Barbara Kopple on Gun Rights, Freedom of Speech, and Virginia Tech

A conversation with the filmmaker about her new documentary, "Gun Fight," which premieres tonight on HBO


Reuters/Phil McCarten

In her more than three decades as a filmmaker, Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple has made documentaries about Kentucky coal miners (Harlan County U.S.A.), the Yankees (The House of Steinbrenner), the Dixie Chicks (Shut Up and Sing), and more. Her latest project may be her most controversial yet: Gun Fight, a film about the gun rights debate in America that premieres tonight on HBO at 9:30.

She spoke with The Atlantic about the shootings at Virginia Tech and in Tucson, her personal views about guns, and the state of freedom of speech in America.

When did idea for Gun Fight first come about?

Four years ago. In fact, one of our first shoots was going to Virginia Tech a few days after it happened.

And what drew you to the project?

Marc Weiss, one of the producers, called me up and said, "How would you like to make a film about guns and America?" I went, "Oh, I don't know about that. That's such a huge, huge issue, and I don't know that much about it."

We did a lot of talking, and then I started doing a lot of research, and I said, "Alright." And then we pitched it to HBO, and Shelia [Nevins] said, "Ok, go for it, go do it." And then the realization hit: "Ok, how do you get a handle on something like this, that is huge, and it's passionate. Because guns, you know, there's no coming back from it. People dying in a split second. It's such a major responsibility to do a film like this. So I guess that's kind of where it started.

In an interview with IndieWire a few years ago, you said,"I don't go into a film with any particular agenda ... But [I] often do have a point of view on the subject." What was your point of view going into Gun Fight?

I think my point of view is I'm not a gun person. Although if you just looked at Harlan County, there were so many guns in Harlan County—everybody had guns. The first or second day I was in Harlan County, they taught me how to shoot. I would never carry a gun during the day, but during the nighttime we would all sleep on the floor with mattresses and stuff, because when the strike got really intense, they would shoot.

So it was sort of interesting for me to be able to be on the gun ranges and to really see people's love of guns. There was [former NRA lobbyist] Richard Feldman talking about, "This is Mr. Smith and this is Mr. Wesson, and I never go to the door without my two good friends."

It was very foreign to me—I curious to see the other side, to see how people thought and felt and their whole passion about what freedom is. Even [Executive Director of Gun Owners of America] Larry Pratt, who's in the film, who talks about shooting the government, and then that horrible thing happens in Tucson. It's hard to wrap your head around it all. It's such a huge issue.

Do you think people who support gun rights will feel that this film accurately represents their side of the issue?

I think it's both sides of the discussion. A lot of my films always surprise me: the people I think won't like them, like them. And I bet that they'll take quotes from this film to show their side, and their cause. And I think that's what's interesting about making a film is sort of the debate and the heat that the debate creates.

I think about [Virginia Tech shooting survivor] Colin Goddard in the Brady PSA that we use: "I want to see an America where people are safe no matter where they go." And I think that's a really great quote, and something that everyone can aspire to.

You finished Gun Fight before the shooting in Tucson happened, and then went back and added some footage from that event to the beginning and end of the film. How does the Tucson shooting change the way you see the film?

What's so interesting abut Tucson: In some cases people die and then everything closes—the shooter sometimes shoots his victims and then he shoots himself, as in Virginia Tech. And here, the shooter is alive, and also, thank God, Gabrielle Giffords is alive. And that in a way keeps the debate alive and keeps the issue alive.

Another interesting thing you said in the IndieWire interview was, "We're living in a time when the freedoms we take for granted—the freedom of speech, the freedom to protest and dissent—are truly in danger." You've been making films for more than 30 years—do you think those freedoms are more in danger now than they were at the beginning of your career?

I think it's pretty consistent. It's so hard to tell because you go all the way back to Harlan County—I mean, I had no idea, here I was going to the coal fields. Who would know peolpe would be machine-gunned with semi-automatic carbines, a miner would be killed by a company foreman—that kind of thing.

You just have no idea. With documentaries you have no idea what's going to happen, you don't know what's around each turn. But you're going to keep making films, and the films at some point start to lead you where you're going. And you just have to stick with it and have a lot of perseverance and compassion for what you're doing, no matter how hard it is, no matter how much people tell you not to do it.

You don't think, "Is this an issue about free speech?" You just know that it's a story about people, and hopefully it's a compelling story that people will want to see.