When director Barbara Kopple boldly submitted her second documentary, “Harlan County, USA,” to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on her own, her distributor threw a fit and dropped her.
She had tossed a wrench in the distributor’s plans. But she had an agenda of her own.
She borrowed a dress from a friend, straightened her dark mane and got a ride with friends in a beat-up Volkswagen to Los Angeles, where she was dropped off a few blocks from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It was 1977. The filmmaker was 30 years old, and she was on her way to the 49th annual Academy Awards, representing her film that chronicled a Kentucky miners’ strike.
The work buried her in the coal fields all day with men willing to give their lives for what they believed in. Making the film made her question what she saw, what she felt and what she witnessed.
Inside the nearly 3,300-seat hall in Los Angeles, Ms. Kopple settled among the nominated documentarians. When their category was announced, they all locked arms, holding their breath collectively.
Author Lillian Hellman read the title of the winning film. Ms. Kopple had won.
“I felt my heart beating in the room somewhere and there were hands behind my back, lightly pushing me up,” she recalled last week during a telephone interview while upstate at the Woodstock Film Festival. “The first thing after, I called the people of Harlan County. They were so excited. They were screaming and yelling, ‘We won an Academy Award! We won an Academy Award!’”
“I’m really blessed to do what I do,” she continued. “It carries me to the next film, remembering why I do such work like this.”
Now a two-time Oscar-winner, Ms. Kopple is riding the success of her latest documentary, “Running From Crazy,” which will screen at the Hamptons International Film Festival on Thursday, October 10, at 4:30 p.m. and again on Friday, October 11, at 11:15 a.m. in East Hampton. It is slated to be released theatrically on November 1.
For “Running From Crazy,” it all began nearly three years ago with one phone call from the Oprah Winfrey Network. A producer there pitched Ms. Kopple an idea: make a film about the Hemingway family. Additionally, the Harpo producer called her best friend, Mariel Hemingway—granddaughter of the legendary Ernest Hemingway—and pitched her the same idea.
“Why would anyone want to do a film about my family? We’re all crazy,” Ms. Hemingway asked her friend, the television producer, according to Ms. Kopple.
“That’s the point,” the producer said.
Three months later, Ms. Kopple and Ms. Hemingway were sitting down for breakfast in Manhattan. They didn’t leave the table for four hours.
“How could you not want to do a film about the Hemingways?” Ms. Kopple said. “Ernest’s books are something you read all your life and he was sort of a mystical character. To be able to go beyond the headlines and really be with somebody who really knows about the family was extraordinary to me. When I met with Mariel, it seems like that’s how she felt, too. That she really wanted to dig deep and talk about her family.”
That was a first. The Hemingway story is a tragic one—peppered with success but, more notoriously, marred by mental illness and at least seven suicides. The iconic American author killed himself on July 2, 1961 at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. Additionally, Mr. Hemingway’s father, sister and brother all committed suicide. On July 1, 1996—almost 35 years to the day after her grandfather’s death—fashion model and actor Margaux Hemingway, who suffered from depression, overdosed on barbiturates in Santa Monica, California. Her and Mariel’s sister, Muffet, drifted in and out of hospitals her whole life, struggling with mental illness—one of the last taboos in American culture.
It is one Ms. Kopple is striving to bring into the light and abolish, she said, starting with the Hemingways themselves. Most of the family’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren don’t know anything about their Pulitzer Prize-winning relative, she said. They don’t talk about him. They don’t even read his literature.
“You look at this man who has written so many books and was one of the greatest authors imaginable. But he was also his own worst enemy,” she said. “And he had very deep, internal conflicts. I think, possibly, the decision to take his own life must have reverberated through the generations of the Hemingway family. This is three or four generations later, so they’re scared the pattern would then be passed to them.”
As a child, Mariel grew up on the Hemingway family farm in Idaho, the same place where her grandfather committed suicide just months before she was born. The youngest of three girls, Mariel followed her older sister Margaux into acting and modeling. So did her daughter, Dree Hemingway, who was one of Variety’s 10 Actors To Watch at HIFF last year. She and her sister, Langley Hemingway, as well as Mariel’s romantic interest, Bobby Williams, also star in the film, which was produced by Oprah Winfrey.
Through long-lost archival footage and trips to California, Idaho and Massachusetts, Ms. Kopple follows the three Hemingway sisters—Mariel, Margaux and Muffet—and weaves an intricate portrait of the famous family in 100 minutes. The result was a film she never saw coming, she said, adding that the final product is not depressing. It is, instead, an exploration.
“In a documentary, it’s the journey you go on. I just like making films that you don’t know where they’re going to take you,” she said. “I don’t think I’m fearless, but when I do have fear, I’m not afraid of that fear. I realize when you’re afraid of something, that’s why you should do something. And you shouldn’t run from it.”
Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple will give a free Rowdy Talk on her latest, “Running From Crazy,” on Friday, October 11, at 10 a.m. at Rowdy Hall in East Hampton. Admission is free, but a ticket is required. The film will screen on Thursday, October 10, at 4:30 p.m. at East Hampton UA2 and again on Friday, October 11, at 11:15 a.m. at East Hampton UA5. For more information, visit hamptonfilmfest.org.