Kopple, Oscar winner, premieres film at Emerson

By Jess Dyer ’14
March 28, 2014

Academy Award-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple sat down with Emerson students this week to discuss her filmmaking philosophy before the March 27 Paramount Mainstage premiere of her latest documentary, Running from Crazy, which is about the family of Ernest Hemingway.

Kopple also attended Emerson’s It’s All True: Student Documentary Showcase at the Mainstage on March 26.

“You may be totally afraid to do it,” Kopple said of documentary filmmaking, “but I always try to do what I fear the most.”

Kopple

Barbara Kopple talks to student journalists on March 26. (Photo by Jess Dyer '14)

Kopple began her career by doing minor jobs for the Maysles brothers, an American documentary team best known for Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. She carried sound equipment and film magazines and did other minor jobs as she worked her way up the ladder.

“It proved to be such a stepping stone,” she said.

Some of Kopple’s most valuable lessons stem from perseverance and respect. She says building relationships with her subjects is just as important as getting a story from them. 

“Don’t make a film with an agenda. People are people and sometimes it will get really messy,” Kopple said. “Keep trying to figure out who the people are that you’re trying to get information from. Maybe it’s not done in a traditional way. Maybe it takes going for a swim in a river. There are so many different ways. You just have to figure out who that person is.”

Kopple built a strong relationship with the coal miners of her film Harlan County USA. When it premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1976, she insisted on defying tradition and sitting with them in the crowd, rather than a balcony for the filmmakers above.

Kopple crowd

Barbara Kopple speaks with Manuel Lavalle '14, a student filmmaker, and others, at the It's All True: Student Documentary Showcase at the Paramount Center on March 26. (Photo by Jess Dyer '14)

“For me, it was too formal, so I Xeroxed 1,000 song sheets of the last song of the film. I had them distributed in the program, and I said, ‘We’re not going up to the balcony.’ At the end of the film, we’ll have Hazel Dickens, who did the music, sing live and the coal miners file out,” she said. “[The programmer] Richard Roud said, ‘We don’t do this here’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s what we’re doing.’”

Kopple says pushing boundaries and doing what she fears are the most rewarding parts of filmmaking.

Kopple gave an in-depth interview with WBUR-FM about Running From Crazy.

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