Interview with Eleanor Coppola

f84bbc305132b0a176084b8e621f886cI first met Eleanor Coppola when I moderated a Q&A with her after a screening of her latest film, “Paris Can Wait” (opening in Chicago theaters May 19). Usually when I moderate these events, I meet the filmmakers, we have a blast during the panel, grab a beer afterward, and I wish them all the best on their next screening. But there was something about Eleanor that was different. When you have a conversation with her, she really listens to you. She takes your questions to heart and gives you genuine answers. I soon realized these are all qualities that go into her being a great filmmaker. She probably connects this way with everybody on set, and it shows in her work. As a film director, I’m always looking for people I want to emulate and write about, so I set up an interview with Eleanor. I hope it inspires you as much as it did me.

Oriana: As I had mentioned at the screening, I am the Director of Programming for Women in Film Chicago. And, of course, we always take a strong interest in women filmmakers and how they got where they’re at, what obstacles they face, and how they see women in filmmaking in the future. So, I first want to ask you, how did you see yourself, before making the film, as a woman in the industry?

Eleanor: Well, I have to say, I’m not the usual person who lives in Los Angeles and is focused on film. I’m an outlier, really, because I live in the Napa Valley and I mostly made documentaries. I’ve made like seven or eight documentaries. But before this film, I was always on location with Francis’ films, or Sophia’s, or our son Roman’s films, and I am looking forward to the day when we as women don’t have to identify as being a separate thing. We’re human beings and we make films. I think I may have mentioned this to you in Chicago, I loved having this strong team of women for my film.

O: Right, you talked about your crew and how many of the main positions were filled by women.

E: Yes, which I was very happy about. It made for a wonderful experience. We worked well together, so very cooperative.

O: Is there something about being a woman, or is there some quality of womanhood, that makes you good at working on set with a bunch of people? You know, it’s a really complex process, and somehow women are able to do it pretty seamlessly.

E: I think women are, by nature, collaborators and peacemakers. I have three kids, and they’re always fighting and scrabbling, and you’re constantly trying to negotiate and make the peace and make it all right between them. You’re fixing things all the time between members of your family and really trying to make the peace. And when there are so many people on a crew trying to get their own department to shine, you’re constantly trying to balance and make the peace and collaborate. I think women are a little more effective at that than men.

O: It’s interesting you say that because as I’m sure you’ve seen in the media recently, there’s been some attention paid to how women are called “bossy.” You know, as soon as they have any sort of authority, they’re like, “Oh, well, she’s bossy” or even worse, “She’s a bitch.” But men rarely get that, even though they’re in that director position very frequently.

E: Yes, I mean, very occasionally they will be called a tyrant, or something, but, it’s kind of said affectionately. Or they’ll say, “He’s a genius, he just does things that way.” They direct from a position of authority, I think, and women direct more from the collaborative perspective, with exceptions, of course.

O: Do you think, given the attention some actresses have put on the studios to demand equal pay, that we’re moving in the right direction?

E: Yes, it’s just inevitable that people will, whatever their background, be judged on their ability. Regardless of ethnicity, or gender, or sexual orientation, ultimately, we’re human beings, and I think that realization is moving that way. It’s slower than we want. There are a lot of snags. Especially right now, we’re having a moment of confusion –going backward before we go forward. But I think inevitably, we’re going to go forward.

O: I wanted to ask you about the investment part of this because you mentioned it took six years to get the finances for your film. And from my vantage point, financing is definitely one of the major barriers to more women entering the industry. It’s just hard to get the investments. What is your take on why men are able to get the money faster than women?

E: Well, when you look around, most of the people who control the money, the people, the banks, the different financing companies, they’re still predominantly run by men. And they have a different perspective on what’s going to make money. It’s an investment, after all. They want to invest their clients’ money in what they think will have the best return. A film of my type, which has no car chases and no guns and no knives and no special effects and no robots and nobody dies of cancer, it may not seem like a good investment for them. So, I think I was walking upstream in that regard.

O: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think I mentioned this to you, but the film that I’m trying to shoot in Sicily, is in a way, very similar to yours. It deals with the inner woman, her conflicts and some of the things that go on inside of her emotionally. My films are not always car crashes and apocalyptic situations. And it seems that perhaps investors still don’t believe that women’s stories, and more importantly a woman’s inner story, can be just as important –and lucrative— as a car crash. Which, if you’ve asked a woman who’s had an emotional breakdown what it’s like, I’m sure “car crash” comes to mind. So, for your next project, would you still go down this route of true, emotional stories, or would you go with something that was maybe a little bit easier to finance, but also a little bit more car crashy?

E: I financed for myself two short films — I’m just finishing the second one now — that involve a 50-plus-year-old couple, but in two separate stories. And I just made them because I didn’t want to wait on others to finance them. You know, I may not have another six years ahead of me to wait to push something through, so I’m taking a sideways out and just making these short stories myself. I think everybody has to make up their way forward because it’s not a nice clear path for women. Everyone does it a different way. I mean, there’s Hurt Locker, which is very much a “man-style” film, and that worked for Kathryn Bigelow. I think Sophia [Coppola] took a different route, she told a story that was personal to her, and that film was well-regarded. I think women are trying to find their own ways to go forward in this business.

O: What would you say to the youngest group of women who have an interest in film?

E: I think the main thing is just to do it, to not sit back, but to go forward, whatever it is. If you want to be a filmmaker, get your iPhone out and just do it. Just keep moving because if you hesitate and wait for that perfect offer, it might take forever. Find your talent, find your passion, and just go in that direction any way you can.

In which you decided to not pay (or defer pay to) your actors

I get it. You’re making a movie with – like – *no* budget. My god, what a crazy thing to do. No one has ever done this before. What are you going to do?  OH, here’s a great idea. Don’t pay the people who are going to make or break your ability to tell your story.  After all, actors are the most desperate people in the biz. They’ll do anything, right? And they don’t have any equipment to bring in, and most of the time they’re just sitting on set not doing anything, while the rest of us are moving machines around and wearing carpenter pants, why should they get paid?  They should be HONORED to be in my movie.

Only now you’ve “hired” unprofessional actors, and/or you’ve belittled your actors by not treating them as professionals, and you’ve enabled them to lose a piece of their integrity, and you’ve assumed they are plug-and-play robots that will just show up and grovel at your feet, and… oh crap. Why aren’t they behaving professionally on your set?  Why do they have a glint of “if I just get through this crappy movie, I’ll get something on my reel and finally get to do REAL movies” behind their eyes?  Your movie shows that you didn’t work with professionals. It shows that you didn’t value the craft they brought to the set enough to give them a few bucks.  And before you say, what craft? They’re beginners, they’re just lucky to have been chosen — THINK.  You held an audition session, and you CHOSE THEM. So they must hold some value, right?

Now obviously, I’m not talking about situations where you and your friends decide to make a flick, and everyone pitches in a few bucks for beer, and you run the camera and do your thang.  That’s a fun, creative, social experience. I’m not talking about student films, because that’s a learning experience, and the actors you’re using are learning their craft as well.  I’m talking about when you are producing a movie that you intend to showcase with the goal of furthering your career as a filmmaker. I’m talking about when you have a producer (even if it’s you) going to vendors (even if they’re people you happen to be friends with) and creating a budget (even if it’s minuscule).  In that budget should be pay for your hired actors.

Now some of you may be thinking — wait a second. My actors weren’t paid and they did an amazing job. Or — wait a second. I’m an unpaid actor and I acted my heart and soul out on that flick. Fine. But then make honest people of yourselves. Dear filmmaker, you are past the stage of student films. You are making films to display your vision publicly. You are making films to get on a bigger, better stage every time. Eventually, you will have to pay your actors, so just get used to that budget line now. The business aspect of this is inevitable. Accept it. You need to put money out there to see more of it in the future.

My favorite is when I see castings listed as “Paid” but it’s really deferred pay.  Let me put this right out there. “Deferred pay” means the actor is going to see zero dollars. Because we all know your seven-minute movie isn’t going to make money. At least be honest about what that really means.

Many people will look at the SAG-AFTRA rates and say, “Gee, if SAG-AFTRA allows deferred pay under these contracts, then that must mean I should defer pay.” WRONG. SAG-AFTRA puts that in there to encourage filmmakers to use Union actors, but it doesn’t mean it’s a wise decision that will make your film better.

So what to pay?  Well, the minimum daily rate for Union contracts that require pay is $100.  Think about that.  One Hundred Measly Dollars to make sure the Face that will Tell Your Story feels respected enough to Tell Your Story Right.

How to find that money?  Guys, seriously? We have so many crowdfunding opportunities nowadays.  IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, RocketHub, Peerbackers… Pick one and hustle.

Take care of your actors.  Feed them. Pay them. Help them with transport. Bring your pride down. If you chose them, then you consider them an integral and invaluable part of your project. It means you cannot make your film without them. It mean they are just as important as any piece of equipment, any crew member, any pizza you order. For crying out loud, show them that you know that.  The magic they will make for you is priceless.

And yes, this goes both ways. Actors need to learn to keep their integrity and resist doing every non-paying gig out there.  Such a level of desperation will just bring everyone down.  But that’s for another post…