This weekend, a new NYC film festival, "First Time Fest," makes its debut. It's a showcase devoted to the movie director's first outing—as scary and euphoric as that can be. One sidebar, "First Exposure," invites prominent directors to discuss their breakthroughs. Among this year's guests is Barbara Kopple, who will present 1976's Harlan Country U.S.A., her Oscar-winning chronicle of a Kentucky miner strike. We reached her by phone.
In your twenties, you cut your teeth working for the legendary Albert and David Maysles (Grey Gardens, Salesman, Gimme Shelter). That must have been quite a film school.
It was the most amazing moment of my career, because they treated us as equals. We would sit around and discuss their work with them. I did tasks that nobody else wanted to do, like get the Museum of Modern Art’s mailing list, a near-impossible job. But I did it! They were all shocked. It gave me a chance to understand what passion is all about—and persistence.
When did you know you were ready to make your own feature?
I guess the subject came up and I jumped at it: I raised $12,000 and off I went, into the coal fields, not knowing what to expect or what to do. I had lots of support from friends. Also, I had a camera person. There was no way I was not going to do it.
The situation that you entered—a miner's strike with tempers flaring—was dangerous. Did you make any mistakes while you were filming that you regret now?
Harlan County is a very particular case: A miner was killed by a company foreman. We lived with the coal miners, who protected us. So there was no time for mistakes. I talked back to the head gun thug, which wasn't the brightest idea. He had me come over to his truck—he was sitting in the driver's seat. He was twirling a gun and asked me for my identification. I asked for his. That was probably a crazy thing to do, but when you're really young, you think you'll live forever.
Maybe the high stakes made you more brazen.
The film was made with love. It was all about being there every morning, standing with the people. They were inspirational. I didn't know how I was going to go back to New York and live my normal life after spending time with them.
Was there a moment after your documentary was finished when you realized you were suddenly a real director?
I never thought of the work as being a director. I thought of it as telling a story and trying to get as deep as I possibly could. I didn't want to leave a stone unturned. It's what I'm always after, even today. You have a real responsibility to the people you're filming.
Your movie took you all the way to the Oscar podium, an extraordinary achievement for a debut. You must remember that night.
It was the most incredible thing. My heart was beating somewhere in the room—I have no idea where. I didn’t have any money. I had to borrow somebody's dress. Someone dropped me off in a Volkswagen.
Harlan Country U.S.A. screens Sat 2 at 11:30am at Loews Village VII. Click here for tickets