INTerview: Neil Kopp

In a short amount of time, producer Neil Kopp has built quite the resume. In a decade's time, he has collaborated closely with independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt on films such as Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek's Cutoff (2010), and Night Moves (2013), as well as with veteran filmmaker Gus Van Sant on Paranoid Park (2007). This year, he's had an amazing run with Jeremy Saulnier's brutal and relentless Green Room and Kelly Reichardt's latest delicate drama Certain Women, which stars Lauren Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart.

Interiors spoke with Neil Kopp about his career, his life in Portland, and what he does at 6am every morning.

INT: In the past few years, I've realized more and more often that every time your name comes up on the screen, it's a name that I trust. Can you talk about how you started in the industry? Did you grow up around film? What were your initial reasons for wanting to work in film?

NK: Wow. Thank you, that means a lot. I also want to acknowledge my partners at filmscience Anish Savjani and Vincent Savino here, with whom I've produced nearly everything with and could not have done without. Growing up in Portland OR, my mom was a nurse and my dad was a journalism professor at a Bible college. I didn't grow up around film at all. In fact, we didn't have a TV at all for most of my childhood and only very occasionally would we go to the movies. We were encouraged to read a lot, which we we did, and we were very involved in music as a family, both as instrumentalists but also just appreciating records and the classic bands. I played the tenor saxophone all through school - multiple band classes, plus marching band and private lessons. This was a big part of my childhood and was the source of a lot of discipline that I think I carried into my work. In the mid-late 1990s, I was in high school and I would frequent Cinema 21. I saw many of the classics there, but I distinctly remember going to a screening of Taxi Driver from a remastered 35mm print. During this time, in general, I was starting to appreciate films as a real art form instead of simple entertainment, and this screening of Taxi Driver cemented my ambitions to go into film and inspired me to seek out classes at the Northwest Film Center. I took a few night classes during my junior and senior year of high school, and it was in their equipment room that I saw a flyer on the bulletin board for Vancouver Film School. I ended up attending a one year foundation film program right after high school.

INT: What type of work did you do after film school and how did you transition into the role of a producer?

NK: I moved to Texas after film school with friends that I had made with the idea that we would make music videos for a living. I quickly realized I'd need a real job, and I ended up getting hired at a commercial production company called Big Fish Films. I was just a PA but they treated me like a Junior Producer, and threw me into the fire in a way that I only much later could really appreciate. After a few years in Texas, I moved back to Portland and ended up as a Staff Production Manager at Food Chain Films where I managed a higher volume of bigger jobs. They let me officially produce some of the smaller jobs after a year or two. These connections led me to meeting Kelly Reichardt, with whom I made my first feature film.

INT: What is a typical day of work like for you?

NK: I wake up around 6am and read for a couple of hours. I reserve this focused time for scripts or books. I then get into my e-mail inbox and the phone, where I usually stay for the rest of the day. As for the work I do, there is no typical day, but each day invariably consists of following up with people and discussing with my partners how to navigate whatever complicated situation we may be mixed up in.

INT: Do you go to the movies often? What do you watch?

NK: Not nearly as often as I'd like to, but I probably get to the theater once a month, where I try to see whatever is interesting or feels important to see on a big screen. I have a wide array of interests, and nothing is below me, meaning I love a stupid comedy or big action movie as much as I enjoy working down my "important movies to see" list at home.

INT: You've worked with a number of auteur directors, particularly Kelly Reichardt, nearly from the start of her career. What was your first meeting with her?

NK: One day in March of 2005, my phone rang, and it was Kelly calling about Old Joy. She was looking for a producer and had heard of me through a mutual friend at Wieden + Kennedy. I had just gone freelance, and so the timing could not have been better. We spoke for an hour, and I read the script and agreed to do the project that same day.

INT: I imagine you've evolved quite a bit as a producer between Old Joy and Certain Women. Do you find that the work gets easier, in some sense, or is every film a challenge in its own way?

NK: Some things do get easier, just because we're more familiar with the process, and we've developed a shorthand with Kelly which helps, but overall, it definitely isn't easier now. The stakes are higher, so the pressures to keep everything on track are pretty heavy duty, and each film has its own set of unknowns to unravel. This is what we love doing at the end of the day, and it being difficult, or even feeling impossible, is probably why we keep coming back to it. And, I don't know how to do anything else.

INT: I know you grew up in the Portland area. You've previously mentioned your familiarity with the locations in Old Joy. In the five films you've made with Kelly Reichardt, location plays such a key role. I'm interested in how much of a role you play in location scouting and how much of your background and knowledge of Oregon you bring in to the table?

NK: I do play a big role in the location scouting. However, before we ever bring on a location scout in a traditional sense, Kelly and I spend a lot of time in a car going to places we're curious about for general scouting to get the feel of a place, and ultimately to pick a zone for the production to take place in. For Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff, we scouted all over state for both films, and for the latter film, we even spent three days in/around Marfa, Texas. At the time we were concerned about Burns, Oregon (which is where we ultimately based out of for Meek's Cutoff) having enough infrastructure for the production. We were also worried because a lot of the locations we liked were over an hour from Burns. And if you're an hour from Burns, you're a really long way from anything. In the end, we made it work there, and we're happy that we did. So, Kelly and I will work together and talk about the look of a place, and then I'll go off and try to figure out if there are enough hotel rooms or something.

INT: The locations in these films are all so diverse from one another: the woods in Old Joy, the town in Wendy and Lucy; the open desert in Meek's Cutoff. I realize that as a producer you're thinking of logistical things, such as how you'll get the actors out to the locations, and how practical it is to film there. Is this something you've thought about and how your films are so grounded to the spaces and locations that they're set in?

NK: Each film has a specific look that was designed in advance, and then discovered in the world through the scouting process. There are also financial realities like travel time and housing that have to be considered. Kelly is great for a lot of reasons, but one specific way is that she's as pragmatic as she is driven by creative ideals. She's a great partner in this way.

INT: You've made a number of films in the Portland area, but your most recent film, Certain Women, was filmed in Montana. I realize Maile Meloy's short stories are set in Montana, but was that a creative decision to stay true to the setting of the stories, or a business decision?

NK: Montana was an interesting result in that it really was a happy marriage of circumstances. The stories are set there, and it was the first place we scouted (Helena and Billings), but at the time we weren't feeling it. We then proceeded to scout Idaho, Nevada, and parts of California and Oregon, before coming back to a different part of Montana - Livingston and Bozeman. This made the most sense creatively, and in terms of the business, as we were able to secure incentive funding from the Big Sky Film Grant which made shooting in the state possible.

INT: What is your favorite film?

NK: This is such a tough question and the truth is there isn't "one". The two that are important to me right now are A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson) and Heat (Michael Mann).

INT: What is the most important element to the relationship between producer and director?

The realization (on both sides) that the goal is the same but the paths required for each to arrive at the same place are very different. There is a shared experience of course at times, but it's largely a very different experience. To me, it all comes down to mutual respect and trust.

Certain Women is currently playing in theatres and is available on iTunes.