Eleanor Coppola on Directing Her First Feature Film at 81
Eleanor Coppola’s first feature film, Paris Can Wait, is making its debut in theaters this weekend. Not only did the matriarch of the famed Coppola family direct the movie, but she also wrote the screenplay, which is based on a revelatory road trip that she took through the French countryside. Here, she shares why she took on such a daunting project and how it set her free creatively in ways that she never imagined.
In my generation, the culture dictated that as a woman, wife, and mother, you were the helpmate to your husband's career. And Francis’s role was supposed to be a good provider — which he was. So I didn't know what was wrong with me when I started to experience depression. I had what was considered to be the dream scenario. No one ever told me, You're a creative person, you need to be doing your creative work or you’re going to feel depressed. It took me a number of years to realize that I needed to address that part of myself or I would be very uncomfortable.
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So along the way I made art projects, I did art films, installations, all kinds of things. But I did them under the radar because my childrearing definitely took priority over everything else. I'm also from a time where it was frowned upon if you had a nanny, something was wrong with you. Can't you take care of your own children, lady? That was one of the first things I told my daughter, Sofia, when she was in the same situation. I said, “Get the best possible childcare so that you have the freedom to do your work and enjoy your family at the same time.”
My agreement with Francis was that if he were going on location longer than two weeks, I would come with the children because otherwise, in this business, you just wouldn’t have a family. We used to see families breaking up right and left, and we wanted to maintain ours. So when he was filming Apocalypse Now, I took the kids to the Philippines. I had never thought of doing a documentary, he kind of thrust a camera in my hands since he wanted it done by someone on set and I was the only person that didn’t have a job. That’s how [award-winning documentary] Hearts of Darkness happened, and it saved my life. I could be out on location shooting and engaged in a creative life, and although it was difficult, it was really one of the most inspiring times I’ve ever had.
The fact that it did so well had a great side effect. Prior to that I was always introduced as “the wife of...” When that film came out, people saw me more as an individual. It was much more interesting and gratifying than just being an accessory to a director. So I made a lot number of documentaries behind the scenes — I did two for Sofia, one for my son Roman and three more on Francis’s films. I would go on locations and be away from my friends and my art projects, away from my life, and in Francis’s life surrounded by his creativity. I survived by shooting documentaries.
Paris Can Wait came about after I had an impactful trip with a French business associate of Francis’s. It was very different than an American experience, and it took me right out of my busy, iPhone-checking life. It was funny in different ways, unexpected things happened. When I got back, I told a friend about it and she said, “That's the movie I want to see.” A light bulb went off and I decided to try to make the experience into a movie. You have a certain kind of courage as you get older — the Japanese call it Post-Menopausal Zest — and I just felt that it was time. In order to do the film, I had to put the daunting aspect of my family and their achievements out of my mind. I found several writing coaches to help me with the script. When I couldn’t find a director with the aesthetic I wanted, Francis was the one who encouraged me to direct it myself. I took a directing class and an acting class. All in all, it took me six years to get funding and the cast.
I didn't set out to make a feminist statement with the movie, but most of the people who worked on it—the cinematographer, costume designer, production designer, assistant director, and composer — were women, which was great. A man couldn’t have made this film. It needed to be told from the perspective of a woman and other women understood that.
Honestly, when we were shooting, I would look around the set in France and think, Oh my God, here I am, in France, and Diane Lane is in front of the camera! It was amazing to see all the nuances of her performance and her expression and colors that she brings to the role. She is so talented and gifted, such a professional. I hope that she gets some good parts from this film.
I guess the lesson is that it’s never too late to pursue your passion, and don’t ignore it if knocks on your door. That’s why I didn't shy away from sharing my age in doing press for the film. I’m 81; it’s my first feature film, how great is that! I was joking about how I should be in the Guinness Book of World Records, but have since heard that Ellen Burstyn is going direct her first film and she's 84, so she knocked me out of the box already.
I think a lot of women can feel like there's something they might want to do and they dismiss it out of fear or what their families might say. Women are masters at being dismissive of themselves and their true calling. In reality, you only get one life so you might as well go for it.
At the moment I don't have a new project. I've been in this position many times and you just have to wait and be open to what comes. Since I have this freedom, it could be a four-minute film or another epic adventure. I really never imagined that I’d have these types of opportunities or experiences, so it still feels like a surprise and an incredible journey that I never expected to be on.
As Told To Sarah Cristobal.
Paris Can Wait opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 12, soon to be released nationwide.