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6 Filmmaking Tips from Barbara Kopple

The two-time Oscar winner says it’s easier now than ever.
filmmaking Barbara Kopple
By  · Published on February 1st, 2017

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Barbara Kopple.

One of the living legends of documentary filmmaking, Barbara Kopple not only won an Oscar with her directorial debut, but the film remains one of the greatest works of nonfiction cinema of all time. That feature, Harlan County USA, recently turned forty years old. Next month is the 25th anniversary of the theatrical release of her follow-up, American Dream, for which she received another Academy Award.

While those first two films were more than a decade apart, these days she’s one of the more prolific documentarians, working with all different genres. Last year she gave us the acclaimed music doc Miss Sharon Jones!, and this week sees the release of This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, a portrait of transgender YouTube star Gigi Lazzarato that debuted last month at Sundance. Kopple is always working. She believes you have to.

She also believes making documentaries are so much easier today than when she started out, so there’s no excuse not to be making them if that’s your calling. Kopple is an inspiring figure and a teacher of many, her past students including Lucy Walker, Brett Morgen, and Nanette Burstein. And she’s always imparting advice, such as the six tips we found to share below.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Barbara Kopple

1. Have Ideas You’re Passionate About

Kopple is often asked for advice for new filmmakers while doing Q&As at festivals and universities and in interviews, and one tip is offered more than any other: find something you’re passionate about and go make a film about it. Here’s a quote from a Documentary Magazine interview way back in 1991:

To do the kind of work that I do, you have to be driven by an incredible passion for the things you want to say. If that element, that passion, wasn’t there, I would be hard pressed to do this kind of work. The foundation of your own political beliefs adds to the drive and perseverance you need to keep on go­ing. To spend the kind of time I do on these films and to see the toll it takes on one’s life, there has to be something there that’s powerful. Standing outside a meat packing plant at three o’clock in the morning in the middle of a Minne­sota winter is not a really wonderful way to spend one’s existence. There has to be something deeper.

And here she is giving the same advice on a 1998 episode of Charlie Rose:

And again in 2006 in an interview for IndieWire with acknowledgment of some of the things making it even easier:

The best advice I can give to new filmmakers is this: Find a subject you are passionate about and just do it. Get out there and make your film. All over the country, there are classes, organizations, nonprofits, and rental houses who want to help new filmmakers. There are new digital cameras and editing systems like Final Cut. So get out there, find your story, and start shooting ‐ you never know where it will take you.

And here she is in another IndieWire interview in 2015 adding in the latest helpful tools:

To have ideas. And stories that they want to tell, that they’re passionate about. Not be afraid to talk about it, whether it’s on social media or they’re raising money on Kickstarter or wherever they’re doing it. And to know that if films are compelling enough and the ideas are compelling enough, people will stand up and work with them. To be there and to not give up.

2. Work With Friends

“I work with the best people I can find,” Kopple said during a 2014 Hot Docs panel, quoted by IndieWire, “the best cinematographers, the best editors. You don’t make films on your own. You make it with a team of incredible people really working together to make things happen.”

That sounds more like a quote from Donald Trump, but it’s good advice to surround yourself with people you think are the best for you and your project. She elaborates more in an interview for a Boston NPR station, also in 2014:

The camera people I used were either very close friends ‐ we were starting out together ‐ or boyfriends (if you want the truth). It was people who had your back, someone you enjoyed being with, who you trusted. For Harlan County the editing room was where I lived! I didn’t have much money. Every day they’d come to my little loft on 11th street and we’d have lunch together, we’d discuss things about the film together … it’s always important to pick people who you consider are the very best and you know.

3. Tell Everyone About It

If the last tip is about who you hold close on an insular level, this one is about those you reach out to on the outside. There can be some overlap, though, because this one also involves community. Here’s part of her answer when asked for advice at the Savanna Film Festival last year:

Don’t keep your project a secret. Tell everybody about your project, and people will help you. Documentarians are a great community. We hang out and give our opinions on each other’s rough cuts.

Also last year, she gave this advice in an interview for MovieMaker magazine:

If you find something that you’re truly passionate about, that you SHOULD talk about it. Go tell other documentary filmmakers, go tell your friends, and people will help you. Even if you can’t pay them ‐ people will help you. Because we all want each other to succeed. So don’t be afraid. Go for it.

The more you talk to others about a project, the more you’re likely to find not just people but organizations that will want to help. From an interview in the Winter 1992 issue of BOMB magazine:

As creative as you are in your filmmaking, that’s how creative you have to be in your fundraising. For example, some of the financing for American Dream came from Catholic institutions. There was a pastoral letter in which there was a section on the economic crisis, plant closings and wage concessions. What we were doing fit right in. So we were able to find a lot of Catholic organizations who supported the film in a big way. You always have to keep your eyes open to see who else is interested in the same issue.

Because she’s a successful woman filmmaker, Kopple is also often asked specifically for advice for other women. She told Women and Hollywood (then part of IndieWire) in 2013:

I think it’s important for women to support and encourage each other, which are sentiments that are sometimes hard to come by in this industry. We women need to offer our fellow women filmmakers opportunities, advice, and most importantly, friendship. We are all in this together and we will all move forward together. Don’t get discouraged, just follow your passion ‐ there is always someone who will help you along the way.

Here she is again from last year’s Savannah Film Festival:

4. Don’t Let Anyone Stand In Your Way

Perseverance is one of the traits Kopple believes you must have when making documentaries. And with that you have to be strong. Asked for advice for female directors by Women and Hollywood at Sundance this year, she answered:

My advice is to follow your story where it takes you, put your foot into any door that tries to close on you, and find creative ways to disarm anyone who wants to stand in your way.

In Alan Rosenthal’s book “The Documentary Conscience: A Casebook in Filmmaking,” published in 1980, there’s an interview with Kopple from around the time of Harlan County USA’s release. Here she talks about her perseverance with finding funding and not taking no for an answer from anyone:

I would also apply year after year to the same foundation. So some of them, after three years, would finally give me a grant. As to the ones that did reject me, I’d call them up and ask why. Then I’d invite them over to see footage and then ask them for a list of other people who they thought might help. So I started becoming somewhat of an expert on foundations.

Sometimes you might even need a weapon to get the job done:

5. Research But Then Forget About It

Even when Kopple is making a film about a subject (like gun control or The Nation) more than of a subject, she always has the same thing to say about doing research: Read some stuff but don’t go crazy, and then when you’re filming you have to keep all that knowledge in the background while being more open to what you discover along the way. From the BOMB interview:

You have to have your little street-smart sensors going: do a lot of research, figure out what your story is and struggle as hard as you can to stay one step ahead of everyone else, anticipate what you think might happen. And if you’re wrong, be able to go with whatever does happen. It’s a matter of being finely tuned.

She also discusses her ideas about research below in an interview for Just Seen It:

6. Work With What You Get

While the last tip was about not being concerned with what you’ve gathered ahead of time, this one is about not being concerned with what you didn’t gather in time. In Jessica Edwards’s 2013 book “Tell Me Something: Advice From Documentary Filmmakers,” Kopple shares a tip of her own, but also her former student Lucy Walker shares advice from Kopple as her entry. From an excerpt reprinted by Filmmaker magazine:

And this was the one thing Barbara mentioned that has stuck in my head ever since. She said: “Don’t worry, in documentary you always miss 99% of everything you think you need. You always miss the best things, but just keep going and when you get back to the editing room you’ll find a way to make it work and you’ll be amazed at how much you do have.” I’ve thought of this so many times when I think I’m not getting any of the right material to tell my story cinematically.

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Kopple has a ton of experience, and so she has a lot to offer in terms of lessons learned and advice about what works and what doesn’t. She has even more tips that aren’t listed here, much of it having to do with the filming process and the relationship with subjects, but she also thinks she has one style and that may not be the right approach for everyone.

What is here is very much about passion and perseverance, both of which will help in getting support from your team and from others. The ideas and the characters and especially the story matters, and that will guide you and those support systems in finding money, an audience, and the film itself.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.