Not many people write, direct and produce their first narrative feature at age 80, but Eleanor Coppola isn’t your typical filmmaker. Best known for chronicling husband Francis Ford Coppola’s troubled production of “Apocalypse Now” in the 1991 doc “Hearts of Darkness,” she talks to Variety about her new autobiographical road movie “Paris Can Wait” and her own remarkable journey.
Your husband Francis, daughter Sofia and son Roman have each written and directed several narrative films. What took you so long?
[Laughs] Well, by nature I’m a documentarian, a consummate observer, looking for nuggets of interesting experiences to photograph. That’s what I’ve done in seven behind-the-scenes [docs] for Francis and my children. But I had this funny experience and told a friend, “That’d be a movie I’d want to see.” I never thought of writing an original script, but I’d published a book [the 2008 memoir “Notes On a Life”] so I decided, why not give it a try?
What kind of preparation did you do?
I got a screenwriting program for my computer, and because of Francis’ career, I knew somebody professional to send the script to, to see if it was worth continuing. An actress told me about taking an acting class, I took a directing class, and was in an environment where I could utilize the weapons at hand, so to speak. I’m not just some woman in Iowa who decided to make a feature film. It evolved out of the ingredients that were swirling around me.
Did your relatives have any input?
They gave me a few ideas along the way. I don’t know if they ever thought I was going to get to it or not. Finally, when Sofia saw it, she said, “Mom, you made a movie! You really did it!” like “Oh my God, my mother made a movie!” [laughs] My son’s been very encouraging and gave me a couple of funny things that are in it. I took stuff from anybody that had a good idea. I don’t feel it’s my complete original work—Francis’ theory is, steal from the best! My nephew gave me another idea, my sister-in-law gave me one. I just threw in everything and drew all the parts of the collage together.
Was your family’s track record intimidating?
It’s completely intimidating. I set out to get it financed myself, because I felt that if there wasn’t a company that wanted to, it’s not good enough. It took me six years, and I’m not sure Francis or I ever really felt confident that it was really gonna happen. When I couldn’t find a female director that had my vision or aesthetic, Francis said “You should direct this.” I was shocked. I never thought I could be a filmmaker, other than art film [shorts] or documentaries. But I was deeply inspired by [Sofia’s] “Lost in Translation,” because I saw how much it was connected to her real experience.
You won an Emmy for “Hearts of Darkness” and you’ve worked extensively as an artist, but you’re also known as the matriarch of this great filmmaking family. Was doing this so late in life due to you putting others’ needs first?
I think we’re all a product of the culture of the time in which we’re raised. I’m from a generation where a woman’s job is to support her husband, raise the children, make a nice home. I’ve always had this independent art career going on, so I just made my projects and filmed [shorts] in between. It wasn’t until everyone was out of the house that the culture seemed to be shifting to more opportunities for myself and other women, and I literally had more time to explore some of these things. The feature came as an organic response to my life and what was around me.
Your film tells the story of the wife (Diane Lane) of a Hollywood producer (Alec Baldwin) who takes an eye-opening voyage from Cannes to Paris, based on a similar trip you took in 2009.
I wanted to write about this pace of living—they way they stop, take time to have a lunch, not rushing through everything—and I hope that it wakes up the audience. I thought it was going to be of interest to women, but a man who saw it said, “This is a trip I want to take with my wife. Why aren’t we enjoying more of life?” That’s really what it’s about.
Would you have ever made a narrative film if you hadn’t taken this trip?
I don’t know. It sort of woke me up to life, and something about my tenacious Taurus self just pursued it. Tenacious is a nice word for stubborn. [laughs] I decided, what do I have to lose? I’m not going to live forever. I’m not 22, where it’s gonna wreck my career. I had a kind of freedom, and I was at a point in my life where you have to push back against your fear of failure. My agenda is partly that there aren’t many women’s stories in the cultural dialogue. The film industry tends to be dominated by a male perspective, and my group of friends always complains that there’s not much out there for us to see. The film’s message is that women [Lane’s] age have to realize that their life is up to them. It’s not going to be fixed by the next man that comes along.
Though Alec Baldwin did come to your rescue.
We raised the money with Diane Lane and [my nephew] Nicolas Cage, but about two weeks into shooting, I learned that the film he was on was behind schedule and he was going to be held over. I was stuck, because my last day of shooting was supposed to be the first of August – if you’re in France, you know that the production houses close down, the crew goes home, and there’s nothing happening. I was desperate. I contacted every actor that I could think of, and nobody was available. By chance, Alec called Francis and asked him to host a fundraiser, and Francis asked if Alec would do him a favor and be in his wife’s movie. [laughs] Alec was great – I’ve heard that he can be tough, but I think I get away with a lot because I’ve got white hair, so people treat me [deferentially]. I hadn’t thought about it as being an advantage!
Would you describe your approach to filmmaking as European, too?
Yes, it has a European quality, but very much from an American perspective. I had an all-French crew. I don’t speak French – I was the only American there and almost completely surrounded by French people. My French cinematographer [Crystel Fournier] was my first hire – she really had the eyes for what I was trying to achieve.
What was your time on set like?
I’m just so thrilled to have had the experience at my age—to have your head blown open with something new and challenging that you’ve never done before and don’t know how to do. Every day you’re totally awake, the adrenaline’s running. [Someone says] “We’re losing the light and need these three shots – which one do you want? We can’t get ‘em all.” It was a real kick. I felt very responsible about the financiers’ money that I’d raised, so I absolutely gave it my all. Of course I had super crazy anxiety—I couldn’t sleep, I thought, “My actors will think I’m a jerk,” all the fears you have. But I told them, “I’ve cast you because you’re extremely professional, the best in your business. You know your work better than I do, but if I can be of any help to you at all, I will be.”
What’s next for you?
The film has been invited to the Toronto Film Festival—that’s where we’ll be looking to find North American distribution. My creative life is: I get an interest in something, a kind of fever comes over me, I do it. Then sometimes I feel like I’ve done it, something else draws my attention and I follow that path until it peters out… and then something else comes into my focus. I don’t know where the film thing is going—I’m not thinking about a career in that.
But yesterday I finished shooting a short, and I’m still high from the experience. We were on a barge with our equipment and it sprung a leak (laughs). What could be worse? It’s that crazy, funny thrill when all those things that can go wrong do go wrong, and creative people try to solve these problems. But I don’t know what’s next. I’m just moving forward, trying to find my path and have adventures as I go. Whatever happens, I’m smiling all the time.