DOC SHOT: OFF AND RUNNING's Nicole Opper

Editor's Note: Off and Running comes out on DVD August 17 through First Run Features, then will air September 7 on PBS' POV.'This interview ran in January, in conjunciton with the film's theatrical release.

The DOC SHOT Q&A is an exclusive online feature by Documentary
magazine associate editor Tamara Krinsky. Through this mix of questions
(some serious, some sassy) each DOC SHOT provides a glimpse into the work and
lives of those creating and supporting nonfiction film.

Nicole Opper
Director,

OFF AND RUNNING: An American Coming of Age Story


YOUR FILM

Brief description of your film:
Avery is a teenage track star and the African American daughter of white Jewish lesbians. After she mails a letter to her birth mother, Avery begins a journey to uncover her roots.

Your role/credit on the film.
Director/Producer/Sound Recordist

How did you find your subject or become involved in the
film?

I was 21 when I met Avery. She was 12. I was an NYU student making a film about a poet named Hannah Senesh and Avery’s Brooklyn school was named after this poet so I interviewed the kids there. When I graduated, I wound up teaching my first film class there and Avery was one of my students. She was a difficult student. I was a terrible teacher. But we grew to like each other a lot as people and kept in touch until she was 16, at which point I said, “Your life could be a movie. Shall we make it?”

 

Off and Running still
Avery Klein-Could, subject of
Off and Running.
Photo by Robert Chang.

 

Was there a moment in this film that went a different way
than you expected?
There was a moment that changed everything: a two month stretch in which my teenage subject broke all contact with me, as well as with most of her family. It made me sick with worry, both for the film and for her. But I wouldn’t give it back for anything. That time apart was what Avery needed to come back with renewed strength and commit fully to telling her story in her own voice. I invited her to work with us as a filmmaker in her own right, and she began critiquing footage and writing her own narration. It earned her a writing award from the WGA and made me discover who I am as a filmmaker, and who I want to strive to be.

If
you had had an extra $10,000 to spend on your film, what would you have used it for?

$3,333.33 Hannukah bonuses for my outrageously talented DP/creative collaborator Jacob Okada, my brilliant editor Cheree Dillon and my visionary producer Sharese Bullock (What? I used a calculator). I worked with a crew that astounded and inspired me at every turn. Everyone pushed themselves beyond their comfort zone for this film and it would have been nothing without them. It’s a shanda how hard it is to pay people what they’re worth in this field. I’m not sure why I sound like a Jewish grandmother in this interview.

What
excites or intrigues you about opening your film at the IFC Center in January 2010?

I’ve been working with some phenomenal people (Pamela Cohn and Sara Kiener) on a community engagement campaign for this film. We are working with a dozen non-profits planning events before and after screenings for the adoption community, LGBTQ families, Jews of color, and beyond. If your experience is reflected in this film, we are hosting something for you. I do believe at its best a film can create community and launch important conversations that may otherwise get swept under the rug, so I am excited and intrigued by the potential for us to do that at IFC. Of course I’m also terrified of an empty room. But that’s what the flask in my back pocket is for. Kidding.


YOUR WORK

What's
the first film you remember seeing as a child?
Oh my god, really? Mmmmmm…. The Sound of Music. I’m sure it wasn’t my first 
film but I do have this vague memory of singing the "16 Going on 17" song as a 5 year old… on a loop. I was Rolf. I would chide whoever my unwitting Liesl was for being so precocious all the time. “You are 16 going on 17, Baby its time to think. Better beware. Be canny and careful. Baby you're on the brink.” Ah, memories.

Tell
us about a film that affected your profoundly or changed/inspired the way you do your own work.

I’ve been really hung up on To Be and To Have ever since it came out. I don’t know if you have to be French to make a film like that but I would like to think that if I watch it enough times, I can learn to just trust myself and the process. That filmmaker so clearly had trust (or faith?) in his footage, his characters, his own abilities. He let it breathe and meander at what could be considered a deadly pace and yet somehow he seemed to know that if he just trusted the elements, we would all slow down, too, and join him on the walk through his fantasy. There are so many films that have affected me profoundly but that one sprang to mind first.

What
would surprise people the most about your job or the way you execute it?

I have no idea. Maybe how open I am to other people’s ideas? I regularly asked my production assistants what they thought of the shoot day, what they might have done differently, asked differently. They always looked shocked that I was asking these questions of them but I was a PA not all that long ago and hated being treated like all I could do was fetch the bagels.

When
you are feeling creatively stumped or burnt out, what do you do to get the creativity flowing again?

I either go on a run or call a friend whose creativity is flowing and ask for a pep talk. When I’m feeling really ambitious I do both. I would like to tell you I take a stroll through the Guggenheim or something, but that would be an embellishment of the truth to say the least.

YOUR LIFE

Daily
essential read (online or off)?
New York Times
. The Onion is a close second.

What's on your TIVO or iPod right now?
My TV broke 5 years ago and my iPhone was stolen. I watch content on the internet and listen to Pandora. Does that get me out of the question?

What
do you want more of in your life?

These are great questions, I’m starting to have fun. I want more chance encounters. I want to smell more freshly baked bread and cilantro. More impromptu dinner parties and more people crying openly in front of each other. Why did people stop chanting “Yes we can”? I miss that. I would like more unified chanting of all sorts.

What do you want less of in
your life?

Jealousy and greed. It eats people alive.

If you could add an extra hour to every day,
how would you spend it?

Reading, I hope. God, I really hope that’s what I would do.

What do you want for your birthday?
It just passed and it was filled with love. So much I almost burst with joy. So I’m good. I don’t need a thing. But thanks for asking.

Off and Running opens January 29th, 2010 at the IFC Center in NYC, and continues to screen at festivals around the country.

 

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