On a Friday evening in June, two blond teen heiresses were getting dressed for a party. Nicky Hilton, who is 18, and Amanda Hearst, who is 16, were in Ms. Hilton’s parents’ sprawling home in Southampton. They tried on outfits and said things to each other such as, “Why don’t you get your mom to convince my mom not to go to Conscience Point afterwards?” Miss Hilton decided on a tight, strapless, backless dress. Her black bra was quite visible underneath. The only thing that made this scene any different from countless other summer evenings of countless young worthies getting dressed for a party near the beach was the presence of a Sony movie camera, a boom microphone and a film crew. The girls’ pre-party ritual was being filmed for Barbara Kopple, the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who is spending the summer of 2001 shooting thousands of hours of footage in America’s most storied seaside community. The cameras will roll until Labor Day, at which point Ms. Kopple will sit down in an editing room. Roughly eight months later, the result will be broadcast by ABC in four hours over two nights on Memorial Day weekend 2002. The working title is The Hamptons Project .
As startling as anything Ms. Kopple may capture on film is the fact that the wealthy denizens of the Hamptons have for the most part embraced Ms. Kopple and her camera crews as if she were their own personal, fawning Boswell. Which is not exactly what she is known for. The New York-born, Scarsdale-bred Ms. Kopple, dubbed “a poet of the proletariat” by The New York Times , won her twin Oscars for Harlan County, USA , which was about a coal miners’ strike in Kentucky, and American Dream , about striking meatpacking workers in Minnesota. (In case you were wondering, she sided with the unions over management.) By letting Ms. Kopple into their palatial homes and champagne-soaked parties, it would seem that Hamptonites–who, after all, are “management” with a capital M–are either showing a naïve, almost appealing faith in their own ability to come off as decent people in the lens of a filmmaker who has won two Academy Awards for her exposure of the profound inequities in how wealth and power are distributed in this country–or they are showing a desperate wish to be seen and filmed, no matter what the cost.
While Nicky and Amanda were getting dressed, a party was in full swing under a tent outside. Guests were handing their car key to valets; some were being fitted with small microphones. As the sun set behind the hedges, a camera crew circled new arrivals: young socialites (Alex Kramer), over-40 socialites (Ann Barish) and ageless socialites (Carroll Petrie). Fashion designer Nicole Miller. Plastic surgeon Sherrell Aston and his wife, Muffie. Photographer Patrick McMullan. And publicist Peggy Siegal, who, as co-producer of Ms. Kopple’s movie, is more than a little responsible for gaining the cameras entrée into some of the Hamptons’ most private events, such as this dinner party at the home of Kathy and Rick Hilton in honor of the paperback release of Candace Bushnell’s book, Four Blondes.
The Hiltons’ young sons were splashing in a lagoon-shaped swimming pool. “We don’t want to go to bed! We want to stay up!” one said.
“Till like 1 o’clock in the morning,” said the other boy. “We always do that in New York. Last time we stayed up till seven!”
Thirty yards away, one of Ms. Kopple’s film crew was listening to the boys’ conversation on her headset.
Then another voice from across the lawn came into the headset: a woman saying, “Speaking of which, where can I get a drink ?”
“So voyeuristic,” said the crew member. “This is what we do–we run around and assault people with our cameras.”
Party guest Dayssi Olarte de Kavanos, a Town and Country magazine cover girl, was smiling but nervous. “I kept on trying to like go away and I’m like, ‘O.K., I’m going there,’” she said, “and then the camera followed me no matter where I went!” At all events filmed by Ms. Kopple, guests are asked to sign release forms.
Asked how she felt about having her dinner party filmed for ABC, Kathy Hilton told The Observer, “Well, you know what, Peggy mentioned it a couple hours ago, and Cecilia Peck [a field producer for Ms. Kopple and daughter of Gregory Peck] is an old friend and everything. So what can you do? And there’s nothing to hide, so! For five years–every year that we’ve been out here–we’ve had at least two or three people say, ‘Oh, we want to come in,’ and we’ve said, ‘No, no, no, no.’”
“It’s just people being themselves, right?” said Ms. Kopple, when asked about how the night was going. “We need to get things that, you know, are very intimate and really say a lot about who people are. We’re just about who people are, and what they need and what they want and how they relate to each other.”
Ms. Kopple has been doing more than recording the bon mots of socialites and filming women getting manicures at Fifi Laroo in East Hampton, of course. She has filmed Hampton’s fishermen and farmers, gardeners and artists, teachers and shop owners.
“First of all, it has nothing to do with the glitzy, ritzy image which we have gotten through the years– nothing to do with that,” said publicist Ingrid Lemme, who does publicity for Gurney’s Spa in Montauk, where Gene Hackman and Goldie Hawn get mud treatments. Ms. Lemme said she had talked to Ms. Kopple “long about this whole thing.”
“It’s about the real thing,” said Ms. Lemme. “This entire documentary is basically about the people who made year-round living in the Hamptons possible.”
Hamptons chronicler Steve Gaines said the documentary “will probably look like what it really is out here, from the high to the low. Poor people struggling, migrant farmers, lavish wealth, excess. It’s this real slice of history; it’s a remarkable place during a remarkable time in history. And I sincerely believe that she could walk away from this with a historical document that people are going to look at 200 years from now.”
After dinner was over at the Hiltons’, the cameras zeroed in on well-lubricated guests. Some took cover. Others, when the camera lights went on, seemed to light up themselves. Jason Binn, publisher of Hamptons magazine, was laughing uproariously as The New York Times’ Alex Kuczynski told what she said was an “amazing” story about Mr. Binn.
“I walked into the Costume Institute Gala at the Met,” Ms. Kuczynski said. “And I don’t know where I’m sitting, and I’m like, ‘Oh, Jason, how are you?’ And Jason says, ‘You’re at table 72, you’re between André Leon Talley and, like, Christy Turlington.’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah, sure, you’re shitting me.’ And I walked over there, and he had memorized the entire floor plan! I was like, ‘Dude ! That was incredible.’”
“I still remember the table number,” Mr. Binn said proudly. “I’ve never had a drug or a drink, so my friends hate going out with me, but I remember everything!”
An after-party was being held at the nightclub Conscience Point. Ms. Kopple’s cameras were in the V.I.P. room, swiveling around Miss Hearst, Miss Hilton and fellow very young socialite Elisabeth Kieselstein-Cord, who was wearing a blue slip dress and a crucifix-shaped necklace. The club was playing some generic, jazzy music at the request of Ms. Kopple–the music was unlicensed, and thus she would not have to acquire permission for using it in her documentary.
Ms. Hilton was looking a little uneasy about the 10-foot, bulbous boom mike above her head. She bolted for the dance floor and then returned with Mike Heller, a 25-year-old nightlife promoter. The cameras zoomed in.
“Total interrogation, it’s like incrimination,” said Mr. Heller later. “This big mike plops in front of my face and they start listening to our conversation. Like, who wants that? I come to the Hamptons to relax and get away from that.”
A few days later, Ms. Kieselstein-Cord said she didn’t think she would sign the release for The Hamptons Project . “I’m not doing it,” she said, “because I don’t understand the point of it, first of all, and I didn’t realize it was a whole documentary, and I also wasn’t in the best spirits that night.”
“They make every human attempt to make you feel comfortable, and you’ll start to talk about something personal,” she said. “It’s horrendous, really. Nicky and I weren’t exactly having a conversation about the Civil War, because we just weren’t going to, because the cameras were there.”
Her friend, heiress and Manhattan File beauty editor Casey Johnson, said she, too, wouldn’t be in the documentary.
“That would be my worst, worst nightmare,” she said. “When you go out and you’re having champagne and a cigarette and you’re with a guy you like and you’re flirting, you don’t want that on camera.”
What did she think Ms. Kopple’s film would be like?
“It won’t put the Hamptons social scene in a good light,” said Ms. Johnson.
The next night, Ms. Kopple and crew were at novelist Rona Jaffe’s birthday party at her Sagaponack farmhouse. Denise Rich, her breasts exploding out of her tight dress, was surrounded by guests, some of whom wanted their picture taken with her. Several people were stunned when they were asked to sign a release for the documentary.
Ms. Jaffe herself was wearing a hidden microphone, but said she was told by the documentary crew not to tell anyone. She felt bad about taping her guests surreptitiously, so she covertly let them know she was wired.
“I’m going around with my hand over the mike and pointing, because I didn’t want people to say stupid things when I was miked!” Ms. Jaffe said later. “What I thought was absolutely fascinating was that I forgot I was miked.”
She said the crew was “sweet.” “It’s funny–when they’re filming you, and there are these lovely-looking people who are smiling at you all the time, you sort of stop being nervous and they’re very pleasant,” she said. “So it’s not like somebody giving you that look that they’re going to get you. I know that look!”
Bring the Kids!
Ms. Kopple’s film will have several “characters,” individuals whom she will continue to follow all summer. Among them are four Irish girls who are working as waitresses at the Blue Parrot restaurant.
“They want all different groups of people, and we’re just one of the groups,” said one of the women, 23-year-old Lorna Barrett. “The farmers, for example. They’re filming the little rich kids and the Mexicans and the clam diggers, the share houses.
“They’re just following us around. You get really used to it. Now we’re just trying to step back a little. We don’t want them to come out with us at night. I want to be able to show it to my parents.”
Josh Sagman, a 28-year-old venture capitalist who said he has a “big” house in Quogue with a tennis court, a pool, two volleyball courts and a basketball court, has been filmed every weekend.
“She told me this would be something that I would be able to show my children one day, and that line was what sold me on the project,” he said.
“What I’m thinking is, she’s going to basically do the Hamptons on the whole,” Mr. Sagman said. “From seeing her movies, I don’t think it’s going to be a negative project. I think this is a documentary that says, ‘Hey, this is the Hamptons; this is what the Hamptons are.’”
He said one of his concerns was that “they’re going to have a dishwasher or somebody maybe not doing the best in life, and then all of a sudden zoom into me and my friends having a great time in our nice cars. But I don’t think she’s going to do that.
“You know what? Everyone that I’ve met from the documentary so far has been very nice,” he continued. “I feel like they’re being genuine.”
Another of Ms. Kopple’s characters is Joan Jedell, a photographer and the publisher of The Hamptons Sheet. Ms. Jedell had buttonholed Ms. Kopple’s crew on the streets of Sag Harbor. “You should be talking to me; I’m the voice of the Hamptons,” she told them. Ms. Jedell said she thinks Ms. Kopple should zoom in more on “the elitist kind of Hamptons.”
“I don’t get their point of view,” she said. “Theirs is an all-around general non-glitzy focus, although the glitz will be part of it, but isn’t all of it. Whereas in my life, it’s all of it. I don’t look at the fucking crap all over the place. I mean, we have the crap in New York–what, are we going to put it in a documentary on the Hamptons? The crap, the poverty part, the down-and-out neighborhood, the railroad tracks? I mean, I can look at that in Manhattan; I can go down to the Bowery if I want. The Latino dishwashers, the Mexicans, the fishermen–I don’t even focus on the locals. They hate us, anyway. If they’re going to do something like this, and if they are going to include this well-rounded Hamptons, who’s gonna care?”
On a Saturday night, Ms. Kopple and her crew arrived at the entrance to a house in the exclusive Pheasant Pond neighborhood of Southampton. They got into a golf cart and were deposited by a tennis court, where a $50,000 party was in progress. People were dancing under a tent, which had been rented for $10,000, to loud music (“Follow duh leadah, follow duh leadah”). Trays of caviar on mini potatoes. Martinis. Lots of plastic surgery. A fair number of people from Westhampton. Women in tight outfits, their high heels sticking into the ground. Guys wearing Versace and T-shirts.
Ms. Kopple agreed to talk with me about her documentary. We sat down behind some blue spruce pine trees, away from the party. She was wearing a sheer pink blouse with black Capri pants. She sat with her right foot on her left thigh, yoga-style. She picked up a pine needle and told me to smell it.
“I’m not a filmmaker with an agenda,” she said. “I’m a filmmaker who wants people’s voices to be heard.”
“It’s beautiful,” she said of the Hamptons. “And fantastic–beaches and homes and gardens, fruit stands and fields and farmers … and also we’re doing a thing with the environment, of showing things that are planted at the very beginning and then at the end of the summer. As our characters are rich, so are the tomatoes or the potatoes or the corn.”
What did she make of the society people?
“You’ll really get to know who they are as people, and that takes away the myth,” she said. “You’ll get to see that they have families and they love each other, they have good times together, just like everybody else. So they’ll be humanized.”
About her subjects, she said, “I love them, otherwise I wouldn’t be spending time with them. I don’t do that. I’m gentle, I’m loving, I come from a good family, I don’t have any ax to grind whatsoever. I’m totally even-tempered.”
She said the documentary would be about “all the things that you least expect it to be about …. We’re going to take you around corners you never thought you’d go to. For example, somebody that you think is a socialite might also be a doctor helping people in Cambodia. So it’s all those secret things about peoples’ lives and the phenomenal things that they do that you don’t know about.
“We’re just beginning the film and trying to do a film on the Hamptons that’s different from what anybody would expect it to be,” she said. “We’re trying to really find out who people are that are here, no matter who they are, whether they’re celebrities or singles or baymen or painters or writers or people who work in stores–and just find out how all these lives intersect with each other, what their dreams are, what people care about. And that’s what we’re doing, and we’re trying to find the good in everyone.”
I remembered a few weeks earlier, at the Hiltons’ party, when, while talking with Ms. Kopple, I had suddenly noticed that we were being filmed. I’d tried to move away, but Ms. Kopple had stopped me and said, “No, don’t stay out. Be natural, and it won’t hurt you. It will smile at you.”