Barbara Kopple Reflects on Joys and Dangers of Filming ‘Harlan County, USA’

Barbara-Kopple Documentarian Big Break
Caroline Andrieu for Variety

In Barbara Kopple’s 40-year career as one of America’s greatest documentary directors, the 68-year-old two-time Oscar winner (she turns 69 on July 30) has been on a quest for intimacy in powerful historical portraits. Her newest film, “Hot Type: 150 Years of the Nation,” about the venerable left-leaning weekly, preemed at MoMA this year, but Variety first noted Kopple in 1973 as she embarked upon her directorial debut, “Harlan County, USA.” Steven Gaydos

What had you been doing prior to the start of “Harlan County”?

Tom Brandon was helping me raise money for the film, and we were working on grants, going back and forth to Harlan County to raise money. Our lights would get cut off on our place in New York, and we’d be raising money to pay the light bill and working there by candlelight. In Harlan County, we were in the coal fields, living with bucket showers and outhouses. Nothing was more important.

In the ’60s and ’70s, Albert and David Maysles were at the center of a great moment in American documentaries.

I worked with them on “Gimme Shelter” when it was shooting in New York City. One of my jobs was to carry Albert’s (film stock) magazines and David’s quarter-inch tapes. But I first worked with them on “Salesman” (1968). I knew them when they were courting their wives. I adored them and their filmmaking.

DA Pennebaker had just made the great Bob Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back.”

I absolutely loved it because he got so close to Dylan, picking up on all the quirky, crazy things Dylan did. I wanted to make films that were as intimate as that. I was so impressed that Dylan allowed them that sense of truth and intimacy.

In “Harlan County,” tensions were high between the striking miners in Kentucky and the mine owners. Were you in danger?

We later found out that the head scab, Basil Collins, wanted to hire someone to shoot me. But it was terrorism by the mine owners against the miners (that was most dangerous) — hiring local prisoners to beat people up, shooting at houses. The people had to line their walls with mattresses.

So you had to choose between personal safety and telling this story?

When you’re young, in your 20s, you’re strong. And you think you’re going to live forever. But it was an astounding experience. I learned what life-and-death was all about. When you’re making documentaries, you can shine a light on issues, but you are also figuring out that people are treasure chests.

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