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At age 80, Eleanor Coppola caught 'the family virus' — a love of narrative filmmaking

by Monica Bushman | The Frame

Eleanor Coppola wrote and directed "Paris Can Wait." Sony Pictures Classics

The branches on the Coppola family tree are heavy with filmmakers. Among the lesser known is Eleanor Coppola.

She’s the wife of Francis Ford Coppola and mother of Sofia Coppola. And today, at the age of 81, she’s releasing her first feature film called “Paris Can Wait."

"Paris Can Wait" is based on a circuitous road trip that Coppola took from the Cannes Film Festival on the French Riviera to Paris with her husband’s French colleague. The film stars Alec Baldwin and Diane Lane: 

Prior to this film, Eleanor Coppola was credited on the 1991 documentary “Hearts of Darkness” in which she tracked the chaotic making of her husband's Vietnam War movie, “Apocalypse Now.”

Coppola spoke with The Frame's John Horn about "Paris Can Wait," her marriage to Francis Ford Coppola and her struggle to find her voice as an artist.

Interview highlights:

On her early artistic ambitions:

I was an art student. Women at that time were pushed out of the painting and sculpture areas and into the more home-related [arts]. I had weaving and jewelry making and design and all kinds of things. But I actually really wanted to be a textile designer. I've had a lifelong love of textiles.

On the difficulty of balancing what she wanted to do with what was expected of her at the time:

I think for women at that period, I was very tough to find a balance of those issues. I met Francis working on a small film and I was an independent freelance designer and I enjoyed working. And a romance blossomed and we were married the year later, and I didn't quite realize what a traditional Italian he was. I thought I was going to work with him on his little films, he was going to make little black-and-white movies and I was going to participate. But right away his career took off, and his Italian heritage kicked in, and I was the wife and mother and homemaker.

On how she managed to become the person she wanted to become under those circumstances:

I didn't do it well. I was crabby and hard to live with I think because I was frustrated about the projects and things I wanted to do. And I sort of snuck them in under the radar. I kept doing art projects with a couple of other women artist friends. We did installations and conceptual art and all kinds of things that were not approved of, but I kind of just pushed them through anyway. And I went to a psychiatrist at one time and said 'What is wrong with me? Why can't I be satisfied as just a mother? What is my problem?' And they could never tell me. They kind of said 'Oh, well, you have a hang-up with your father' or some kind of thing. Nobody said ‘You know, you’re a creative person too and you need to be doing your creative work or you’re going to be depressed.' 

On struggling with some feelings of jealously over her daughter Sofia Coppola's success in filmmaking:

As much as I was thrilled for her, and couldn't have been happier that she was really expressing herself so beautifully, and bringing a feminine voice to the world of cinema-- there's so few women's voices. I was delighted and, I have to confess that for a while a was jealous and trying to figure out how to not be because I didn't like that quality.

On filming the 1991 documentary "Hearts of Darkness":

I got that gig because they wanted five minutes of television footage from the "Apocalypse Now" set. And Francis didn't want them to send out a documentary team so he said we'll do it in-house. And I was the only one that didn't otherwise have a job. And he knew I had a good eye and anyway he got me a camera and I started off shooting thinking I can get five minutes of material. I knew they wanted mostly explosions and helicopters and so forth and so on... [but] what I really found intriguing was the creative process... And they weren't paying me so they would just send me more raw stock for my camera, and then they'd say 'Okay, maybe we should make a 15-minute piece. Why don't you keep going?' So I kept shooting and kept shooting... since this wasn't costing anything, and it was sort of saving my life, it was giving me something to focus on, I just kept going. I ended up with 60 hours of material.

 On what it was about the road trip she took that made her think it could work as a film:

I think what it was for me is that I took this trip and it was so out of my usual experience... The drive was supposed to take seven hours to go from Cannes to Paris and it took 48. And it just was a time out of waking up and smelling the roses, and having a fresh experience and having some funny experiences and amazing experiences. And it just struck me as something that could be a film.

On the joy she found in narrative filmmaking:

I definitely feel I got a little case of the family virus. I finished this film last June and in August I shot a short film and in February I shot another short film-- which don't take six years to find the funding, and aren't such a big deal, and I could do it and experience the joy of filmmaking.

To hear the full interview, click the blue player above.

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