Friday, April 5, 2013

An interview with Gillian K. Willman, director of 'The New Woman: Annie "Londonderry" Kopchovsky'

Interview by Bob Ignizio

You never know where a movie is going to come from. For Gillian K. Willman, the inspiration was a magazine someone left behind on a pharmacy counter in the summer of 2004. Gillian says, “Ben, my boyfriend at the time (now husband) was at a CVS in DC and came across an article from Bicycling Magazine called “Chasing Annie” written by Peter Zheutlin. It was about Annie Kopchovsky, the first woman to cycle around the world in 1894. Ben called to tell me about the article, I googled Annie and found that, aside from Peter’s article, mention of her on the web was nowhere to be found. So I looked deeper into women’s history, cycling history, and her achievements were entirely unrecognized. She seemed to have been forgotten by history. I wanted to learn more about her, so I got in touch with Peter Zheutlin and ended up optioning his manuscript, which granted me the usage of all his research…and from that point on I was hooked.”

The end result of this unexpected discovery is Gillian's short documentary film The New Woman: Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky. The film will be screening at the 37 th Cleveland International Film Festival on April 7th at 9:15 am and Monday April 8th at 5:15 pm, but before then I had the chance to ask Gillian a few questions about her film and its fascinating subject.


CLEVELAND MOVIE BLOG: What got you interested in making movies, and who were some of your influences?
GILLIAN K. WILLMAN: My first job in film was during my junior year in college, when doing a semester in Washington, DC. I landed an internship at a small documentary company and was told the project I’d be working on was about the chemical industry. My first thought was: “The chemical industry? This sounds so boring. Why didn’t I take the internship at the American History Museum?” Of course, it was far from boring—it was thrilling. The film, hosted by Bill Moyers, was an exposé of the chemical industry—a documentary version of Erin Brokovich. I quickly realized that there are few boring topics—only boring storytellers.

In terms of style, the documentarian I most admire is Errol Morris. I love how he approaches history, and how he turns conventions upside down. His use of graphics and animation were very much an inspiration for The New Woman.

CMB: Aside from the sort of casual sexism of the time that might have held other women back from embarking on such a journey, didn't Annie worry about the potential dangers (robbery, assault, bad weather, etc.) that would face not just a woman, but any person embarking on such a task?
GKW: Annie Kopchovsky was probably scared to the core—worried about her safety and wondering if she’d return safely to take care of her young family. “Annie Londonderry,” however, the fearless world traveler, laughed in the face of danger and welcomed adversity as a chance to make even juicier headlines.

Of course, this is conjecture. It’s impossible to know what Annie genuinely thought because virtually everything that we know about her is from newspaper reporting. Even though she repeatedly mentioned that she kept a diary, it was ever found; nor were there letters written to friends and family.

So based on her remarks in the news, one would conclude that, NO, she wasn’t worried about the many dangers that one faced on a solo journey around the world—in fact, she welcomed them! This, I assume, was just part of her bravado and the façade she wore during her ride.

CMB: Although the film is based on the book Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride by Peter Zheutlin, I imagine you had to do additional research. How hard was it to find information on Annie?
GKW: My first order of business, when I began working on the film in 2004, was to option Peter’s manuscript. Doing so granted me access to all of his research, which included hundreds of newspaper articles about Annie’s journey form around the world. Peter had spent years painstakingly piecing Annie’s trip together, contacting libraries along what he imagined her route was, in order to find newspaper coverage. He also spent a great deal of time researching her family history (which is also his family, because he is her great-grand-nephew.)

Because Peter’s research was so thorough—and I had access to all of it—I did not do a great deal of additional research on Annie’s journey itself. I spent dozens of hours pouring through the hundreds of newspaper articles to select the quotes that work best in the film, and aren’t necessary in his final book. Not having to research Annie’s journey allowed me to spend my time researching thematic aspects of the story (women’s movement, bicycle craze, etc), as well as to conduct all of the archival footage and stills research.

CMB: Like many American folk heroes, Annie is somewhat larger than life, and there's some reason to doubt the veracity of some parts of her story. She also did what some would call “selling out” by literally selling ad space on herself. Do you think that diminishes her accomplishments and place in history?
GKW: When I first reached out to Peter to learn more about Annie, one of the first things he said to me was, “You should know…she’s somewhat of a flawed heroine. I hope you’re not disappointed.” He proceeded to tell me his conclusion on what really happened with the wager. Peter believes that Annie may have concocted it as a dramatic media stunt—one that allowed her to trade the drudgery of domesticity and of the Boston tenements for a ‘round the world adventure. However, I was far from disappointed—the possibility that Annie’s “high stakes wager” was nothing more than a brilliant ruse made me even more intrigued in her story.

In my opinion, Annie’s accomplishment wasn’t just an athletic one. To me, whether she went around the world “on” a bicycle or “with” a bicycle was immaterial. Her greatest achievement is that, through grit and ingenuity, she was able to turn herself from an anonymous Jewish, working mother into a global celebrity. And the bicycle was the weapon that enabled this transformation. The fact that she told tall tales along the way and sold ad space on her body and bicycle only enhanced my interest in her story.

Today, any b-list celebrity can be paid to advertise various products and be viewed as a “sell out,” but it’s important to remember that when Annie sold ad space on her bike and body, she had no precedent. There was no PEOPLE magazine to show her how celebrities behave. She was simply a marketing genius, and she knew how to use product placement to get her both money and publicity. When she began her ride, she was neither a women’s rights activist nor a cycling advocate. However, through the course of her journey, she deftly manipulated these social trends to gain publicity and public interest.

CMB: I personally like short films a lot, but unfortunately there aren't as many opportunities to have short films seen, and by extension for those films to make back their production costs. Given those circumstances, why do a short film, and what sort of things can you do to overcome the aforementioned problems?
GKW: When I first began work on the film, I assumed that it would be a one-hour program, and my earliest rough cut was 57 minutes. However, it quickly became apparent that while the story itself may have been compelling enough to warrant the feature-length, the visuals simply weren’t there. I have only a limited number of photographs and sketches of Annie—and zero footage—and I realized that even with original interviews and re-enactments, there just wasn’t enough imagery to cover an hour.

Furthermore,I often think to myself when watching feature-length docs, “This would be great if it were about 30% shorter.” So I didn’t want to make the film longer just for the sake of it. However, I was concerned at first about people saying, “Short films are so hard to program in festivals” and “what will you do with it when you’re finished?”

However, now that the film is complete, I think the shorter length (the run time is 27 minutes) is going work very well for my purposes. Over the next few years, I hope to recoup most of my out-of-pocket production costs through screening fees and educational DVD distribution. The film will be an incredibly useful tool for educators in the fields of women’s studies, American history, American cultural history, as it provides a unique window through which to view these topics. And the shorter length allows for both a screening and discussion in a regular classroom period.

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