Cybercrime busters: Walker Koppelman-Brown (cinematographer, coproducer) and Charles Koppelman (sound recordist, producer/director) shoot Zero Day, a film about threats to the Internet.

Koppelman Maps International Cybercrime, Cuban Opera

Michael Fox June 9, 2010

Berkeley writer/director Charles Koppelman has his hands in a lot of pies at once, but tends to hit our radar only when one becomes available for public delectation. His 1999 debut feature, Dumbarton Bridge, a cross-cultural father-daughter drama set in the South Bay, gave notice that he was more thoughtful and more jazz-savvy than the typical indie director. He next made a splash with his 2005 book on digital postproduction, Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple’s Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema. Koppelman’s latest finished work is The Old Days, a screenplay penned with Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart) about an elderly mob killer who goes back to Cuba to confront his Batista-era crimes. Morgan Freeman is attached to star and the Hughes Brothers likewise to direct once the financing is set up.

Koppelman’s attention is currently focused on a pair of documentaries currently in production. Zero Day exposes each of three threats to the Internet: cybercrime, cyberespionage and cyberwarfare. Koppelman is collaborating with his son, co-producer Walker Koppelman-Brown. The project also involves San Francisco–based New York Times technology reporter John Markoff. Their approach is “real-time cases told detective-story, crime-genre style,” Koppelman explains. For instance, they’ve filmed Cisco Systems investigators on the trail of money mules, i.e., people who knowingly (for a fee) or unknowingly launder money through their online banking accounts for cash or consumer items obtained illegally over the Web.

“We’re tracking many cases, not knowing which one is going to ripen storywise and which one is going to be the most compelling visually,” Koppelman says. “So we initiate many more story threads than we’re going to use because you have to play the odds.”

A priority, however, is picking cases that lend themselves to more exciting footage than shots of people hunched over computer monitors. “One of the criteria we’re using is investigations that are not simply online,” he says. “The Cisco team has done actual physical pursuit, and collected evidence that they eventually turn over to law enforcement. All of the cases have a gumshoe element to them where the investigators are out in the field.”

The cyber-espionage case involves pros digging into cyber-espionage attacks on the Dalai Lama. His email was stolen, computer keystrokes were logged and his Webcam was turned on (allowing the snoops to record activities incurring in front of the PC) for a year. “Our next move is to go to India and spend a week with the investigator who’s embedded in Dharamsala, where the Tibetan community in exile, and Dalai Lama and his staff, are based,” Koppelman says.

The filmmakers are in discussion with PBS’s Nova series with an eye on 2011 broadcast and distribution. We’ll have to wait a good deal longer for Koppelman’s other doc, Making a Revolution, chronicling the creation of Revolution of Forms, an opera he’s producing and for which he’s cowriting the libretto. The project has its roots in a 2002 South Park gallery exhibit. That’s where Koppelman discovered Cuban architect Ricardo Porro’s post-revolution designs for five national arts schools on the grounds of the Havana Country Club—an ambitious and wildly creative project that was approved and then opposed, interrupted and ultimately unfinished, prompting Porro to emigrate to Paris in 1966.

“It’s a story of the dreams, aspirations and hopes of a revolution, coming up against the realities of history and power,” Koppelman says. The opera spans four years, from Fidel Castro’s commissioning of the work until Porro was exiled. The composers are Dafnis Prieto, a Cuban who attended the national music school and now lives in New York, and Anthony Davis of San Diego.

“We just had a showcase on May 1–May Day–with the New York City Opera,” Koppelman reports, with the septuagenarian architect in attendance. “They are now saying they would like to do it, in conjunction with two different opera companies. We’re still a couple years away from the premiere under the best of circumstances.”

And that, in turn, means that Making a Revolution is also at least a few years off. “It would be ideal if they came out close together,” Koppelman says. “I see the documentary ending with the curtain going up on the premiere. That’s kind of the end of the creative process.” Koppelman hasn’t spent much time editing the doc; it’s a bit premature given that the opera is only about one-third written. “Occasionally I dip in and make a little scene or sample if I need to show somebody, but mainly I just accumulate footage,” he confides. “I have 40 hours now.”

Independent films are lonely, long-term commitments, of course, and not everyone is cut out for it. Once you’ve been through it, Koppelman says, you’re better prepared for the next project.

“I learned about the need to be patient yet persistent on Dumbarton Bridge—from the time I got serious about writing the script to when it got released was about six years. That sense of time certainly applies to the opera world,” Koppelman says. “I’m now on year eight from when the light bulb went on that I should make this story into an opera.”

That level of attention, discipline and tenacity is altogether remarkable, but to Koppelman, it’s just the way he works.

“I never think it’s going to take as long as it ends up taking, and if I did it would be really hard to take that first step and the one after that and the one after that,” Koppelman confides. “It’s not like I know these are long-term projects at the beginning and I intentionally make it hard for myself. For some reason, the stories I’m moved by, that’s just the way they’re going to be and I have to accept that.”

Chuckling, he adds, “Not everything I do is like that, fortunately I have commercial projects and corporate videos that have hard deadlines and good budgets.”

Koppelman recently completed two videos for Los Angeles Metro promoting the Westside subway project. He is in production on a video for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

For the record, Koppelman has one more project in the works. Monk and Me, a screenplay set in the 1950s, tells the story of a record producer and his unusual relationship with a jazz pianist. It’s based on the real-life experiences of Orrin Keepnews, the jazz hound who served as music supervisor for Dumbarton Bridge.

Notes from the Underground
If you missed its Roxie run, It Came from Kuchar screens June 14–15 at the Red Vic Movie House with director Jennifer Kroot present. George Kuchar is expected to attend the Monday shows; Mike Kuchar will be on hand Tuesday. The DVD, including extra scenes and a commentary track by the brothers, comes out next week. Nani Sahra Walker’s Other Nature (covered in here in SF360 in January:), has its local premiere June 26 in Frameline34.

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