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‘Paris Can Wait’

Bay Area openings:

May 19

Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco

AMC Kabuki in San Francisco

May 26

Camera 3 in San Jose

Century 16 in Pleasant Hill

CineArts at Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto

CineArts at Santana Row in San Jose

Regency Cinemas Six in San Rafael

Landmark Albany Twin in Albany

June 2

Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa

Nickelodeon Four in Santa Cruz

A word often used to describe Eleanor Coppola — Napa Valley artist, documentary filmmaker and wife of famed director and winery owner Francis Ford Coppola for 54 years — is “quiet.”

Of course, in the shadow of a master showman, who wouldn’t seem almost mute by comparison? But the truth is that Eleanor has no lack of voice — or vision — for projects all her own.

“With Francis, his whole modus operandi is entertaining. When we’re together, he is the entertainer and I am the audience,” Eleanor Coppola said. “My nature is to be an observer, so I’m often in that mode where I’m fully engaged, but as an observer.”

This month, at age 80, she steps out into the spotlight to display her keen powers of observation with the premiere of her first fictional film, which she both wrote and directed: “Paris Can Wait,” starring Diane Lane and co-starring Alec Baldwin. While the story is fiction, it is firmly rooted in her own experience, specifically a trip to Europe she took with her husband in 2009.

“I was in Cannes with Francis, and I had this cold. He was going on to Eastern Europe, and I didn’t feel well at the airport. I said, ‘I think it’s really foolish for me to fly with my cold. I’m just going to take the train and go back to Paris,’” she recalled.

“The gentleman who had taken us to the airport was a friend and business associate, and he said, ‘Oh, I’m driving back so why doesn’t she just come with me?’ I knew it was a seven-hour drive and I thought I’d be there in that time. But we didn’t go 30 minutes before he said, ‘Well, you must have lunch.’

“So he stopped and of course, you have to have wine. This adventure went on for a couple of days, and when I got home, I was telling a friend about it, and she said, ‘That’s the movie I want to see.’ ”

French TV star

And that is essentially the movie the public will indeed see in “Paris Can Wait,” featuring Baldwin as the busy filmmaker, Lane as his wife and French television actor Arnaud Viard, in his first English-speaking film role, as their helpful friend, Jacques.

The result is not a formulaic romantic comedy, but rather a charming and dramatic character study, a visually pleasing travelogue and a celebration of French food, wine and culture. No one will miss the obvious semi-autobiographical references, but Eleanor Coppola made it plain that her own French adventure was merely a starting point for her movie.

“Sometimes when you’re traveling, you meet someone and you’re almost more expressive with a stranger than you are with your own family and friends,” she said.

“I decided to make a film about a woman who is fifty-ish, when her kids have left home. She’s at that moment where she hasn’t decided exactly how to go forward with her life. She knows she can’t just hang onto her husband coattails.”

Eleanor took some inspiration from her daughter, Sofia, a successful filmmaker in her own right.

“When Sofia made ‘Lost in Translation,’ she was traveling back and forth to Japan and she made a film loosely on some things she experienced during her travels, and that gave me a pathway to think I could take my experience and structure it as a road picture,” she said.

“I can build whatever I want. I’m not stuck in the documentary discipline.”

‘Hearts of Darkness’

Eleanor Coppola’s most famous documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” is her account of the making of her husband’s 1979 Vietnam War epic “Apocalypse Now.” Televised in 1991, “Hearts of Darkness” won two Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awards, among others, and was later released on VHS and DVD.

Coppola also has documented on film the making of other movies by her husband, her daughter and her son, Roman.

This solo venture was a bold move for Eleanor.

“It was a challenge. I’m at an age when you say, ‘Why the heck not?’ ” she said.

“It was demanding because of all of the different locations, and we had to move the crew every time we changed locations. It was costly in both time and money. I had an all-French crew. I do not speak French. I was all by myself in France,”

Francis Ford Coppola stayed out of the filming of “Paris Can Wait,” but he did help his wife in a couple of ways.

“Initially, Francis wasn’t very encouraging because he thought I’d just get my heart broken. But when I got to France, and the whole production was really coming together, there was one last snag in the financing and he stepped in and worked out the last issue that was holding it up,” she recalled.

“And then, during the shooting, he could see that I was having difficulty. The French actor was having difficulty saying his lines in English. It was holding things up.

“Francis sent a dialogue coach, and that was a big help. So he helped me in those moments. He wasn’t there in France, but he helped me when I hit a crisis that he could solve.”

Filmed over 28 days on location in France, the movie cost less than $5 million to make, but financial backing still didn’t come easily and the process of raising money stretched out for years.

“It wasn’t six years in the writing,” Eleanor said.

“Of course, I kept tinkering with the script the whole time, but it was six years of trying to find the financing, because in my film there are no monsters and no special effects. There’s no guns, no violence, no car crashes. There’s nothing that backers want to invest in.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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