By Iain Blair
There are famous Hollywood dynasties, and then there’s the Coppolas, with such giant talents as Francis, Sofia, Roman, Nic Cage and the late Carmine.
While Eleanor, the matriarch of the clan and Francis’ wife, has long been recognized as a multi-talented artist in her own right, thanks to her acclaimed documentaries and books (Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, Notes on a Life), it’s only recently — at the grand age of 81 — that she’s written, produced and directed her feature film debut, Paris Can Wait.
Eleanor Coppola on set in France.
It stars Oscar-nominee Diane Lane as a woman who unexpectedly takes a trip through France, which reawakens her sense of self and her joie de vivre. At a crossroads in her life, and long married to an inattentive movie producer (Alec Baldwin), she finds herself taking a car trip from Cannes to Paris with a garrulous business associate of her husband. What should be a seven-hour drive turns into a journey of discovery involving mouthwatering meals, spectacular wines and picturesque sights.
Maybe it’s something in the water — or the famed Coppola wine, or her genes — but like her many family members, Eleanor Coppola seems to have a natural gift for capturing visual magic, and the French road trip unfolds like a sun-drenched adventure that makes you want to pack your bags and join the couple immediately.
I recently spoke with Coppola about making the film.
You began directing feature films at an age when most directors have long since retired. What took you so long?
I made documentaries, and my nature is to be an observer, so I never thought about doing a fiction film. But I had this true story, this trip I took with a Frenchman, and it felt like a really good basis for a road movie — and I love road movies — so I began writing it and included all these wonderful, picturesque places we stopped at, and someone suggested that we break down. Then my son said, “You should fix it,” so I gradually added all these textures and colors and flavors that would make it as rich as possible.
I heard it took a long time to write?
I began writing, and once I had the script together I began looking for a director, but I couldn’t quite find the right person. Then one morning at breakfast (my husband) Francis said, “You should direct it.” I’d never thought of directing it myself, so I took classes in directing and acting to prepare, but it ended up taking six years to bring all the elements together.
I assume getting financing was hard?
It was, especially as I’m not only a first-time feature director, but my movie has no aliens, explosions, kidnappings, guns, train wrecks — and nobody dies. It doesn’t have any of the usual elements that bankers want to invest in, so it took a long time to patch together the money — a bit here, a bit there. That was probably the hardest part of the whole thing. You can’t get the actors until you have the financing, and you can’t get the financing until you have the actors. It’s like Catch-22, and you’re caught in this limbo between the two while you try and get it all lined up.
After Francis persuaded you to direct it, did he give you a lot of encouragement and advice?
I asked him a lot about working with actors. I’ve been on so many sets with him and watched him directing, and he was very helpful and supportive, especially when we ran into the usual problems every film has.
I heard that just two weeks into shooting, the actor originally set to play Michael was unable to get out of another project?
Yes, and I was desperate to find a replacement, and it was such short notice. But by some miracle, Alec Baldwin called Francis about something, and he was able to fly over to France at the last moment and fill in. And other things happened. We were going to shoot the opening at the Hotel Majestic in Cannes, but a Saudi Arabian prince arrived and took over the entire hotel, so we had to scramble to find another location.
How long was the shoot?
Just 28 days, so it was a mad dash all over France, especially as we had so many locations I wanted to fit in. Pretty much every day, the AD and the production manager would come over to me after lunch and say, “Okay, you had 20 shots scheduled for today, but we’re going to have to lose four or five of them. Which ones would you like to cut?” So you’re in a constant state of anxiety and wondering if the shots you are getting will even cut together.Since we had so little time and money, we knew that we could never come back to a location if we missed something and that we’d have to cut some stuff out altogether, and there’s the daily race to finish before you lose light, so it was very difficult at times.
Where did you do the post?
All back at our home in Napa Valley, where we have editing and post production facilities all set up at the winery.
You worked with editor Glen Scantlebury, whose credits include Godfather III and Bram Stoker’s Dracula for Francis, Michael Bay’s The Rock, Armageddon and Transformers, Conair, The General’s Daughter and Tomb Raider. What did he bring to the project?
What happened was, I had a French editor who assembled the film while we were there, but it didn’t make financial sense to then bring her back to Napa, so Francis put me together with Glen and we worked really well together. He’s so experienced, but not just cutting these huge films. He’s also cut a lot of indies and smaller films and documentaries, and he did Palo Alto for (my granddaughter) Gia, so he was perfect for this. He didn’t come to France.
What were the main editing challenges?As they say, there are three films you make: the one you wrote, the one you shot and the one you then edit and get onto the screen. It’s always the same challenge of finding the best way of telling the story, and then we screened versions for people to see where any weaknesses were, and then we would go back and try to correct them. Glen is very creative, and he’d come up with fresh ways of dealing with any problems. We ended up spending a couple of months working on it, after he spent an initial month at home doing his own assembly.
I must say, I really enjoyed the editing process more than anything, because you get to relax more and shape the material like clay and mold it in a way you just can’t see when you’re in the middle of shooting it. I love the way you can move scenes around and juxtapose things that suddenly work in a whole new way.
Can you talk about the importance of sound and music?
They’re so important, and can radically alter a scene and the emotions an audience feels. I had the great pleasure of working with sound designer Richard Beggs, who won the Oscar for Apocalypse Now, and who’s done the sound for so many great films, including Rain Man and Harry Potter, and he’s worked with (my daughter) Sofia on some of her films like Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette.
He’s a master of his craft and helped bring the film alive. Also, he recommended the composer Laura Karpman, who’s won several Emmys and worked with Spielberg and John Legend and all sorts of people. Music is really the weakest part for me, because I just don’t know what to do, and like Glen, Laura was just a perfect match for me. The first things she wrote were a little too dark, I felt, as I wanted this to be fun and light, and she totally got it, and also used all these great finger-snaps, and the score just really captures the feeling I wanted. We mixed everything up in Napa as well.
Eleanor Coppola and writer Iain Blair.
Do you want to direct another feature now, or was once enough?
I don’t have anything cooking that I want to make, but I’ve recently made two short story films, and I really enjoyed doing that since I didn’t have to wait for years to get the financing. I shot them in Northern California, and they were a joy to do.
There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of opportunity for women directors. What’s your advice to a woman who wants to direct?
Well, first off, it’s never too late! (Laughs) Look at me. I’m 81, and this is my first narrative film. Making any film is hard, finding the financing is even harder. Yes, it is a boy’s club, but if you have a story to tell never give up. Women should have a voice.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.