Interviews, Sound, Women

how barbara kopple fought for her documentary

In my work as a public radio reporter, I rarely carry a boom pole. Holding an RE50 or mini-shotgun microphone in my hand always seemed sufficient. But after interviewing Barbara Kopple, director of the documentary classic Harlan County USA, for the second episode of The Drunk Projectionist, that may change.

Kopple was the film's sound recordist. So when violence erupted on the Kentucky picket line in 1976, she was armed with a heavy recorder, long boom pole and microphone.

BARBARA KOPPLE: "I had a Nagra. So they kicked the Nagra. I didn't feel anything. I had a long fish pole with a mic on it and I was just swinging it back at them."

TODD MELBY: "So you used your boom pole for protection?"

BARBARA KOPPLE: "Yes. Exactly." ....

TODD MELBY: "Did your microphone or recorder get damaged?"

BARBARA KOPPLE: "No. You can use it."


Although one might think physical assaults and a death threat (more about that in the podcast) were the biggest hurdles to overcome in getting Harlan County made, Kopple says money was a constant struggle. To begin filming, she borrowed $12,000. That didn't last. So she frequently hit up her father for film.

BARBARA KOPPLE: "My parents really helped a lot. I would ship the film out because I didn't want anything to happen to it and beg him to ship more film in ..."

TODD MELBY: "How many minutes would fit [on each reel]?"

BARBARA KOPPLE: "10-minute reel. 10- or 11-minute reel of 16 mm film."

TODD MELBY: "How many reels did you have of 10 or 11 minutes."

BARBARA KOPPLE: "I don't know. When we started getting low I'd say 'please' and he would do it. Even when we didn't have film we still went on the picket line and pretended we had film in the camera."

TODD MELBY: "Smart! So because the reels only recorded 10 or 11 minutes, were there times you hesitated to turn on the camera because, 'Oh my God, this is costing us.'"

BARBARA KOPPLE: "I never thought about it costing. I didn't care. I just thought we have to have another one to put on. I wanted to make sure we didn't miss anything, that we didn't leave any stone unturned."