Idyll Thoughts: ‘Paris Can Wait’ for Eleanor Coppola and Diane Lane

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When Eleanor Coppola says she’s caught “the family virus,” she means that, like the rest of her famous filmmaking family—husband Francis, daughter Sofia and son Roman—she has now written and directed a movie of her own.  

Yes, this spring, at age 81, the white-haired Mrs. Coppola is making her filmmaking debut with Sony Pictures Classics’ Paris Can Wait, a visually lush but lighthearted road picture starring Diane Lane as Anne, the sometimes neglected wife of a busy film producer, who renews her youthful joie de vivre while driving through France with a man not her husband, a charming and sophisticated Frenchman named Jacques (played by veteran French actor Arnaud Viard). The story may sound like a bit of romantic fantasy for the neglected-wives set, but it’s actually based—“loosely,” Coppola emphasizes—on an impromptu road trip she really did take through the French countryside in 2009, and the real thing unfolded (in the beginning, anyway) pretty much the way she tells it in Paris Can Wait.

Eleanor and her husband Francis had gone to the Cannes Film Festival that year, and afterwards they intended to fly together to another part of Europe where he had some movie business to conduct before they ended up in Paris for a short holiday. However, while in Cannes Eleanor came down with a really bad cold, and the illness put her into “this sort of really reflective mood” in which she began thinking cosmic thoughts like “Why am I always just following my husband around? What am I doing? I need to get a life.” And then, as they were leaving Cannes—she and Francis were already at the airport, in fact—Eleanor decided it would be foolish of her to travel by air while she was sick. “So I told Francis I’d take the train to Paris and meet him there.” However, the French friend (and business associate) who had driven them to the airport spoke up to say he was driving back to Paris that day, and he’d be happy to take her along too. Although her husband didn’t think much of the suggestion, Eleanor accepted on the spot, figuring it would be about a seven-hour drive to Paris, so she could be in Paris by that night.

But then, “we hadn’t driven more than thirty minutes,” she says, before her gallant friend, the driver, spoke up: “Well, you really must have lunch.” He knew just the place, of course, and it was not at all out of the way. “After that, I’m afraid it just went on from there.”

In other words, the seven-hour drive from Cannes to Paris “just went on” to become a two-day trip, because Jacques, as he’s called in the movie (the real friend remains anonymous), insisted they take every opportunity to sample the variety of regional cuisines and wines along the way. The somewhat abashed Eleanor—sans her famous husband and kids—was therefore treated to a grand gastronomic tour of central France, a trip that turned out to be such an eye-opening and liberating experience, she delightedly described it in detail to her friends back in northern California. And one of those friends quickly retorted, “Now that’s a movie I’d like to see.” Coppola swears that until then she had never thought of writing a screenplay, but she just happened to be in “a kind of mood to try something I’d never tried before.”

Determined to learn the craft of moviemaking as any other artist would, Coppola acquired a computer program on how to write scripts, signed up for some acting classes and set about trying to fictionalize, dramatize and otherwise embellish the details of her meandering drive to Paris. “Little by little it developed,” she says of her script, and, “fortunately, at every step of the way I was encouraged by a lot of people—a lot of professionals—to keep going.” And her family too, right? Weren’t they of major help? Well, in the beginning, not so much. “I think my husband didn’t want me to have the heartbreak of not being able to get it off the ground, and my children kind of wanted me to just be Mom, you know?”

It took Eleanor six years to finish the script and raise the necessary funds to produce Paris Can Wait (or Bonjour, Anne, as it’s titled in France). Originally, she didn’t want to direct, although she wanted a woman to do the job, but she couldn’t seem to find one “with the right aesthetic.” Then, “one morning at breakfast Francis said, well, you should direct” and, as with so many other things in her life, Eleanor thought, “Why not?” (As it happened, she eventually put together an almost all-female French crew, a gender emphasis that wasn’t planned but nevertheless “delighted” the director.) Naturally, the production encountered a few setbacks and glitches on the way to completion: One of the stars (Coppola’s nephew, Nicolas Cage) was forced to drop out of playing the movie mogul husband, Michael, and plans to shoot the film’s opening sequences at Cannes’ Majestic Hotel had to be aborted at the last minute “because some Saudi prince decided to spend his birthday in Cannes, and he brought along a thousand guests. They took over almost every room in town.” But a substitute hotel was quickly found and the production swung into its tight, 28-day shooting schedule.

In Paris Can Wait, the actress Diane Lane (a Coppola regular, having appeared in four films by Francis) elegantly plays Eleanor’s younger surrogate self, and Alec Baldwin (who stepped in after Cage dropped out) is Michael, her kind but always-too-busy, film-producer husband. Of course, the script has to walk a fine line here, steering away from the implication that the marriage between Anne and Michael in any way resembles Eleanor’s marriage to Francis. “It’s hard. People are always assuming every single thing really happened if I even mention it comes from personal experience.” Not to worry, though, for in the film (as in real life), there’s no actual romance between Anne and Jacques, although for the sake of dramatic tension, that option remains suspended in the romantic French air.

The most remarkable thing about Paris Can Wait is the way it reflects Eleanor Coppola’s artistic aesthetic. If there truly is a creative virus in the Coppola family, it probably started with her and her drive to “make art” wherever and whenever possible. Tellingly, when her daughter Sofia won an Academy Award for writing Lost in Translation, her acceptance speech included a nod to her mother “for always encouraging us to make art.” Eleanor confirms that her kids had early training: “We’d have ‘glue-ins,’ for instance. I’d fill the kitchen table with bits of wood and cardboard, and the kids would sit there and glue them together in weird ways to make all sorts of constructions.”

Eleanor began her professional life—and her work in film—as an assistant art director on the set of Dementia 13, where she first met Francis, who was then making his directorial debut. Although she took a long professional hiatus after they married and started having children, she never stopped “making art” in a variety of ways, including the usual ones. She has, for example, written two bestselling books, Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, recording the disaster-plagued filming of Francis’ Oscar-winning Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now in the steamy Philippine jungle, and, some 30 years later, the autobiographical Notes on a Life. In between those works she has also won renown as a documentary filmmaker. (So, no, Paris Can Wait is not her first time behind a camera.) In fact, she co-directed the Emmy-winning documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which grew out of that first-person first book, and since then she has directed “six or seven” behind-the-scenes documentaries on the narrative movies made by other members of the family (like the “The Making of Marie Antoinette” on the film directed by Sofia). While being a constant presence on the set of her husband’s films, she has also continued to work on her own in a variety of mediums—including photography, costume and textile design, and, in the last few years, a traveling art installation called The Circle of Life, memorializing her firstborn son, Gian-Carlo, who was killed in a tragic boating accident in 1986.

Eleanor explains thatThe Circle of Life was inspired by an Irish cairn, or burial monument, and it’s built of bales of hay placed in a covered circle, with a rounded roof that releases a stream of salt crystals—the “salt of life”—which pile up on the floor like the sand in an hourglass. “The idea is to walk in and sit down and reflect on the life of a deceased loved one. I don’t know why it works, but it does. And when people come out, there’s a stone bowl where you can leave notes about what you’ve experienced.”  So far, the Circle of Life installation has been visited by thousands of people all over the world. In Paris Can Wait, there’s a scene in which Diane Lane’s character takes in the quiet beauty of an ancient cathedral as she tells her friend Jacques about the child she lost, and this is certainly the most touching moment in the film.

The thing Eleanor loves best about writing scripts is the ability to give her characters “any attributes I want.” Thus Anne, like the woman who created her, is an observer. “No matter where I am,” Eleanor says,” I can find something interesting to look at.” And so does Anne, whose primary way of seeing beauty is through a camera. In the film she takes mostly close-up pictures that reveal the deep colors and textures of flowers, teacups, African textiles, the ancient weather-worn stones of France’s Pont-du-Gard, and so on. At first Eleanor planned to use the pictures she herself had taken, “but it turned out we had to have a really big camera to get the kind of close-ups we needed.”

It must be said that the most loving close-ups in Paris Can Wait are of food—French food, the real star of this film—for the plot revolves around the many side trips Jacques and Anne take to dine in various country inns and bistros. Each dish is perfectly prepared, beautifully styled, mellowly lit and, mais oui, grandly presented. Also, of course, every sumptuous dish is accompanied by an equally sumptuous wine—red, white or rosé—a gustatory delight the entire Coppola family knows well and takes very seriously. As almost everyone knows, the Coppolas now own three vineyards in northern California—from the “high-end” brand Inglenook to the more moderately priced brands from Sonoma Valley’s Rubicon Estate Winery, where Eleanor is official manager. (An aside: When reached by phone for this interview, Eleanor and Francis were in Atlanta, Georgia, on a wine-promotion tour.)

Still, filmmaking in one form or another remains the chief family business, and not one member of the family has forsaken it. Youngest son Roman, for instance, got an Oscar nomination several years ago for co-writing Moonrise Kingdom, and more recently his TV comedy series “Mozart in the Jungle” won a Golden Globe for being the best of its genre. Roman also currently serves as president of the San Francisco-based film company American Zoetrope, which nurtures many fledging filmmakers whose names aren’t even Coppola. Finally, of course, Francis Coppola, one of the towering giants of American cinema, has won a whole stable of Oscars, including for Apocalypse Now, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II—three films consistently cited as among the greatest of the 20th century. And, ever the innovator, Francis is currently working on something called Live Cinema, an experimental medium involving the live transmission of filmed performances. He has, in fact, written a book on the subject, to be published this summer.

And Eleanor Coppola? Now that she has one feature film under her belt, will she make another? Well, not really. At her age, she says, she can’t wait another six years or whatever to get the funding to mount a major production. However, she decided to take her fee from Paris Can Wait and, as they say in Hollywood parlance, “roll it over” to finance a couple of short films she wrote and directed. Both are concerned with relationships, specifically the relationship of a long-married retired couple. “The woman has adjusted, but the man hasn’t. He bought a new car, but that didn’t do it; he bought a boat and that didn’t satisfy him. Finally, he tells his wife he wants a girlfriend, and it starts from there…” Eleanor is thinking she might make another one or two short films on this same relationship theme, with different actors playing the roles, and put them together in what just might turn into “a sort of feature film.”

But on the other hand, she’s not quite sure what she’ll do. Some other creative project could very well catch her fancy. After all, she says, “I’m in the most fortunate position of being able to do anything I want to do.” And, judging by her performance to date, you can bet she’ll do something.