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Be There: Barbara Kopple on Making Documentaries and Running from Crazy

Be There: Barbara Kopple on Making Documentaries and Running from Crazy

Documentary

Running from Crazy, the latest film from Academy-Award-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple, explores the psychological legacy of one of the most iconic families in a nation of iconic families – the Hemingways.

Taking for its subject the actress Mariel Hemingway, Ernest’s famous granddaughter, the film charts her difficult journey towards accepting an inheritance of both charismatic brilliance and the darkness of substance abuse, suicide and mental illness. MovieMaker asked Kopple to reflect upon her challenging new subject, and the philosophy behind her documentary work.

Every film we – documentary moviemakers, and moviemakers in general – make takes on a life of its own. There are some things that remain constant – it always takes a team, it’s always rewarding in unexpected ways. But each film has its own personality and its own challenges. That’s not the only way that making a film is like raising a child. Once we create these films we have to let them out into the world. When we’re lucky, they take on a life of their own that could hardly be imagined.

One of the things I love about making documentary films is that we never know what’s coming around the corner. We research and plan, but in the end, life takes us where it wants to. Our job is to follow our heart and our gut, and stay true to them both. We begin the process by researching the topic, reaching out to organizations, and most importantly finding the people who can tell the story. Most of the films I make tell personal stories while also addressing social issues. I always look for ways that the journey of one person, whether they are an internationally known artist or a union member in the heartland, can shed light on vital social and political issues of our time. When OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, approached me about making a film about Mariel Hemingway and the suicide and mental illness in the Hemingway family, I knew this was the kind of project that could speak to people on many levels.

Once we decide to take on a film, we dive in head first. We start reading, watching films, having conversations. We often reach out to organizations and individuals who can shed light on the underlying issues of the story we are telling. There are so many passionate people out there just waiting to tell their story. One of the treats of making Running From Crazy was getting to revisit the writing of Ernest Hemingway, and diving into the rich and fascinating history of the Hemingway family. We began shooting almost immediately and Mariel was strong, soulful and real.

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A major goal early in the process is zeroing in on our potential “characters.” Some films have an inherent main character like Mariel Hemingway, or the Dixie Chicks, or Woody Allen. Others are more like blank slates that have to be figured out from scratch. Either way this stage is an exciting time, when we meet so many fascinating people who may or may not be part of the film, but who often leave an imprint on us. We look for people who inspire, who can put words to ideas that many of us share. We are also conscious of who seems comfortable with the camera and who, over time, may nearly forget that we are there. We love to fill our films with people who are reaching for an objective, and who are memorable, inspiring and unforgettable.

Another goal is to get under the surface of our topics, and we’re looking for characters who are willing to open up and go into the unknown. I knew from our first meeting that Mariel would be willing to open up for this film, to go places she had resisted going in the past, physically, emotionally and spiritually. She was game to truly take us on a journey. That’s the kind of experience we crave as filmmakers.

When we’re shooting we want to be up first and the last to bed. That can be a challenge, whether you’re shooting people who like to watch the sunrise like Mariel, or for a film like American Dream, waking up before dawn in -60 degree weather to be on a picket line. But we never know what little moment, what subtle touch or late night conversation will become a key moment in our film. One of my mantras is “Be there.” Be there to get the first shot and the last. Be there to capture the subtle moments and the outrageous outbursts. Be there for it all. Because this isn’t just filmmaking. It’s also life.

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As the shooting of a film begins to wind down, we start looking for an end to the story. Because people go on living their lives after the cameras have stopped, we have to look for a satisfying ending to the story that we are telling. We want emotional closure, and we don’t want to leave too many loose ends. What is the arc our character has traveled? How has she changed and deepened as a person? What has she learned about herself?

And just as importantly, what message and emotion are we leaving with the audience? As life goes on for our character, it also goes on for our audience once they leave the theater. What message are they taking out of the theater with them? Are they inspired? Can they see the world or themselves a little differently than they did 100 minutes ago? These ideas swirl around us as we try to make real life into a film.

Once shooting has more or less been completed, we begin the edit. I like to hand off the footage to the editor. I want their fresh eyes and opinion of everything we shot. I was there on location, so I know how hard it was to get that one shot, or what happened before or after the camera was rolling. An editor doesn’t bring that baggage to the process and it’s an invaluable point of view.

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The edit process is such a satisfying one. We relive the moments we captured. We string out the scenes and then start whittling away. Our editors often use large bulletin boards and notecards to help figure out the order of scenes and the arch of the story. Many of my rough cuts start out at five hours or longer. We refine the film over time, screen it with people in our office, and get the right order of scenes. From there, it’s a process of making sure we hit the right emotional marks, finding moments of inspiration and insight.

This is also the time when we can dive into the archival research. We never know what kind of treasures we can dig up. Because I don’t use narration in my films, archival news sources can often provide important context and information in our films. And every once in a while we find a piece of archival footage that sheds an entirely new light on our subject. This was the case with a film I made about Mike Tyson, called Fallen Champ. We found footage of Tyson, who at that time was in prison, as a teenage boxing phenom. In that footage, he was vulnerable, scared and remarkably talented all at once. For Running from Crazy, we found remarkable archival footage of Mariel’s family from a film that her sister Margaux started but never finished. Those archival images paint an unforgettable picture of a family in turmoil, but also possessing incredible beauty, talent, and potential. In these moments captured on film, we glimpse the blessing and the curse of the Hemingway name.

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Each film that we make becomes a part of our life. The people we meet, the experiences we share, all of them impact in ways we couldn’t imagine. It’s always such a thrill to finally show the film to audiences. Running From Crazy in particular has inspired such incredible discussions. People share their own family stories, the tragedies they’ve endured or the stories of healing and hope. Those discussions are bringing issues of mental illness and suicide into the light, the very goal that inspired Mariel to start her journey in the first place. I always feel it’s my honor and privilege to tell these stories. As one film wraps up, I’m excited to imagine what lies around the next corner. MM

Running from Crazy is currently in limited theatrical release, courtesy of OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

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