FIVE QUESTIONS WITH . . . Barbara Kopple
I WILL SURVIVE
5 Questions for Barbara Kopple, director of MISS SHARON JONES!
by Anthony Kaufman, DOC10 Programmer
From Oscar-winning documentary maven Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA) comes this stirring story of electrifying soul singer Sharon Jones. A former New York corrections officer, Jones found fame in her 40s as the front-woman for the R&B/funk band The Dap-Kings. But in 2013, Jones was diagnosed with a serious illness. Miss Sharon Jones! follows the magnetic Jones and her close-knit family of band members through one of their most tumultuous years together, filled with highs and lows, tears and joy, and plenty of rip-roaring musical numbers. Below, Kopple speaks about the intimacy of her shooting process and the power of Sharon Jones’ spirit.
How were you first introduced to Sharon Jones, and what tipped you off to the fact that she'd be an engaging documentary subject?
I received a call from two execs at VH1 that I had previously enjoyed working with and greatly respected, Brad Abramson & Stephen Mintz. They mentioned that they had this idea to do a film about a soul singer, but that we'd have to start filming within a week or so. Normally, that would be a red flag, but I had a great experience with Brad & Steve previously, so we started to take a look at what they had. It was essentially fast forward from there and before we even had a contract I was with a crew in Albany, NY as Sharon was having her head shaved. That was the first shoot of the film and the first time I met her in person. I loved Sharon from the moment I met her. She is so genuine and real. It was, honestly, an honor. It is a rare individual that can take such a leap and I think we built upon and honored that trust throughout the production process.
Can you talk about the challenges of making a movie about a musician and making a movie about serious illness? How did you achieve this balance, and how did you avoid being a movie about pancreatic cancer (I imagine it's a topic that could have scared people away).
This is a film about life. Sharon approached the most trying times with such levity and humor that it put everyone at ease. When we were with her in the chemo center she interacted with everyone else, shared stories, and made them laugh along with her. Sharon was in a serious health battle, but she never let it define who she was or dictate how she was going to live her life.
Were there moments in the making of the film that were difficult for you emotionally, and if so, how do you think that effected your filmmaking?
We took this journey together; nothing about it was forced. We had a very small crew the majority of the time and whenever possible we used the same people so that we could always keep comfortable. I don't want to reveal too much about the film since I care about people seeing films with fresh eyes so I will share this without being too specific. There was a moment when some not-so-good news came. We all felt like the wind was knocked out of us because it's hard not to think the worst when the word ‘cancer’ is involved. Sharon was the first person to say, "I think it's nothing," and allowed us all to breathe again. We let the camera roll all the time and I think the intimacy of the process is pretty evident when you see the film, so I don't think the emotions impacted the film. We just loved Sharon and how positive she is even when times are tough.
How do you think your presence and the film's making effected Sharon? The filmmakers are obviously not a presence in the documentary itself, but I wonder if you being around helped her keep her spirits up? In general, how do you deal with your presence in the lives of the people you document, and your potential impact on their lives?
Something I learned is I don't think Sharon needs too much to keep her spirits up. She is a natural optimist through and through. I do think the process of making the film was a positive experience. She needed her rest, but Sharon is someone that was used to working all the time and now had to take a forced break. I think that in a way our presence was a continuation, an affirmation that her career was still mid-stream. I also know Sharon wanted to tell her story and she told it with full vigor. As a filmmaker, we often continue in the lives of the people we work with. I love being in continuing touch with Sharon. I actually just saw her open up for Hall & Oates at Madison Square Garden. Think of that: a person I filmed through treatment for Stage Two Pancreatic Cancer just two years ago was singing her heart out and lighting up one of the most iconic arenas in the world. I'm beaming just thinking about it. In some ways, I hope our work has made Sharon proud that she got to tell her story fully, but I know the way Sharon tackled cancer with such dignity and levity has left a permanent mark on my life as well.
There are a lot of celebrity-driven music documentaries being made these days, but one of the reasons that I appreciate Sharon Jones' story is that she's not a star in the same way as some of the others. Do you think that helped gain you the level of profound access and intimacy that we see in the film?
I feel many of the people I've worked with have been extraordinarily open. The Dixie Chicks were incredible in that regard. What I think makes Sharon a bit different is that it's rare to see someone with celebrity open up so fully at such a vulnerable time in her life. Understand that going public about her cancer was not something everyone wanted her to do. Music is still a business and the concern was that venues might be concerned that if they booked Sharon that she wouldn’t be able to make her gigs once she recovered. I think Sharon is incredibly brave for opening her life in a difficult moment. I want people who simply love life to leave understanding that what they've seen is someone who allowed life to triumph at every turn. So, the level of fame wasn't the most significant element here for me. I'm in awe of Sharon Jones.