In Eleanor Coppola’s 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, her husband, Francis Ford Coppola, famously recounted the experience of making Apocalypse Now (1979): “There were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment — and little by little, we went insane.” A quarter-century later, Eleanor decided to make her fictional feature debut with a small (but experienced) crew and a shoestring budget, yet she still dealt with tremendous challenges. As a support system for her filmmaking family, Eleanor Coppola’s life experiences prepared her to make Paris Can Wait. And at the same time, nothing prepared her, as she described in a brief chat on a local press tour stop to promote the film’s release.
You had a front row seat to observe great filmmakers in your role as a documentarian. What did you learn from observing your husband, daughter or son?
Well, I think the documentary process is just the reverse of fiction filmmaking. Every time there was a problem on set or anything went wrong, it was perfect for the documentary and made it more interesting, more vital, more alive. So, the fiction film experience is the flipside, and it wasn’t fun when things go wrong. I learned to really appreciate what my husband, my daughter, my son — people who work behind the scenes — had gone through, and I gained a lot of appreciation for them.
Were you picking up on those things then, or did you come to fully appreciate them during the filming of Paris Can Wait?
It didn’t relate directly, but I think all the time I spent on set — things that made me familiar and comfortable with what the crew was doing — was an environment that I was comfortable in. It was such a different experience.
Is there anything they didn’t prepare you for?
[chuckles] You can’t be prepared for everything. That’s the fascinating thing about making a film. You can prepare in every possible way, but there will always be something that happens to you that you couldn’t prepare for.
In this particular film, I intended to shoot in Cannes. At the last minute, the prince of Saudi Arabia came to take his vacation for the first time in 15 years on the French Riviera. He brought 1,000 guests and took 400 rooms in Cannes, including all the rooms I was scheduled to work in. I couldn’t shoot anywhere in Cannes, and the security was so high I couldn’t shoot anywhere. It was high season — the first of August — which is the worst time to try and get a reservation anywhere on the Riviera. Those kinds of things, you can’t prepare yourself for.
I read about how you prepared yourself for directing Paris Can Wait by watching old road movies and studying up. Where did you find you had the most to learn?
I felt like a neophyte in all those regards. I took an acting class because I know that’s the foundation of what the director does. I took a directing class and had some consultants for the script. I just tried to prepare myself and cobble it together as best I could to get prepared.
Where do you think you’re the most distinct from your husband or your children, either stylistically or in the final product?
I think stylistically, I think I’m closer to my daughter [Sofia]. I have a strong visual sense. Francis does too, but from a more masculine perspective. I have a more feminine visual aesthetic.
As a mother of three kids, you’re always trying to make the peace. I’m a collaborative, peacemaker kind of person. I think Francis’ strength has always been to be the authority, the person in charge. I have a style from watching my daughter on set — maybe I’ve learned more from her on collaborating and bringing people together from different perspectives.
Paris Can Wait is, in part, based on a trip you took yourself. But, it’s not a direct autobiography. How did you decide what to change?
Well, I did have this unexpected trip, and I was telling a friend about it. She was like, “Oh, that’s the movie I want to see.” I never, ever thought about making a movie, but then I thought about how a road movie is a really good structure in that once I decided I was going to do it, I was free to put in anything I thought would be fun to see or do. So I just cobbled together the most interesting places. On the trip I took, I didn’t stop at the Ponte de Garde, the Roman aqueduct, the Basilica at Thessaly, the church that’s near the end. I could add the textile museum and the Lumiere museum where cinematography was born. I could put in anything — good food, more wine… let’s stop and have a picnic. It was a wonderful kind of freedom to collage together all the things I thought would be fun.
I had a nephew who said I should have the car break down, and I said, “Well, that’s a great idea!” I just gathered what I thought would make the most entertaining experience.
How long did it take you to write the script?
The script — I wrote it off and on for a while, and when I thought I was really going to do it, I kept improving on it up until the shoot. That’s what I’d seen a lot with my family. I’ve seen Francis change the script a lot while he’s shooting — just have a new page for the actors when they get there. I didn’t do that, I wasn’t quite that bold.
I was constantly trying to make it better. It took six years to get the financing because it’s not an obvious investment possibility. It doesn’t have any robots, nobody dies of cancer, there’s no trainwreck, there’s no car chases… there’s nothing that regular investors can get behind.
But there’s certainly an audience for it. Older audiences are the people who still come to the theaters, and I think there should be movies for them.
Yes, I would think so, too. That’s one of the reasons I made it — because I don’t think there is much product for that demographic.
I was struck watching the film by the way that Anne (Diane Lane’s protagonist) takes pictures of her food and other experiences with a digital camera, which is so different from the way most people take pictures on their phone now. Why did you have her take it on the camera?
It’s interesting you ask that. I was trying to get away with that because I think it’s so much more specific. Maybe she was going to blow them up because she talks about making some large prints. Now, you can do that with your iPhone, but when I wrote this, that wasn’t as prevalent. I realized I was right on the cusp — is anyone going to use a camera by the time this film comes out?
Last question: do you want to make another fictional film?
I think I have caught a little bit of the family virus.
Yeah, it’s contagious. But, I don’t want to spend six years trying to raise the money because that’s going to put me in a different age category. So, I’ve been making some short films, just finishing up my second short film. It’s 22 minutes long, like a short story and something manageable I can do without having to wait around and raise money. I can take my fee from this film and convert it into opportunity to make some short films, which is an interesting format I’m exploring.
There’s so much opportunity there given how many more mechanisms we have to consume shorts. I find myself just watching them when I have some time.
Yeah, I think there are more possible venues than there have ever been. So, I’m hoping they’ll find an audience. We’ll see.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).