Behind the Doc Lens

Season 1: Blog 6– “The New Woman: Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky” Q&A w/ Producer Gillian Klempner Willman by Lauren Brody


Trailer of “The New Woman: Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky”
 

Summary
In 1894, young Latvian immigrant Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky defied societal convention by leaving her husband and children at home in Boston as she embarked on an unprecedented journey around the world on her bicycle. Throughout her travels, Annie pushed the boundaries for women, using advertising to self-promote and fund her trip, while riding the waves of her own imagination to fame.
 

Q1: Why did you choose to tell the story of Annie Kopchovsky?
A1: I first learned of Annie’s journey in 2005 from an article in Bicycling Magazine. I googled Annie to find out more, but couldn’t find anything on the internet about her. I got in touch with the article’s author, Peter Zheutlin, who was also working on a full-length manuscript about her story, and decided to option the documentary rights to Annie’s story.

I couldn’t imagine that something so extraordinary that had been forgotten. She was a colorful character, and I thought her story would make an excellent film, not just because of her dramatic story but because it provided a unique window into women’s history at the turn of the century. Annie’s story contains a lot of possibility for women in the Victorian Age.
 

Q2: With a documentary from the past with few visuals, you elected to use animation and re-enactments to provide the audience with a visual. How challenging was it to recreate the 1890s?
A2: It was very challenging to recreate the 1890s. I realized shortly after working on that film that although there was about an hour’s worth of story, there weren’t enough visuals to create a one hour film. There were only 7-8 visual elements of Annie—no footage. Luckily, there were copious newspaper articles compiled by Peter, who granted me the rights to his book and research when I optioned the story.

I wanted to use a creative approach to bring the story to life. It would have been a lot quicker and cheaper to pan over newspaper articles, but I didn’t want this to be a typical historical documentary.

I added elements of texture and used animated maps to tell the visual story. It took a while to work on the animation and cement my creative vision. I knew I wanted an animated look with a sepia color palate and the texture of Victorian wallpaper. I used composited cut outs of Annie with archival imagery of the places where Annie traveled to. The words being typed on screen were verbatim from the newspaper articles, and I felt that that was a better way to bring the reporters to life.

The benefit of taking your time when making a documentary is that you’re a different filmmaker when you begin and end the project. It took seven years to complete the film.
 

Q3: What was it like to interview family members of Annie Kopchovsky?
A3: The main interview for the film was Peter, Annie’s nephew, but it wasn’t like he knew her. (He didn’t learn of her until 2003). Interviewing Peter was more like interviewing a subject expert. Mary, the granddaughter, was the more interesting interview—in terms of understanding Annie’s personality—because she was the only living person who knew Annie. She was able to relate to Annie’s character —to describe the twinkle in Annie’s eye and that, even as an older woman, she had a mischievous side to her. It was interesting because Mary had such a love and admiration for her grandmother but she wasn’t blind to the longstanding consequences that Annie’s actions had on her family.
 

Q4: You had both a narrator voice and the voice of Annie, the protagonist. How did you decide to use multiple voiceovers?
A4: The voice of Annie was exclusively drawn from quotes from the newspaper articles—these were the only quotes of hers that I had access to, as no diary or letters were found. All of the newspaper quotes are performed by a Canadian performer and folk singer named Evelyn Parry who is currently touring the world with a play called “Smith” that showcases how the bicycle aided women’s liberation. One of the stories she highlights is Annie’s.

The narrator is Rebecca Sheir, and she fills in a lot of the social context that the audience wouldn’t be able to obtain in another way. I would have preferred not to have narration, but in this film there was no other way to relay all of the key information. In his interviews, Peter delivers as much information as the narrator, and I’ve received feedback that viewers forget he’s not the narrator.
 

Q5: At the end of the film, you say that Annie “rides the waves of her own imagination.” Any advice on making a film about an unreliable character?
A5: That was the thing that attracted me most to her story—she was this unreliable narrator. The viewer learns it in the same way I learned it. I was drawn in by how daring and innovative Annie’s character was. And then Peter said to me that she is a very flawed heroine. Many of her stories could not be corroborated by newspaper articles and her journey across Asia was practically impossible given the time frame. Furthermore, Peter guessed that the wager never existed, and Annie had created a media stunt to get out of domesticity for fifteen months. I just couldn’t believe that someone—let alone a woman in the 1890s—could think up something like that and get away with it.

It was a challenge to string the viewer along and to figure out how to introduce it at the end as a twist but not a falsity. I was careful to use words and terms like “allegedly” and “based on the purported terms of wager.” When dealing with an unreliable narrator, you have to walk a fine line of how many untruths you’re willing to show beforehand. It worked for my film to raise doubts through newspaper reporting. The more you learn about her, the more unreliable she gets. It’s important that the viewer doesn’t feel lied to.
 

Q6: It appears that today’s celebrities have quite a bit to learn from Annie’s use of self-promotion. Can you speak to how important Annie’s story is for today’s society?
A6: What Annie did and the way that she self-promoted her journey is very similar to today’s obsession with celebrity. There had been no precedent of how a celebrity was supposed to act—Annie just figured out what type of sensational statements and actions would get the most press. She was media savvy; she put herself in positions to be interviewed and generate press with her bike. She was able to get away with so much because there was no fact checking at that time. As long as Annie made good news, nobody cared about the veracity.
 

For more information on producer Gillian Klempner Willman and her work, visit: www.spokeswomanproductions.com.
 

© 2013 Behind the Doc Lens. (Lauren Brody, Blogger & Isabel Garcia, Producer).
 

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