Director Barbara Kopple on ‘Running From Crazy’

On unearthing Hemingway home videos and getting to know Mariel

Nov 10, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Barbara Kopple is a legend in documentary filmmaking. Her debut film, Harlan County USA (1976), made while she was still in school, won the Best Documentary Oscar. Since then, Kopple’s work has varied from other political documentary (Shut Up and Sing, about the Dixie Chicks and freedom of speech is the latest) to the raw and violent Havoc starring a young Anne Hathaway in her first ‘grown-up’ role.

Kopple’s latest film, Running From Crazy, is an intimate documentary portrait of actress Mariel Hemingway as she fights back against her famous family’s long history of mental illness and suicide. Kopple intertwines family home video, an unfinished documentary by Mariel’s sister Margaux (who committed suicide in 1992), and contemporary footage of Mariel as she raises two teenaged daughters and participates in various suicide prevention activities. I had the chance to speak with Kopple about watching Mariel watch those home videos for the first time and how Ernest’s legacy impacts the Hemingway family.

Sarah Winshall [Under the Radar]: What was your relationship with Mariel before making the movie?

Barbara Kopple: I didn’t meet her until we had that brunch at a hotel in New York. I just thought she was amazing in Personal Best, in Manhattan, but I wasn’t star struck.  I just felt that she was this incredible person who really felt that it was time to open up. Tthe deal was that there’d be no holds barred. We would really talk about everything. And we did, and so I honor that. I honor what she is trying to do for mental illness and suicide. The openness and allowing us to tag along with her when she went climbing, or to really get inside her family and stuff like that, she was just amazing. But you know she had no idea what the film was going to be. She had no idea we that we had found all that footage on Margaux. I didn’t tell her. Yeah, she had no idea. She didn’t even know it existed.

Can you tell me more about that documentary?

I was working with a sound person who I work with an awful lot named Alan Barker, and you know we were filming you know Mariel and others in Ketchum. And he said, “You know, years ago I was here when I first started as a cameraman filming with Margaux.” And I didn’t know. I just picked him because I love working with him and he’s really good at what he does. Immediately when we got back we started hunting for it. And we found out that there was a little video Winner Take Nothing and that it was only shown maybe four times, and it was an hour of material. But then we found out that there was actually 43 hours of material at a stock footage house we found in Minnesota. This place had 43 hours and they said, “How did you know?” They were going to have to blow the dust off, and “Nobody has ever asked us for it.” It was just sitting on their shelves. And so we made a deal with them and then every now and then a new FedEx package would come with different footage. We would gather around and look at it. It was just so amazing. The reason I didn’t tell Mariel about is because I wanted Mariel to be really open. And if she knew that this existed or something it might hold her back from saying things that she would say because her memory is the only real memory left of her family.

It’s amazing because so many people in the film are now deceased, but through a lot of the documentary stuff and the found footage they now come alive.

Yes! I mean she had never seen her parents on film before. Her daughters have never seen their grandparents on film before. They just saw photos and she had described the kitchen, hoping that she was right. And you know her mother sitting on the sink cross legged and all that, so when I showed it to Mariel, at first she was sitting and she was getting a little weepy because she thought, “Oh, this all going to be about me,” and then suddenly she saw the Margaux footage and she just at straight up in the chair and she wasn’t crying and she just went, “This is amazing,” and she was transfixed and she was like, “Oh my gosh.” It was amazing for me to watch her and I knew it was going to be something very, very poignant for her. It also gave the film for us richness and electricity. This old tape that was found that, was in Mariel’s basement [and] she didn’t know what it was. She gave it to OWN, and OWN gave it to us, and it was someone giving an interview to Margaux and we placed a lot of that material over, for example, the bullfight and lots of other things.

How did you decide how much of Ernest’s story to include?

I think you want enough of Ernest to know that during his time people didn’t talk about suicide and mental illness and that there is still a stigma on that. And that if people talk about it, it shines light on it and allows people to get help and people to be there for you.  And Ernest didn’t really talk about it. I mean he wrote exquisitely and he partied exquisitely but he also drank an awful lot to hide his pain. And I guess after all the accidents that he got in that really hurt his body it was difficult for him to continue to write. And it was a different generation. For me, the film was about the three granddaughters of the Hemingways’. Jack’s daughters. The way that we wanted to tell the film other than go into a million other things.

What was the visit with [Mariel’s sister] Muffet like?

It was pretty wonderful. The minute she came out of the house and Mariel introduced her and she gave me this big hug and she allowed me to ask her questions. And we found a place - it was really hot out - sat under a tree and you know we filmed quite a bit with her. And the film wouldn’t have been as great as it was without her. And also being able to see her artwork at the coffee grinder was wonderful to see. And I actually bought a piece to put in our editing room, and we’d look at it and say, “We have to keep going no matter how hard this is.”

Were there things that you shot that you wished could have made it in that didn’t make it?

I think the only thing that I miss, that I would have loved to have put in the film, but it didn’t work, Mariel told me a story about going to overeaters anonymous because she ate just bowls and bowls of lettuce. and the people at overeaters said, “Sorry this really isn’t the best place for you,” because most of the other people were eating mac and cheese and ice cream and, you know, that kind of thing. It was a simple story but a wonderful story. And then, there was another great scene too of Margaux and her dad hunting. It was nice because they were going up the mountain and she was getting out of breath. And he was saying, “Come on, you can do it!” But otherwise, I think we put in everything that we loved.

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For more information about the film, check out its website



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