At first blush, it would be too easy to dismiss Eleanor Coppola’s feature debut, Paris Can Wait, as an empty calorie-laden trifle. Diane Lane stars as a bored dressmaker named Anne whose workaholic movie-producer husband (Alec Baldwin) is diverted to Budapest, but Anne feels too unwell to join him on the flight, so one of his business associates—a wet-eyed bon vivant named Jacques (Arnaud Viard)—offers to drive her to Paris, their intended vacation stop. What starts as an innocuous long drive soon becomes a prolonged affront of epicureanism, with Jacques bluntly attempting to woo Anne in and endless succession of wines, chocolates and charcuteries. Her diffidence toward the idea provokes a reexamination of her own lot in life, and while Coppola’s film splurges in sun-stricken bourgeois hedonism on screen, a humility of ambition guides it to an exquisitely assured finale.
Like everything else Coppola-branded, Paris Can Wait is a family affair: Eleanor got the idea from a similar road trip she took apart from her famous husband filmmaker, and the rapport between her and Lane—who starred in several of Francis’s films—was unmissable at the film’s press junket. I talked to Eleanor on her 81st birthday about Paris Can Wait, a small film about taking time to enjoy life’s pleasures, and about how middle-agers still manage to let their guard down when life would seem out of surprises.
I spent this entire film waiting for a love triangle to materialize—for Anne to have to make a choice between Jacques and husband. Insofar as it relates to this script, how do you see the difference between romance and love?
Anne and her husband have been married for 20 years. They have a child, they love each other, but sometimes, usually, in a relationship, after you’ve been together for that length of time, you enter into habitual ways of being together. The daughter’s gone to college and it hasn’t changed the man’s life that much; his career is still intense, going forward, maybe even more intense than it was when they first met. But it’s really affecting the woman. It’s a kind of universal experience, when her child leaves. Then she has this unexpected trip, and her husband is a guy who’s passionate about his work. He’s into it, and he’s not romancing her anymore, not paying attention to her. They’re not having much of an exchange. Yet they love each other, and then she goes on this trip, and unexpectedly, this man is paying a lot of attention to her. And it’s not just roses and chocolate. He’s asking her: “Are you happy?”
He’s engaging her, causing her to think about herself, where she is in her life. And she’s taking these photographs, so is this just an idle thing or might this be a passion she wants to develop further? He’s provoking in her a lot of thoughts and questions of herself. So the romance is maybe that moment when both people are paying a lot of attention to each other. As your relationship evolves you feel more connected to your careers, your life, whatever else is going on. She’s not looking for romance and I wanted him to be somebody who’s not, like, a perfect alternative to her husband. He’s flawed and so is the Frenchman. It’s not about some dashing Frenchman she can run away with. In the end, she has to come to a realization that the next step of life is up to her. It’s not gonna be solved or fixed by the perfect man.
I’ve read that you’re not planning to continue making fiction features.
I’ve begun two short films. They’re fiction, but they’re not finished. I like the format, and I’ve been intrigued by fiction because of what you can [bring to it]. It’s like painting, because you’re dealing with every single image. I don’t know what it means, but I appreciated the fact I could do these two shorts and not have to wait six years to find the financing. I don’t know if I’ll make another full feature film, but it could be a series of shorts.
You’ve been on so many movie sets in your life. Did that make it easier for you to run this operation?
Well, ask any director. There are three films: the one you wrote, the one you shot, and the one you get onto the screen. For me, the production manager and my first A.D. would come after lunch and say, “Okay, you had 18 shots scheduled for today, but you’re not gonna get four or five of them. Which ones would you like to cut?” And so you’re in a constant state of anxiety: “Will it still cut together? If I lose this, what about what it’s supposed to connect to?” Inevitably, you can’t get everything. You’re losing light. Something else happens. Every moment was anxiety-ridden during the 28 days of shooting.
Tell me about the decision to place Michael’s character in the background. He’s a permanent presence, but it’s over the phone or it’s when Jacques and Anne talk about him. I understand Michael was originally to be played by Nicolas Cage, but Alec Baldwin’s participation helped secure funding. Was there pressure to give Michael more scenes, or…?
I always felt that the husband had to be strong enough, outstanding enough, that his presence would be felt all the way through—and yes, some people advised, “Oh, you have to cut back to the Michael character in Budapest, you have to see him in the hotel room.” But I wanted us to stay with Anne. She can talk to him on the phone, but she’s not in Budapest. I hate that, when you’re cutting perspectives. I wanted to stay with hers, which is the reason I didn’t translate some of the French that was being spoken. I wanted to stay in her mindset. We’re staying in Anne’s mindset, watching her realize Jacques wasn’t translating everything directly… An American woman, who doesn’t speak French. She may be talking to her husband or daughter on the phone but that means we’re not cutting to the daughter or the husband.
Since it took so long to secure financing, were there early ideas that got ironed out in subsequent drafts? Or was it the same script six years ago?
As time went on, someone would give me an idea that would make something a little richer. The structure was there from the beginning because it’s a road picture, and I love that kind of structure; you can add anything in if somebody gave you an idea. A friend of mine traveled in France and she had been to the Pont du Gard, that beautiful Roman aqueduct. I’d never seen it, but she told me about it, and I looked it up on the Internet and it really looked interesting, and since I had a trip to France coming up that year, I checked it out and said, “This would be a good location.” Like that, I added ideas as they came forth. One of my nephews told me the car should break down. I had a road trip through France, but my car didn’t break down. My son said, “Well, they should fix it this way,” which was another good idea. It’s a collage of incidents, as many as I could fit in that would be entertaining. From the beginning to the end it was the same thing but embellished more, I guess I would say. This isn’t a documentary of my experiences. I played up the romantic side of it too, the tension of “will they” versus “won’t they.” You know, the trip that I took was with a business associate of my husband’s, and it was very clear we were friends. I had this freedom in my fiction piece to develop it.
Nevertheless, I assume the interviews around this film have taken an autobiographical line of questioning. Tell me about the moment you told your husband you were writing a script based on an incident from your own lives…or at least taking it as a jumping-off point.
He wasn’t encouraging. A lot of it had to do with the fact that he thought I’d never get it off the ground, that I’d be heartbroken. He knows how hard it is. It’s a one in a zillion shot that you can actually get the financing. You know, there’s nothing that investors want in this film. There are no robots, nobody dies, there’s no gunshots, no train wrecks. It was a very hard sell.
This is what he told you?
Well, if you had money to invest, this isn’t where you’d invest it, apparently. Who would think this was a good bet? But I felt all the time that there was and is an audience out there [for the film]: life is full of all kinds of negativity, stuff in the media, things to worry about, things to be fearful about. I wanted to make a fable that was stepping out of what we all face every day, all the things we hear and know about, and just be in a situation where you’re in a bubble of time, and reminded how to really enjoy the moment.