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Barbara Kopple Shifted Direction to Follow in Woody Allen's Footsteps

By Michael Colton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 1998; Page F01


    Barbara Kopple Barbara Kopple has won two Oscars for her documentaries. (Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)
Barbara Kopple has come a long way from the coal mines of Kentucky, where she filmed her award-winning 1977 documentary, "Harlan County, U.S.A." – all the way to the ritzy hotels and concert halls of Europe for her latest film, "Wild Man Blues." Known for her powerfully emotional depictions of labor strikes, the acclaimed director is now offering something quite different: a Woody Allen comedy.

A comedy about Woody Allen, to be exact. Kopple's film, conceived by Allen's associates as a portrait of the filmmaker, gives a rare glimpse of Woody the musician and, more surprisingly, Woody the boyfriend (and now hubby) of Soon-Yi Previn, the 28-year-old adopted daughter of Allen's old flame Mia Farrow. Some critics have found it to be a genuine and candid depiction; others believe Kopple was enlisted to try to rehabilitate Allen's tarnished public image.

The film, opening here Friday, chronicles Allen's 1996 tour through 18 cities in Europe, where he's worshiped like a rock star, with his clarinet and his New Orleans-style jazz band. Named after a tune by Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, the film shows Allen kvetching about hotels, boats and shower drains across the Continent like a character from one of his films.

Allen and Previn are unabashed fans of the film, which Kopple first showed them in her New York editing room. "I was amazed at how skillfully she put it together," says Allen, 62, by phone from his Manhattan apartment. "She had so many hours and hours of footage, and in my opinion most of it was quite dull. She managed to find all the good spots."

Kopple was thrilled by their reaction. "The two of them sat there holding on to each other, laughing hysterically through the whole film. Woody had his finger over his lip, and Soon-Yi was huddled and shaking because she was laughing so much.

"It was as if they were seeing a relationship become formed or a character being defined," says Kopple, who visited Washington recently when "Wild Man Blues" was screened at Filmfest DC.

The winner of two Oscars – for "Harlan County, U.S.A." and another film about a bitter labor dispute, "American Dream" (1990) – Kopple, 45, said she had no qualms about directing a project she did not originate.

"If you're a painter and I ask you to paint something for me, I wouldn't call you a 'hired gun,' " she says. "It's still your painting."

Kopple said the project's comedic possibilities were evident from her first meeting with Allen. When she asked if he was looking forward to his European tour, he answered with characteristic anxiety. "No, I don't want to go," she recalls him whining. "It's too many dates; it's cities I've never gone to in my life. I have too much work to do here. I don't want to go."

Capturing Allen's angst over 23 days, as many as 18 hours a day, required Kopple and her four-person crew to recede into the background. "They're amazingly non-intrusive," says Allen. "She's very assuaging, and very seductive about putting one at ease."

It's a talent she has honed over a 20-year career that includes "Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy" and "No Nukes." For someone who has faced frigid picket lines and machine-gun fire from angry scabs, Kopple is perkier than one might expect, though she frequently dresses in black, matching her jet-black hair. During the course of an interview, she is playfully restless – constantly fidgeting, crossing and re-crossing her legs, leaning forward, tilting her head and gesturing with all four limbs for emphasis.

The overall effect is disarming and has helped her capture unguarded moments on film of everyone from wary Southern sheriffs to powerful media executives in corporate boardrooms.

"Barbara makes people willing to trust her," says Tom Hurwitz, the director of photography on "Wild Man Blues" and several other Kopple films. "Her subjects can't quite believe" what she's capable of.

Neither Allen nor Previn, who each wore a wireless microphone, ever asked Kopple to turn off the camera, though such a request would have been welcome. "We were hoping they would, because then we would have had lunch and we would have seen the sights and been like normal people," Kopple says.

Because Allen's characters are frequently similar to his own persona, in some scenes in "Wild Man Blues" Allen appears to be playing to the camera, even though Kopple insists he often didn't know the camera was rolling. "We were the least of his problems," she says. "What he cared about was surviving and getting through each day."

The film has received generally positive reviews, but some have criticized it as an effort to repair the damage Allen's reputation suffered when his personal life made headlines in 1992. Many of these critics note that longtime Allen collaborator Jean Doumanian is the film's producer.

Allen laughed at the idea that the film is damage control. "My public image doesn't need rehabilitation," he says, half joking. "It's the public that needs rehabilitation."

The whole discussion, Allen says, "is very very amusing to me. Because [the film] has been enjoyed and well received, there's a desperate need to find some flaw in it. I find nothing in it overly ingratiating to me; it's not some kind of love letter to me, just a recounting of our tour."

Kopple, Allen and Doumanian all emphasize that Kopple was given complete creative control over "Wild Man Blues" – just as Allen has complete creative control over all of his films. "I was a free agent, not under their auspices at all," says Kopple. "Jean raised the money and that was it. There was no conflict whatsoever. She could care less, trust me; she was off making other deals for Woody."

Kopple says she had no agenda when she began filming. "It's almost like you're a juror," she says. "You wipe the slate clean and allow whoever it is to build up who they are from the time that you're with them."

Before the tour began in the spring of 1996, Allen envisioned the project as a concert film, perhaps a television special. Kopple had a different idea. "I wanted to see who Woody is, what his relationship is with Soon-Yi, and of course, get a little of the music in, too," she says.

The result is a glimpse into the ongoing comic sketch that is Allen's life and his inability to enjoy himself – his "anhedonia," a favorite word of Allen's that was his original title for "Annie Hall." From a gruesomely unromantic gondola ride in Venice to a "lunch from hell" with his parents in Manhattan, Allen always seems to be suffering his surroundings. "You did a lot of good things, but you never pursued them," laments his mother, Nettie Konigsberg, at the film's conclusion.

Previn is a surprise here, showing herself to be opinionated and assertive. Most significant, Previn simply shows herself. Her previous public image was limited to tabloid photographs at Knicks games and on New York streets, but with "Wild Man Blues," she comes out.

Allen acknowledges that Previn may appear to dominate their relationship while they were in Europe. "When I'm not working in my life, I'm not so good and poised and confident and socially adept. When you see us in a situation where I'm away, with hotels and planes, I'm nervous, and she's more calming and rational."

According to Allen, Previn likes the film very much, "except she doesn't like the sound of her own voice."

After spending an extended period of time with them, Kopple has a positive view of their relationship. "They're very truthful with each other. If everyone had a relationship like that they'd be really lucky."

Kopple grew up in privileged Scarsdale, N.Y., the daughter of a textile executive and a housewife. At Northeastern University in Boston, she studied clinical psychology and political science, and for one ourse she made a film, "Winter Soldiers," about Vietnam vets. Her professor misguidedly thought that by making a film she was taking the easy way out.

After graduating she worked with Albert and David Maysles, the legendary documentarians known for "Salesman," "Primary" and the Rolling Stones concert film "Gimme Shelter." "I was voracious," she says of her apprenticeship with the brothers. "I wanted to just learn it all."

After making nonfiction films – Kopple's preferred term – for more than 20 years, she scoffs at the suggestion that a celebrity like Allen is not a legitimate subject for her lens. "Like an actor, a director can play different roles, too," she says. She has examined celebrities before, notably in the 1993 NBC movie "Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson."

Her next film will be "Generations," about the 1994 Woodstock II concert and its various players: the performers, the audience, the corporate suits from festival sponsor Polygram NV and the scared folks of Saugerties, N.Y., who did not want the mammoth concert to take place.

She is currently developing two fiction films, her first dramatic features. (She has also directed episodes of NBC's "Homicide.") The first is "Joe Glory," a "love story set against a political backdrop," for which she is hoping to cast Natalie Portman. Patricia Arquette is set to star in the other feature, "In the Boom Boom Room," based on the David Rabe play.

Documentaries, though, remain her primary passion. As a woman, she says she has certain advantages for the unobtrusiveness that nonfiction filmmaking demands, when the camera crew must recede into the background: "It's easier for women – because we're not as intimidating as men, nobody really pays much attention to us."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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