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Documentarian, Writer and Artist Eleanor Coppola: On Fishing for Inspiration in Everyday Life

Written by  Dorothy Wu
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San Francisco, April 12, 2011 -- In a rare public speaking appearance, Eleanor Coppola took the center stage of Oberlin Dance Company (ODC) Theater today in order to share some of her personal experiences in documentary filmmaking to an audience of around 150 creative professionals, mostly women.

The occasion, a two-day conference titled Women Who Frame The World: A Symposium on Creativity, was timed to coincide with ODC's 40th anniversary and the recent completion of their new building in San Francisco's Mission District. The organizer: ODC co-founder and choreographer Brenda Way, a creative collaborator and longtime friend of Coppola.

Wife of 48 years to director Francis Ford Coppola, mother to Sofia Coppola and Roman Coppola (as well as Gian-Carlo, now deceased), aunt to actors Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzmann, sister-in-law to actress Talia Shire and owner of Rubicon Estate Winery, Eleanor appeared elegant and free of pretense in person, much like the voice that comes through in her "winning and quietly provocative" [NY Times] memoir Notes on a Life [Doubleday, 2008].

Gently animating her slender hands, Eleanor spoke with frankness and clarity on having grown up "in an era when all little girls were taught to embroider and stitch by hand," on her love for all things tactile and visual, and on facing reality in the editing room during what she describes as her "fishing expedition" approach to evolving a theme whilst shooting and editing documentary film:

"I put myself down on location and try to find what has life. Then I bring that back to the editing room and see what I can make out of it. It's a backwards approach. I like that kind of exploration...Never mind what you wished you got, what you thought you got. It's a new reality and a new experience when you get into the editing room."

Laughing, she stated, "I may hold the world's record for the person who has made the most documentaries about their family directing films. I've made four films about Francis' work, three about my daughter's work and one about my son's," as she told the story of how she ended up making Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, the Emmy award-winning documentary on her husband's work and the famously prolonged, troubled production of Apocalypse Now.

While by the public she has been oft thought of as "the memoirist of the Coppola Clan" [LA Times], what some people do not know is that aside from her published books and documentary filmmaking, Eleanor is a highly accomplished artist, costume designer and photographer. Her ongoing installation project, "Circle of Memory" will debut this summer in Stockholm, its sixth city worldwide. [www.circleofmemory.org]

Notes On The Road sat down with Eleanor after her talk today, in order to bring you closer to the woman and artist herself.

Could you describe more about your approach as an observer?

A documentary filmmaker needs to be a consummate observer. When I go on a set, I wear all black. I think of myself as if I were a part of a Japanese Noh theater piece. Like their stagehands that are moving scenery, but unseen, wearing all black. Part of my work is trying to be seen as little as possible. And it's really a requirement on a set because you don't want to intrude, or get in an actor's eye line. There are so many places you have to not step, be careful, and not trip over the cables. So it takes a lot of focus and concentration to be in that circumstance. I have a quiet kind of demeanor so as not to disturb the process going on around me, while standing in the center of it, getting the work done.

3Since the subject of your documentaries is watching creative projects unfold (and the creative process of artists), can you tell us what have you observed about inspiration? Some artists, Brenda Way for example, have talked about how they may start with an idea they feel is inspired, yet in doing the creative work they will find that the result is entirely different from that which originally inspired them...

Since it's so costly to make a film, filmmakers start off with a very clear plan and a script, prepared for a production. But because shooting takes place in real time and real life, there are always incidences and things which intrude. For example, if it rains, some directors will say "We have to stop now, and take the insurance money, and come back when it's not raining."

What I've seen my husband do (and he's the person whose work I have the most experience observing) is that he incorporates whatever is going on. And because he's a writer, he can just make the scene be in the rain, or wind, etc. Many kinds of things would stop other people, but he just incorporates it.

That reminds me of how you described your own self-described "fishing expedition" approach to documentary filmmaking - the idea that you search as you go along, shooting intuitively and then taking the material to the editing room to make sense of later.

Just as we have different experiences, we gather lots of ingredients and then cook the meal, so to speak. Unless you have a linear plan or script, in making documentaries it's a gathering of all the good footage that you can get, and then editing it. So that's the next creative stage, because you don't know how it's going to turn out.

1You also do that with your lifetime of note-taking, right? From what I've read, you are famous for writing notes on many everyday life experiences and observations you have, and from these notes you formed your books which were published.

Yes. I've published two books. I can't quite fit everything into the camera, so for me writing is like making a photograph of an experience. It's a form I like to use. I feel like it's a tool you can have anywhere, anytime. You can never be bored because even when you're just at an airport, you can be looking around yourself and observing all kinds of interesting things going on.

In excerpts I've read, what struck me most was the detail and honesty with which you are able to articulate your own emotions, as well as all that is happening around you. Some of what you've written describes feeling conflicted between being a dedicated wife and mother but having to shelf unfulfilled artistic aspirations. Yet now it's exactly all those thoughts and experiences which you've incorporated into an art form itself, in the form of your books! How does that feel? Does publishing books and making documentaries satisfy your creative impulses?

It's been a lifelong struggle but I think out of your struggles or conflicts that you're trying to resolve (and conflicts are part of your growth and development)...I'm still kind of going in and out. I've done some projects with my family, and I also have several I do on my own. This summer my installation project is going to Stockholm--

--Congratulations!

--Thanks. This is the sixth city that it will have been in, and it's called Circle of Memory.

Is there a website where our readers can check it out?

2There is a website, it's www.circleofmemory.org. I do some things that are completely apart from my family. I try to balance speaking just from my own voice and others...Although when you make a documentary it's still me that's observing so it's still my pick of what I found around myself that I thought was interesting.

You've also designed costumes for Oberlin Dance Company productions in the past?

I did, yes. Some years I worked with Brenda.

And you met through your childrens' babysitter, KT Nelson, who became Brenda [Way]'s business and collaborative partner?

Yes [laughs]. KT was the babysitter for my kids in Los Angeles when she was a teenager. Then our family moved to San Francisco, and years later she came to SF with ODC and we got in touch again. I came to see some of their early productions. She babysat even when we went to the Philippines for Apocalypse Now...I had sent my sons home to school and she would come on the weekends and take them out on adventures and do creative things with them. So I've known her for a long time and I've followed what ODC was doing. At one point I met Brenda and we had some ideas about making costumes and stage set decor for one of her pieces. The first piece that I did with her was Yellow Wallpaper, and then after that I did a costume for a full length production of three pieces, called Western Women. I toured with her, and we've had a lot of adventures [laughs].

That makes it even more meaningful that you could be here together sharing this event.

We have a lot of history together. We have a long on-going dialogue of being a mother and being a creator and a wife, and balancing all those things.

Something that Brenda [Way] said in our recent interview of her really resonated when I heard you speak today - She said, "For me, the 'art act' is not distinct and separate, it's not an interior process. I'm much more connected with the world. So all the things I do I think actually feeds it. Even when I'm not directly working on my pieces, I'm provoking thoughts that end up in my work. For instance, my family..."

That's one of those things that Brenda and I share - this value of family and our life around the family, and its expression in the work. One of my favorite pieces that she's done is "Laundry Cycle;" that sense of incorporating the real things going on in your life. And the sensibility that art is not some esoteric concept difficult to understand--

--That there can be beauty in the everyday moments, details, experiences--

[Nods] Yes, you bring in your everyday life, your family, and they inform your work. There's a lot of flowing back and forth. They aren't in these separate compartments. And I think it's great. Brenda's husband is here today, and he comes to all of her performances. And her two daughters are here. I just think it's really wonderful. That really speaks to who she is. I think we share that.

It occurred to me that it's very, very special that you as a mother have been able to experience the intimate creative moments of your husband and children. Most parents never get to know their children through their work, nor much of their lives after they reach adulthood and go off to lead separate lives. Can you comment on this?

It's been a deep pleasure to be able to be with my children as creative adults working in their art form. And to go and be part of, see and observe their creative process. To see them at work...it's emotional for me because if there's problem, I'm worried, I'm emotionally connected. It's more difficult to be objective--

--There's a famous anecdote of how when Sofia was directing Marie Antoinette, she was coughing for a week; and you snuck a doctor onto the set to make sure she was looked after--

[laughs] Yes. You're connected in a deep way... It's a unique opportunity. What parents get to see their grown children on a daily basis at work for a period of time, on a project? It's a real and treasured gift.

And it's not easy. There are times when my kids will chase me away and say, "Ok, Mom, don't come on the set today." or "You can't come in now." They are the directors in these situations, so I defer to them. It's a funny relationship where they're telling me what to do. Usually it's the parent telling the child what to do!

The impression one gets from your approach to your work and to the work of others is that there is an absolute setting aside of your ego.

[Laughs] Well, I think to get to the authenticity of a documentary you really do have to step out of the way. And it's an emotional process because you see certain things sometimes that you really want. It's not feature film or fiction film where you can go back and ask for Take 2 or Take 3. The experience has gone by and you might miss something but then you know over the period of time you invest that something else will come up, something you will be able to get. It's a lot of excitement and disappointment going on at the same time.

 


From Eleanor's presentation at the ODC Symposium:

I grew up in an era when all little girls were taught to embroider and stitch by hand. That was my first experience of the wonderful sense of creating something with my fingers and seeing those stitches appear on dishtowels and other things. I love that experience, of making something with my hands and seeing a visual image emerge.

In the early 70's I was drawing a series of images that were made with straight lines, as straight as I could draw them without a ruler. I liked the tension of something that appeared to be straight but wasn't actually...infused with a kind of energy from that tension.

A few years later I found myself in the Philippines with my husband as he was making Apocalypse Now. The production company wanted 5 minutes of documentary footage for a television promotion that they did in those days. And everybody else had a job but me. So my husband said, "Well here, Ellie - you can do this."

A newsreel camera arrived in a box, a 16 mm Aaton. I read the directions, learned how to load it, and I set off. I knew I was going to be there for many months, so sooner or later I was going to be able to get 5 minutes of footage. Off I went, and of course I made every possible mistake that you could make.

But the astounding thing was that everyone was amazed at how steadily I could hold the camera. I could do handheld shots more smoothly and steadily than anyone from the 200 person crew!

When I was there I had no idea what I was doing, so I just shot everything that looked interesting to me. Well, I ended up with 60 hours of material. One thing I realized as I was going along, was that the process is like a form of fishing expedition. You're shooting and shooting and trying to find something that has life in it.

The theme evolved as I went along - I didn't start off with a theme in the beginning. It developed as I moved forward. And it was really the theme of my husband the director, as the director in this creative process under unusually difficult circumstances. That was what I found myself focusing on.

I may hold the world's record for the person who has made the most documentaries about their family directing films [laughs]. I've made four films about Francis' work, three about my daughter's work and one about my son's. I've made both kinds of documentaries. One kind is what I consider the linear approach- you have a theme and an idea right from the start. Working with the actors, preparing the actors, rehearsing them, what the actors thought about, etc.

But most of my films are the "fishing expedition" approach. I put myself down on location and try to find what has life. Then I bring that back to the editing room and see what I can make out of it. It's a backwards approach. I like that kind of exploration; of holding yourself there, intuitively leaning this way or that way, trying to find something that has a particular interest.

Of course when you get back to the editing room, it can be completely different. Something you might have shot that you thought, Oh I got that and it's great, might play back in the editing room and not have any life at all. On screen it sometimes turns out to be kind of blah. Then you have to deal with the reality of what you have on the film. Never mind what you wished you got, what you thought you got. It's a new reality and a new experience when you get into the editing room.

And it goes the other way as well- something that you might have shot and thought, Oh it's no big deal but I'll just shoot this -- can end up being more alive than what you thought you were getting. Facing the reality of what you have on screen...I always find that a very interesting process. The shift from the reality of when you were there. Because there are always other things going on, maybe when you were shooting there was a lot of tension between the actors, or maybe it was super hot, or there were mosquitos--- whatever it is that amplified that experience, you may find out that in the editing room it ultimately doesn't have any life.

This is a great time to be making films-- all the equipment is smaller, faster, cheaper, lighter. A lot of voices can speak because of the revolution of this technology.

Last modified on Tuesday, 20 November 2012 14:21

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