The Director's Chair Interviews

Barbara Kopple Shadows Woody Allen, Jazz Musician
by Tom Cunha

Click here for Barbara Kopple films, books, and soundtracks


Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple has a stellar list of accomplishments behind her including "Harlan County U.S.A." and "American Dream," both of which earned her Academy Awards, making her the only female documentary filmmaker ever to have won two Oscars. In addition, she also received an Emmy nomination for "Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson." Kopple's latest film, "Wild Man Blues," is somewhat of a departure from these previous efforts, which made her one of the most distinguished members of her field. Instead of profiling perilous labor strikes, Kopple spent 24 days following ultra-reclusive writer/director/actor Woody Allen as he toured with his jazz band throughout Europe. The time spent following Allen gave Kopple the chance to not only reveal his talent as a musician, but also provide a revealing and fascinating glimpse into his much debated personal life and relationship with Soon-Yi Previn.

Kopple says of the film, "It's funny and its wild and you can see a lot of his neurosis and his claustrophobia. I think its very insightful into who this man is. A little bit more because we are always curious about who he is because he is such a brilliant actor and director and writer." While Kopple made her mark with documentaries, she will be making the leap over to features with her next two projects. "Wild Man Blues" opens today in Los Angeles and New York.

indieWIRE: Do you go out and pursue most of your films, or do they come to you?

Barbara Kopple: Both. Some come to me and some I go out and go after. Once I've made a commitment to do something whether its generated by myself or somebody says, "Hey, you wanna go do this?" I'm totally committed to it. I'm totally focused and that's what I think about and go after.

iW: With "Wild Man Blues," did they come to you or was it something you went after?

Kopple: Well, no. I didn't wake up one morning and say, "I must do a film on Woody Allen." The thought never crossed my mind. What happened was there was this friend of mine from Chicago who's a theatrical producer and he called me up and said, "Barbara, how would you like to go on tour with Woody Allen?" And I went, "Ya right, sure. What's he gonna do, go tour and do rock'n'roll?" And he said, "No, no, no. I m really serious. He's going for 23 days to 18 different European cities on a jazz tour. Are you game?" And "game" was the magic word that got to me and I said, "Yes, of course I'm game." Two days later, Woody's sister [Letty Aronson] called and said, "Barbara do you want to meet Woody?" I said, "Ya, of course I do." So I went to Woody's apartment and we had a one-on-one, like you and I are talking.

He told me about everything other than the tour for a half an hour. So time was passing and I knew that that was a long time for Woody Allen to have a one-on-one with anybody. So I figured I have to get my guts up and ask him about this tour. So I said, "Woody, are you looking forward to this tour?" And suddenly he came alive and he said, "No! I don't wanna go!" He said, "This was set up 2 years ago. I never thought the time would come. There are too many dates. The places I'm going I've never been before. I don't wanna go and I have too much work here in New York." And I just knew at that moment that this was gonna be a journey to remember.

iW: Initially going in was this supposed to be primarily the tour, because this is a very revealing look at him and Soon-Yi.

Kopple: Well, it was never discussed. The only thing I asked for was total access to do whatever I wanted or else I wasn't gonna do it. And I got it. Sixteen to eighteen hours a day.

iW: Woody Allen is one of the most press-shy American figures. What made him want to have a documentary made about himself?

Kopple: He probably thought, and I'm only guessing because we never discussed it, "I've been playing music since I was 15. The clarinet. I practice every single day." He used to play at Michael's Pub until it closed every Monday. Now he plays at the Carlyle Cafe. He probably thought, "She's not coming into my home. What could the harm be? So, she'll film me playing music in these different cities. I want the world to know that I love New Orleans jazz, that I care about playing music and being a musician." So I think that's maybe what went on in his head. Of course, I'm a different animal. I wanted to do a film on, who is Woody Allen, at least on this tour? What is his relationship with Soon-Yi? How are audiences going to respond to him? Can he play? What's his music like?

iW: Has Woody seen the finished product?

Kopple: He kept wanting to see material. He'd call the editing room and he'd say, "So, can I come see it?" and I'd say, "Woody, of course you can, but it's four and a half hours right now." So then he called again and I said, "Woody, it's three and a half hours now." He said, "That's OK." So I said, "OK, then come down." I was a little anxious, nervous and excited and wondering whether he'd like it, also just having the opportunity to get another peek at him watching himself. So I was sort of looking forward to it. He came down with Soon-Yi and the two of them came to our editing room and we started screening it for them and it was amazing what happened. They just sort of were holding on to each other, huddled together, laughing hysterically through the whole thing. It was as if they were seeing a relationship being formed or characters being defined. Woody had his finger over his mouth laughing and she was giggling. At the end of the film he stood up and said, "Very entertaining." I said, "Well, that's you." and he said, "No, no, no, that's you." Then he said, "So how are you gonna edit this down?" And I said, "Well, the burden is on me to edit this down." And he said "That's right." And off he went. He hasn't seen the final film on a screen yet. He's seen a video screener.

iW: Did you see a lot of similarities between Woody and the characters he plays in his films?

Kopple: I wasn't quite sure. So I figured the best person to ask about that would be his mother. I always feel that mothers know best. So I filmed the scene with his parents and I asked his mother, "Do you see a lot of Woody in his films?" And she said an answer that I thought was perfect and wonderful. "He adds or subtracts to who he is in his films."

iW: You directed a couple of episodes of "Homicide: Life on the Streets." How is that different from directing a documentary?

Kopple: It s easy. Its really easy and its really fun because you can use all your fantasies and get actors to do what you want them to do, what's in your head. Its very, sort of, documentary-style because what your seeking is for people to be real and that's what I do, or what I try to do is to get the reality of an idea, a feeling, a scene to come out. So its a very good sort of stepping stone for me to be able to really relate to actors and to try to get them to be real. I liked it very much. The cast was incredible. We had so much fun. The crew was phenomenal.

iW: Tell me about the two (non-documentary) features you are going to be directing.

Kopple: One is David Rabe's "In the Boom Boom Room" which is a play he did in the 70s. Its gonna be shot in Philadelphia where it takes place. It's about a young girl who is sort of on the edge of life and really doesn't know who she is or what she wants to do and has all these weird stirrings from her childhood. But the one thing she can lose herself in is music and dance. She becomes a go-go dancer. So the film really looks at that underbelly of life, people living on the edge. Patricia Arquette has agreed to play the lead role. The other film is a film that's an original story of mine. The event is based on fact. It's a love story set against the political backdrop of the Peakskill [NY] riot. Its the story of a young WWII vet returning home to find all the things that he had fought against in the war happening in his own home town.

iW: What documentary filmmakers inspired you?

Kopple: My first job in documentary film was with the Maysles Brothers who did "Gimmie Shelter." That was my first job in film. I learned about their style of letting life unfold. My job was sort of doing everything that nobody else wanted to do, but I was allowed to be in the meetings. I was really young. At night I would do the editor's work or the assistant editor's work. I did editing and sound for other people. Then I started my own company. "Harlan County" was one of my first films.

iW: What do you think of the styles of documentary filmmakers like, say, Michael Moore, where the filmmaker makes himself the subject of his own documentary?

Kopple: I think its incredible for Michael to do it because he's funny. He really gets to the crux of an issue. He's so brilliant that he comes up with these one liners and yet he's gentle and gracious at the same time. I loved "Roger & Me "and "The Big One." I think he's a phenomenal filmmaker and a very special human being. But for me, I like being more anonymous, if I could, just allowing you the audience to feel as you're experiencing what's happening through the characters point of view. Like in "Wild Man Blues," the breakfast in Madrid. I wanted you as the audience to be sitting at that table with them as they were having breakfast and just to forget that there's a camera and whatever around them. That's the style that I like. I want you to lose yourself in the film.

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