“Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation,” the latest film from two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, will have its world premiere as the closing night film of the Documentary Fortnight 2015: MoMA’s International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media on Friday, February 27. Kopple, who won Academy Awards for “Harlan County U.S.A.” and “American Dream,” has also directed “Shut Up and Sing” about the Dixie Chicks, “Wildman Blues” about Woody Allen’s New Orleans-style jazz band, “Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson,” “Running from Crazy” and many other acclaimed documentaries.
Kopple recently spoke to Indiewire about her latest project, which tells the story of The Nation, the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the United States, now in its 150th year. The film captures the daily life of staff writers and editors as well as reporters covering stories in the field, from Haiti to Occupy Wall Street.
What drew you to the subject matter?
The first time I met Ham Fish [Hamilton Fish, who is credited with revitalizing The Nation] was 30 years ago when he asked me to film something called the Writers’ Congress. I was nine months pregnant at the time. But of course, I said yes and I worked, and I had my son a week later. I couldn’t say no because the writers that they had were so amazing and so wonderful. Cut to about three years ago, Ham and Katrina [Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor and Publisher of The Nation] called me in and said, “We’re reaching 150 years of The Nation in 2015. What do you think about making a film about it?” Of course, I said, “I would love to!”
So there I was on this journey, trying to make a film, trying to figure out how do I make it interesting, how do I make it contemporary, how do I make it historical? My idea was to really film contemporary things where the reporters are going out in the field and then cutting back to history and to the articles that were done throughout history. We got Susan Sarandon and Sam Waterston and others to do those voices.
Then I was able to film The Nation at work. They are the leading characters. There’s Katrina vanden Huvel, who keeps everybody together and she’s just wonderful. She’s smart. She’s girlish. She can multi-task. And her heart is in the right place. Another big element of the film is the interns. Everybody at The Nation, practically all the writers, everybody has been an intern, including Katrina. I filmed meetings which include everybody and every voice is heard. They’re not just having meetings to say, “What should we put in this issue?” They’re having meetings about what’s topical, what’s interesting, what’s happening in our country.
What would you say was the biggest logistical challenge in terms of filming? And for how long were you filming?
We were filming, on and off, for three years. I guess the biggest challenge is that reporters aren’t used to having a film crew with them. They go and they ask questions and they write down things. So that was the biggest challenge, getting them to just ignore us and let us go along with them. When we would come in sometimes, they would roll their eyes, like, “Oh no, not them again!” But after a while, they got used to us and were glad. And we’ll know, Friday night [when the film has its world premiere], what they feel about seeing themselves.
Do you have any tips for filmmakers who are wondering how to start out as a documentary filmmaker?
To have ideas. And stories that they want to tell, that they’re passionate about. Not be afraid to talk about it, whether it’s on social media or they’re raising money on Kickstarter or wherever they’re doing it. And to know that if films are compelling enough and the ideas are compelling enough, people will stand up and work with them. To be there and to not give up.
Do you think it’s become more challenging or easier to become a documentary filmmaker now that technology has made filmmaking tools more accessible?
So easy! When I started doing films, nobody even wanted to hear the word documentary. You got money from foundations and it was huge amounts of work to write proposals…you just went out and did it and got all of your friends to chip in and camera people and other people to donate their time and it was much harder. And there weren’t that many places to show [documentaries] either. Now, people love documentaries, and at film festivals, documentaries are the most interesting films that everybody tries to get in.
Definitely, that has changed. And now there are so many outlets for documentaries like Netflix and iTunes.
And CNN and HBO, who’s the leader in that area, A&E and just so many places. People embrace documentaries. People don’t walk away from you when you say you’re a documentary filmmaker anymore.
I know it’s hard when you’ve just finished one project and we reporters say, “Well what are you working on next?” But I’m gonna ask that question!
You may! I am in editing on two other projects. One is about Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. They’re amazing. Then there’s another one about homeless veterans.
Has there been any interest from distributors regarding “Hot Type”?
People have contacted us but of course, nobody has really seen the film. One or two people came to our office and looked at the film there. But I think after the premiere, then we’ll try to figure out a whole distribution strategy. It’s the kind of film that can go to a lot of places, because it has writing in it, it has young people in it, it has issues in it, it has laughs in it. I think it’s an interesting piece.