Barbara Kopple On The Spot

Kopple, a two-time Academy-Award-winning director, has chronicled a miner’s strike, Woody Allen’s concert tour, the Hamptons and many other subjects during her 30-plus years as a documentarian. She has also directed features and TV shows (Oz and Homicide). The multifaceted director, 56, born in Scarsdale, N.Y., and now based in New York City, is working on a film about Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Via Nonfiction spots, she has helmed spots for Nike, Target and Sprint, among others. Her latest Sprint ads, a holiday campaign via Publicis & Hal Riney in San Francisco, broke last week.

Q: What appealed to you about this Sprint campaign?

A: Using real kids. They take you to a place you never would have dreamed you’d go.

Can you tell me about the casting process?

We decided what we wanted to do was to use kids that were actually in school. So we went to a school and found kids who were magical kids, who were open and honest and really game for what we were doing.

How do you choose your ad projects?

I choose them because they say something or I really like and respect the people from the agency that I’m working with.

How do choose your documentary subjects?

Sometimes I want to do certain things, and sometimes certain people call me. Like with my Woody Allen project, Wild Man Blues, or my [Mike] Tyson project, people called me. The films that I pick myself just come from my heart and my soul and my passion.

Why did you zero in on Kevorkian for your next project?

Somebody approached me with that. It’s a pretty interesting topic that has a lot of moral and ethical decisions to make. It’s just going to be an incredible journey for me to look deeply into that world and into this man and what he’s all about.

What is your opinion on euthanasia?

I’m just starting the process of really delving into it. But I think people do have the right to decide what happens to themselves.

Your more recent projects have been feature films, not documentaries. Do you approach the two genres differently?

No, because as a nonfiction filmmaker, as a documentarian, you search for that sense of truthfulness. I want to get to the core of the character, whether they’re real or fictional, and hit into that very deep place. I also love doing [lighter films]. Wild Man Blues was hilariously funny. I did a lot of the sound for that, it was 23 different cities. I would run through the streets with Woody and Soon Yi. I would be doubled over [laughing], and I would be so afraid maybe it would get onto the [sound]track.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a director?

I’d possibly be a teacher, because I just love working with people and love watching them grow and watching them change.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career?

The people that I film. People who are willing to take such risks and do such monumental things in their lives, they have become the people that influence me.

Who has influenced you the most creatively?

I started working with David and Albert Maysles at Maysles Films—that was my first job when I was just a little one. They created a family situation, and even if you were the lowest on the rung, which I was, they would ask your opinions on things. So I felt like I had somebody who really cared about what I had to say, which gave me the confidence to go out and do my own work.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

It was a long time ago—to start my own company. I’ve had my own company for 20 years. It has allowed me to work with people that I respect and really like. It’s allowed me to help them make films they want to do and for me to make films I want to do.

What about the dumbest business decision?

Jumping into films without the funding, like [Oscar winners] Harlan County U.S.A. and American Dream. That’s a bad business decision, but from an emotional place and also a place of what I feel the greatest fulfillment and achievement that I’ve ever had in my life, it worked out really well.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in directing?

Go after what you believe in, and there will always be people to help you and work with you and see it through. Even in your worst of times, do not give up, because going through the process and going through the journey makes all the difference.

Are there any recent documentaries you’ve seen that you really liked?

Yes, I saw Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which I thought was just done extraordinarily for a documentary. And also a film called Control Room [about Al-Jazeera], it’s really wonderful. George Butler’s film Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, which uses a lot of the material from our Winter Soldier. Capturing the Friedmans was incredible and disturbing. My Architect, a young man’s search for his father. There are just so many, so wonderful, so alive.

What are three words you’d use to describe yourself?

A storyteller, a person with perseverance—when you tell me I can’t do something and I really want to do it, I’ll figure out another corner to go around. And I can be extremely funny.