennis Watlington, an amazing artist and writer . I’m excited to get started on these projects and others. Of course my main love is documentary films.
In another sense, though, every project brings with it surprises and unexpected turns. We never really know what’s around the corner when we’re filming–what turn a story will take, what a character will do or say to surprise us, how the events in the world will impact our story. That’s what makes nonfiction filmmaking so interesting–just like life itself, every day brings something new.
Please talk about how the initial idea for “Shut Up & Sing” came about, and how it evolved…
Before the Chicks set out on their 2003 Top of the World Tour, this is pre-Bush comment, Cecilia Peck and I wanted to do a film of their tour with the idea of trying to follow them on the road. The Chicks already had a crew that was doing short web pieces for their homepage and didn’t feel they could take us along. In late 2004 the Chicks came back to us saying they wanted to have a film created out of all the footage that was shot on that tour. I knew they were writing their new album and that it would be a response to their experiences from the backlash against them. I was of course extremely interested in their story but I didn’t want it to be solely about the comment and its immediate aftermath, I wanted to see how this experience changed them as humans and musicians. So, we filmed them recording their new album and everything else that occurred so that the film will give a full picture from 2003 through 2006.
As the project evolved–in the field and in the edit room–I think we all came to see this experience of the Dixie Chicks as a lens through which to see the current political climate in America. We’re living in a time when the freedoms we take for granted–the freedom of speech, the freedom to protest and dissent–are truly in danger. I think the story of the Dixie Chicks really encapsulates the risks we face–and at the same time shows that when you stand up for your rights, people will be there to support you, and follow your lead.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences (if any), as well as your overall goals for the project?
I like to approach my films with an open mind. I don’t go into a film with any particular agenda–I rarely know how a film will end when I start filming. But [I] often do have a point of view on the subject–in other words, I know that I support free speech, and that I respect the Dixie Chicks for not backing down in the face of intimidation and threats. I felt that this film had a lot of potential to be fun and entertaining and also make some important points at the same time.
So I was excited to start shooting, and also to start sifting through the stock footage and the footage that had already been recorded. Some material dated back to before the famous “incident.” We shot a lot of new footage–of the Chicks writing new songs, back in the recording studio putting together their very personal and artistic response to the last few years, and working with legendary producer Rick Rubin. We also filmed with their families in intimate moments that really get at the heart of who these incredible women are.
Like so many nonfiction films, the story really came together in the edit room. We had an amazing edit staff, and we were able to weave the two time periods (2003 and 2005) in a way that I think really highlights both the Dixie Chicks’ personal experiences and the political significance of their story.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
I think the biggest challenge was probably figuring out what not to include–there were so many interesting experiences and great moments captured on film that it was difficult to cut some out.
There was also so much great concert footage and music to include, and we did our best to satisfy people new to the Dixie Chicks and long time fans as well.
Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
One of the first films I had an opportunity to work on was “Hearts and Minds,” Peter Davis’ chronicle of the Vietnam War. I recorded sound on a shoot with the parents of a soldier who had recently been killed in the war. These brave parents brought us into their home, and throughout the shoot I could feel the great sadness and loss they were experiencing. I also felt the excitement that comes with knowing you are telling an important story. The film was one of the first documentaries to get a wide theatrical distribution, and it influenced the entire national debate about the war. So that was a great experience to me and it really inspired me to keep working in documentary film.
I also had the great opportunity to work with Albert and David Maysles at Maysles Films. I’ll never forget the creative, supportive, inspiring community that Al and David created. No matter what your position was–even if you were an intern or an assistant editor–your ideas were listened to. You felt important, like you were part of a team. It was a community that I’ll never forget–one that I’ve tried to continue in my own filmmaking and encourage in others.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
The rules are always changing, but what remains the same is that there are filmmakers who want to tell stories, and there are important stories to be told. I think we are seeing a real renaissance in nonfiction filmmaking, and it’s a very exciting time. Films are getting more attention and wider distribution, and there are more and more filmmakers bringing their unique viewpoints and experiences to the big screen… and the small screen… and the internet and iPods and video blogs and on and on. The future is wide open.
What are some of your all-time favorite films, and why? What are some of your recent favorite films?
My favorite film–and the film that really inspired me to be a film maker–is “The Battle of Algiers.” I’ll never forget when the lights went down in that theater, and on came this exciting, exhilarating, in-your-face film came on, and everyone in the theater went through this unforgettable experience together. That’s what a great film is all about.
What are your interests outside of film?
I love to travel and to spend time with my family. I love to play tennis whenever I get the chance. And I’m also involved in social issues and volunteering, so I get involved whenever I can.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
The best advice I can give to new filmmakers is this: Find a subject you are passionate about and just do it. Get out there and make your film. All over the country, there are classes, organizations, non-profits and rental houses who want to help new filmmakers. There are new digital cameras and editing systems like Final Cut. So get out there, find your story and start shooting–you never know where it will take you.
Will you please share with us an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?
If I had to chose, I’d say I’m most proud of winning Academy Awards for two films that I had to work so hard to raise the money for, when it seemed like no one really believed in them.
But I knew that these stories had to be told, so I kept shooting. I was so inspired by the stories of people like the miner’s wives in “Harlan County” who fought the coal company’s gun thugs, got hauled off to jail, stood up to the local sheriff–all because they were sick and tired of seeing their husbands go down into the mines and never return, or come up only to develop Black Lung Disease. And the stories of the striking miners in the film “American Dream,” who did what they thought was right regardless of what their bosses or even their union said.
The stories of these incredible people–the way they put it all on the line for what they believed in–had a profound effect on me and continue to inspire me today. And in the end, the films found audiences and won Academy Awards. Those are the films and experiences that mean the most to me, and that had the greatest impact on me as a person.