Capone With Barbara Kopple And Cecelia Peck, Directors Of (The Dixie Chicks') SHUT UP & SING!!
Published at: Nov. 15, 2006, 12:27 p.m. CST by merrick
Hey, everyone. Capone in the Windy City here in an interviewing frenzy, and there’s still more to come.
It may surprise you to hear me say this, but the Dixie Chicks documentary SHUT UP & SING might be the hands-down finest doc of the year. Two years ago, I begged people to go see METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER, a superb film about a band I couldn’t have cared less about before the film in crisis. And everyone who saw it took it to heart. SHUT UP & SING has a similar appeal, with the small exception that this film isn’t just about a band’s inner struggles; it’s about a large chunk of this nation and the Chicks’ fan base turning on them because of a single, ill-timed remark. How the group deals with losing nearly all of their fan base and rises up to make an album that effectively ignores said fans (why not?) is at the core of this extraordinary movie.
If you know anything about the history of American documentary films, then you know the name Barbara Kopple, the two-time Oscar winner (for HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. and AMERICAN DREAM) and director of such legendary works as WILD MAN BLUES, A CONVERSATION WITH GREGORY PECK, the phenomenal Mike Tyson profile FALLEN CHAMP and the captivating television doc mini-series “The Hamptons.” As you can probably tell, Kopple is something of a god to me. Her co-director on SHUT UP & SING was Cecilia Peck, daughter of Gregory, and the pair have fashioned one of the truest portraits of America three years ago (when Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines first made her comments about the President) and America today (when suddenly her comments don’t seem all that outrageous). The film and the band are relentless in both their spirit and tenacity (the abundance of four-letter words earned the film an R rating), and I think it’s safe to say that SHUT UP & SING is the front-runner for the 2006 Best Documentary Oscar. I sat down with Kopple and Peck recently, and, I’ll admit, I found myself hypnotized by their energy, words, and overall loveliness.
Capone: I don’t usually come right out and say this at the top of any interview, but I loved the film, without hesitation. I was surprisingly moved by it. I thought at best I’d be entertained, but it really drew me in and wrapped me up emotionally. It really caught me off guard.
Barbara Kopple: Can I just ask, what moved you?
C: I know this is going to sound strange, and I doubt anyone will say this to you. I will see any music documentary, whether it’s about a movement within music or a band or a musician either living or dead. But I always tend to like the ones in which I am completely unfamiliar with the subject matter. A couple years ago, I went to see this Metallica documentary, and I couldn’t believe how much I loved that film. It was my favorite documentary the year it came out. I felt much the same way about your film that I did about that one. It was as much about how willing to be open with you the band was and how much access you were granted.
I’m assuming the Dixie Chicks did not limit you. Some of the scenes in which the Chicks are realizing that a huge percentage of their fan base just abandons them are genuinely moving. How does a group deal with that? And they’ve left you for something that has nothing to do with your music. The way that they persevere and use the turnaround as way to redefine themselves and their music is incredible. My wife is a huge fan of theirs, and I didn’t have any negative feelings about them going into this. I’m guessing for a lot of people, this incident and this film were be their first exposure to this much Dixie Chicks music all at once. I just realized I’m talking way too much and probably not answering your question.
BK: No, no, it’s fascinating for us because the film is just coming out, and we’ve been living it and breathing it for so long, so to hear your views on it seems important at this stage.
C: And even more so than for most of the films you’ve worked on, because there’s such a fast track to get this movie out. How did you get it done so fast, because according to one title card, you were still shooting this past June?
BK: Yes, we were. We were filming and editing the whole time throughout. The editors that we worked with are some of the finest in New York, Bob Eisenhardt, Jean Tsien, Emma Morris and Aaron Kuhn. It was a Herculean effort to finish it. We would sometimes be working from early morning until four in the morning, and there were a lot of different technical things, structurally going from 2005 to 2006 to 2003, forming those bridges to get you there and move you there and keep you there and make you want to know where they were today. That was all very tricky. I think the great thing about documentary and about film is the great collaboration there is between people, between Cecilia and I, between our editors and camera people. It’s all a synergy, especially in documentary, because what you really have to do is to get people to feel at east and to feel open and let you into their world.
Cecilia Peck: We also knew from the beginning that we needed the film to come out before the end of the year. It was partly to do with the financing and distribution, and also we always wanted the story to be current, while the war was still going on, while the Chicks were still in this phase of their careers. So when we started shooting, we also began editing.
We always new that the ending would be there first stage performance of this new music, which Natalie gave us an incredible ending when she went back to London [where her original statement was made], which we couldn’t have expected. We also thought their return would be much more triumphant than it was after filming them recording that incredible music and then they landed on the cover of Time magazine. It was a very interesting turn that three years later, their audience was still not there for them, and that their radio bans could affect their present tour. They could not play their music or advertise their tour on the radio in the South. They had to cancel almost half their tour dates. That gave the film that emotional depth. You can feel what that’s like to them, and despite how brave they are, it really hurts.
C: Was part of the reason for the fast-track release to time it to come out before the mid-term elections?
BK: I think that the Weinstein Company, that was something that was very important to Harvey Weinstein when he saw the film. For us, we had a lot of material that we had collected and we were filming a lot, and to have the luxury of editing while we were filming, so we knew where the holes were or the shape that the film was starting to take. That gave us the impetus to have a cutoff point, because we as documentarians like to go and make sure no stone is left unturned, get everything we could. But because we were editing as we were shooting, that allowed us to leave no stone unturned because we could come back at night or come back from a shoot and look at the material at say, “Ah, this changes this.” It’s that wonderful cerebral puzzle of being able to put a film together.
We knew that we were going to keep shooting until the first kick-off concert. We didn’t know if that would be the ending of the film, but that would be the space where we would stop. We would do London and Detroit also, which is not in the film. But you never know. The great thing about documentary is that it takes you around all the turns and all these corners. You don’t know. It just so happens that concert was the end, but it was even more powerful with what Martie [Maguire] was saying about Natalie, and about the deep friendship that they have, that she would give up everything to give Natalie peace. So there were a lot of different strands. We never knew that we would get anything like that. It’s always full of surprises when you allow your characters to take it and run.
CP: And also, as we were filming and allowed to witness these personal and revealing scenes about them figuring out their strategy about how they are going to come back, and where the first concerts would be and whether they will get video or radio play. We realized that we had to follow that story to its conclusion so that you could see whether their fans were still there for them.
C: It’s an interesting ending because it feels uplifting, although there are all these things that happen that most other artists would probably deem pretty negative.
BK: I agree with the Chicks that finding a new audience and putting that fire back in your belly again to go in a different direction. Maybe you get too comfortable. Now, this is the first album they’ve ever written by themselves and digging deep about who they are as people, whether it’s about love or politics or all the different things they go through as mothers, as friends, as musicians to keep their lives in balance, and it’s all reflected in this phenomenal music. If none of this had happened or their fans were still there for them, probably they wouldn’t have made this heroic turn.
C: It had to be tough because clearly they had not timed this “heroic turn” at all.
BK: They had no idea.
CP: As hard as it was, I don’t think they would have traded it for anything to stay in that box of country music.
BK: Absolutely not. They’re free.
C: That’s the other moving thing about the film. It really is like watching some one forced to grow up. And as is often the case in life, it happens because of unforeseen circumstances; it’s something that’s forced upon you. Natalie really personifies that, because she is the most vocal and she’s swearing the most. I think that’s really going to shock some people. This has got to be R rated, right?
CP: We’re hoping for a PG-13.
C: Yeah, good luck with that.
BK: It’s really important to us that this film show in schools and show to young people that they can stand up and do things for themselves. And we’d hate it if it was R rated and many of them couldn’t see it.
CP: There’s a big difference when language is used in a passionate way versus an exploitive way intended to shock. These girls were just very passionate about what they were saying.
BK: I think that what’s stronger than that language--which is fairly minimal--are the ideas and values. The language may catapult you there, but it’s really about what they’re saying and who they are that take center stage.
C: When you have a co-directing situation, do you have a division of duties or is it more just two people in charge?
BK: Cecelia and I have worked together a lot and we think very similarly. And neither of us has anything to prove. The only thing we want to do is make a good film and tell a good story. There were no, “You do this, and I’ll do this” duties. If we could both film together, we did. Maybe one of us was in an editing room. The magic of it all was that you were never alone. You had somebody else who was so close to the situation that you didn’t have to go home and bore your husband with what happened and how do I deal with this. You had someone that was on the same wavelength, thinking and talking. We didn’t always agree all the time, but it was a wonderful, extraordinary working relationship. The only thing that was important was the film and the story and making the Dixie Chicks feel as comfortable as they possibly could.
CP: Yeah, sometimes I’d be with the Dixie Chicks; sometimes Barbara would be. But the best was when we were both out filming together.
C: I saw the first film you two worked on together about your father Cecilia. I believe it premiered in Chicago in 1999, and I remember you and your whole family on stage. It was such as rare and special opportunity.
CP: Barbara was there too.
C: That’s right. And then the two of you worked on “The Hamptons” together, which was a series I couldn’t get enough of. It was so ridiculously decadent.
BK: We tried to be very true to those characters, and we were given a very big assignment: go in May, and in September, we want full arcs and full stories. So it was like, put on your sneakers and find these characters and go for it. We tried to do so many different characters: artists, policemen, shark fishermen, singles.
C: I do remember your attempting to focus on people that live there year ‘round, not just those that vacation there. You actually seem to have focus on subjects who are either literally or artistically under attack at the time when you are with them, whether it’s Woody Allen or Mike Tyson or union workers or female war reporters or the Dixie Chicks. Do you seek out people like that?
BK: You really don’t know, but I guess that that’s true, because when people are in crisis, they forget about the camera, and there leadership abilities come through and their strengths come through and you really see what people are made of. During “The Hamptons” people weren’t really in crisis, except maybe to find a husband.
C: Yes but didn’t that film include the incident with Lizzie Grubman?
BK: Yes, but we didn’t know that was going to happen. Also, there was a death of a wonderful restaurateur. And we were there when 9-11 happened, and it was really weird because I was filming Julian Schnabel. Cecilia got married on the 8th, I got back on the 9th, and on the 10th we were filming Julian Schnabel. And for some weird reason, I said, “Do you ever have any dreams?” And he said, “Lately I’ve been having a dream about a plane crashing into a building.” And the next day 9-11 happened, and I went and sought out Julian and asked him, “Do you remember what you said?” It’s weird. It’s all just part of life and part of the process. And it’s not really about seeking out people in crisis, although, yes, the coal miners of eastern Kentucky and the meat packers were in crisis.
C: I wondered if your subjects who are in those situations are looking for someone like you who isn’t judging them or attacking them. Is that part of the trust you establish with your subjects?
BK: That is part of the trust. And part of the trust is to let them be alone and film them without putting yourself into the picture, almost go on a journey with them and allow their story to unfold at its own time and not plant yourself in with the lights. We don’t do that. We really want a character to emerge and be themselves in a setting that is comfortable to do that. We do sometimes to straight interviews, not a lot, but if you’re very curious about something and you feel the character wants to get something out, you’ve got to probe a little bit.
CP: I think it’s more about asking questions that might provoke a conversation between the subjects than a traditional talking-head interview. We don’t do much of that.
BK: Sometimes you do what you can. You use your toolbox, and the biggest thing in a documentary filmmakers’s toolbox is empathy. You really care about those subjects and want the best to come out.
C: Getting back to SHUT UP & SING, we should make it clear that you didn’t join up with the band officially until they began recording the new album, so all the footage of the tour that followed Natalie’s remark was given to you by the Chicks, right?
BK: It was a web site group and it was stock footage. And we were voracious, going after every single bit and piece that we could find to include in this film.
C: Did you ever step back and find yourself shocked that there was still this level of animosity toward the band?
BK: The animosity continues to be fueled by the Free Republic [website] and if you ever go online to see what they’re saying, they’re saying the same things that they said in 2003, but they’ve got it down more. They are the ones who send out thousands of letters to radio stations to boycott the music. It’s still out there.
CP: I’m sure the angry people will pop up on your website too, don’t they?
C: I’m sure that will happen once the reviews of the film start going up.
CP: Have you posted your’s yet? Or that first story on the film or on the Chicks that appeared last week?
C: I’m flattered you know our site well enough to know that that went up, but no, that wasn’t me, I just saw the film last night. Somebody saw it in Toronto probably.
CP: Right, and you’ve linked to the trailer. That got so many hits, and there are people who just sit around on the internet waiting to attack any voice…
C: Were there some attacks as a result of posting the trailer link?
CP: A few, but much more in support of the politics and the film. But a few of the hate groups got in there.
BK: And it just keeps going because we have the internet.
C: The internet is the worst, isn’t it? I recently wrote a review of a film called JESUS CAMP, and in the eight years I’ve been writing for the site, I’ve never gotten that many responses and personal e-mails. I had to stop reading them after a while, and most of them were in support of my review.
CP: They are the ones who created the campaigns to call up the radio stations and threaten to not listen anymore if they played the Chicks music. And I don’t think it’s representative of the majority of country music listeners or the Chicks’ fans or by any means the country. But it was very effective, these small fringe ultra-conservative hate groups that were able to accomplish a lot.
C: It’s funny how you showed the clip of the Chicks on the Howard Stern show, because he’s been under those types of attacks for decades now.
CP: It was amazing actually that he apologized to them for what he said about them. I didn’t see everything he said about them originally, but I take it he wasn’t always supportive. But he was humble and he came around and acknowledged how right they were and how brave.
C: Timing is everything. Do you think that if Natalie made her comments today, that the response would be the same given the way the war is going and the way that the President’s approval ratings stand?
BK: It depends. They were, and still are to a degree, country musicians. Sometimes country musicians are put into this very conservative Republican box, and I feel that a lot more country musicians are coming around and being a lot more outspoken. I feel that country radio stations felt like it was a betrayal. I know in Lubbock and other places, they still won’t play the Dixie Chicks, and Lubbock is where Natalie is from.
CP: I think that Natalie and the Chicks were alone. The entire industry turned its back on them, and there was nobody else in country music that stood up for them. Had someone else been as brave as Natalie, then the Dixie Chicks could have said it now without as much controversy. But without someone like Natalie standing up the way she did, I think it could have happened again.
C: My real first exposure to the Dixie Chicks was when the signed on as part of the Vote for Change Tour. And I was driving around the different shows on that tour, including one in Detroit to see Bruce Springsteen. And they were also in town and after there show was done, they came over to our show and sang a bit with Springsteen. I’m wondering, was it ever brought up with them why other artists come to their defense?
BK: Well Bruce did and James Taylor did and Neil Young did. But it wasn’t enough. I think that during that time, anyone who spoke out against the war was boycotted and blacklisted and silenced. The media during that time were just reporting on what they were given. Nobody was really delving into what was really happening.
C: Natalie, in addition to being the most vocal, also comes across as very shrewd about how to turn this controversy to their advantage. I don’t mean that in a negative way. They were just starting to understand how big this was going to be a problem, and she seems almost excited about using the opportunity to turn their careers in a different direction.
BK: I think that that’s true, but it evolved. Also what really evolved were Martie an Emily and how they are so with Natalie but also are so aware and have that same passion and that same fire, but express it in different ways. And the bond between these women is incredible. It taught me so much about what it means to connect with people that you care about and who think like you do, and how you are able to conquer things as a team without pulling each other apart, because it’s going to hurt your life, your career, and your family.
CP: As soon as they got over the shock that anyone cared about that they thought, they also understood that being in country music means that you were expected to think a certain way and that you can’t criticize the government or corporate powers that be. They also quickly realized that wasn’t a place they could exist and be an artist and express themselves. Even though Natalie knew that it would be a hard road to take, she realized it was the only possible one.
C: Do you get a sense now what’s next for them? Where do they go from here?
BK: The Dixie Chicks are in the process of trying to create a new audience. They’re in Australia right now on tour. Different people are coming to their concerts, but also a lot of the old people are coming as well. They are building and exploring. They are exploring within themselves. When I think about them, the sky is the limit. Yes, it may not be easy and there will be bumps in the road, but they will figure out ways to get around it.
CP: And who know what their next album will sound like, but I think the music they created with Rick Rubin, that more rock and roll sound but also incorporating the banjo and the fiddle, was the most exciting, refreshing, incredible sound to come out of music lately.
C: I’ll pretty much listen to anything Rick Rubin has a hand in, so when I heard he was involved in that album, my immediate reaction was, I must hear it.
BK: He’s spectacular!
C: What were some of your favorite scenes that you had to take out?
BK: There are so many of them.
C: Will the DVD offer us a look at these scenes?
BK: Right. That’s the way we rationalized it to ourselves. We would work with the editors, and sometimes there was a scene we would really love but it didn’t bring the story forward. And the structure is a difficult one because it takes you from contemporary back to 2003 and back again. We really needed to use things that pushed the story forward. There’s some wonderful scenes that I miss. There’s a scene that is the age-old discussion of how sometimes husbands do very small things and really let you know about it.
And Natalie was discussing with Emily about their husbands, and how her husband [actor Adrian Pasdar] was letting her know that he was taking the dishes out of the dishwasher. Just such wonderful human moments about who they are; it’s not so much about their politics but things that we all experience. And that’s one I particularly love because my husband does the same thing. [Laughs]
CP: I miss Emily’s stories. Emily is such a great storyteller, and she’d tell us about these funny moments that would happen in the recording studio. She came into work one day and told the other two about how on her way to work, she was smelling her pits and she saw the women in the car next to her appalled. There’s another story about her husband Charlie getting arrested. That’s one thing I miss in the film; I’m not sure we captured how funny Emily Robison is.
BK: Oh, I think we did in the “sexual favors” section [in which the Chicks discuss how they sometimes trade sexual favors to get their husbands to do chores they don’t want to do, like changing diapers, for example.
CP: That said it all.
BK: “Okay, I’ll do it.”
CP: How funny Emily was in the throws of childbirth saying “What am I going to do with two of them?” [She gave birth to twins.]
BK: “Sore nipples are on the way!”
C: The trick with music documentaries always seems to be balancing the story with the music itself, which most times stops the story cold, no matter how good it is. How do you strike that balance?
BK: I think that what we tried to do with the music is use it as its own story element. For example, when they are talking about fertility and the song “It’s So Hard.” And the different periods of their stress and tension is put into “Truth No. 2” or “Mississippi” or some of their older songs that propelled the movement. So we tried to blend it in so you could hear the music as part of the story and part of what they were going through. Either is was in a period of 2003 or 2005-2006. I don’t think the music stops it at all; it’s part of the eternal flow because you can’t separate them from their music. It’s so strong and so tied to who they are.
C: By making a film about issue oriented subjects, the filmmaker becomes the touchstone for the issue itself even though the filmmaker may not feel like a qualified expert on the subject at hand. Is that something you feel comfortable with?
BK: I think you can only give your opinion about how something affected you as a filmmaker. But I also think, too, that it’s interesting because you don’t know how to determine it, because everybody takes something different from a film. When I did a film called AMERICAN DREAM, I had a screening of it, and the people who were very company prone, loved the company; the people who were International Union prone, loved the union; and the people who were the rank and file, loved them.
I was so amazed. I had my own perceptions of what the film would be, but it was so multilayered. We all look at it depending on where we come from and who we are. I don’t think I would call the films that we do “issue oriented.” They try to be human stories about people in crisis or people struggling. But it’s not like we isolate the issue. It’s so hard to tell where someone is coming from and what their perceptions are, and I’m always amazed and interested. And I continue to learn about the filmmaking process by being able to be involved in question and answer session.
CP: With this film, for instance, while people may go into it for the politics or to see what happened to the Dixie Chicks, they will come out having seen a story about three women who are artists, who are mothers, who are citizens, who have a deep bond of friendship, who have a tremendous amount of courage during a very difficult time in their lives. I hope that if you go in for one thing, you come out with something else.
BK: Very well put. That’s exactly right.
C: I’ve started to see in some recent documentaries, your name in the “Thank You” part of the end credits. I remember seeing it in CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS. Are you reaching out to younger filmmakers or are people reaching out to you for guidance?
BK: Documentarians, we’re just very, very supporting of each other. It’s a small universe but it’s growing, which is great and we want each other to succeed so much. So anything any of us can do to help each other, we are there. We look at each other’s films, we critique them. We brought in people to look at this film when it was in rough cut and say things. Sometimes people are really able to help you, and I am out there, as Cecilia is, for anybody who wants us to look at anything. But I expect the same; I need their help so much.
C: Do you think one of the reasons the Weinstein Company wanted to get this film out when it did was to make it clear that this is an Oscar contender.
BK: Right, there are so many wonderful, wonderful documentaries. And yes, we did submit to the Academy board, and we submitted only because we want more people to see this film and for this film to get exposure, and therefore more people maybe won’t be afraid to stand up and use their freedom of speech and not be silenced. In fact, if people try to silence them, people will forge ahead like the Dixie Chicks did.
When HARLAN COUNTY won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, the first people I called were the people in eastern Kentucky. They were crying on the phone, “People are going to hear our story, people are going to know what we go through.” They were so happy, they were riding around Harlan County, beeping their horns, screaming, “We won an Academy Award!” It’s about what’s in the film and getting people to see these wonderful stories and