imageThe Dixie Chicks were at the height of their popularity in 2003, when lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience that she was ashamed that President George W. Bush was from Texas, sparking a controversy that would leave the trio taking heavy fire on the battlefield of the U.S.’s culture wars. Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s expertly helmed film, Shut Up & Sing, shows us the fallout from that off-cuff remark—which fundamentally changed the lives of the performers—examining what happens when art produced for a mass audience runs full-bore into the overheated rhetoric of the political world. As the conservative country music industry turns to eat its young, Maines seems genuinely confused and angry, but not enough to stop her from apologizing for her comment and dismissing it as a blatant attempt to pander to an anti-war audience. On the other side, we see Dixie Chick decriers denouncing Maines’s statement as—what else?—an assault on American ideals, oblivious to both the uselessness and irony of their protests. In a stunningly sharp insight, band member Martie Maguire crystallizes the controversy surrounding the Chicks, noting that it was perfect, allowing conservative demagogues a focal point at which jingoists could direct their vitriol, and providing the anti-war movement with a potent symbol of patriotic dissent from heartland America. Shut Up & Sing raises interesting questions about our expectations of our entertainers, and makes a solid case that—at least for musicians—unfettered economic success and freedom of speech are, at times, mutually exclusive. Following the screening Stranger Than Fiction friend Hugo Perez spoke with co-director Barbara Kopple, editors Bob Eisenhardt and Jean Tsien, and producer David Cassidy. Click “Read more” below for the Q&A.

[Photo: from left, editor Jean Tsien and director Barbara Kopple, courtesy of Simon Luethi]

Stranger Than Fiction: How did you get involved with this project? Seeing the personality of Natalie, and how passionate she is, seems like a great fit for you. How did this all happen?

Barbara Kopple: Well, [co-director] Cecilia Peck and I decided we wanted to do a film on the Dixie Chicks. And this was even before they made the statement. And they went, no, no. They had a [Dixie Chicks] website crew with them that captured the statement, thank goodness. And we went back to them and said, now can we make a film with you? We had a whole discussion with them and they looked at our other films, and they said, you’re on.

Audience: I noticed that you played around with time, between 2003 and 2005. Could you talk a little about that?

Kopple: We tried to do a linear structure, but it just fell flat.

Bob Eisenhardt: I think all the editors had a gut feeling that it couldn’t be told chronologically. But we kind of had to prove it to ourselves, and for the longest time, it didn’t work. It was very confusing, and it was hard to find the right jumping off point that sent you backwards. About three times during the process we strung it together chronologically to look at it. It made it for about 30 minutes and then everybody fell asleep. We finally got the time passages to work, then it was a question of getting the right moment to leap back and the right graphics and the right pacing.

Jean Tsien:
As a way to help us edit this film, we had hundreds and hundreds of index cards made in the editing room. And there were days we were just staring at the wall in silence…

Moving these cards around and looking at them and then arguing about whether it would work or not.

And as always, there were certain things we wanted in, and that other people didn’t. We were working with so many different editors and different sensibilities, but the discussions that we had were sensational, because you just couldn’t say, no. You had to explain how it moved the story forward or what it gave the characters, so it was very egalitarian in the editing room.

Audience: It’s such a well edited film, but it’s also such a great verite film. So I’m guessing you spent a great deal of time with them. I’m curious about that, and how your relationship with the three women developed over time.

Kopple: I think, for me, the three women were so amazing. They were about transformation, they were about courage, they were about sisterhood. I really wanted to have friends exactly like the Dixie Chicks, because they were there for each other for all the big moments. The wonderful part of it was that most of the time we could just be there filming, and they just went about their lives. They were in so much crisis, or trying to write their songs, or having babies. And we were totally unimportant, and they just allowed us to film. So it was very good. But, Natalie does speak her mind all the time.

Did they ever get mad or frustrated with you?

I think the heaviest thing was when they came to see the film for the first time, because we didn’t let them see the anything until the film was in fine cut. I’ll never forget it, it was my birthday, actually. We got wine and things for them to eat, but probably not enough wine. So they came in and they were looking at it. It was in Bob’s editing room and we were watching them watch the film. And it wasn’t as if after they film they went, oh, that was so great, or, we really loved it. It was as if they were watching their lives go by and remembering all those painful things and their body reactions were all doing different things. I remember that Natalie had never heard Martie say that she would give up her career for her. When she heard that, she touched her leg. I think it brought them together, but I think it really freaked them out to watch the film. It was as if somebody had climbed into their souls and exposed so much about them.

STF: Did you think about filming them watching the film?

Kopple: That would have been too hard. No, we didn’t.

Audience: How did you decide to when to stop filming and start editing. Because I was surprised that their big Grammy sweep, which to me was their “fuck you” to the whole industry, I was surprised that it wasn’t in there. Was that a conscious decision.

I think we said what we wanted to say. As filmmakers, we always want to put everything in. But the film had been finished by then, and we just cheered from the sidelines, and sort of enjoyed the moment of them being able to say, “screw you,” to everybody.

We did film a whole other concert. We felt it would be important to show them coming back to the United States, not just seeing it in London. There was a fairly huge shoot in Detroit. And we took one look at it and said the other scene has all the emotion in it, and we didn’t use it.

Audience: During the segment in Dallas, what was the mood with the crew?

We didn’t film that. The [Dixie Chicks’] website group filmed that. So I can only guess. But I know that Martie and Emily were petrified for the Dallas show. And they moved apart from Natalie, so she was sort of standing on the stage and they were at the far side of the stage. There was so much at stake for all of them with their families, but they did it.

STF: There are so many emotional moments in the film, and in that moment, Natalie is almost marching into battle as she walks onto the stage. She says nothing, but it’s so powerful. Her shoulders are hunched forward.

Kopple: Also, the really beautiful part of that was her husband, Adrian [Pasdar], was there and just hugged her. He didn’t really travel with her that much, but for this particular one he came because he just wanted to be there for her.

Audience: What was it about the Dixie Chicks that made you want to do a film about them before they made the statement?

Kopple: We knew Adrian really well. He had lived in New York. He would always tell us stories about the Dixie Chicks and how fascinating they were. Cecelia, who was also friends with Adrian, started hanging out with them, and she called me and said, come on, we’ve got to do this. We just thought they were fascinating creatures. They weren’t political then, they were doing country music. It was looking into a space we had never seen before, we had never looked at before. Then it evolved into such a total transformation, and doing unbelievable creative work.

Audience: What was the film’s reception in the country music world?

Kopple: We thought that this film was going to show in so many cities and really show theatrically in a lot of different places, and it did show in some. But in certain areas, it was never shown. The interesting thing is that the Weinstein Company, which distributed the film, did focus groups at the very beginning—in New York and I think Kansas. And it got the highest reviews that the Weinstein Company had ever gotten. Even in Kansas, they didn’t like the politics so much, but they really loved the Dixie Chicks and their families and wanted to see more of it. I think if people went to see it, it touched them. I went to Washington, D.C. and one of the right-wing group members was in the audience. He started saying things before the film. After the film, I called him up and asked him to be on the panel with me so everybody in the audience could get a sense of why he felt the way he felt about the Dixie Chicks. At the end of the film he got up there and said, you know, I really love this film. He said, I shouldn’t be saying this, but I really love it. For me, it’s just getting out there and showing it and communicating with people. People fear what they don’t know and what they don’t understand.

Audience: Did the change in the political winds from 2004 to 2006 change how you edited the movie, or how they movie was promoted?

Kopple: I think we just wanted to make a good movie. We used all the scenes that we thought would do that. The distribution company, the Weinstein Company, wanted to make it more political. At the very end when it was decided they were going to distribute it, they asked us to put in a few political pundits, so we did that, but that was as far as it got. I think the Weinstein Company really thought this film would get the Republicans out of office. We just thought the film was about freedom of speech, it was about sisterhood, it was about feeling betrayed. It had so many larger, universal issues.

When we first started the project, we were actually at the beginning of the making of the album. So there were 500 hours from 2003 and we had no idea what was in the footage. So we really had to comb through every single frame. We didn’t even know the statement was caught on film, we discovered that. We were just finding nuggets.

Eisenhardt: You could barely hear the statement, it was shocking that they captured it. It was a great gift to have the 600 hours of footage, I don’t know what we would have done without it. These guys were with the Chicks all the time, and we loved them because they pressed themselves up against the wall and were in the corners and didn’t bother the Chicks at all. But they got all that stuff. The meeting in the hotel room after London. But for me, it wasn’t really about the politics, it was about the friendship. Now, the political landscape has changed so much, it’s strange seeing the involvement in that moment. What stayed with me was the sisterhood.

I was wondering what it was like to shoot Rick Rubin. Did you have any interesting experiences with him?

He’s very camera shy and laid down on the couch a lot.

STF: He had prayer beads that he used to help him in meetings.

Kopple: His iced lattes, he had his dog. Nothing outstanding other than he has the golden touch, and it seems like everybody he works with becomes megastars and their albums do so incredibly well. We weren’t able to capture his magic, but I’m sure it’s there.

Audience: Can you talk a little more about the dynamic between the three women. Was there tension between the band members?

I think that if there was a conflict it was about the kind of music that they were going to play. I think Natalie wanted to go more into rock and for Emily and Martie country just meant everything to them. They were a little nervous, I think, when Rick Rubin came into the picture and were trying to figure out where they were in all of this and trying to preserve what they did best. Natalie was trying for a while to find herself and Martie and Emily just did a country album maybe about six or eight months ago where they were singing and playing, just the two of them together. Courtyard Hounds is the name of the group.

STF: This is a great film with a great story and great characters, but when did you know that you had something special. Or at what point in a project do you get this gut feeling?

Sometimes we didn’t know that, and sometimes we were wondering if audiences were every going to really look at this. And then, I don’t know, sometime it started to come together. It really leapt off the screen, and we felt that we had the right structure and the right dynamic. We loved it, and we knew if we loved it, maybe somebody else would.

Audience: Many times I’ve felt like within documentary, music films are considered a minor genre. Have you felt that way about the film?

Kopple: I’ve done a lot of films that could be considered music films, but I’ve never thought about them that way. We did Woodstock Now & Then, we did a film called Wild Man Blues about Woody Allen and his jazz band. But I don’t look at this as a music film, I look at it as something about sisterhood, about friendship. It’s about so many of the universal themes that we all care about that it goes far beyond being a music film. I don’t think that we’ve ever really done a music film because there’s always stories attached, and always human elements attached.

David Cassidy: We keep talking about the concept of friendship, and how fortunate can we be as filmmakers to have three extremely talented women who are trying to figure out what they just went through, and to find catharsis through their art. Thank goodness they are so talented because they did find peace. And how fortunate we are that we could find such a brilliant ending because that comment from Martie that Barbara spoke about before, every time I start to tear up a little bit because it’s such a powerful statement. And I’ve seen it dozens and dozens of times. Every time I hear the music I think about what went into the writing process, and it’s not just three women with pens and paper, but they’re really trying to figure out what they just went through and who they’re going to be at the end of it.