In Episode 2 of the Drunk Projectionist film podcast, host Todd Melby interviewed Barbara Kopple about Harlan County USA, her impressive first film. The 1976 documentary won an Academy Award. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
Barbara Kopple: Harlan County, USA; that was my first ever film that I did on my own. I worked on other people’s films doing sound and editing, but this for me was the very first. I started doing the during the time of Miners for Democracy. Arnold Miller won the Miners for Democracy and his first promise was to “organize the unorganized.”
In the early ‘70s in Harlan County, Kentucky, which had always been a place where you live and you die by your gun, they also had “Bloody Harlan County” where people had fought for the right to have a union and many people died. An incredible woman named Florence Reece wrote a song called “Which Side Are You On?” and it pertains to almost every single struggle, whether it’s a labor struggle or something else. Sometimes the verses have been changed, but she wrote that song. She also sang it in the ‘70s in Harlan County. [sings] “They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there. You’ll either be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair. Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” That was the original.
I heard about Harlan County Miners for Democracy. I always listen to a radio station called NPR. They were talking about it and I was able to raise $12,000 as a loan from somebody and off I went to film the Miners for Democracy.
After Arnold Miller won, I wanted to see if he would keep his promise. [Bloody] Harlan County was happening, so I went and stayed there for 13 months. Harlan County was fighting for the right to have a union. Women took over the picket lines. We wore machine guns with semiautomatic carbines. A miner was killed by a company foreman. I was told if I was ever alone at night that they would kill me, so I promised the head gun thug, Basil Collins, he wouldn’t catch me alone at night.
Also, the organizers told me way after the film that there had been a price put on my head to shoot me. I didn’t know it. I said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” They said, “Because we didn’t want you to leave.” I said, “I wouldn’t have left!”
Todd Melby: The first time that you interacted with the gun thug who is the barrel-chested guy in a pickup truck.
Barbara Kopple: Yes, Basil Collins.
Todd Melby: His name is Basil Collins. He’s driving the pickup and there is a passenger in the pickup and you’re learning in from the passenger side. We don’t see you, but we can hear you interact. He’s asking you for your press pass. (See video below beginning at at 0:42.)
Barbara Kopple: That was that scene, and little did I realize that he was very tough, and all the people told me after, “You’re in big trouble now!”
Todd Melby: The great thing about that scene is that we hear your voice and see him, and it sets up the viewer getting to know who this guy is and the duplicity.
Barbara Kopple: Yes, and he would hire the scabs that would cross the picket line who were trying to break up having a union. I also learned later too that he was in WWII and he survived the Bataan Death March. He was a tough character who had had a lot of suffering of his own, which I didn’t know about … being young and foolish. I probably still am. That made me think a lot too.
Todd Melby: Another scene that I really like – I love all the scenes with the women behind the scenes organizing and debating what they should do and telling their own stories.
Barbara Kopple: We were all in a meeting. Lois Scott pulls a gun out of her dress and said something like, “I started out with a switch, but now I’m carrying a gun.” She kept it between her breast in her bra! Somebody said, “Aren’t you worried?” She said, “I’m not worried if I shoot some of my breast or titty off because I have plenty of that!”
Todd Melby: And then you decided to cut right from there to a shooting.
Barbara Kopple: Yes, to the picket line where they were bringing in the scabs. It was really early in the morning. Everybody had guns. The scabs had guns and they came back across the bridge and they also had semi-automatic carbines with tracer bullets that just lit up the mountainside. The scabs were coming at the cameraman first. I went in front of him thinking I was so strong and invincible and you hear me get knocked over. I didn’t get hurt because they kicked the Nagra. I didn’t feel anything. I had a long fishpole with a mic on it and I just was swinging it back at them.
Todd Melby: So, you used your boom pole for protection?
Barbara Kopple: Yes, exactly.
Todd Melby: Wow. As I watched the movie, I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening, just that it was chaos.
Barbara Kopple: Yes, it was a 415 mic I believe.
Todd Melby: Did your microphone or recorder get damaged?
Barbara Kopple: No. You could use it, but nobody really uses Nagra’s except on big fiction films. This was shot in 16-millimeter film.
Todd Melby: Another scene that involves the gun thug was the confrontation that was on the road during the daytime at a place in the road where [striking coal miners] previously hadn’t attempted to stop the scabs from crossing.
Barbara Kopple: Right. This was on a main road. If you followed that road, it would take you to the mine.
The women got a car that they called the “Booster Car,” which was a big station wagon and they pushed it across the railroad tracks so that the strikebreakers with Basil Collins couldn’t get through to get to the mine.
That was the morning that everybody had guns. The miners had guns and the strikebreakers had guns. As Basil Collins got out of his truck, you could hear the guns clicking, the safeties being taken off.
Todd Melby: What was the scariest moment for you?
Barbara Kopple: I guess that day was the scariest moment because I went up to one of the organizers and said, “Do you think they’re going to shoot at us today?”
Todd Melby: How did you become so brave?
Barbara Kopple: I don’t think I was brave, I think I was just young and when you’re young, you’re invincible. Also, I had all these wonderful people that were putting up everything that they had for the right to have a union. I just felt honored to be able to photograph it.
Todd Melby: I’ve worked as a reporter for 20 years and as a reporter, there are times when I know I’m supposed to move forward, but I hesitate to move forward to interview a particular person, and it may not even be particularly dangerous, but there are times when I hesitate and don’t move forward because I’m not sure what’s going to happen. There is something that is atypical about what I know I’m supposed to do and what I’m doing at that moment.
Barbara Kopple: I never felt that. I guess also because I was doing sound. I had a purpose. We could shoot things. I had a purpose and I could ask questions and I felt okay.
Todd Melby: Good. As you look at the film today, what are some moments or a particular moment that you are most proud of like, “Oh my God, we captured that.”
Barbara Kopple: I don’t know. I think with Harlan County there are so many moments that it’s hard to pick just one. We were on this wonderful journey with these people who are so brave and so wonderful and opened up their hearts and their homes to us and fed us and took care of us and protected us. The whole thing was a wonderful moment. The hardest thing was getting funding to keep going. My parents really helped a lot. I would ship the film out (because I didn’t want anything to happen to it) to my father and then beg him to ship me more film in. We would do it in Tennessee. We would drive to Tennessee to get the film.
Todd Melby: How many minutes would fit in [one reel of film]?
Barbara Kopple: A 10-minute reel of 16-millimeter film.
Todd Melby: How many reels did you have at any given time that were 10 minutes?
Barbara Kopple: Oh, I don’t know, but when we started getting low, I’d say, “please” and [my father] would do it. Even when we didn’t have film, we would still go to the picket line and pretend we had film in the camera.
Todd Melby: Ah, smart! Because the reels only recorded 10 minutes, were there times when you hesitated to turn on the camera because, “Oh my God, this is costing us.”
Barbara Kopple: No, I never thought about it costing. I didn’t care. I just thought about having another one to put on. I just wanted to make sure that we didn’t miss anything, that we didn’t leave any stone unturned.
Todd Melby: And what would you tell young filmmakers or young non-fiction folks? I’ve got to think the advice is “Once you go, don’t leave.”
Barbara Kopple: Yes and know that if you are passionate enough about it, people will help you. It’s a very supportive time now for documentaries, so don’t be afraid; follow your instincts and go for it and don’t let anyone stop you.
Todd Melby: I want to ask you also about opening shots and closing shots and the importance of them. Maybe you can tell us how you started Harlan County.
Barbara Kopple: The opening shot of Harlan County is going into the coal mines. The closing shot of Harlan County is people coming out of the coal mines.
Todd Melby: Did you figure that out in the edit room?
Barbara Kopple: Yes, in the edit room. With documentaries, you never really know what you’re going to get. You think you have a certain idea, but you have to let that leave your mind and let whatever happens happen and just go with it. Then you’ll really be telling a story that is real and has a sense of truthfulness.
Todd Melby: If I remember correctly, one of the very close opening shots is the miner going into the coal mine on a horizontal conveyor belt.
Barbara Kopple: On a conveyor belt, yes. You’re not really supposed to do that, but they did, and it was very filmic.
Todd Melby: Oh my God, yes. It is so cinematic.
Barbara Kopple: Low coal, so people were crawling. You couldn’t stand up in the coal mines. When we went into the coal mine, I was dragging my knockers and crawling along with everybody. I think that was the most important film in my life because I learned what life and death was all about. I saw people really standing up for what they believed in. It had a great impression on me throughout the rest of my career.