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.