"You guys want a complimentary pass?" asks Barbara Kopple. She is fiddling with desk drawers in the Orson Welles. "No, sorry--it has to be signed," She shuts the desk abruptly. Kopple is the Academy award-wining director of Harlan County, USA, chosen last month as best documentary, and her credentials are impressive--sound woman on Hearts and Minds, camera, sound and direction on Winter Soldiers, and camera woman Gimme Shelter--all three classic documentaries of the 1970s. Kopple is a veteran of the anti-war movement, "from the first Pentagon march where they clubbed us," and sincere in her leftism. "I grew up on a vegetable farm outside New York, and one of the first things I remember is going home from school to watch the McCarthy trial on t.v. I don't know why I think the way I do--my parents were very straight with me, answered all my questions." Kopple belongs to a Marxist study group when she's in New York. Asked what has become of the activism of the 60s, she replies, "I don't especially see people withdrawing, but becoming disciplined, through writing and other things. I chose film, because I'm good at it and because film can make an incredible visual impact on people."
Kopple is tough. In Harlan County she carried two pistols, a .45 and a .38, and slept on the floor because strikebreakers were liable to machine gun your house. She's also a good businesswoman--Harlan County cost $300,000 to make and she scrounged it from wherever she could. "When I'd run out of money I'd come back to New York and take whatever job I could, editing, sound, until I got enough to go back," she says. Her uncle is Murray Burnett, who wrote a play called Rick's Place, which later became Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart, and earning Burnett the grand sum of $8,000. "Later he wrote a book called Hickory Stick, didn't copyright it, and they made it into Blackboard Jungle. He didn't get a penny for it." Kopple shakes her head.
Kopple considered trying to distribute the film herself, decided against it, and rammed through a tough deal with Cinema 5, a major independent film distributor. Harlan County has been shown in Appalachia for free, people with union cards got a dollar off the admission price, and Kopple gets ten benefits a year, of which "I've already used 12." The film opens in 40 theaters across the country this week. It's already been used in one benefit Kopple knew nothing about, and probably would have opposed--Arnold Miller raised $10,000 for his re-election campaign to the UMWA presidency. Kopple calls the union "corrupt. Trbovitch (Mike Trbovitch, UMWA vice-president running against Miller) is lining up with the old guard politics, the guys left over from Tony Boyle. I think Miller is very weak. It's depressing."
"I read everything I could find on coal mining," Kopple says of her preparation for the film, "went to Washington and met UMWA officials and people in the Bureau of Mines. I crawled through the bowels of every television station in the coalfields looking for footage I could relate." The movie was screened in Harlan soon after it was made, and Kopple gave the people a print they could run whenever they wanted. "The place was packed," she said. "There three showings, and they wheeled people in on big silver hospital beds. It was like reliving the strike to them."
Kopple worked a long time to gain the trust of her subjects, living with them off-and-on for three years. She still feels close to the families she lived with. "The Jones family asked me to send them footage of Lawrence's funeral. I really didn't know how to approach it." She looks at the floor a minute. "I sent stills instead."
Harlan County contains incredible courtroom scenes, and when asked about them, Kopple laughed. "I'd have someone sit inside with a wireless mike and when there was enough commotion in the room, I'd open the door and fire away with the camera. You know, somebody shouting, 'There's no justice in Harlan County! and an uproar."
What about the Oscar? "I thought long and hard about it when the film was nominated--it's really important. But one thing stuck out--all the documentary people sat together, and when the award was announced, we all sat with our eyes closed and holding hands. Nowhere in the place was there such solidarity." Later she recounted being led through the press rooms, "People shouting questions at me--aaaiiieee, frenetic you know? And Rocky, Sylvester Stallone, comes up to me and punches me on the arm and says, 'Ya made a good movie, kid.' It was crazy." Will she move her base from New York to Southern California? "Are you baiting me?" she asked incredulously.
Kopple refuses to be pinned down on future plans for documentaries or scripted films. "I may make a movie about the strike against J.P. Stevens in North Carolina--a documentary--or a scripted film about a fire in a textile plant in 1911 where 140 women died. But I want to make films that work for social change, whatever vein that's in." And the Boston premiere is a benefit for The Film Fund, a group seeking to find money for filmmakers interested in making films that promote social change.
Barbara Kopple won't talk too much about herself. Not important, she says, she'd rather talk about Harlan and the film. She'd rather talk about social change, the anti-war movement, the UMWA. In an industry where so many people are forced to compormise their political ideals to achieve artistic or financial success, Kopple is a refreshing exception.